Safety tips for hiking and camping in bear country

bear safetyLast Wednesday’s fatal bear attack on a 57-year-old man in Yellowstone National Park has made national headlines, and stirred up a lot of mixed opinions, despite the fact it’s the park’s first bear-related fatality since 1986. Fortunately, because the animal in question was a female grizzly defending her cubs, park rangers have decided not to take action.

Park ranger Kerry Gunther, who has studied Yellowstone’s bears for over 30 years, was quoted in a recent CNN article as saying there’s a difference between defensive and predatory attacks by bears. “If a bear shows signs of hunting and eating humans,” he says, “rangers will attempt to track down and euthanize the animal.” But rangers won’t usually kill a bear for defensive behavior.

Park visitors are understandably skittish; hiker Erin Prophet had a bear encounter while hiking in Yellowstone just two days after the attack. She opted to jump into a nearby lake, where she was towed to safety by two kayakers, rather than risk staying on the trail. Gunther later determined, based on video footage of the bear, that it was a juvenile black bear, and not much of a threat.

“Bears are really very tolerant of people,” he says. “I have had a few times where I was bluff charged but the bear always pulled up short. You don’t really know if you are a ‘runner’ or a ‘stander’ until that happens. People shouldn’t fear bears. They should respect them.”

So what should you do if you’re hiking or camping in bear country and you find yourself in close proximity to one? And how do you avoid an encounter in the first place? After the jump, tips on how to be “bear aware.”

[Photo credit: Flicker user akphotograph.com]

Watch this short video for tips on how to keep bears out of your campsite at night


  • bear safetyEducate yourself
  • It’s crucial to know if you’ll be in bear country on your trip, and what species live in the region. Grizzlies are much more aggressive and powerful than black bears, and your response to an encounter depends upon the species.
  • With black bears, you want to aggressively fight back if attacked; not so with grizzlies, as you’ll see below. Be able to identify the local species of bear in the event of a sighting. Most ski/mountain towns offer “Bear Aware” classes to teach locals and tourists how to co-exist peacefully with their ursine neighbors.
  • Pack away all food and store it out of reach of bears
  • Bears have been known to go to extreme measures when they get the munchies, and if they’re smelling the remains of your dinner or those candy bars stashed in your tent, you’ve got a problem. They also get into garbage, which is why you’ll always find bear-proof dumpsters and trash receptacles in areas populated by bears. Homeowners and holiday renters also need to be vigilant about keeping windows and doors closed when no one is around and at night, especially if there’s food out.
  • If you’re car camping, keep food in a cooler in your trunk after you’ve cleaned up. If you’re in the backcountry, hang all edibles in a “bear bag” from the branch of a tree or rig a line, as high up as possible. This is just as much for the bear’s safety as yours; human food is detrimental to their health, and once they learn they can get a free lunch by cruising a campground or neighborhood, it’s hard to get rid of them. For everyone’s safety, keep things clean and locked up tight.
  • bear safety
  • Don’t be stupid.
  • “We can have hundreds of visitors alongside the road filming and viewing bears,” Gunther says. “When the bears want to cross the roads you’d think to a big, 200 pounds-plus bear people would show a little bit more respect (and) get back to their cars or let the bear cross the road. Sometimes people are letting the bear walk just feet from them.”
  • No matter how tame they may seem, wild animals are just that: wild. You’re in their territory, and by startling them, you risk a defensive (aka “aggressive”) response.
  • Hike prepared.
  • Gunther says respecting bears means traveling in large hiking groups, avoiding or leaving known bear areas, and always carrying bear spray (pepper spray), in case of an attack. Some people like to hike with a “bear bell” on their walking sticks or pack. Also, keep an eye out for bear scat on the trail. For someone supposedly nervous about the attack two days previous, Prophet showed a remarkable lack of good judgement. She was hiking alone, and wasn’t carrying bear spray.
  • Make noise
  • I remember a hike with my family in Glacier National Park when I was about seven. A ranger stopped us mid-hike and told us a mother grizzly defending her cubs had treed two men nearby. The area was being evacuated, and my family and the other hikers on the trail were led back down the mountain. We were given empty soda cans filled with pebbles to shake, and told to talk loudly. Bears are more afraid of you, so if you know you’re in the vicinity of one but can’t see it, the best tactic is to make your presence known, and get the hell out of dodge.
  • Know what to do if you’re charged
  • If a grizzly does show signs of aggression, says Gunther, “that nanosecond before it hits you,” drop to the ground and play dead. By putting your hands behind your neck so your elbows protect the sides of your face, you’re more likely to survive an attack (bears usually go for the head and face). Being passive will usually put a stop to the aggressive behavior and send the bear on its way.
  • Other tactics: don’t run (that stimulates the animals predatory response). Stand your ground, and try to make yourself look at large as possible; raise your arms up into a triangle shape, and talk to the animal, so it recognizes you as a human. Don’t attempt to climb a tree; both black bears and grizzlies are adept at climbing, as well as swimming, and can run a lot faster than you can.
  • Don’t be paranoid.
  • Your odds of even seeing a bear are slim. It’s always good to be prepared, but don’t let bear paranoia change your travel plans or stop you from taking a hike or visiting spectacular national parks like Yellowstone. As Gunther points out, in the park’s 140-year history, only six people are known to have been killed in bear attacks.

[Photo credits: Lake Louise, Flickr user Matt Champlain; pepper spray, Flickr user mankatt]