Bear Safety while Backpacking and Camping


Understanding the behavior of bears and how humans should behave around them is vital when hiking, backpacking, or camping in bear country.  If you are going to be traversing or camping in an area known to have a bear population, you should learn the actions you need to take to avoid negative encounters.  This post does not discuss polar bears.  It only discusses black bears and grizzly bears, as those are the types you are most likely to encounter.


Some Interesting Information about Bears

  • Bears are omnivores, meaning they eat plants and meat. Most of their diet is made up of vegetation and insects.  They also eat meat, such as fish and young elk, deer, moose, and other animals, when it is available.  They scavenge carcasses of dead animals as well.


  • Both black bears and grizzly bears can appear very similar in color. Black bears can be black, brown, tan, blonde, and anything in between.  Similarly, grizzly bears share all of these same colors as well.  Color is not a good gauge to determine one species from the other.


  • Although, on average, grizzly bears are much larger than black bears, both their sizes can vary significantly and cannot not be used to determine one species from another. Depending on the location and food sources available, both species gain and lose weight at different times of the year.


  • Bears are very strong animals. They can rip open most plastic containers and even many metal ones.  Bears have been known to open vehicles and break windshields in attempts to find food.  They regularly roll over logs and move big rocks in pursuit of food as well.  Bears are normally very persistent and will work tirelessly to get into something if they smell food.


  • Bears can run 30 – 40 mph (48 – 64 km/h). They far exceed the speed of even the fastest humans on the planet.  So, don’t try to outrun a bear.  You will lose that race.  Bears can run their greatest speeds over short distances but, typically don’t have a lot of endurance.


  • Bears have an amazingly keen sense of smell. They can also hear very well.  Bears’ hearing sensitivity far exceeds that of humans.  Like many other animals, their hearing frequency range can pick up high pitches that humans cannot.  They can see in color and have vision comparable to humans.


How to tell the difference between Black Bears and Grizzly Bears

As discussed before, size and color are unreliable ways of distinguishing the difference between the two species.  Shoulder size, facial profile, and length and color of their claws are the best way to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly.


Black Bears

  • Facial profile is straight, from above the eyes to the nose.
  • Tall, pointed ears
  • No shoulder hump
  • Dark-Colored claws are sharply curved and are normally less than 2 inches in length.
Black Bear Claw and Skull


Grizzly Bears

  • Facial profile is curved or dished from above the eyes to the nose.
  • Small, rounded ears
  • Prominent shoulder hump (Probably the best determining factor). LOOK FOR THE HUMP!!!
  • Light-Colored claws are gently curved and can reach 2-4 inches in length.



Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping in Bear Country

                The number one way to prevent a conflict with a bear is to avoid them.  Be aware of your surroundings, especially in the morning and late afternoons.  Pay attention to the trail ahead and to the sides.  If you hear the sound of rustling in the bushes or breaking limbs, stop.  It may just be another animal you scared off, or it may be a bear.  Figure out what it is before proceeding.  To avoid coming up on an unsuspecting bear, make noise while you are hiking.  Try talking to others in your group or singing.  (My wife always has an endless supply of stories to tell from the many books she has read.  She’s my walking, talking encyclopedia.  I never have to say a word when we’re hiking together).  In case you do encounter one, have bear spray or another type of deterrent and know how to use it.  Different sprays have different ranges.  Other effective deterrents are hand-held marine flares, bear bangers, and wildlife deterrent horns.


Black Bear on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia

When at your campsite, always secure your food in a way that a bear cannot get to it.  Many designated campsites at campgrounds and along well established trails have bear cables for hanging bear bags or boxes for storing your food inside.  If these are not available, then hang your food bag and trash in between two trees at least 10 feet off the ground and at least 4-6 feet from the trees.  Some locations require you to have a bear canister to keep your food and other attractants secure.  If you are in one of these locations, you could be fined if you are caught without one.  Another option is the Ursack, which is a bag made of bulletproof Spectra fabric that can be hung in a tree.  These bags have been shown to withstand grizzlies, although the food inside may be squashed.  Whichever you choose, it should be placed 150-200 yards from your campsite.  Another option is electric fencing.  Some of these fences are lightweight and have shown to be effective.  Unless you will be in an area with dense bear populations, this may not be worth the weight if backpacking.

Even if you do take all these precautions, you may still have an encounter with a bear.  If you do, stay calm and get your bear spray or other deterrent ready for use.  If you are in a group, get together, as this will make you appear larger.  Only make smooth nonaggressive movements.  Try to determine what kind of bear it is.  Contrary to how Hollywood portrays them, bears use body language and sounds that, if interpreted correctly, are predictable.  Each species uses different motions and sounds to communicate aggressiveness, submission, or bluffs.  It’s extremely important to know the difference between the actions of a black bear and grizzly bear and how to respond to each.  Try to determine if it is a female with cubs or if there is an animal carcass around.  If either of these are the situation, know that the bear may act aggressively to protect it.  If you can, try speaking to the bear in a calm tone while backing away slowly.  Avoid looking directly into the bear’s eyes, as this can be interpreted as aggressive behavior.  Rather, use your peripheral vision to keep the bear in your site to know how it is reacting to your retreat.

If the bear has wandered into your campsite and you are sure that it is a black bear, then stand up, get your spray or other deterrent ready, and speak firmly to the bear to leave, making sure it has a clear escape route.  Most of time, the bear will retreat.  This is ONLY for black bears that are not acting aggressive.  DO NOT yell at or try to move away a grizzly bear or an aggressive acting black bear.  A bear who feels threatened for whatever reason, may do one or more of several actions.  It may swat or scratch the ground, chomp down with its jaws, sway its head back and forth or may make a “bluff charge” toward you to scare you off.  This is normally the bear’s attempt to communicate to you that he wants you to leave, but doesn’t necessarily want to fight.

If the bear is aggressive, and you feel an attack is imminent, then use your bear spray.  Don’t play dead and don’t yell or swat at the bear to leave.  Rather, put as much distance between you and the bear as quickly and calmly as possible.  If, however, it is a grizzly bear and it does attack, play dead.  Get on your stomach and protect your head and neck.  Try to keep the bear from rolling you over.  Do not get up until you are sure the attack is over and the bear is out of the area.  If the bear continues to attack or begins to eat you, fight for your life.  If you do have to fight, try to hit the bear in the nose and scratch its eyes.


To Sum it All Up

  1. Be aware of your surroundings.
  2. Make noise while hiking.
  3. Always carry bear spray or another deterrent and know how to use it.
  4. Avoid animal carcasses.
  5. Know how to distinguish between black bears and grizzly bears.
  6. Know how to respond to black bear and grizzly bear encounters.
  7. Keep your food and trash in a secure location.
  8. Know the laws where you will be hiking so you know the requirements for the area.





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