Watching normal bear behaviors from a safe distance is a magical and thrilling experience for most backpackers. But any time you venture into an area inhabited by bears, there are various risks involved.
Bears mostly prefer to avoid confrontation with people, but they are also unpredictable and dangerous animals. An encounter has the potential to go very wrong.
This guide will explain everything you need to know before backpacking in bear country and equip you with the skills to react appropriately to any bear-related situation.
We will cover:
Before we talk about backpacking safely in bear country, it helps to understand a few things about bears. There are only three types of bears found in North America–black, brown, and polar bears.
Black bears are the continent’s smallest and most widely distributed bear species. They number around 300,000 in the US, and you’ll find them in at least 40 states.
Brown bears are the second-largest bears in North America. When found inland, these bears are known as grizzlies; those that dwell in coastal areas are called brown bears. They number around 32,000 in the US. Chances of encountering one are low as they live in only a few places in the lower 48, primarily Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and northern Washington.
Polar bears are the largest bear species in the world. They rule the sea ice and tundra of extreme northern and western Alaska. There are around 4,000 to 7,000 in US territory. We won’t be focusing on polar bears in this guide, since they are only found in Alaska, but if you plan to explore ice-bear country, check out this safety guide.
You can’t rely on color alone to tell the difference between black and brown bears. Contrary to their name, black bears also come in brown, cinnamon, and blond shades. A black bear also has no shoulder hump, taller ears, and a straight face profile.
On the other hand, a brown bear has a prominent shoulder hump, small rounded ears, and a dished-in face profile. They also come in a variety of colors, from blond to nearly black.
Since most black bears tend to live alongside humans, they’re generally less aggressive and more tolerant of your presence. On the other hand, brown bears live a distance away from human populations, so they’re more wary of people and potentially more aggressive.
Fortunately, your chances of being attacked by a bear are remarkably slim. Between 1900 and 2009, only 63 black bear attacks resulted in a fatality within the US and Canada. Most encounters resulted in either no physical contact or only minor injuries.
Even if most bears flee as soon as they smell, hear, or see a human, they are still dangerous creatures, and it’s wise to always stay out of their way. Keep reading to learn how to deal with both black and brown bear encounters.
Backpacking in bear country requires extensive research and planning. Preparing adequately guarantees a rewarding experience and ensures your safety and the safety of the bears. You wouldn’t want a bear to be put down by the authorities because you didn’t take the necessary precautions.
Start your preparation by gathering information about the species of bears that live in the area you will be visiting. Read as much as possible about the bears in the park, their specific behavior, and what’s effective in keeping them away.
Every park has its own rules and regulations regarding bears. Before you head out, familiarize yourself with all bear-related regulations. These include food storage rules, best cooking practices, places to avoid, equipment to bring, and what items aren’t allowed.
Black and brown bears are most active from spring to fall. In the winter, they go into hibernation. Their aggression tends to heighten right before and right after hibernation, as their appetites are heightened. If you plan to backpack in bear territory right before or after winter, be extra cautious.
Park rangers are your best resource if you need up-to-date information about the bear situation in the area you plan to hike. Ask about any recent bear activity and how you can prepare yourself for the adventure. Although bears are always on the move, a ranger can tell you about risky areas where bears frequent and even recommend the safest campsites.
You’ll need to add more items to your regular backpacking checklist. Knowing you have everything you need for any scenario will allow you to enjoy your trip more confidently. In the next section, we’ll go through the extra items you need for hiking and camping in bear country.
Bears are resourceful omnivores, and they’ll come sniffing around if they smell a meal. And if a bear successfully obtains your food, you would have to cut your trip short, ration what you have left, or go hungry.
Knowing how to conceal food and eliminate scents will dramatically reduce the chances of attracting bears to yourself and losing your precious food.
Before following any of the techniques below, make sure you listen to the park authorities and understand their rules and advice regarding food protection. Here’s how to keep your food away from bears.
