Most hikers never see a bear, but much of the North American wilderness is bear country. Whether you plan to hike for days or just a few hours take the time to learn about the special precautions for hiking in bear country.
Don't Surprise Bears
Let bears know you are coming. They will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make noise.
Bells are not as effective as many people believe; talking loudly, clapping hands, and calling out are all better ways of making your presence known.
Trail conditions may make it hard for bears to see, hear, or smell approaching hikers. Be careful hiking by a stream, against the wind, or in dense vegetation. A blind corner or a rise in the trail also requires special attention by hikers.
Don't Approach Bears!
Never intentionally get close to a bear. Individual bears will all react differently and unpredictably. A minimum safe distance from bears is 500-1000 feet, although there is no guarantee of your safety.
Inform Yourself About Bears
If hiking in a park, forest, or wilderness area, the park staff or rangers can tell you of recent bear activity in the area where you plan to hike. They can also help identify signs of bear activity like tracks, torn-up logs, droppings, and overturned rocks. Bears spend a lot of time eating, so avoid hiking in obvious feeding areas like berry patches, cow parsnip thickets, or fields of glacier lilies.
Although most hikers do not encounter bears, people have been seriously injured, maimed, and killed by bears. All bears are dangerous and should be respected equally. A female with cubs, bears with a fresh kill, and bears conditioned to human food are the most dangerous.
When hiking in bear country, leave an itinerary with friends or in your car which includes beginning and ending times.
Never hike alone, or at night.
Never feed animals or leave food or garbage unattended.
Bears may appear tolerant of people and then attack without warning. A bear's body language can help determine its mood. In general, bears show agitation by swaying their heads, huffing, and clacking their teeth. Lowered head and laid-back ears also indicate aggression. Bears stand on their hind legs to get a better view.
Bears, like people, react differently to each situation.
If You Encounter a Bear These Suggestions May Help.
Talk quietly or not at all.
Back away slowly, but stop if it seems to agitate the bear. Assume a non-threatening posture. Turn sideways, or bend at the knees to appear smaller.
Use peripheral vision. Bears appear to interpret direct eye contact as a threat.
A bear may "bluff charge". If it does not stop, fall to the ground in a fetal position to reduce the severity of an attack. Protect the back of your neck with your hands.
An increasing number of backcountry hikers carry pepper spray as a possible deterrent aggressive bears.
What is Pepper Spray?
This aerosol red pepper derivative affects an animal's upper respiratory system and mucous membranes, triggering temporary incapacitating discomfort. It is intended to be a non-toxic and non-lethal means of deterring bears.
In several cases in throughout North America, pepper spray apparently successfully repelled aggressive or attacking bears. However, there are accounts where pepper
spray has not worked as well as expected.
Many factors influence the effectiveness of pepper spray.
Spray distance, wind, wet or rainy weather, extremes of heat or cold, and product shelf life all may affect its usefulness.
The decision to carry pepper spray as a bear deterrent comes down to a personal choice. If you decide to carry spray, it is your responsibility to use it wisely and only in situations where aggressive bear behavior justifies its use.
Also, there seems to be some concern about the effectiveness of improperly used pepper spray on brown (grizzly) bears. Check out this recent USGS report on the "Bear Etiquette" site for more information: