November 21, 2021 13 min read

Watching normal bear behaviors from a safe distance is a magical and thrilling experience for most backpackers. But any time you venture into an area inhabited by bears, there are various risks involved. 

Bears mostly prefer to avoid confrontation with people, but they are also unpredictable and dangerous animals. An encounter has the potential to go very wrong. 

This guide will explain everything you need to know before backpacking in bear country and equip you with the skills to react appropriately to any bear-related situation.

We will cover:

What to Know About Bears

Before we talk about backpacking safely in bear country, it helps to understand a few things about bears. There are only three types of bears found in North America–black, brown, and polar bears.  

Black bears are the continent’s smallest and most widely distributed bear species. They number around 300,000 in the US, and you’ll find them in at least 40 states.

Brown bears are the second-largest bears in North America. When found inland, these bears are known as grizzlies; those that dwell in coastal areas are called brown bears. They number around 32,000 in the US. Chances of encountering one are low as they live in only a few places in the lower 48, primarily Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and northern Washington.

Polar bears are the largest bear species in the world. They rule the sea ice and tundra of extreme northern and western Alaska. There are around 4,000 to 7,000 in US territory. We won’t be focusing on polar bears in this guide, since they are only found in Alaska, but if you plan to explore ice-bear country, check out this safety guide.

Black Bears vs. Brown Bears: What’s the Difference? 

You can’t rely on color alone to tell the difference between black and brown bears. Contrary to their name, black bears also come in brown, cinnamon, and blond shades. A black bear also has no shoulder hump, taller ears, and a straight face profile. 

On the other hand, a brown bear has a prominent shoulder hump, small rounded ears, and a dished-in face profile. They also come in a variety of colors, from blond to nearly black. 

Since most black bears tend to live alongside humans, they’re generally less aggressive and more tolerant of your presence. On the other hand, brown bears live a distance away from human populations, so they’re more wary of people and potentially more aggressive.

Fortunately, your chances of being attacked by a bear are remarkably slim. Between 1900 and 2009, only 63 black bear attacks resulted in a fatality within the US and Canada. Most encounters resulted in either no physical contact or only minor injuries.

Even if most bears flee as soon as they smell, hear, or see a human, they are still dangerous creatures, and it’s wise to always stay out of their way. Keep reading to learn how to deal with both black and brown bear encounters.

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip in Bear Country 

Backpacking in bear country requires extensive research and planning. Preparing adequately guarantees a rewarding experience and ensures your safety and the safety of the bears. You wouldn’t want a bear to be put down by the authorities because you didn’t take the necessary precautions.

Plan Months Ahead

Start your preparation by gathering information about the species of bears that live in the area you will be visiting. Read as much as possible about the bears in the park, their specific behavior, and what’s effective in keeping them away.

Learn the Local Regulations 

Every park has its own rules and regulations regarding bears. Before you head out, familiarize yourself with all bear-related regulations. These include food storage rules, best cooking practices, places to avoid, equipment to bring, and what items aren’t allowed. 

Know When Bears are Most Active

Black and brown bears are most active from spring to fall. In the winter, they go into hibernation. Their aggression tends to heighten right before and right after hibernation, as their appetites are heightened. If you plan to backpack in bear territory right before or after winter, be extra cautious.

Call The Local Ranger Office

Park rangers are your best resource if you need up-to-date information about the bear situation in the area you plan to hike. Ask about any recent bear activity and how you can prepare yourself for the adventure. Although bears are always on the move, a ranger can tell you about risky areas where bears frequent and even recommend the safest campsites.

Be Sure Your Pack is Extra Prepared

You’ll need to add more items to your regular backpacking checklist. Knowing you have everything you need for any scenario will allow you to enjoy your trip more confidently. In the next section, we’ll go through the extra items you need for hiking and camping in bear country.

Food Protection: What You Need to Know

Bears are resourceful omnivores, and they’ll come sniffing around if they smell a meal. And if a bear successfully obtains your food, you would have to cut your trip short, ration what you have left, or go hungry.

