As a proud, nature-loving Canadian, I like to believe that I am not afraid of bears. But let’s be honest, bears are freaking scary. I know, I know, the likelihood of having any life-threatening encounter with a bear is super low. However, even if all a bear wanted from you was a hug and some emotional support, it could still accidentally kill you. We are talking up to 600 kilograms of pure muscle and fat, not to mention four inch long razor sharp claws (for grizzly bears).
I don’t mean to scare you off from exploring the great Canadian and American wilderness. The truth is, most bear encounters, if you have one at all, end without a human experiencing any bodily harm. But that doesn’t mean you should just traipse off into the woods without knowing how to prevent or handle such encounters.
Bears are pretty common even on the outskirts of Vancouver, BC. I have friends who live in the suburbs who see bears when they go for walks on small trails. There are residents of North Vancouver who regularly have bears walk through their yards. And, of course, the further you get from the city, the greater your chances of coming across a bear. Myself, I’ve only seen bears a few times and, thankfully, always from a distance.
This year, Laura and I are planning on spending a lot more time hiking and camping in the backcountry of British Columbia. I won’t lie, I’m kind of scared. The last time I went backcountry camping, many years ago, my anxiety was so bad I started hallucinating and we had to tear down camp in the night and drive into the city. This is more a fear of the dark than a fear of bears, but bears and the dark? That’s an anxiety-provoking combination for sure. Not one to let my irrational mind control my life and prevent me from exploring one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I am jumping in head first. And if I do see a bear? I’m pretty sure I can run faster than Laura.
Bear Safety Tips for Backcountry Travellers in Canada & the USA
Types of Bears in North America
Black Bears The cuddliest, most adorable way to die! Seriously though, if you’re going to cross paths with a bear, you want it to be a black bear. This is the smallest of the three species of bear living in North America and the one least likely to be in a bad mood…or think you’re food. Black bears can be found pretty much everywhere in North America (with the exception of Prince Edward Island and ten states). As their name suggests, these bears are typically black in colour, but can also be white or brown.
Spirit Bears Found only in certain coastal areas of British Columbia, the spirit bear -or Kermode bear – is a rare version of the more common black bear. Even more rare is a white spirit bear, which also happens to be BC’s provincial animal.
Grizzly/Brown/Kodiak Bears The bigger, scarier bear a person might encounter. Grizzlies make their home in British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories in Canada. In the States, they can be found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Again, these bears come in a range of colours from white to black.
Polar Bears Unless you’re super into camping in deadly freezing weather, I can’t imaging there will be too many people reading this who are likely to encounter a polar bear. These majestic beasts live near the arctic circle. The majority live in Canada – the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, Newfoundland and Labrador (the rest live in Alaska). Believe it or not, polar bears can even be found wandering the streets of Churchill, Manitoba.
Black Bears vs Grizzly Bears
Typically, grizzly bears are larger, but this isn’t necessarily so all of the time. Also, when staring down a bear, it’s most likely just going to look big no matter what.
The key differences between black bears and grizzly bears are the shape of their ears, face, shoulders, and claws. The easiest way to distinguish the two is by the prominent shoulder hump and short ears found on grizzly bears. Black bears have a smoother look in general, with a straight face in profile and taller ears.
Get to know which species of bears dwell in the areas you want to explore before heading out. Test your ability to distinguish between the two species by taking this bear quiz (I only got 55%, which is not hugely encouraging…Laura got 89%, but I swear her version of the test was easier).
What to Do if You See a Bear
First of all, don’t be stupid. As cute as they may look, especially the babies, these animals can hurt you – and they will if they feel threatened or if you cover your hand in honey because you think a photo of a bear licking your hand would be just so cute.
Black bears and grizzly bears have different behaviours and each requires a different set of skills for managing an encounter. Your first step will be to identify which species of bear you are dealing with.
Do not play dead (dead animals are food)…yet.
Once you have identified your bear, it’s time to take action. Most importantly, don’t lose your cool (easier said than done, I’m sure). You can quietly walk away from a bear that hasn’t noticed you. Otherwise, start by talking to the bear in a calm, but firm, voice (I’ve heard their favourite topics for conversation are berries and deciphering Game of Thrones plotlines). Do not make direct eye contact…yet.
