By Lucy Higgins • July 12, 2022
One of the main perks of hiking is catching glimpses of wildlife in its natural habitat. But for some animal sightings, the thrill of seeing a critter veers into dangerous territory—especially when that territory is in bear country. While bears are typically more afraid of humans than we are of them, encounters when unprepared can be frightening and, at times, unsafe. As you head onto the trail this summer, here’s a rundown on how to avoid bears, and, if you see one, how to carefully and respectfully navigate the situation.
Get the Scoop
Often, visitor centers and backcountry offices will have helpful information on the latest bear sightings and activities. A quick conversation with a knowledgeable professional will lend some context to your hike, and may direct you away from or onto certain trails. Most hiking areas also come with their fair share of online forums and beta; local insight can be just as useful and timely when deciding what trails are safest to travel upon.
As you research, take the time to read up on what bears are present in the region: are you heading into grizzly country, or in a zone with only black bears? Knowing this, and how to identify between grizzly/brown and black bears is crucial should you come across a furry feller.
On the Trail
Creating noise is the main way to deter a bear. While it’s important to respect others’ hiking experiences and the quietness found in nature, if you’re genuinely worried about a bear encounter, make a ruckus. Try yelling, clapping, and shouting; bells are good, but they can be too quiet to give bears a distanced heads up that you’re approaching. Another sure way to make enough noise—and smell!—to warn bears of your existence is to travel in groups. This builds in a safety net should you actually come across one, but it also adds some decibels to scare off Yogi. And as your group departs, don’t head off into the sunset: bears are more active at dusk and dawn.
You checked in with the visitor center, hit the trail late morning, and rallied your friends to join you on your hike. Two miles in, even with a little commotion, you spot a bear. Now what?
Firstly, don’t panic. Avoid direct eye contact and speak to the bear in a calm and loud, low voice, to help it identify you as non-prey. Likewise, make your body as large as possible and refrain from fast movement. Any quick flight signals to a bear that you’re prey, and like a dog, it may chase if you start to run. Instead, slowly move away from the bear without turning your back to it, and if you have a pack with you, keep it on for extra back protection. Wearing your pack also keeps your food out of a bear’s grasp.
Can you identify if the four-legged friend is a brown or black bear? Grizzlies are known to be a far more aggressive, and bigger, force. If you’re being attacked by a grizzly, it’s best to play dead in the hopes that the bear will lose interest. Should the attack progress, it’s time to start fighting. Black bears, on the other hand, are smaller and typically much more skittish. On the rare occasion that one lunges or attacks, it’s recommended that you immediately start to fight back.
When a bear lunges or an encounter becomes too close, it’s also the time to use bear spray. Store the spray in an easily accessible location, and make sure you’ve brought the correct spray; it’s different than mace and should be EPA approved.
And, a well-deserved warning: don’t come between a mother (sow) bear and her cubs. If you see a cub seemingly unattended, it’s often the case that mom is close by and you have not yet observed her. If you do come across a cub, be on heightened alert, and evacuate its zone as quickly as possible.
In general, any animal you come across in the wilderness is more afraid of you and your group than you are of it. That being said, a healthy respect and knowledge of the animals within your environment goes a long way in keeping you—and them—safe and moving along your trail.