Knowing how to conceal food and eliminate scents will dramatically reduce the chances of attracting bears to yourself and losing your precious food.

Before following any of the techniques below, make sure you listen to the park authorities and understand their rules and advice regarding food protection. Here’s how to keep your food away from bears.

  • Don’t carry strong-scented food like bacon and steak.
  • Never leave food out and unattended.
  • Store all foods and scented items in a locked bear canister and keep it outside your tent.
  • Scrape any remaining food from all dishes, put the waste into a trash bag, and clean everything.
  • For dirty dishwater, dig a 6-8 inch hole, strain the dishwater into it and bury it.
  • Use smell-proof plastic bags that trap odors inside and have a tight seal for packing food waste.
  • Before the trip, find out whether there’s bear-proof food storage or bear poles at the campsite or if you need to find a tree to hang food from.
  • If you’re camping in the wilderness where there is no food storage infrastructure, hang your food from a branch that’s at least 4 feet from the tree trunk.
  • Treat all scented items, including garbage, soap, toothpaste, lotions, deodorant, and other toiletries, in the same manner as your food.

The Essentials for Traveling in Bear Country

In addition to typical backpacking essentials, you need to bring some of the following items with you when exploring an area inhabited by bears.

Bear Spray

It’s a type of pepper spray meant to deter charging bears. Its active ingredients temporarily affect the bear’s sense of smell, sight, and respiratory system, giving you the opportunity to quickly escape. 

However, packing bear spray and knowing how to use it are two different things. When a bear attacks, you’ll only have a few seconds to react, so learn how to use the spray before you head out on a trip. Watch lots of videos and practice how to grab your spray and discharge it fast. Remember to always keep the spray in an easy-to-access location, like a hip holster.

Food Storage

You’ll want to pack either a bear canister or bear bag to store your food. The storage option you bring will depend on the park’s food storage policy. Some parks provide metal bear-proof boxes at the campsite, while others require you to carry a bear canister. Some ranger stations also allow you to rent a canister. Here are the differences between a bear canister and bag. 

  • Bear canisters are hard-shell plastic or carbon fiber cylinders with a removable lid designed to protect food and scented items from bears. They come in different sizes and weights, so choose one that won’t weigh you down.
  • Bear bags are high-density sacks that a bear cannot tear open. Most backpackers love these bags because they're lightweight. Ursacks are the most popular because they are light and super tough. Pair your bag with an aluminum liner to prevent a bear from crushing its contents. It’s also smart to place your food in an odor-proof plastic before putting it in the bag. Don’t forget to bring 20-30 feet of rope to hang the bag.

Bear Horn 

Most bears will run or avoid an area when they hear a loud sound. Periodic blasts of a bear horn will warn any wildlife of your presence, making startling encounters for you and the bear less likely. It also helps keep away bears when you’re preparing meals or going off-trail to dig a cat hole. You can also use it to signal other hikers to your location if you need help.

Bear Bells

A small bell that attaches to your backpack, belt, clothing, or hiking pole, bear bells emit loud jingles as you move, giving bears a chance to hear you coming. If you are backpacking solo in bear habitat, these bells can warn bears and other animals of your presence, so you don’t accidentally startle them.

Mesh Strainer and Trash Bag

Bring a small piece of metal screen to filter food particles out of your dishwater. The trash bag will hold the food residue you strain from the dishwater, used toiletries, and other waste you generate. 

Tips for Hiking in Bear Country

There are measures you can take to make sure that bears stay away while you’re hiking through bear country. Use the following precautions.

