Most of North America is bear sanctuary, predominantly an area for black bears. Your chances of seeing a bear increase as soon as you venture into the forest or the backcountry.
Even if you are familiar with bears, understanding their habits and the steps you can take is important prevent unfortunate encounters. Here you will find an introduction to bears, their behavior and tips for your safety – and theirs.
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Photo credit: Joshua Reddekopp
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Habitat & Sign
Outside of Alaska, there is a small area for brown bears that black bears do not live in either.
Brown bears, also called grizzly bears, live in Alaska and parts of Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Black bears now live in 41 states and across Canada.
Signs of bear activity are tracks, tree scraping and droppings (which vary greatly depending on the current diet).
In general, brown bears are larger than black bears, although that's not the best identifier. Color is also an unreliable indicator as both can have cinnamon coats or dark brown coats. Some subspecies of black bears may even be cream colored (also known as "ghost bears").
Instead, face shape and tracks help identify bear species. Brown bears have a tell-tale hump on the shoulder. On level ground, the hump is the highest part of the bear's body. Black bears have rounded backs with no humps.
Brown bears have a rounded or “domed” facial profile, which means that their nose extends in front of their eyes and forehead. In contrast, a black bear's face is flatter between the eyes and nose.
Bear tracks can help determine which bears are nearby. Typical black bear paw prints measure 5 inches in the front and 7 inches in the back. Brown bear tracks range from 6 inches in the front to 12 inches in the hind paws. It is noteworthy that bears often put their hind legs in front of their front legs so that the hind paw prints are in front of the tracks.
Black bears have short, sharp claws, usually 4 inches long. Brown bears have wider claws that are between 5 and 10 inches long. If you see tracks with claw prints several inches in front of the paw prints, you are in the brown bear territory.
Photo credit: Kurt Barclay
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What do bears want?
Eat. You knew that. Food is a bear's primary concern, although bears can display predatory behavior in more remote locations.
What you may not know, however, is that bears are not attracted to your meat. You're more curious about sunscreen, deodorant, and a wild variety of food fragrances that have brought you into the wild. Once a bear finds an easy source of food, it is more likely to return. Wild animals survive with efficiency and will revisit simple destinations.
First, let's give an overview of bears. If you come across one, it will likely be an adrenaline pumping experience, but not a fatal one. Bears are not known to kill people. The chances are far less than from lightning or drowning (the leading cause of death in national parks).
Bear sightings are preferable to encounters, however – an important distinction. Part of bear safety is a concern for the bear, as those with repeated human contact are often put down as a precautionary measure. Hence, it is best to reduce the chances that you will ever interact with a bear. better to see them from a distance.
How to Prevent Bear Encounters
An interesting evolutionary biology holds that black bears are shy because they lived alongside North America's former predators such as terrible wolves and saber-toothed cats. They partially survived by running away and climbing trees.
But that doesn't mean they don't show aggression first and sometimes act on it.
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How do you avoid that? You can scare off bears by making noise (sorry, hunter) when they are not already after you and are therefore less inclined to investigate strange noises.
You can say "hey bear" while hiking, especially if you're walking through a tall brush that is less likely to spot a bear (and vice versa) until you are dangerously close. Really, you can say anything loud and direct.
Another option is to use bear bells. You can clip these to a backpack, belt loop, or shoe, and they'll ring as you walk. Bells with magnetic silencers also keep them quiet when you want.
In noisy environments, such as near rushing water or strong winds, you may want to scream and clap again. Or press a safety horn every now and then.
Choose a campsite that is less busy
Some backcountry trails are more remote than others, and beginners often camp at common waypoints suggested in guidebooks. This means that local bears may know this area as an area that provides occasional food and makes it part of their territory when looking for food.
Surviving a bear encounter
In bear attack scenarios, some scenarios trigger increased aggression from bears.
Mountain bikers cover a lot of ground quietly. It is a recipe to surprise a bear and its hunting behavior. After all, running or riding away looks like prey behavior to a bear.
You know the advice: never get between a she-bear and her cubs. Well, bears don't have the same courtesy towards people.
A predatory bear can look for ways to attack young children or dogs that are not with a parent. This is a reason to stand in a group when bears get close. It is better to look like a herd than to make stray prey and bears more likely to run away.
Let's say you still scared or scared a bear despite all the hey bear or bear bell prevention. How you react is very important and depends on the circumstances and even the type of bear.
Whatever the bear, hold your ground and reach for your bear spray. If the bear is charging from 60 feet away, use your spray to create a cloud between you and the bear. Bears are quick and will quickly fill that void. When the bear is closer than 30 feet, say your campsite, point your bear spray at the bear's face.
Unfortunately, if you don't have bear spray with you, here are some things you should know about an attack. A bear attack is a bad situation and these are best practices.
Black bear: Continue to hold on and use sticks, stones, or camping items to show your own aggression. Black bears are more likely to flee than to fight.
Brown / Grizzly Bear: With your backpack on and hands curl up over your neck into a ball. You can call this dead, but it protects your vital organs and is not threatening. The bear can turn to leave, but remains silent. Brown bears have a habit of looking back to make sure things are safe (for them).
The hope is that you never have to follow these steps. Bears are best enjoyed from a distance – so keep your bear spray ready just in case! Follow the safety tips above to prevent such close Ursa type encounters.
Being outdoors means being prepared, and a bear deterrent pepper spray can provide security and peace of mind.
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This item is sponsored by SABER, maker of FRONTIERSMAN bear spray. Buy SABER FRONTIERSMAN bear security products here.