Bears and the Back-Country

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What Do You Do When You Encounter a Bear?

Whenever you travel in bear country, you have to accept the basic reality that you may encounter a bear. The tips on these pages will help reduce the likelihood of meeting Master Bruin, but at the same time, you need to be prepared for what to do when the unexpected occurs.

If you are in open country, use binoculars to scan the horizon to look for bears. In more forested landscapes, be sure to make lots of noise and keep a mental inventory of climbable trees (just in case). Remember, black bears are agile climbers, and grizzlies have also been known to climb short distances up trees. To be safe, you should look for trees that will allow you to get at least 10 m (33 ft) above the ground. Don't forget that bears can charge at 50 km/hr (30 m.p.h.). You'll need some time to climb that tree.


Situation 1 - Bear has not detected your presence and is more than 100 m (350 ft) distant. 

Don't announce your presence if the bear has not seen you. If possible, retreat slowly and give the bear plenty of space. If you have the opportunity, you should retreat and leave the trail to the bear. If you must continue, back off a short distance, and give the bear time to leave the area. You should also do a wide detour quietly and quickly downwind to avoid problems.  


Situation 2 - Bear has detected your presence, but is more than 100 m (350 ft) distant. 

Your goal here is to act in such a way as to allow the bear to identify you, but to also let it know that you are no threat. Speak calmly so that it knows you are a human (their eyesight is quite poor). They will often quickly give ground to you once they identify you as human. If the situation permits, back away slowly, keeping a close eye on the bear. Otherwise, you may wish to detour around the bear, but in this case, detour upwind so that the bear can get your scent. Keep talking calmly. Waving your arms may help it identify you as a human. 


Situation 3 - Bear has detected you and shows signs of aggression

If you have followed the advice listed above, hopefully you have a bit of distance between the bear and yourself. You'll need to 

  • Assess the situation.  Are you dealing with a black bear or a grizzly? Are there cubs involved? Are there climbable trees nearby (and do you have sufficient time to climb them)? 

  • Do Not Run. You can't outrun a bear so don't even try. Despite rumours to the contrary, black and grizzly bears can outrun a human on ANY terrain, uphill or down. People will tell you that you should run downhill when chased by a grizzly. This is simply a myth - don't try it!

  • Try to retreat slowly. Back up slowly and try to put more space between you and the bear. Talk calmly so that it can identify you as human, and slowly back up. Keep your backpack on as it can provide protection if necessary. Don't make direct eye contact, but keep a close look at the bear as you back away.

  • Climb a tree if available. If you have enough time, and the bear continues to move closer, take advantage of a tall tree to climb. Remember, black bears are strong climbers as well. Grizzlies have also climbed short distances up trees after people. You want to get at least 10 m (33 feet) high to reduce the chance of being pulled out of the tree. Even though some bears can come up the tree after you, the hope is that they will feel less threatened, and thus less likely to chase you up the tree. 

  • If the bear charges you. Bears will often bluff charge before attacking. This is designed to allow enemies to back down before the bear needs to actually make contact. It evolved as a way to prevent encounters with enemies and it may provide you with an opportunity to back away. 

  • Use your pepper spray.  This is a last resort. Pepper spray is only good at very close range (5 m or 15 ft). Wind will reduce this effective range even farther (and may blow the spray back into your face). If the bear approaches within this range, point the spray at its eyes and discharge the contents. Hopefully, this will either disorient the bear to allow you to escape, or at the very least deter it from attacking. Once you have partially discharged a canister of bear spray it should be discarded. While the spray may deter attacks, the smell of pepper can act as an attractor.

  • If a black  bear (or any bear that is stalking you) makes contact. If the attack escalates and a black bear (or any bear that appears to have been stalking you) physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. Black bears tend to be more timid than grizzlies and fighting back may scare the bear off. In addition, if a bear is stalking you than you are in a predatory situation and fighting back is your only option. This also applies to any attack at night as these may also be considered predatory in nature.

