how to stay bear safe in canada & the usa

The bears are waking up from hibernation as we speak. And, after months of sleeping they’re pretty skinny and hungry. The Grouse Mountain bears woke up a few weeks ago and those in the wild are beginning to be seen out and about too. Whilst most bears stay away from humans, it’s a good idea to be prepared and know what to do should you encounter a bear in the wild. Here are a few tips on how to stay bear safe in the backcountry.

Why it’s important to know how to act around bears

Apart from the obvious (avoiding bear attacks) there are several reasons why it’s important to stay bear safe. The more we know how to live with bears, the less chance they have of becoming accustomed to humans. This avoids both humans and bears being harmed.

If you live in Vancouver, you live in bear country. The mountains, forest, parks and even housing areas are perfect for curious bears searching for food.

Bears move from place to place in search of food. That’s one of the many reasons that the ‘Leave No Trace’ principals are so important. If you leave rubbish and food scraps behind bears move in. This can lead to the closure of trails and beautiful places (like Keyhole hot springs) and deaths (both you and the bears).

What type of bear will I see?

Bear safe bear sighting in Mt Rainier

The areas surrounding Vancouver are home to both black bears and grizzly bears.

It’s more likely that you’ll come across a black bear than a grizzle bear. Grizzly bears tend to stay further away in the wilderness than black bears. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never see one. Especially if you’re hiking and camping in the backcountry away from the more popular trails.

Grizzly bears: Grizzly bears are the bigger of the two and arguably the more dangerous. Male grizzly bears can grow to be between 180kg and 360kg (so huge!).

Black bears: In comparison, black bears are a bit smaller. An average adult male will probably be around 110kg.

We saw a couple of black bears in Washington State but from the relative safety of our van Elvis. It was amazing to see them out in the wild but I’m not in any rush to come across them whilst out hiking.

How to limit the chances of a bear encounter whilst adventuring

There are several things to do to keep bear safe whilst our hiking and exploring the Canadian wilderness. Here are a few tips that will help keep the bears at bay.

  • Make Noise: Make noise such as clapping, singing or talking to your fellow hikers. Bears will generally avoid humans so let them know you’re there by being loud.
  • Wear a bear bell: Attach a small bear bell to your backpack to let bears know you’re around.
  • Watch for fresh bear signs: Keep an eye out for fresh bear scat, tracks, scratches on trees, smashed logs and overturned boulders. These are signs that there are bears in the area so up the volume of your conversation.
  • Keep your dog on a leash or nearby
  • Avoid wearing headphones: Keep your wits about you and avoid wearing headphones so you can hear what’s going on around you.
  • Avoid wearing strong perfumes
  • Hike as part of a group
  • Be alert where bears may not be able to see, hear or smell you: this includes areas such as switchbacks, near water or when the wind is at your face
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What to pack to stay bear safe while in the backcountry

The following items can help should you encounter a bear

What should I do if I encounter a bear?

Even if you do come across a bear while out hiking, it’s important to remember to stay calm. Bear attacks are uncommon. Here are a few things you should do when encountering a bear.

  • Stand still and quickly asses the situation.
  • Speak to the bear in a calm, firm voice but avoid direct eye contact. This helps to identify you as human. If the bear hasn’t become habituated to humans, this should be enough for them to turn around and leave.
  • If the bear isn’t approaching you then back away slowly while facing him as you speak.
  • DO NOT run. This may trigger the bear into chasing you.
  • Get your bear spray ready and know how to use it (see below).
  • DO NOT try and climb a tree. Bears are excellent (and fast) climbers!

If a black bear approaches

  • Stand your ground and make a lot of noise. Black bears often bluff when attacking. If you show them you mean business, they may just lose interest.
  • If the black bear actually attacks, fight back. Use anything and everything as a weapon. This could be rocks, sticks, fists, bear spray or your teeth. Aim your blows on the bear’s face; particularly at the eyes and snout. When a black bear sees that their victim is willing to fight to the death, they’ll usually just give up

If a grizzly bear approaches:

  • If the bear charges you, stand your ground (you will not be able to outrun it).
  • If the grizzly charges to within 25 feet of where you’re standing, use your spray.
  • If the animal makes contact, curl up into a ball on your side, or lie flat on your stomach. Try not to panic; remain as quiet as possible until the attack ends. Grizzly bears will stop attacking when they feel there’s no longer a threat. If they think you’re dead, they won’t think you’re threatening.
  • Be sure the bear has left the area before getting up to seek help. Grizzly bears are known to hang around to see if their victim gets back up.

How to use bear spray properly

Even if you’ve remembered to buy and take bear spray with you on your hike it’s no use if you don’t know how to use it. Practice using your bear spray before (even if just a .5 second spray) so you feel confident should you come across a bear. This should include knowing exactly how to get it out of your bag. It’s no good it being at the bottom of your backpack! You can buy holsters to put your bear spray in for easy access along with bear spray that doesn’t contain the pepper which is useful for practicing.

If a bear is charging, you should begin spraying when it gets within 12m/40ft. This way the bear will run into the fog. If there is a strong wind it may be better to wait until the bear is a little closer.

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Aim for the bears face or create a cloud that the bear has to run through to get to you.

REMEMBER: Bear attacks are extremely rare so don’t let them ruing your face. However, it’s good to be prepared to help you stay bear safe!