Hiking and Backpacking in Bear Country: Tips on How to Stay Safe
So what is bear country exactly?
Well, as the name would suggest, bear country is anywhere a bear lives. In the case of North America, almost every state in the USA and almost every providence or territory in Canada is “bear country” (even a bit of Mexico is home to bears). The location you are in will actually decide what bears you will possibly encounter: if you are in the far northern region you might come across a brown or grizzly bear and/or a black bear (like in the case of Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park), while if you are in most of the lower 48 states of the USA you will almost only interact with black bears (this includes in such popular hiking destinations as Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park).
Below are some very helpful things to know about hiking and backpacking in bear country, including how to differentiate between types of bears, how to know if you are in prime bear territory, and what to do if you spot a bear. Finally, we also outline 10(ish) important tips on how to adventure safely in bear country. Because at the end of the day, the overall goal is to keep yourself and the bears safe.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF BEARS IN NORTH AMERICA
American black bears are the most widely distributed and common bear in all of North America. In fact, they can be found in a wide variety of biomes and ecosystems — including high alpine mountains, dense forests, wet swamplands, and even along the coast. Because of this wide distribution, the black bear isn’t always black (aka so don’t rely on the coloring for identification). Instead look for its distinctive shape, which includes a flatter back, a straight face, larger, oval-shaped ears and shorter claws.
GRIZZLY BEARS AND BROWN BEARS
You might sometimes hear these two common names interchangeably. That is because they are actually the same species — Ursus arctos. While both have the same distinctive body shape — shoulder humps, long claws, a dish-shaped face — the main difference is their geographic location. Brown bears live along the coast of Alaska and subsist on marine life for food, while grizzly bears live inland and have very limited access to marine life for food.
HOW TO KNOW WHETHER IT IS A BLACK BEAR OR A GRIZZLY BEAR
Below is a handy diagram to help you better understand the main differences between a black bear and a brown/grizzly bear. Again, when you come across a bear while hiking or backpacking, don’t try to identify it on color or size alone (this can sometimes be misleading). Instead, use the bear’s physical appearance (body shape, face profile, etc.) and its tracks to identify it. Also, before heading out on the trail, do some research to learn about what bears live in the area you are planning to explore.
Likely a much less common type of bear to encounter, but still one worth mentioning is the polar bear (or Ursus maritimus). Polar bears have a much smaller range than the two bears mentioned above; in fact, unless you are exploring the farthest northern coasts of Alaska and Canada you have a pretty small chance of encountering one. But with that being said, it is always smart to be aware.
The most common identifier of a polar bear is their white or yellowish coat that is made of water-repellent hair. Similarly, unlike other bears, polar bears have longer necks, smaller ears and narrower heads. Likewise, their feet are quite large and almost totally covered in hair.
THE MOST COMMON PLACES FOR BEAR ENCOUNTERS
You can find bears in over a dozen United States — from the mountains of Colorado and Montana to the coasts of Alaska and California to the swamplands of southern Florida. In fact, black bears live in nearly 40 of the 50 United States and every province and territory of Canada except Prince Edward Island.
While you can find bears all over North America (including in parts of north-central Mexico), the most common places for bear encounters will be in the mountains and specifically in densely forested areas. Bears like places that have a high number of trees, a wide array of edible plants (specifically berries and flowers), a water source, and an overall lack of people.
Overall, the most common place you will encounter a grizzly bear in North America will be in such places as Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park and up in the 8 Alaskan national parks. In other popular hiking and backpacking destinations — including Rocky Mountain National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, you will only encounter black bears.
WHEN ARE BEARS THE MOST ACTIVE?
Bears — including black bears and brown/grizzly bears — are most active during dawn, dusk, and night. Therefore if you are planning to hike and backpack in bear country make sure to be extra aware of your surroundings during these times of the day.
