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10 Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Backpackers

by Karen Ung
Stay safe in bear country with these tips. Spring is here, people are getting out more, and bears are out and about too. They are hungry and some have cubs to look out for, so it’s time to brush up on bear safety. Speak to your children about the best ways to stay safe and when you hike with others, ensure they know the bear safety rules before you hit the trail. A friend’s carelessness could endanger your family.
I met Cinny the Grizzly on my way back to camp.
1. Travel in a group. Groups of 4 or more are safest, but you only reap the safety benefit if you hike together. Stick together and don’t get spread out. The only times I’ve seen a bear at close range (5 metres) was when I was alone or hiking with 1 person (I’ve seen grizzlies and black bears several times, but not too close most times).2. Make some noise! Holler “Yo Bear!” periodically. Teach your kids some camp songs. If you’re hiking in a large group and one group is hiking faster than the other, play Marco Polo! Remember to pump up the volume when:
  • a) the brush is thick to announce your presence and that you are not stalking the bear; avalanche slopes and meadows with berry bushes are prime bear areas where you should be extra noisy;
  • b) the trail is narrow and winding;
  • c) you are near streams (bears may not hear your coming and be startled); or
  • d) the wind is blowing in your face (bears cannot smell you coming).
3. Carry bear spray YEAR ROUND as your insurance policy and keep it handy (on your hip/in a chest holster, NOT in your pack)! In the recent bear attack in Waiparous, the couple had one canister of bear spray but couldn’t get it out in time. Every adult in your party should carry their own bear spray. Bearsmart.com recommends having at least 2 canisters per group. Also, note your bear spray expiry date and replace it to ensure it will work when you need it to.
  • Winter Note: Did you know our local grizzly bears are often active until mid-January (in warm winters) and only “hibernate” until late March? Young bears especially will leave their dens if disturbed, so it’s still possible to see bears between January and March. Keep bear spray warm (in an inner jacket pocket or ideally on a chest holster) so it will work in the event you must use it. Bear spray will not shoot as far in temperatures below 0F/-17.7C and loses potency when repeatedly exposed to the cold.
Grizzly tracks seen along the Bow River in Lake Louise on March 20, 2016

Bear spray is effective in deterring and stopping bear attacks and is even more effective than firearms. A man was attacked by Bryant Creek Shelter some years ago and would have been killed has his friend not used his bear spray on the attacking Grizzly (who was concerned about her two cubs). In the recent bear attack in Canmore, a woman saved her friend with bear spray.

Since it is hard to remove the safety in some models and most of us are a poor gauge of distance, I encourage you to test your bear spray so you know how the spray comes out. Bear spray sprays wide, so test it on a calm day in a remote location and keep children away. Manufacturers have explicit instructions on how to use bear spray; read them so you know what to do and when/how to spray it.

BIG Grizzly prints and my trusty bear spray (which I’ve thankfully never had to use)
4. Never, ever approach a bear or cub. Keep your distance. The same applies if you are driving and see a bear on the side of the road. Stay in your car and keep driving. Stopping for a photo habituates bears so they become used to humans.
5. What if I see a bear on the trail? If you are on the trail when you encounter a bear, announce your presence in a calm voice and back away slowly while talking to it in a calm voice. Do not shout, do not panic, do not turn your back on the bear, and do not run; bears can run as fast as racehorse, you cannot outrun (or outswim) them. Black bears can climb well and some grizzlies can too. If grizzlies are too big to climb, they can reach up to 10 feet high when standing on their hind legs (source: http://www.udap.com/mm5/Bear-Safety-Tips), so climbing a tree isn’t recommended unless you are certain it is a grizzly and you are confident in your climbing abilities. In most cases, the bear will run away. Try to avoid eye contact so you don’t further aggravate the bear.

6. What if the bear stands it ground and doesn’t leave? If the bear doesn’t leave, this means it is not afraid of humans (dangerous), or has food or cubs nearby (also dangerous). If the bear stands up, it is curious about you and trying to get a better look. Continue to back away and then go back the way you came. Don’t head into the bush looking for a way around the bear in case cubs are hanging out there.
Bear in Area signs are no joke! I have seen grizzlies every time I’ve been to this park!
7. What if the bear becomes aggressive? If the bear starts huffing and charging towards you again, do not run but try to put something between you and the bear; trees, picnic table, boulders.  Keep your children and pets close. Make yourself big – stay close together, shout loudly, bang hiking sticks together, and take the safety off your bear spray and hold it in front of you. Often bears are bluffing; they will charge at you and turn away at the last moment but be prepared with your bear spray. The bear is telling you to get lost and you should – quickly – but stand your ground until you are sure the bear isn’t going to attack. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON THE BEAR! You should use your bear spray when the bear is about a car length away.

8. Know the signs of bears of bears in the area: bear scat, scratchings, diggings, and footprints. If they look fresh, stay alert, be extra loud, and consider going back the way you came. If you come across a fresh kill or fresh bear scat, go back the way you came immediately.

Fresh bear diggings over a 2 metre long area

9. Keep dogs on leash. Roaming dogs can aggravate wildlife, including bears, and lead them back to you. Even where not designated by law, it is safest to keep dogs on a leash.

Grizzly running away after I talked to her. Phew!

10. When camping, store everything with a smell (food, dishes, lip gloss, sunscreen) in your vehicle. When backcountry camping, store food and items with a smell in a bear canister or dry bag in a bear locker, or hang them from a bear wire. If bear lockers or bear wires are not available, hang your food in a tree at least 100 feet (300′ in grizzly country) from your tent. Leave No Trace has good instructions on Hanging a Bear Bag here. Also, do not litter, even if waste is biodegradable. Leaving food by trails attracts wildlife.

Bonus: Travel on official trails during daylight hours. Bears are most active at dawn and dusk, and during the night.

*Knowing where bears like to hang out at different times of year is also helpful. Typically, bears are in the high country in summer and in the lower lying areas (valleys, riverbeds) in spring and fall. Bears also frequent avalanche chutes and meadows with berry bushes.

Bear attacks on groups of five or more are extremely rare, so if you follow the first two bear bear safety rules, you should hopefully never have to use your bear spray.

For More Information

**Banff Bear Sightings Report**
**Alberta Parks Advisories**
Alberta Parks – Be Bear Smart
BC Parks Bear Safety
Parks Canada – Safe Travel in Bear Country

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Play Outside Gal September 16, 2015 - 7:13 AM

Thanks Dan! I agree, you're exactly right! One can never be too cautious. I'm fortunate to have never had a bad bear encounter as I kept my distance and didn't get between Mama Bear and her cubs.

DaggerDan June 14, 2015 - 9:06 AM

Very good information to learn and follow. I might add that when scat is found, steaming, you are right near the bear. If not, place a tissue or the like on it to check for warmth. If warm proceed very cautiously. Also bears frequent berry bushes and can't be unseen until it's too late. Watch for cub tracks with a mother bear's tracks. If present, get away quickly, since she will be much more aggressive and alert.

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