If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’re probably well aware that I love my home state. I’ll defend Montana until the day I die. Well, most of the time. I’m not proud of the fact that we top the list for number of drunk driving-related deaths. I don’t always agree with the majority of the state in terms of politics.
And I’m also not proud that we have such a widespread misconception that one must bring a gun into the backcountry as protection against bears.
Now, I have nothing wrong with people owning a shotgun or going hunting, and this post isn’t meant to start a dispute over gun rights. My point here is that defending oneself against a charging bear by using a gun rarely works. There’s research to back me up on this. One bullet isn’t usually enough to stop a bear and, in the heat of the moment, the chance of actually sinking the bullet into a place that will severely wound or kill the bear is very low. It’s more likely the bear either won’t notice the bullet or you’ll mildly injure it and upset it even more.
Bear spray has a much higher success rate and is therefore a much better option. But of course, doing everything you can to avoid a bear encounter in the first place is really the place to start.
It’s hard to spend any length of time in the Rocky Mountains without seeing signs warning of the dangers associated with camping and hiking in bear country. There are signs at trailheads, on picnic tables, in the bathrooms, and pretty much every state or national park will hand you a packet of bear safety information as you pass through the entrance station. It’s worth it to take a few minutes to read through everything, but to help out, I’ll summarize here.
1. Things that smell like food (to a bear)
Don’t leave anything that could possibly have a scent out in your campsite, unlocked car, or the bed of a truck when you’re not present – even if you just leave to go to the bathroom. They’re very strict about this. My friends and I almost got fined once for leaving a cooler on the ground on the opposite side of our car, out of sight of where we were sitting.
This rule also includes clean dishes, empty food containers, water bottles, toiletries, garbage, and pet food. Keep all of these items secured in your locked vehicle (make sure the windows are all the way up!) or a bear box, if one is provided. Also, don’t bring any of these items into your tent.
When hiking, travel as a group if possible and make lots of noise. And no, hooking a bear bell onto your backpack does not count. Talk, shout, sing, or clap your hands instead. As a park ranger once said to a large group of us, “Bear bells aren’t loud enough to deter a bear. They just make you sound like breakfast.”
3. Bear encounters
If you encounter a bear, remain calm (despite every fiber of your being that’s probably telling you to run away screaming). You want to let the bear know that you’re a human and are not a threat. Speak to it (don’t yell) and make yourself look as large as possible (for example, raise your arms over your head). If the bear is just standing there watching you, slowly back away from it. Do not look away or turn your back, but make sure to watch where you’re going so you don’t trip or stumble. Most encounters will simply end once you and the bear have calmly moved out of each other’s way.
4. Bear spray
Most importantly, carry bear spray and KNOW HOW TO USE IT! It’s expensive ($45 per canister and it expires in about 5 years) but think of it as wilderness insurance. Bear spray is very effective when used correctly. It should be sprayed at eye level for the bear, in the correct direction (don’t stand down wind and spray yourself), and only once the bear is close enough to actually run into the cloud of mace before it dissipates.
My personal favorite is when people have the bear spray attached to the back of their pack or – even better – inside their pack. So… when the bear starts to charge, you’re going to take off your backpack, bend over to retrieve the bear spray, and then use it? Yeah, probably not.
Strap it to your belt loop or the front/side of your pack. You should be able to pull it out and have it ready to use in 5 seconds or less.
5. Never run away
If you have an unfortunate day and the bear spray doesn’t work (thankfully this doesn’t happen very often), under no circumstances should you try to climb a tree or outrun the bear. Especially a grizzly bear.
If it’s a black bear and it attacks you, fight back. Throw rocks, swing large sticks at it, yell and scream, kick it in the face, etc.
If it’s a grizzly, don’t do any of these things. Leave your backpack on for protection, lay flat on your stomach, link your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows braced against the ground to prevent the bear from rolling you over, and play dead.
If I’ve now completely deterred you from hiking in bear country, let me assuage your fears by saying that I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiking and camping in bear country and I’ve never had a close encounter. I’ve seen bears from a distance while hiking but they’re always just minding their own business and usually walking in the other direction.
It’s a common misconception that bears are out to get us, but that’s simply not the case. They don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them. They don’t eat humans, and they won’t attack for no reason. They only attack if they feel threatened – which typically only occurs when someone comes up on a bear without making any noise and surprises it, or walks between a mother and her cubs. If you make noise to let the bear know you’re coming, it will get out of your way.
Well, there you have it. How to stay safe while hiking bear country. If anyone has any additional tips (or stories of bear encounters), I’d love to hear them!
To see my previous “How To” post, click here