If possible, always try to avoid hiking at night. Not only because this is prime bear time, but because hiking at night is also more dangerous overall: you have a higher chance of tripping on things you can’t see, other wild animals are also out and you have a higher chance of losing your trail and getting lost.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR
Below are a few of the most important things to keep in mind if you do come across a bear while out hiking or backpacking.
| NEVER run away — this can trigger the bear’s chase instincts (you cannot outrun a bear).
| Keep facing the bear and slowly walk away. But try not to make eye contact as this can be seen as aggressive.
| Speak to the bear in a calm, confident tone that will distinguish your voice from the noise of potential prey. Your goal is to have the bear identify you as a human and not as an animal or food source.
| Keep your personal items — including bags and food — close to you. Also, if you are with small children or dogs, hold onto them tightly until the bear wanders away.
WHAT TO DO IF A BEAR ATTACKS YOU
Remember that bears are wild animals and therefore every encounter is going to be different. That being said, for the most part, there are two different types of charges a bear may do: a bluff charge and an aggressive charge.
A bluff charge is more common and meant to scare or intimidate you (which of course likely works). You will know it is a bluff charge if the bear keeps its head and ears up the whole time. It will also likely make bigger leaps toward you. If a bluff charge looks like it might be about to occur, start to back away slowly and wave your arms above your head. Keep talking to the bear calmly and try not to run away — ALWAYS stand your ground. After the bluff charge, continue to speak to the bear nice and calmly.
On the other hand, an aggressive charge is much more dangerous and can lead to some terrible situations. You will likely know if the bear is aggressively charging you when it starts clacking its teeth, yawning, or pawing at the ground and huffing. These are all signs that the bear is stressed, which may lead it to come at you very quickly.
If a black bear attacks: FIGHT BACK! Direct punches and kicks at the bear’s face and try to use rocks or sticks. If you have bear spray with you use it. Do NOT play dead with black bears.
If a brown or grizzly bear attacks: PLAY DEAD! Do not fight back and instead try to cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Lay totally flat, splay out your legs, and keep your backpack on. This will hopefully show the bear that you are not a threat and not worth killing/eating. If this works and the bear does not attack, try to lie there for a couple of minutes more just to make sure the bear is gone and the danger has passed.
TIPS FOR HIKING IN BEAR COUNTRY
BE BEAR AWARE
Always stay alert on the trail — especially if you are in an area that could potentially have bears (dense foliage, running water, edible plants). Keep an eye out for signs of bear activity; which can include recent tracks, scat (poop), fresh claw marks on trees, recently dug holes and dead animals. If you see a dead animal (also known as carrion), walk away from it — it is likely the smell of it will attract bears.
It is also a good idea to do a bit of research before heading out into bear country. Try to see if there has been a lot of recent bear activity on the trail you are planning to hike or backpack and/or talk to a ranger about a specific area. Also, when you are out hiking and you see a bear, make sure to alert any other hikers in the area.
DON’T HIKE ALONE
Hiking in a group instead of alone is usually the right call no matter where you are (safety in numbers right). In the case of hiking in bear country, by adventuring with multiple people you greatly decrease your chance of surprising a bear and also of a bear attack in general. Likewise, it is more likely that if you are with more than two people a bear will be able to hear and smell you quicker and likely move away from the trail.
If you are hiking in a group while in bear country, always remember to keep young children within your sight and dogs on a leash (or at the very least within easy view and voice command).
MAKE PLENTY OF NOISE WHILE HIKING
Similar to the tip above, if you are hiking in known bear country, always try to make loud noises when in possible bear territory — i.e. in dense foliage, around water and near corners with little visibility. The main goal here is to NOT surprise or startle a bear.
It is recommended that you talk with your hiking buddies regularly and/or yell something like “hello” at constant intervals. You can also just clap loudly every so often while on the trail. These noises should be even louder in sections that could be hard for a bear to see or hear you, like near a rushing river or over a ridgeline.