  • If a grizzly makes contact. As above, if you believe the bear to be stalking you, fight back with everything you have. In general though, playing dead in a daytime grizzly encounter tends to reduce the level of injury sustained by most attack victims. Many grizzly attacks are defensive in nature, and playing dead may show the bear that you are not a threat. Keep your backpack on as it will provide added protection. The best position is to lie on your side in a fetal position. Bring your legs up to your chest and bury your head into your legs. Wrap your arms around your legs and hold on tight. You may also lie on your stomach, backpack on, and place your hands behind your neck to protect that vulnerable area. Do not play dead until the last moment. Staying on your feet may allow you to dodge, or divert an attack.

  • After the attack. Once the attack has ended, remain patient. After a few minutes, try to determine if the bear is still in the area. If the bear has moved on, you should make your way towards assistance as quickly as possible.

Watch For The Signs

How can you tell if bears have been frequenting the area? They leave many signs behind. Learning to look for the signs of bears can also alert you potential problems before they occur, especially if the signs are fresh. You should also learn to tell the difference between black and grizzly bears from a distance. Click here to learn more 


Tracks are one key indicator of bears. Black and grizzly bears also have very different tracks. The most important difference in the two bears feet are in the length of the claws. Black bears have shorter claws, while the long claws of a grizzly can extend up to 10 cm (3.9 in). When identifying tracks, there are numerous characteristics to look for. While claw length can help identify those tracks with clear imprints, there are two more reliable indicators of species. Black bear tracks tend to have the toes slightly separated, whereas grizzly tracks show toes that are usually joined together. Also, the arc of the toes is greater in black bears. To illustrate this, place one end of a straight edge at the base of the big toe, and line the straight edge with the front of the foot pad. If the other end of the ruler passes through the baby toe between the middle and the base, the tracks belong to a grizzly. If instead, the ruler runs through the smallest toe between the middle and the tip, then you have black bear tracks.




Grizzly Track Black Bear Track


Bear scat is another good indicator of bear activity. It is a good practice not to touch scat with your hands while examining it. Don't spend a lot of time trying to differentiate between black bear and grizzly scat as the two are even difficult to tell apart in the lab. Historically, biologists have used a simple estimate that scats in excess of 5 cm (2 in) in diametre generally belong to grizzlies. Unfortunately, during research conducted by Stephen Herrero, 58 percent of grizzly scats were actually smaller than 5 cm in diametre, thus proving this rule inaccurate. The scat varies quite dramatically based on what the bear is eating at a particular time of year. During August, when the bears are fattening up on buffaloberries, the scat takes on a blackish-red appearance with plenty of buffaloberry seeds visible. If a cursory examination shows the remains of roots, or tubers, the scat likely belongs to a grizzly since black bears lack the claws to reliably dig up these plants. 

Bears may feed upon a large carcass for several weeks, and surprising a bear at this time can be very dangerous. Stephen Herrero suggests learning to identify scat of bears that have been feeding on meat so that you can use this as a sign to leave the area, or at least to be very vigilant. When bears are feeding on meat, the scat is usually black and runny. Their may be some hair visible. While scat made up of plant material may also be black, it is usually more fibrous in nature. Also, scat made up of meat remains tends to smell whereas plant scat does not. Examining the scat can tell you how fresh it is. For instance, have insects colonized it yet? Are the plants underneath the scat still fresh and green or have they yellowed?  If the scat is heavily concentrated within a small area, you may have also located a bedding down area. While most are used only briefly, check for other signs of bears such as hair or hollow scrapes on the ground. If you find evidence of garbage in the scat, you may have a habituated bear in the area and you may want to move on. 

Grizzly Diggings

In spring and fall, grizzly bears actively dig up roots, tubers, corms, bulbs and small animals such as ground squirrels. The first time you come across a grizzly dig, it is usually an amazing feeling. These diggings can be very extensive in nature, and may show evidence of repeated diggings. When you come across a dig site, you can tell how recent the dig is by looking at the dirt that has been excavated. If it has been deposited on top of local plants, check to see if they plants beneath the dirt are still alive. If they have been covered for some time, they may not look as healthy as the surrounding plants. Fresh digs indicate that a bear may still be in the area. You should also take note of what they have been digging...bulbs, roots or ground squirrels. If they were digging roots, look to see if the remaining exposed roots still look fresh or wilted. All of these things can help you estimate the length of time since the bear was at the site. 


