There are many precautions to consider when you head into the wilderness for a hike or camping trip, but one of most important scenarios to prepare for is a possible bear encounter. From avoiding bears to knowing what to do if you encounter one, proper bear safety is an essential backcountry skill.
North America is home to three species of bears: polar bears, brown bears (which includes grizzlies), and black bears. Polar bears are only found in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, so you won’t encounter them unless you’re venturing into those regions. Brown bears, meanwhile, are found in western Canada, Alaska, and in states like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. Black bears have an even larger range: They can be found across the northern, eastern, and western United States and just about all of Canada. In other words, brown bears and black bears are the ones you’ll want to be vigilant for on your next excursion.
Bear attacks are extremely rare. Bear-related deaths are rarer still. Even so, attacks are on the rise this year, and it’s a reminder of what can go wrong if the proper bear safety precautions aren’t taken. So how can you prepare yourself for possible bear encounters—and possible bear attacks—next time you’re off the grid? We asked Bruce Zawalsky from Boreal Wilderness Institute, a school that offers bear awareness courses, to get us up to speed. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe in bear country.
How to Avoid Bears
Rule No. 1 of bear safety is to avoid bears altogether. The good news is that bears will generally steer clear of you. Still, there are times of year when your odds of running into a potentially dangerous bear increase. Younger bears are generally more active in the spring, says Zawalsky, while mothers and cubs are especially active in the fall as they forage for food to survive the winter.
No matter the season, there are a few key tactics to follow to encourage bears to stay away: Make plenty of noise and keep any smells that would interest a bear to a minimum.
“The human voice is the best way to tell bears in the area that you are around,” Zawalsky tells Men’s Journal. “Bears—blacks and grizzlies—understand you are in the area and will normally steer clear or simply let you pass by, often without you ever knowing they’re around.”
Reducing smells will also make you less attractive to bears. Avoid bringing especially smelly food with you, don’t wear colognes or perfumes, wash your clothes, and make sure all your food and garbage is properly sealed.
“Interesting scents and smells attract bears, who have an excellent sense of smell—much better than humans do,” says Zawalsky.
How to Prepare for Bear Encounters
Even if you take the precautions listed above, there’s still a chance you’ll run into a bear. You want to be well prepared for such an event.
The best thing you can do, according to Zawalsky, is stock up on bear spray, which is essentially a supercharged can of pepper spray. Make sure you know how to deploy the spray before you set out. For example, you don’t want to fire the bear spray into the wind (you’ll only end up in a cloud of it yourself), and you don’t want to inadvertently deploy the spray behind the bear, as that could drive the animal in your direction.
Other bear safety products like bear bangers—basically a roman candle deployed from a pen-shaped launcher—can also be effective but should not replace bear spray.
“Bear spray is the best thing on the market,” Zawalsky says. “To help drive away a problem bear you can use bear bangers or a whistle, but bear spray should be carried for easy one-handed deployment.”
Proper technique is essential when using bear spray: a two second blast at a slight downward angle while moving your arm in a circular motion. Aim for the bear’s eyes and nose. Zawalsky recommends this video to familiarize yourself with bear spray.
“Learn to use it before you travel into the wilderness,” he says.
What to Do When You See a Bear
If you see a bear at a significant distance, your best option is to give it a wide berth and keep moving—particularly if the bear doesn’t seem to notice you. If the bear notices you but doesn’t approach, speak to the bear in a normal but firm voice. Ideally, it will either stay put or leave the area.
“Talk to the bear in a normal voice and in most cases the bear will leave,” Zawalsky says. “Until it gets within 25 meters or so [roughly 80 feet] this works great.”
What to Do if a Bear Approaches You
If a bear starts getting too close for comfort, it’s time to start taking serious measures. Talking to the bear is still important, but blowing a whistle or deploying a bear banger can also be helpful. Just be careful not to shoot the bear banger behind the bear, as this could scare it in your direction. Aim for the ground in front of it. You also want to prepare to use your bear spray, which is best deployed at close range.
“After [a bear gets closer than 25 meters] make a bit more noise,” Zawalsky says. “Use your whistle or bear bangers at it approaches. If it gets closer, draw your bear spray and be prepared to use it.”
Remember that bear spray is a short-range deterrent. Its effective range is between three and five meters (roughly 10 to 16 feet), Zawalsky says.
“If you can, leave the area by walking slowly away from the bear and continuing to talk to it as you go,” he adds.
What to Do if a Bear Attacks
Let’s talk about the worst-case scenario. All your preventive measures have failed, and a bear is charging in to attack you. Zawalsky pulls no punches here: This is a life-or-death situation, and you need to do whatever you can to survive.
No option is off-limits in a situation like this, but there are a few strategies that could serve you well. Bear spray can still be effective in an attack situation, and any number of wilderness tools can be repurposed into weapons in a pinch. Zawalsky recommends targeting the sensitive areas of the bear’s face.
“Use another blast of bear spray or simply stick the canister in its mouth,” he says. “Fight back with anything you have, including a pocket knife, axe, or even a rock.”
No matter what weapon you use, focus on hitting the bear in its eyes, nose, and ears.
“Keep fighting,” says Zawalsky, “you are fighting for your life.”
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