While you are politely trying to deescalate the situation with your words, slowly ready your bear spray – just in case. If you have an extra hand and knife available, you might as well weapon up too. If you are with someone else, stick together to gently intimidate the bear.
Do not turn your back on the bear. Walk backwards slowly giving it as much space as possible. If turning around and heading home isn’t an option, take as big of a detour as you can to give that bear its space.
If you are dealing with a black bear, you can try to move it out of the area (make sure you are not standing in the middle of its escape path). Make yourself tall, slowly raise your arms, look it directly in the eyes, and tell it to push off. “Go on bear, get out of here!”
If you are dealing with a grizzly bear, do not try to get it to move out of the area.
If there are cubs nearby or an obvious food source, or you surprise the bear, it will likely be more defensively aggressive. Defensive behaviours include jaw popping, pawing at the ground, lunging, or bluff charging (or real charging if the bear is looking for a fight, which it usually isn’t). Remain still and calm (but it’s probably ok to pee yourself). Back away slowly and immediately leave the area. Do not act aggressively (this isn’t a fight you’re going to win). Grizzly bears are more likely than black bears to make a defensive attack. Still, every bear is an individual with its own personality, so don’t take anything for granted. If the bear wants you to leave, you go.
A bear may approach you in a calm manner if it is curious or sizing you up as prey. It’s ok to start acting aggressively in this situation. Yell, throw things, wave a stick around, stamp your feet, make noise with whatever you have available.
If the bear seems like it’s going to attack you, use your bear spray. Ideally, start spraying when the bear is 30 feet away. Aim just above its head so that the spray will fall onto the sensitive areas of the bear’s face (eyes, nose, mouth). Bear bangers are also an option for warding off an oncoming bear. This flare device makes a loud noise like a gunshot.
If the bear does make contact, it’s time to play dead. Cover your soft areas by lying on your stomach and protecting the back of your neck and head as much as possible with your hands. To prevent the bear from flipping you over, spread your legs and arms out wide. Absolutely do not get up until you are 100% certain the bear is gone, no matter how long you have to wait.
If a bear starts eating you (seriously), or mauls you for too long (more than two minutes), it’s time to fight back. Always fight a bear that comes into your tent or shelter.
How to Prevent Bear Encounters
Some people like to wear bear bells when they hike, but I personally find these extremely annoying. The whole point of being off the beaten track is to enjoy the solitude and silence of nature. Just don’t be too silent. Talk, sing, clap your hands, hoot and holler every few minutes. If a bear hears you coming, it’s likely to move off before you ever see it. Also, do not hike during dawn or dusk when bears are most active.
A bear can smell food as far as 30 kilometres away, depending on the wind. If you are camping, always store your food away from your tent, preferably in a bear proof container and out of reach of prying claws. Many backcountry campsites will have food caches available, but if you’re really deep in the woods, you will have to secure your food yourself – at least 4 metres off the ground and 3 metres away from the nearest neighbouring tree. Your food cache, cooking area, and tent should all be at least 50 metres away from each other. Wash your dishes immediately after eating to remove food smells as quickly as possible.
Food, garbage, dirty dishes, and toiletries are a few of the things that may attract a bear’s attention. Always keep your campsite tidy and pack out any garbage. Don’t sleep with food or scented products in your tent.
Don’t pick a fight Remain calm, talk to the bear in an appeasing voice, and avoid eye contact or approaching the bear. Prepare whatever defenses you have available and leave the area.
When a bear picks a fight Fight back.
There are different schools of thought with the above guidelines. Playing dead can work for defensive attacks, but not if the bear is predatory. Some say to drop your backpack to draw the bear’s attention away from you while others say to keep it on as extra protection. Unless your sprinting speed tops 60km/hr, you are not going to outrun a bear. Or outclimb one for that matter. So, it’s not recommended to run from a bear – their instinct could be to chase you -unless you are certain of an attack.
Remember, humans are stinky, scary creatures and bears would much prefer to leave us alone. Apparently, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a bear. However, each situation and each bear will be unique. If things aren’t going by the book, use your intuition and best judgement to keep yourself alive.
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