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How to stay safe during a bear encounter

What do you do if you encounter a bear? (Photo: Larry Erlendson)

  • Apr 27, 2016
  • 843 words
  • 4 minutes
What do you do if you encounter a bear? (Photo: Larry Erlendson)
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I have lost more hours of sleep on camping trips worrying about bears than anything else. I’m inevitably kept awake by hypothetical bear mauling scenes that would make The Revenant director Alejandro González Iñárritu feel queasy.

It’s silly. I know. The chances of a bear attack are virtually nil. In almost 30 years of camping I’ve only seen two bears and both were far away. Still, for years I’ve been reading and re-reading bear attack stories and bear safety guides hoping that I’ll glean something that will guarantee my safety. I’ve accepted the truth that there are no guarantees, but there are a few simple things you can do to keep you, and the bears, safer.

So in honour of bear week and staying safe, here is an introduction to bear safety. Remember Parks Canada, provincial parks and virtually any campground you visit has information about how to be safe in bear country. Read it and adhere to it. Also, if you’re lucky enough to see a bear you should report the time and location to a park ranger for the bear’s safety and yours.

Canada has three types of bear: grizzly (brown) bears, black bears, which include the white spirit bears of the West Coast, and, of course, polar bears. Each species has sharp eyesight, a strong sense of smell and excellent hearing; they can also run faster than you (yes, downhill too), are strong swimmers and can climb, though mature grizzlies don’t often.

So, what do you do if you see one?

Though each species has its own safety rules, a few things hold true across species:

  • Don’t feed or leave food for bears: A bear that learns to associate humans with food will eventually lose their natural fear of humans. The result will almost certainly be a dead bear, and could mean injured or dead people.

Don’t leave any garbage behind, hang food or store it in bear-proof containers 100 metres from your tent, don’t bring any food or attractants (deodorant, toothpaste, gum) into your tent, cook 100 metres from where you sleep and clean up immediately. Don’t gut fish in camp, don’t store bait near your tent and don’t cook near the river’s edge, that’s where bears go for dinner.

  • A tent is a deterrent: Though sleeping under the stars is nice, don’t. A tent presents a psychological barrier for the bear that could keep you safe.
  • Don’t surprise a bear: A surprised bear may attack, so make plenty of noise when hiking or portaging. It’s common to hear people shouting “hey bear!!” when hiking in low visibility areas so they don’t surprise anything.
  • Carry bear spray: A study done in Alaska showed it be 92 per cent effective as a bear deterrent (guns were only about 70 per cent). It’s fool proof, and the spray and pray technique — shoot a cloud of spray in the direction of the bear if it’s within a bus length — requires no skill. The best part, neither you nor the bear are hurt.

Say you’ve obeyed the above rules, but have still managed to come face to face with a bear.

Step one: Identify the species

  • Generally if you’re east of Alberta and not in polar bear country it’s a black bear.
  • West of Alberta things get trickier. Don’t rely on colour to identify the bear; black bears come in every shade of brown and grizzlies can sometimes be black. A grizzly will have a prominent hump on its shoulders, a concave face and long curved claws. A black bear has a pointier face, shorter claws and almost no shoulder hump; they’re also generally much smaller than grizzlies.

Step two: Avoid it

  • If you see a bear from a distance give it a wide berth.
  • If you see one up close don’t make eye contact, stay calm and move away slowly until you’re safe.

If the bear starts to approach you…

  • If it’s standing it’s usually trying to figure out what you are. Talk softly, but do not run away. Move away slowly, but don’t run running. Drop a pack if you think it’ll give you more time. With grizzlies consider climbing a tree, though young grizzlies are excellent climbers.
  • If it looks aggressive, with flattened ears and a lowered head, and is growling or making woofing noises, do the same as above.

If the bear starts to attack…

Is it a defensive attack, offensive attack, or does it want your food? In all cases use bear spray. If you don’t have it:

  • Defensive grizzly: Don’t threaten the bear. Play dead by getting into a ball, with your face buried in your knees. Don’t move until the bear is gone, usually a few minutes.
  • Defensive black bear: Don’t play dead. Try to get away.
  • Attacking for food: Leave. Let it get the food.
  • Offensive attacking grizzly or black bear: Don’t play dead. Do anything you can to get away.

Have fun, be safe and happy camping.


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