Bear With Me

This drawing was done by my sister, Kimberley Armstrong (in just one night in between her studying for finals!)

As far as luck goes when it comes to dangerous animals in the wilderness, North Americans have a lot of it. We don't have to deal with poisonous snakes or creepy spiders. You won't find a jaguar or a lion stalking you as you hike through the rocky mountains. But that doesn't mean we're completely in the clear. Wolves and cougars are a very rare sight (read about cougar safety and wolf safety in future blogs) but when it comes to bears, hundreds of sightings are reported every year. This is mostly due to the fact that bears have a very large territory by nature. And with increased human population comes one big problem – we're encroaching on their habitat. Now we all have to learn to get along. This is why it has become so important to know what to do to avoid a bear interaction and what to do if you do happen to run into a bear despite your best efforts.

As someone who was new to the whole 'hiking in nature's back yard' thing, I wanted to make sure I read up on everything I could in regards to safety. This of course, led me straight to reading all about bears. Which in turn, led to me feeling very confused. There is a lot of information out there in regards to bear safety and what to do if you do happen to run into one. You start to feel a little dizzy when you hear/read about all of the different things you are supposed to do in regards to a grizzly bear- but then everything changes when you see a black bear. That's why I decided to take all of the informatiom I could find and break things down a bit.

First things first, you need to know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear.

Note: Going off of color and size alone doesn't always work as grizzly bears and black bears vary so much in both these regards. Just try to look for the "hump" as the main indicator.

Once you can tell the difference, it will be easier to know what kind of action you should take. Of course, this all depends on the bears behavior. So without further ado, this is what you should do if you encounter a bear while hiking:

Now let's say that the worst happens and the bear attacks (makes physical contact with you). How you need to react no longer depends on whether it is a black bear or grizzly bear, but rather if it is attacking you with a defensive or predatory motive.

Here are some reasons on why a bear may pose more of a threat to you:

  • The bear is not afraid of humans- these bears are usually ones that have been introduced to human food and thus equate humans with food. Never a good thing. That's why we need to be so careful about our trash and how we store our food.

  • The bear is a female with cubs.

  • The bear is protecting an animal carcass. If you see a carcass but don't see a bear that does not mean the bear isn't nearby. The moment you see or smell a dead animal, get out of there.

  • The bear is predatory- this is EXTREMELY RARE and usually only happens if a bear is starving or sick.

What is the most effective bear deterrent?

You want to hear the secret to minimizing the risk of running into a bear? Okay…here it is: loud noises. That's right- it's as simple as that. No bells or whistles. Just good ol' loud noises. Bear bells don't do much more than a) annoy other hikers and b) garner curiosity from the bear which in turn can actually draw them towards you. DON'T BRING A BEAR BELL WHEN HIKING. All you need is your voice! Bears are shy and don't want to run into you any more than you want to run into them! The best way to make sure you don't see one is to make a lot of noise, especially when going over hills or around corners. Shout, yell, sing, anything you can think of that will let a bear know you're nearby. It's also important to note that if you're hiking near a stream or river you should be extra noisy, as the bear may not necessarily hear you over the sound of the rushing water. Often bear attacks happen when the bear doesn't see/hear you coming and thus feels threatened.

As long as you make sure you make some sort of noise every five minutes or so, the likelihood of running into a bear is near zilch. And this is especially important because bears are notoriously lazy (think Winnie the Pooh but with a lot sharper teeth) so they tend to use our hiking trails to get from point A to point B. If they hear you coming, they will most likely politely amble off the trail and into the bushes so that you can have the opportunity to walk on by, none the wiser.

Think you'll sound silly if you shout "bear go away!" or sing a poor rendition of "O' Canada"? Probably won't sound so silly if it leads to you saving your life. Take me for example: in September Long of 2015, Matt and I were hiking along Blakiston Creek trail in Waterton National Park (a place where you are almost guaranteed to see a bear). The day had been miserable with snow, rain and wind and we were attempting to get to the backcountry campground called Snowshoe. We were about halfway there when we walked up a hill and into the valley. Immediately, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and the air became very still (okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it makes the story sound cooler). When I looked down, I could see a very fresh grizzly bear track on the trail before us. Not only thirty seconds before, we had been making random noises as we had made our way up the hill. I am completely certain that if we hadn't been making noise, we would have run smack into that grizzly. But because we warned it of our presence, it gave it enough time to get out of the way. We continued going on for a bit longer, but the cold, and the fact that we knew a bear was so close by, had us feeling uncomfortable so we turned back and started the way we came. That's when we spotted even more fresh tracks, this time going in the opposite direction. That right there is proof that a bear doesn't want to have anything to do with you. The moment we were out of sight, the bear had clearly gone back on the trail and started the other way. I'm sure we all looked completely ridiculous trying to avoid one another, Matt and I shouting like crazy people while the bear went this way and that to duck out of our way.

Moral of the story? Make some noise. Don't be afraid to shout! The way I see it is it's better to scream before you see a bear…then after you see one.

