Bear Country? It Bears Watching!
By Dr. Stephenie Slahor – They’re interesting. They’re unlike other animals. They’re wild. And they’re dangerous. Bears can inflict serious injury or even cause a fatality. They bear watching.
But you’re on a camping or hiking trip to enjoy yourself and the scenery around you. So, what’s your strategy for the bears that you might see? The obvious precautions are to keep a safe distance from bears, be sure you can be heard coming along a trail (wear a bell, make noise, etc.), and be sure your camp is made as safe as possible from bears.
ON THE TRAIL
Seeing a bear will likely put your adrenaline on full alert. Watch the bear and try to stay upwind of it without moving rapidly or losing sight of it. If it approaches you, slowly wave your arms or a jacket above you so you look bigger than you are. As a top predator, a bear knows it can take the leisure to be curious, so it may come closer to you, lay back its ears, or even rear up on its hind legs to get a fuller look or sniff. It may grunt, growl, or snap its jaws, but don’t imitate any of its sounds. Also, don’t holler a high-pitched exclamation, scream, or a whistle because, to a bear, those sounds resemble an animal in distress — and easy to attack.
Hopefully, you are in a group or have already gathered close any children that are with you. There is some strength in unity so keep your group close together.
The bear may give up on that curiosity about you and move along, but if you judge that your best chance is to move or even retreat to give the bear more space or to get yourself away from being between a female and her cub, keep your movements slow and keep your arms or jacket waving slowly above you. Move sideways. If your only choice is to back up, do so slowly, moving in the opposite direction that the bear is taking. Don’t seek shelter in a tree because bears climb very well, too.
You may not have much choice about the trails you’re using, but try to avoid narrow or curved places where you don’t have an escape route.
A bear might give up and wander off, but it might also become curious again and return. Watch it as it leaves, but stand still and keep quiet until you are sure it’s gone.
While you can spot a bear any time of day, they tend to be most active during the hours around dawn and dusk.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell. They also have big appetites. Food scraps and garbage certainly attract them, but so might toiletries including soap, dish soap, shampoo, lip protection, sunscreen, deodorant, shaving cream/aftershave, and cologne. Food, snacks, toiletries, and beverages should not be stowed in your tent or backpack. There are unscented/odorless toiletries available online or in stores (especially health food stores). Leave your perfume or scented toiletries at home.
For your meals, choose food that is easy to tote (compact and compressible), but that has little odor when being cooked or eaten. Rice, jerky, tortillas, pasta, dried fruit, and protein bars can be good choices. In camp, whatever you open, be sure to put the leftovers or waste into a food locker or canister that keeps smells locked away from animals. Be sure the locker or canister is well away from your tent and living area, perhaps even suspended between trees, out of reach of a bear. Cook at least 75 to 100 yards away from your tent and camp.
When cooking, keep the food in a small area and don’t turn your back on it. After eating, wash the dishes immediately. Any leftovers (food, coffee grounds, tea bags, wrappers, paper plates, etc.) should be disposed of immediately or locked away. After cooking and clean up, change your clothes. Cloth easily absorbs odors and bears will smell that. Stow your cooking clothes in a canister.
Keep the cooking grill/pit free of food scraps and maintain a fire or a lantern light through the night. If you have dogs on your hike, be sure their food gets the same precautions as your food — store it away from camp in a locker or canister. Keep your animals away from dense woods or other cover that could hide a bear until it’s too late to safeguard the animals.
Your tent and camp gear should be in neutral colors — not that fluorescent orange tent you like so much! You want to blend into the scenery, not easily mark out where you are.
If a bear approaches, clap, talk, or sing aloud, and stand your ground, but get your deterrent ready. A firearm is probably your best defense, so if you have one along, be sure it is on your person, not tucked away where you cannot reach it easily. (Before your trip, practice using the firearm.) Its report may be enough to get the bear away from you. But that same report might translate to “food” if the bear has learned that gunshots mean hunters, which means animal carcasses. Keep the firearm handy at night, when you’re in your tent. Be sure the firearm is a high enough caliber to kill a bear if need be. The bullet(s) must penetrate the thick skull of the bear. Anything small caliber might just make the bear more aggressive.
If you, instead, choose to have bear spray along, keep it within easy reach, not inside your backpack or hanging somewhere on your belt or in your tent where you cannot grab it quickly and smoothly. Practice (many times) retrieving the spray, activating it (removing the cap or safety), and using it. Generally, for maximum effectiveness, don’t spray the deterrent until the bear is 20 or 30 feet away (and, yes, that is close). Aim downwind, if possible — you don’t want it in your face! Most sprays last nearly 10 seconds. For that reason, have along more than one can of bear spray.
Your backpack may give some protection if you are confronted or struck by a bear. Hit the ground onto your stomach, go limp, and lie as still as possible, placing your hands behind your head and neck. Spread your feet apart so you are not easy to turn over.
If you have to fight back, what’s available for a weapon? A knife, rocks, binoculars, sticks, a backpack, or your own kicks? Fighting back is an option, but bears are powerful and a swipe of the paw could be serious.
Keep alert for bears, and definitely don’t try to photograph or video what’s happening! Focus on your own safety.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.