While there is not necessarily a wrong way to make noise in bear country, one common thought is that it is bad hiking etiquette to yell “hey bear.” As cute as this might sound, it understandably can send the wrong message. If you were hiking and heard someone in front of you yell “bear” (and there wasn’t a bear) you likely wouldn’t think it was at all cute. Therefore it is smart to say something more common like hello and ONLY yell bear if you actually see a bear.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: one commonly sold bear safety item is “bear bells.” These small twinkling bells are meant to be placed on your backpack or your shoes when hiking. While the idea is definitely great, often times the bells are too quiet to be of much use. Feel free to wear them if you want, but also consider making louder noises along the trail as well.
NEVER APPROACH A BEAR
You have probably heard someone use the term “mama bear” when describing a very protective mother. Well, if you are out hiking, definitely try to avoid ANY run-ins with mama bears (aka sows). Likely the most dangerous situation you can find yourself in out in bear country is in between a sow and her cubs. Therefore if you ever come across a baby bear (cub) slowly and calmly walk away. Never approach a bear cub — even if it looks like it is all alone and possibly in distress.
If mama bear comes back and is acting aggressive, keep moving away in a very non-threatening manner and never take your eyes off of the sow. And always be ready to defend yourself if the mama bear becomes aggressive (review the tips on this above).
STICK TO THE TRAIL (ALWAYS)
This is a good rule of hiking etiquette no matter where you are, but if you are out hiking in bear country always try to stick to the designated trail. By doing this, you not only protect the foliage and natural landscape, but you greatly decrease the likelihood of stumbling across a bear and surprising it (which is definitely bad). If you do have to go off trail for any reason, make sure to take your time and be as loud as possible — especially if the bushwhacking requires hiking through dense bushes and low-visibility landscapes.
TIPS FOR BACKPACKING IN BEAR COUNTRY
DO SOME PRE-PLANNING
Before you even begin your adventure out into the backcountry, first find out what bear-related regulations are in place at your destination. These regulations can cover everything from whether bear canisters are required, to if you are allowed to carry bear spray (more on this in a second).
If you are planning to backpack in a national park, definitely visit the national park service website for all of this important information ahead of time. Likewise, when you arrive at the park make sure to talk to a ranger about recent bear activity or if there is anything specific to keep in mind while out backpacking.
Likewise, if you are backpacking and staying in designated backcountry campsites, make sure to do your research on whether the sites include a bear pole or secure metal locker for storing food.
STORE YOUR FOOD PROPERLY
One of the most common ways to attract bears while out backpacking and camping is through food and other smelly items (bears can smell stuff from up to 3 miles away). There are many important steps in countering this — including following proper cooking and cleaning techniques and overall food storage.
When you cook and clean out in the backcountry, make sure to stay at least 70 feet away from your sleeping quarters (even farther if there is wind). This will help keep unwanted leftover odors away from your tent area — for even these odors can attract unwanted visitors. Once you are finished cooking, store ALL food and cooking gear, including pots, pans, silverware and bowls/plates in proper containers like a personal bear canister (like this one), a bear bag, a tree, or pole-hung bag, or in a provided metal food locker.
The main goal here is to remove any bear attractant from your camp and secure anything that has an odor in a safe place. A common saying is a fed bear is a dead bear. Unfortunately, in most cases this is true. Do your part and NEVER feed a bear (or any wildlife) and make sure to keep all food locked away.
DON’T LEAVE YOUR BAGS UNATTENDED
In the same vein as above, when you are out backpacking in bear country, make sure to never leave your bag and gear unattended. Even if you are just taking a break, never wander too far away from your stuff — especially if it has some smelly goods in it like food or toiletries (sunscreen, Chapstick, etc.).
Leaving food out while in the backcountry is a great way to attract wildlife — including bears (but also birds and squirrels and chipmunks). A core thing to remember when you are out hiking or backpacking is to never feed wildlife — either directly or indirectly.