Bear Spray

Bear spray can be tricky business. I always make sure to carry a can when I go out on any hike, rain or shine, snow or blue sky. However, there are some things you need to know before you purchase bear spray for yourself.

  1. Bear spray isn't cheap. It can cost upwards of $40.00. However, no one can put a price on life so I definitely consider it worth it. In addition, you need to sign a waiver when purchasing a can for legal reasons (just a heads up).

  2. Bear spray expires after a few years. Often, the expiry date is printed on the bottom of the canister. Always make sure to check the expiry date on the bottom, especially if it has been a while since you last went out with the spray.

  3. Bear spray is NOT an offensive weapon, it is for DEFENSE ONLY. I'll point out the obvious first - you cannot use it against another human being- that's illegal. It's also not meant as an attack against a bear. It is merely meant to be used if you feel your life is in immediate danger (i.e. to defend yourself). If you spray the bear and it obviously had no intention of going after you, it's like poking…well, a bear. You're only making more trouble for yourself.

  4. Bear spray is NOT a guarantee. Two things with this: First off, nothing is a guarantee. Which means, there's always the one-in-a-million chance you bought a faulty can. Secondly, how the bear reacts when getting sprayed will always differ. In most studies, the spray is effective but not 100% of the time. There is always the off-chance that the spray will only agitate the bear further. It's like when a human is angry and has a lot of adrenaline coursing through them. Sometimes the adrenaline rush is enough to keep that person going. That's the same with a bear. If they're pissed off enough, the spray may not affect them like it should. That's why making noise to avoid an encounter in the first place is so important.

  5. If you don't have your bear spray in an easily accessible place, you might as well not have it at all. Bears are fast. Very fast. Faster than you (no offense). If you can't move fast for that spray and have it ready to go out in front of you within a few seconds, it could be fatal. If a bear really wants to attack, it's going to charge you. If it feels threatened and is considering attacking, you taking off your pack and rummaging around for your spray probably isn't going to go over well. Keep your spray in front of you, in a holster that can attach to the hip belt on your backpack.

  6. Bear spray is useless if you don't know how to use it or what to do with it. Make sure you know how to deploy the spray in a safe manner. A good suggestion would be to take it out (far away from others) and try a few practice sprays out. You're not going to have time to read the instructions once you're in an actual bear-encounter situation so you might as well get a jump on it. It's also important to note that the best way for the spray to be used is to point it at the bear's (mouth, nose and then eyes). Bear spray can only be used when in close range so don't deploy it unless the bear is about 20-30 feet away. The taste and smell is what agitates the bear and momentarily distracts them. Once they're distracted, walk away as smoothly and calmly as possible.

  7. There are additional factors to consider such as the wind and your positioning. If it’s a windy day and the wind is blowing towards you and you deploy the spray, chances are high it's just going to blow back into your face. Then you're going to look ridiculous. And who wants to look ridiculous in front of a bear? But in all seriousness, a situation like that spells trouble. If you're able, try to get in a position where the bear is downwind to you. That way it's more likely to hit the bear straight on without you having to feel any of the effects.

Bear Bangers

  1. Like bear spray, always make sure you know how to use a bear banger before you take it outdoors with you.

  2. Bear bangers are like a flare, in a capsule the size of a sharpie marker.

  3. Bear bangers should be used when the bear is a distance away. They are not meant to be used at close range.

  4. Bangers are not a tool when reacting to an attack or a close encounter because if you set a banger off you could deploy it behind the bear and send him barreling towards you!

  5. Bangers should NEVER be carried loaded and should be stored in a cool dry environment.

Signs of a Bear

Noise isn't the only thing you can do in order to prevent a bear encounter. Knowing what to look for in regards the whether a bear has been in the area could be the warning you need to choose another path or turn back around.

Here are some things to keep your eye out for:

  • Bear scat- it looks similar to people poop, but less solid shape, and usually with some evidence of what the bear was eating- for example, berries, seeds. If they are feeding on meat, then the poop will look black and runny, possibly with hair in it.

  • A tree with the branches lower down missing, and hair along the lower part of the tree.

  • Large paw prints (see chart above)

  • Scratch marks on trees

Does this paw print belong to a black bear or a grizzly bear? What do you think?

It's worth me ending this post by re-iterating that bears really don't like confrontation. So don't let the idea of a bear attack stop you from exploring the backcountry. All you can do is be prepared. When you're out on a hike, 99.9% you're not going to see a bear, let alone be attacked by one. Bears are mostly berry-eating, grass-grazing fishermen not bloody-thirsty human-devouring monsters. So make sure you get out there! Don't let the idea of running into a bear make you feel like exploring nature is impawssible.

The information above is merely a tool in reacting the best possible way you can in a situation where you run into a bear. Please keep in mind that, like humans, all animals are different and thus will react differently to situations. Nothing is set in stone or guaranteed.

Much of the information on this blog came from personal experience as well as various books about bears. I also collected data from: