Backpacking in Bear Country

Bears are magnificent creatures and it can be exciting to see one—from an appropriate distance. When hiking or backpacking in an area inhabited by black bears or grizzlies, there are precautions you can take so you’re less likely to have a bear encounter and you’ll be prepared to act if you do have one.

Planning Your Hike in Bear Country

Bear country sign with a bear on it

Before you head into the backcountry, find out what bear-related regulations are in place at your destination. Some parks require bear canisters; others don’t.

In national parks where grizzlies live, such as Glacier or Grand Teton, rangers encourage you to carry bear spray. In others, such as Yosemite, where only black bears live, bear spray is not permitted. 

Also, before you go, find out if bear poles or metal lockers are installed in the backcountry sites where you’ll be camping, as that can affect your gear choices.

How to Avoid Bears While Hiking

backpackers hiking through tall brush in bear country

In some areas, even before you get to your first campsite, you may be lucky enough to spot a bear. Your main task will be to hike without startling one at close range, especially a mother with cubs. Here are some guidelines that are particularly important to follow in grizzly territory, but can apply to black bear habitat as well. 

  • Avoid hiking at dawn or dusk. That’s when bears are most active.
  • Hike in a group of four or more and stay close together; groups of that size are less likely to be attacked.
  • Make noise as you hike in order not to surprise a bear. Try shouting “Hey, bear!” every so often, talking or singing loudly, clapping hands, and clacking trekking poles together.  The National Park Service does not recommend that you whistle, use a whistle or scream. These noises can sound like an animal in pain, which may attract a bear. Most bells sold as “bear bells” are not loud enough to be useful. Also, be aware of your surroundings at all times. Noisy streams, wind in the trees, bends in the trail and dense vegetation can prevent a bear from being aware of you.
  • Carry bear spray. Bear spray contains red pepper derivatives that affect the eyes and respiratory system. It’s designed to rebuff an attacking bear (but can affect your own breathing and eyesight, too, if the wind blows it in your face), and empties in only 7-9 seconds. It’s effective at a distance of 12-30 feet.
    Carry it directly on your person in a holster, not in your pack (not even in an outside mesh pocket—it could get knocked out). Bear spray makes an excellent deterrent about 90 percent of the time. Know how to use it, as you may only have seconds to do so. Usually you must flick off the safety clip before you can depress the nozzle. Practice pulling it out of the holster at home before your trip.
    It’s an aerosol, so find out about airline regulations; also check for any international restrictions.

Warning: In camp, never preemptively spray your tent or pack with bear spray; it’s NOT like mosquito repellent. It may actually attract bears.

How to Discourage Bears in Camp

campers preparing their meals at safe distance from their tent

Bears that have tasted human food crave it and may become a problem; these bears are usually killed. So for the bears’ welfare and your own safety, keep food from bears. Always follow these guidelines:

  • Never leave food out and unattended. Store food day and night; wildlife is always active.
  • Use proper food storage techniques: Always use a bear canister, bear bag, tree- or pole-hung bag or provided metal food locker to stow all the following: food, snacks, empty food containers and cookware (even if cleaned); personal hygiene products such as toothpaste, feminine products and sunscreen; every little bit of trash; and even the clothes you wear for cooking (clothing can absorb food odors). Some hikers even include their stove. See our article on food handling and storage for more details about how to use a bear canister or bear bag, and how to hang your food.
  • Keep odors at a distance: Cook food and wash dishes (and hands) well away from your tent so odors don’t attract bears near where you sleep. Use only a tiny bit of liquid unscented soap.
  • Strain dishwater: Bring a small piece of metal screen to strain food particles out of your dishwater. Put these particles in your trash bag to haul out.
  • Follow Leave No Trace principles (as well as any official regulations) for disposing of human waste.

Black Bears vs. Grizzlies: What To Do if You Encounter a Bear

illustration of a black bear and grizzly bear

Most bears are wary of humans and will flee as soon as they smell, hear or see a person. However, bears are unpredictable and dangerous. Always give a bear a wide berth when possible.  

How you respond to a bear encounter may be different depending on the type of bear. It can be hard to tell black bears from grizzlies because both can range from blonde to black (in the eastern U.S., however, black bears tend to be only black).

Black bears live throughout much of the country, so chances are you’ll see one at some point. Black bears have no shoulder hump, ears that are taller, and a straight face profile.

Grizzlies, while widespread in Alaska and western Canada, live in only a few places in the lower 48, primarily Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and potentially the North Cascades in Washington. Grizzlies have distinctive characteristics to look for: a prominent shoulder hump, small rounded ears, and a “dished-in” or concave face profile.

What To Do if You Encounter Either Type of Bear

  • Never approach a bear.
  • If you see bear cubs, keep your distance. Mother bears are particularly dangerous and have been known to charge and attack at close range without warning.
  • If you spot a bear before it spots you, back well away, keeping your eyes on the bear.
  • If you’re with others, group together to look more imposing.
  • Retreat and reroute your travel if possible, giving the bear a wide berth. If you can’t progress on the trail, it’s better to postpone your hike.
  • If you have bear spray, get it ready.
  • Fight back in any of the following situations: You’re attacked in your tent; at night; after being stalked; or any time your situation seems dire.

What To Do if You Encounter a Black Bear

Black bear paw print
  • If a black bear is coming toward you, raise your arms to look larger and yell loudly, bang pots together or throw objects to scare it off.
  • Grab a long, sturdy stick for defense.
  • If you’re in camp, quickly lock away any food in a bear canister or metal locker, or carry the food with you (even if it’s in a cooking pot) as you back away. It’s important to NOT let a bear get your food.
  • If the bear keeps coming toward you and seems more interested in your food than you, drop the food as a last resort and move away.
  • Even if a black bear comes near out of curiosity and seems harmless, keep trying to scare it away and back away.

If a black bear attacks you:

  • Do not play dead.
  • Fight back aggressively. Use sticks, rocks and punches on its eyes and nose. It is treating you as prey.

What To Do if You Encounter a Grizzly

Grizzly bear paw print
  • If a grizzly stands up to look at you, it’s assessing you. Talk to it calmly, do not make eye contact and back up slowly—you don’t want to appear a threat.
  • If a grizzly does a bluff charge, which looks different from a full-on attack, its ears will be up and it may huff and bound toward you. Try not to panic; stand your ground and talk to the bear to let it know you’re friendly. Get your can of bear spray ready—never turn and run! If the bear turns and retreats after a bluff charge, continue to back up.

If a grizzly attacks you:

  • If a grizzly’s ears lie back and it’s silent with its head low as it charges, this is a full-on aggressive attack. Use your bear spray when it reaches 30 feet away. Don’t panic and spray too soon. Aim low so it doesn’t go over the bear’s head.
  • If you don’t have spray, or it fails to work, play dead.
  • Try to lie flat on your stomach with your pack between you and the bear; cover the back of your neck with your hands—your elbows and spread legs can keep you from being rolled over.
  • If the bear does flip you over, keep rolling till you’re on your stomach again.
  • You can also try a cannonball position. The bear may bite you and then leave.

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