  • Stay close together. A group makes more noise than a solo hiker. This noise allows you to give any bears in the area a heads up to move away.
  • Keep a close eye on kids. If you’re hiking with children, make sure there is one adult in front and one adult behind them.
  • Always be vigilant. Keep your eyes peeled all the time and watch out for signs of bear activity, like fresh feces (scat) and prints.
  • Hike in daylight. Bears are most active at dusk, night, and dawn. Plan to reach the campsite before dark. 
  • Avoid carcasses. Stay away from areas where you see or smell carcasses of fish or other animals. A bear may be standing guard nearby, and it will defend its kill aggressively.
  • Respect forage areas. Avoid trails that run through berry patches, oak brush, or other known food sources. If you have to use them, be on the lookout and make extra noise to signal bears of your presence.
  • Be aware of the signals you telegraph. When you venture into bear country, try blending into the environment. Avoid brightly colored clothing, strong perfumes, and anything unusual that may encourage bears to take a peek at you.
  • Stay on the trail. Always hike on the designated trail. 
  • Don’t leave your backpack unattended. Bears are thought to have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth, and they won’t resist the temptation to investigate a bag with food lying unattended.

Backpacking Alone in Bear Country

While it’s recommended you venture into bear country as a group, sometimes it’s hard to resist the urge to traverse the wilderness on your own. Yet, an encounter with an animal when backpacking solo is way more hair-raising and risky compared to when you have company.

Take solace in the fact that bears are far more interested in your food than in you. If you decide to go solo backpacking in bear country, observe all the safety measures of those hiking in a group plus the following precautions:

  • Before heading out, create a detailed itinerary and give it to someone reliable. 
  • Carry a personal locator beacon.
  • Don’t go into bear country without a deterrent.
  • Use a popular trail where bears are used to people and avoid those with dense vegetation.
  • Make lots of noise. Whistle, clap your hiking poles together, and blow your bear horn frequently, especially when approaching a blind corner, tall bushes, or gulleys.
  • Consider teaming up with other hikers on the trail.

Tips for Camping Safely in Bear Country

Camping in bear country may be unnerving, but don’t let this deter you from fully experiencing the joys of sleeping in the woods. It’s very much possible to camp in bear country safely. 

First, what kind of camping is best in bear habitat? 

  • Tent camping is the most common type of camping when exploring a bear’s backyard. A tent won’t offer much protection against a bear, but you’ll be safe as long as you keep food and scents away from your sleeping area. 

For convenience, get a lightweight tent that’s easy to carry. To get a solid night’s sleep in the great outdoors, pair it with a quality down sleeping bag. And don’t forget sleeping pads for insulation and cushioning. 

  • Hammock camping allows you to hang your sleeping quarters higher off the ground. Just make sure you use a cover to prevent curious bears from investigating your open hammock. A hammock-compatible sleeping bag is also an excellent addition to your loosely hanging bed.

Here are some additional tips on bear safety while camping:

  • Look for any signs of recent bear activity in the area before picking a campsite. 
  • Set up your camp away from all areas bears like to use. That includes wildlife trails, forest edges, and stream banks.
  • Prepare and eat meals at least 100 yards downwind of your campsite, even in bad or cold weather.
  • After cooking and enjoying a delicious meal, change those smelly clothes and hang them away with your other items. 
  • Have your bear spray on you at all times, even when sleeping or going outside to use the bathroom.
  • Keep a flashlight handy and take a good look around before going for a nature call at night.
  • Avoid bright-colored tents. Bright colors are known to attract a bear’s attention. 
  • If you’re with other backpackers, always let someone know when you leave camp for any reason. 
  • Follow the leave no trace principles.  

What to Do if You See a Bear 

Bears hardly attack humans. And if they do, it’s to protect their food, cubs, or space. Sometimes, an encounter with a bear is unavoidable despite your best efforts to keep away. And the truth is there’s no fool-proof guide to knowing exactly how a bear will react. Here’s some helpful advice to help you come out of a potentially dangerous bear encounter unhurt. 

If the Bear Doesn’t Notice You

Don’t expect bears to see you first. A bear that’s busy feeding may not see you as quickly as you would think. If you spot it and it doesn’t know you are there, follow these steps:

  • Don’t startle it or alert it.
  • Quietly and calmly leave the area while keeping your eyes on it.
  • If it’s on the trail ahead, use another route or consider turning around and heading back.
  • Alternatively, you can retreat and group up with other hikers. 
  • If you see a cub, don’t approach it. You wouldn’t want to spark the ire of a protective mother.

How you respond when a bear sees you will depend on the type of bear. That’s why it’s essential to learn the difference between black and brown bears before stepping into their territory.

