Being out in sometimes very secluded area often has me wondering about bears intruding on my camp. Night time solitude will play tricks on your mind, when sitting in the darkness and hearing a twig snap will have your mind racing about the possibilities of an 800 pound grizzly bear sneaking up behind you.
That being said, I’m also quite grateful that on many of my excursions I have seen bears. Often people have lived in bear territory, but never seen a bear – and here I am having spotted both Grizzly and Black Bears on numerous occasions.
So what is the best way to deal with bears when hiking and camping? The easy solution, is to just leave them alone when hiking, and to be bear smart as well. Proper storage of your food and camp clean up are two simple things that should be practiced on each and every time out. In addition, if you’re cooking food that is rather aromatic, make sure you aren’t bringing those clothes into your tent at night, or wandering off on a dark trail for a midnight hike with those same clothes on. Bears are very sensitive to smell and will track down the source if hungry (or perhaps just curious).
Assuming you are being bear smart, what all can you do to prevent an attack?
1. Be Bear Aware – don’t set up camp where bears may be frequenting. Look for scratch marks on nearby trees. Bears will be scratching and rubbing on trees and you’ll see signs of wear. Move your camp elsewhere. Better yet, set up a trail camera and collect some interesting footage later! Be certain to also be watching for bear scat, and frequently used animal trails. Stay well clear of those. If at a public camp site, try to stay away from trash receptacles, or other campers that “just don’t get it”, and refuse to camp cleanly.
2. Make some noise, talk loudly, clang pots, etc. Bear bells may not be loud enough to be effective. It’s not likely ideal to be making whistling sounds like an injured squirrel either.
3. Learn to read the animal. Is it sniffing around scrounging for food, is it mamma bear keeping an eye open for trouble while the young ones play, is the bear stomping it’s feet to say this is my territory? For the most part it should be obvious – if the bear has young ones, back away; if it’s hair is up and it’s stomping and snorting, back away; if it continues sniffing around for food, back away. In all those cases, however, you should already have your bear spray in your hand and ready to deploy (see item 5 for bear spray info).
4. Forget the gun. I’m not against guns, but there are always the tough-guy types that think a gun is a solution to everything. Guns have several draw backs and unless you’ve got the perfect combination of aim and firepower, you are NOT going to stop a charging bear that could be 800+ pounds. The sight of a charging grizzly will ramp up your adrenaline and no matter how good you are at shooting bottles off a fence post, you’re not going to hit the bear where it counts when adrenaline and fear kick in. If you want something that makes noise, buy a bear banger – just be certain you’ve tested it and know the range of the device. You don’t want to set off a banger behind a bear and send him charging towards you. if a bear is charging you, it’s likely not the best time to use a bear banger anyway.
5. Buy bear spray. Have it with you. Have it accessible – and that means on your hip ready to deploy, and not buried in your day pack. Read the instructions before hand so you know how to use it. Have an understanding of wind direction as you’re hiking. Know that if you get any blown back into your face it is going to hurt, and maybe blind you for a few seconds.
Bear spray sounds like nasty stuff and it is. When I was involved in law enforcement, part of the training was to not only deploy “OC spray” (bear spray is the same stuff essentially), but to take a blast of it in the face to know what it’ll do to you when cross contaminated. Luckily it is highly effective and will generally send the bear running off with no permanent injuries. Bullets won’t do that, and will cause more of an aggressive behavior from the injured animal.
When buying bear spray, ask around to different people and different stores for what they carry and recommend. You’ll want roughly an 8oz canister with a range of 25-30 feet (8-10 meters).
I strongly recommend testing your bear spray. You’ll want a can that is new and ready for action, and another can for test firing so you can practice your aim with. Take it a step further and spray some into the air and walk through the falling droplets. Feel how it affects your respiratory system, you’ll cough, gag, end up with very itchy watery eyes and a runny nose. That is from a few droplets.
If you’re out hiking and have a bear come at you, grab your spray, pop the safety clip and spray when the bear is about 25 feet away. Bear spray is not an area spray to try to keep the animal away from your camp, it is strictly a defensive system to be used in attack. No matter how you are going to carry bear spray on you (clipped to belt loop, holster, etc.), always take a few moments and practice getting it ready to spray.
Transporting your bear spray is simple. Just keep it out of extreme heat or cold. Don’t bring it on airlines, and check your local provincial and state laws. If crossing the border, your results may vary. Expect to have it confiscated, although you should be allowed to transport into Canada as it is not considered a prohibited weapon if labeled bear spray/repellent.
Below is a good video from Parks Canada about using bear spray successfully.