In addition to typical backpacking essentials, you need to bring some of the following items with you when exploring an area inhabited by bears.
It’s a type of pepper spray meant to deter charging bears. Its active ingredients temporarily affect the bear’s sense of smell, sight, and respiratory system, giving you the opportunity to quickly escape.
However, packing bear spray and knowing how to use it are two different things. When a bear attacks, you’ll only have a few seconds to react, so learn how to use the spray before you head out on a trip. Watch lots of videos and practice how to grab your spray and discharge it fast. Remember to always keep the spray in an easy-to-access location, like a hip holster.
You’ll want to pack either a bear canister or bear bag to store your food. The storage option you bring will depend on the park’s food storage policy. Some parks provide metal bear-proof boxes at the campsite, while others require you to carry a bear canister. Some ranger stations also allow you to rent a canister. Here are the differences between a bear canister and bag.
Most bears will run or avoid an area when they hear a loud sound. Periodic blasts of a bear horn will warn any wildlife of your presence, making startling encounters for you and the bear less likely. It also helps keep away bears when you’re preparing meals or going off-trail to dig a cat hole. You can also use it to signal other hikers to your location if you need help.
A small bell that attaches to your backpack, belt, clothing, or hiking pole, bear bells emit loud jingles as you move, giving bears a chance to hear you coming. If you are backpacking solo in bear habitat, these bells can warn bears and other animals of your presence, so you don’t accidentally startle them.
Bring a small piece of metal screen to filter food particles out of your dishwater. The trash bag will hold the food residue you strain from the dishwater, used toiletries, and other waste you generate.
There are measures you can take to make sure that bears stay away while you’re hiking through bear country. Use the following precautions.
While it’s recommended you venture into bear country as a group, sometimes it’s hard to resist the urge to traverse the wilderness on your own. Yet, an encounter with an animal when backpacking solo is way more hair-raising and risky compared to when you have company.
Take solace in the fact that bears are far more interested in your food than in you. If you decide to go solo backpacking in bear country, observe all the safety measures of those hiking in a group plus the following precautions:
Camping in bear country may be unnerving, but don’t let this deter you from fully experiencing the joys of sleeping in the woods. It’s very much possible to camp in bear country safely.
First, what kind of camping is best in bear habitat?
For convenience, get a lightweight tent that’s easy to carry. To get a solid night’s sleep in the great outdoors, pair it with a quality down sleeping bag. And don’t forget sleeping pads for insulation and cushioning.
Here are some additional tips on bear safety while camping:
Bears hardly attack humans. And if they do, it’s to protect their food, cubs, or space. Sometimes, an encounter with a bear is unavoidable despite your best efforts to keep away. And the truth is there’s no fool-proof guide to knowing exactly how a bear will react. Here’s some helpful advice to help you come out of a potentially dangerous bear encounter unhurt.
Don’t expect bears to see you first. A bear that’s busy feeding may not see you as quickly as you would think. If you spot it and it doesn’t know you are there, follow these steps:
How you respond when a bear sees you will depend on the type of bear. That’s why it’s essential to learn the difference between black and brown bears before stepping into their territory.
Brown or grizzly bears respond to human encounters differently from black bears. If you suddenly stumble upon a grizzly bear, follow these steps:
Most bears avoid confrontations with dogs but can attack if your pet gets uncomfortably close. And you don’t want your injured pet to come running back to you with a fuming bear on its heels. So, use these tips when backpacking with dogs in bear country.
Don’t let the fear of bears ruin your adventure. The chances of a violent encounter are remarkably low, and most bears will bolt or ignore you when they see, hear, or smell you. By implementing the above bear safety guidelines, you’ll be better able to keep the bears away throughout your adventure and have a more rewarding trip.
We hope you’ll now feel more competent and confident when hiking and camping in bear territory. Do you have any other tips you use to deter bears? Have you ever encountered a bear while backpacking? Let us know in the comment section.
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