If You Encounter a Black Bear

  • If you surprise a black bear on the trail and it doesn’t flee, stand still, stay calm, and let the bear identify you. After assessing you, it will leave. Make sure you’re not blocking its escape route.
  • If the black bear finds you eating and seems interested in your meal rather than you, drop the food and move away slowly.
  • If a black bear starts approaching you on the hiking path or campsite, wave your arms or hiking poles over your head to look bigger. Yell loudly and bang your hiking poles to encourage the bear to exit.
  • If it charges toward you, don’t run and don’t turn your back on the bear. Have your bear spray ready. Most charges are bluff charges, and running can trigger a predatory reaction from the bear.
  • Do not try to climb a tree. Black bears are good tree climbers.

If a Black Bear Attacks

  • Deploy your bear spray when a bear actively charges at you and comes within 30 feet or less.
  • When spraying, aim low, so it doesn’t go over the bear’s head. 
  • If the bear spray doesn’t deter it or you’re unable to deploy it, and you’re in imminent danger, don’t play dead as the black bear will continue to hurt you.
  • Fight back with everything you have–hiking poles, rocks, branches, kicks, and punches. Aim for the nose and eyes. 

If You Encounter a Brown Bear

Brown or grizzly bears respond to human encounters differently from black bears. If you suddenly stumble upon a grizzly bear, follow these steps:

  • If it doesn’t flee or charge, try to back away slowly and talk to it calmly.
  • If the bear starts approaching, stop, and hold your ground and prepare your bear spray.
  • If it stands up to look at you, it’s assessing you. Assume a non-threatening posture–don’t make direct eye contact and continue talking to it in a normal voice. This will help it identify you as human and know you aren’t a threat.
  • Most grizzly rushes are bluff, and if you stand your ground, the bear will probably veer off before making contact. In a bluff charge, its head and ears will be up and forward, and it may puff itself up.
  • If it veers off, continue to back away slowly. 

If a Brown Bear Attacks

  • If the bear’s ears are pointed back, head down, and the mouth wide as it charges, it’s most likely an aggressive charge. 
  • Never run away. It may trigger a chase, and grizzlies are faster than humans.
  • If the grizzly looks like it’ll actually hit you, use your bear spray when it reaches 30 feet away.
  • If the bear spray doesn’t work and the bear makes contact, lay flat on your stomach, spread your legs apart, put your hands behind your neck and play dead.
  • Keep your backpack on. It will act as a barrier between you and the animal.
  • If the bear tries to flip you over, resist, and if it does, roll until you’re on your stomach again.
  • When the attack stops, wait for several minutes, up to 15 is typically safest. Then take a look around and only get up when you’re sure that the bear is gone.
  • If the conflict leads to a minor or serious injury, call the park authorities. It’s also safe to call them when a bear starts stalking you from afar.

What About Bears and Dogs?

Most bears avoid confrontations with dogs but can attack if your pet gets uncomfortably close. And you don’t want your injured pet to come run­ning back to you with a fuming bear on its heels. So, use these tips when backpacking with dogs in bear country.

  • Always keep your dog on a leash. Exploring dogs can surprise a bear or try to harass it. 
  • Never leave your pet unattended, whether on the trail or the campsite. 
  • Secure any pet food or treats just as you would with human food. Dog food will also attract bears.
  • Make sure your pet stays inside your tent at night.
  • If there are unleash policies in the state or national park, observe them and always keep your dog close to you throughout the trip.
  • If your dog is untrained, don’t unleash it even if the laws allow you to.

Be Bear Aware

Don’t let the fear of bears ruin your adventure. The chances of a violent encounter are remarkably low, and most bears will bolt or ignore you when they see, hear, or smell you. By implementing the above bear safety guidelines, you’ll be better able to keep the bears away throughout your adventure and have a more rewarding trip.

We hope you’ll now feel more competent and confident when hiking and camping in bear territory. Do you have any other tips you use to deter bears? Have you ever encountered a bear while backpacking? Let us know in the comment section.

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