You can find more helpful information on backpacking in bear country here.
DON’T CAMP IN A POSSIBLE BEAR AREA
It is important when picking a campsite, especially one in the backcountry, to think about bears and what they are usually attracted to. Some things to keep in mind when deciding on a spot is whether it is close to any edible plants (like berry bushes) or other bear food sources, close to water, or anywhere there are obvious signs of bear activity (like bear scat, claw markings on trees, or fresh tracks).
Obviously, if you are backpacking and staying at designated camping sites this shouldn’t be an issue. If you are new to backpacking in bear country, maybe start out by staying at these sites first. Many national parks have plenty of amazing backcountry sites to choose from — including such popular backpacking destinations as Yellowstone National Park, where you can find over 290 designated backcountry campsites (each with its own bear box or pole).
Once you have found the perfect camp, you need to then think about how to keep your site bear-safe. One popular outdoor idea is the “Bear-muda Triangle.” This somewhat goofy-sounding campsite set-up is meant to keep all parties safe — including the bears themselves. To create a bear-muda triangle, first find the spot for your tent (a nice flat area is best). Once your tent is set up, walk at least 70 feet away in one direction. This is where you should set up your cooking area. Then walk another 70 feet from there (creating a triangle from your tent). This third spot should be where you store all of your food.
While this might seem like overkill, in actuality, bears can smell food from at least 3 miles away, so you want to make sure you are giving plenty of safe space in case a bear does end up wandering into camp.
CARRY BEAR PROTECTION
If you are planning to spend a decent amount of time in bear country, definitely come prepared with some safety tools. A great item to have on your person is an easy-to-use can of bear spray. This bear safety device is easily available at most outdoor retailers — especially ones located in known bear country (or buy it online here). Bear spray is a specific aerosol spray made up of highly irritant active ingredients like capsaicin and related capsaicinoids.
Bear sprays differ from regular pepper spray in that their range is much farther. While every spray is different, most have a range between 1.5 to 3 meters. When out in bear country, make sure to keep your bear spray within easy grabbing distance (do not keep it deep in your hiking backpack) like on a belt or chest holster. Because you will only want to use the spray if a bear starts to charge at you, you want to make sure you can grab the spray and use it within seconds (also consider practicing before hitting the trail if you have never used one before).
Finally, while it might seem like a good idea to use bear spray in the same manner as you would bug spray, in truth, spraying the aerosol on your person or gear (including your backpack and tent) could actually have the opposite effect and instead attract a bear instead of repelling it.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: always remember that common sense is the best protection against bear attacks. Remember the above tips and only use bear spray as a last resort. In fact, while some national parks allow bear spray to be used (like in the backcountry areas of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks) it is also illegal in many others. Do your research on national park service regulations before bringing in your bear spray.
MAKE SURE YOU PUT ALL SCENTED GOODS AWAY
While food is obviously the most important thing to put away properly while backpacking in bear country, it is also a very good idea to store anything with an odor in a safe place (like a bear box, bear bag, etc.). Things like sunscreen, face and dish soap, lip balm, wipes, toothpaste, and feminine products can all attract bears. Likewise, other things like trash, gum and mints can cause bears to get a bit too curious. Really a good rule of thumb is that if anything has a slight odor, it should be put away.
Another common thing for backpackers to do when out in bear country is to actually change their clothes after cooking and store the smelly clothes in the safe bear-proof locker or box. If you really want to be safe, pack an extra pair of clothes that you can wear while at camp that will stay odor-free.
While it might seem a bit scary to go hiking or backpacking in bear country, in reality, as long as you use common sense and always stay aware of your surroundings, you should be totally fine. For the most part, bears will run away as soon as they hear or smell a human. While of course not every bear is the same and they are still wild animals (and therefore unpredictable), overall, the presence bears should not deter you from getting outside and adventuring.
You can find even more adventure tips here.