If you are hiking and notice an abundance of ravens or crows, you may be near a carcass. Since numerous bears may feed on a single carcass, this is another sign to leave the area immediately. You may even smell the carcass if the wind is blowing in your face. Grizzlies often bury a carcass to save it for later feeding. Again, this is a sure sign to head home.

Marking of Territories

Finally, bears often rub, bite or scrape trees as a way of marking their territory. Some trees will be repeatedly marked by the same bear, or by other bears in succession over the years. Black bears, are good climbers and often the claw marks may permanently scar the bark of aspen trees. Learn to watch for these marks and you'll amaze your friends.

Bear Trails

Human built and hiker defined trails are often easy to follow. In the mountains, many traditional hiking routes are not formally recognized on maps, but have become easy to follow simply through repeated use over the years. Animals like bears also have traditional routes that they follow. If you are moving through dense bush, you may encounter one of these trails. The main difference between hiker defined trails and game (or bear) trails is in the height of the trail. If you suddenly find that you must crouch down low to make your way along a well defined route, you may be making your way along a bear trail. These tunnel-like trails are not a place that you will want to spend a significant amount of time as bears are known to regularly use them.


Tips for Safe Camping in Bear Country

If you are going camping in bear country, you need to be extra cautious and knowledgeable. Preparation is the key to a safe camping trip and the following suggestions will help.

  • Check out the campsite before you set up. Are there any signs that bears have been visiting this site? Previous campers may have been less vigilant in keeping their site clean, reducing food smells and cleaning up their garbage. The last thing you want to do is set up camp in an area that has become attractive for bears. If there are any signs of bears rummaging through fire pits, you can assume that bears have become attracted to this site. Your best bet, even if you are tired, is to simply move on.

  • Don't cook near your tent site. To avoid food smells near your tent, you should cook several hundred metres downwind from your campsite. You should also avoid cooking more food than you will eat and be sure to clean your dishes right away. If you must dispose of food waste, be sure to do this well away from the campsite. Don't forget to clean yourself if you feel that you may have gained some food smell as well. A change of clothes is not a bad idea either. 

  • Properly hang your food out of reach of bears. There are many ways to hang your food to keep it save from bears. More and more backcountry campsites are providing hanging poles just for this purpose. Make sure you have at least 15 m (50 ft) of good rope to get your food high enough. If there is no hanging pole, you may use two ropes. Run one rope between two tall trees, and then hang your food from this first rope, leaving it suspended between the two trees. In alpine areas, there may be no tall trees to enable you to hang your food. In this case, you may have to place it in several layers of zip lock bags (to reduce food smells), and simply leave it on the ground several hundred metres from your camp site. 

  • Don't forget, porcupines like to get at your supplies as well, but not your food. They munch anything with salt (read 'sweat') on it. This means your hiking boots and pack straps can make for tasty treats. In areas where porcupines are prevalent, you'll likely want to hang your entire pack out of reach, and keep your boots in the tent.

  • Menstrual Blood. While there is no definitive evidence that bears will seek out women who may be menstruating, it is something to consider if camping in bear country. As a basic precaution, women should wear tampons rather than external pads. 

  • Check out the site for terrain attractants. Bears move through their range throughout the season, and knowing a little about their habits can help you choose a better campsite. Avoid placing your tent right beside (or on) any game trails. Also, since bears will use trees as cover when approaching an area, and open site may be safer than a well treed location. If you are in a forested area, try to select a site with a good climbing tree near the tent. 

  • In grizzly country, couples may want to use a four person tent. Since garbage addicted grizzlies have been known to bite at objects brushing up against tent walls just to see whether it is edible, it is nice to have some space between you and the outside of the tent. A large tent may weigh a bit more, but it can give you a bit more peace of mind.