The reality is, you have a much greater chance of being flattened by a semi on the way to the trailhead than you do having a problem with a bear once you're on the trail. But, unlike the runaway semi, the bear danger is mostly controllable with education and common sense, so you have a responsibility to take sensible precautions and know how to respond to the danger if encountered. Here's some information and suggestions that should help you in such a case.
There are two primary types of bears in the United States - black bears and grizzlies. The latter are found in parts of Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Although they are on the California flag, they are no longer found in that state. Black bears are much more common, and are found in most parts of the US with high elevations. Black bears come in different shapes, sizes and colors. While they were named for their color, they can also be brown, cinnamon, and black with white patches on their chest, but most black bears are in fact black or a darker shade of brown. The black bear is approximately 5 to 6 feet from head to tail, and two to three feet high at the withers. The black bear varies in weight - males from 125 - 550 pounds; females from 90 - 300 pounds. Grizzlies are substantially larger and more dangerous. Other than the size, you can tell the difference between a brown-fur black bear and a grizzly by the snout - the grizzly's is somewhat rectangular and almost pug-nosed; the black bear's is rounder and longer. Bears are very fast - racehorse fast in fact. No point in trying to outrun one; try something else because you'll lose that race. Black bears can easily climb trees; grizzlies usually don't, but can reach up and grab things - including you - several yards off the ground.
Except during breeding season and while raising their young, bears are generally shy, retiring, solitary animals. They try to avoid humans and are considered non-aggressive except when injured, protecting their young, or protecting themselves. The bear is inclined to escape from human presence. Bears are most active in the cool of the evening or early morning. During the heat of the day, they will seek shade in dense underbrush. Grizzlies are less shy than black bears, however.
Bears have a very powerful sense of smell - as in pick out that gum wrapper in your pocket strong - which coupled with strong curiosity can make them an unintentional danger when you're in the woods. So, one key to your safety is to minimize the number of encounters. Here are some suggestions:
- Hike in a group or make noise as you hike. Whistle, talk, sing, or carry a noise-maker. Most bears will leave if they are aware of your presence.
- Stay in the open as much as possible.
- Be especially alert when traveling into the wind - a bear may not get your scent and be forewarned of your presence. And, in dense bush and near rushing water, the animal may not hear your noise-maker.
- Scoot on along if you come across dead animals or berry patches, important food sources for bears. Bears mostly eat plant life, but will eat meat when available, and may be nearby.
- Leave your dog at home. Fido might come across a bear and may come running back to you with the bear in pursuit!
- Keep children close at hand on trails.
- Avoid wearing strong cosmetics, perfumes, hair sprays, and soaps.
- Set up cooking, eating, and supply areas at least 100 yards from your sleeping area. Clean utensils and cookware away from your tent as well, and then dump dishwater at least 100 yards from your sleeping area. Put garbage and leftovers in containers immediately after eating. The lingering odors of food invite bears, so you don’t want those odors near or in your tent at night.
- Change your clothes before going to bed -- do not sleep in the same clothes you cook in, or in the clothes that you carried snacks in during the day.
- Treat personal items (such as deodorants, toothpaste, make-up, soap, and lotions) just like food as far as storing for the night - any odorous product, including inedible items like candles will attract bears.
Most bear encounters occur in established camp areas when the bears smell food and come looking for the source, especially if they've had success there in the past. If the food is well out of the way or inaccessible, there are rarely problems for the campers - the bear loses interest and moves on. But once a bear finds easy food at a camp, their behavior can quickly become dangerous as they start to expect food from any human camp. The adage is - a fed bear is usually a dead bear. Rangers may eventually have to kill a bear that loses its fear of humans or becomes aggressive in camps because of past success at finding food that way.
Don't feed the bears...
The National Park Service strongly advises (and in many cases mandates) that all backpackers carry and use approved bear-resistant food storage canisters; supplied bear boxes at camps; or to hang food on cables at designated camp sites. If you use a canister, leave it away from your sleeping area. If a bear finds it, do not risk provoking the bear by attempting to take the container away from the bear. These containers easily withstand a bear's pawing, chewing and kicking, so let him have at it. The bear will eventually lose interest in it and leave it alone. If you use a food-hanging method, it requires some engineering and unless properly done, most bears can "outsmart" your effort, snagging your food and leaving you hungry until you get out of the woods. But if you must, here's a couple of recommended ways to hang food and personal items out of the reach of bears.
1) First, start with a stuff sack instead of a plastic bag - one swipe from a paw or a resourceful squirrel or raccoon will dump the contents out of a flimsy plastic bag.
2) Find a branch ideally strong enough to hold your food, but not so strong that a bear could climb out on it. It should also be positioned such that food hanging from the branch will be a good distance away from the ground (at least 9 feet) and at least three feet from the trunk of the tree.
3) Tie a rock to one end of a nylon line and toss it over the branch. Tip - put a rock in a sock or bag first, then tie the sack or bag to the rope - it's easier that way. Now you have the line draped over the branch with both ends on the ground.
4) Divide your food into equal-weight piles. Put each pile into sack(s). Tie one pile's bag(s) onto one end of the rope and hoist it as high as possible. While holding the other end of the line down - maybe under your boot, or with the help of a partner - tie the second pile of bags to that end of the line as high as possible. Leave the excess line outside/on top of the second bag so no rope is hanging down within bear range.
5) Now raise the lower bag up. If you get this just right the upper bag will drop down to the same height as the lower and both will be positioned correctly - balancing each other over the branch and out of harm's way. You might have to push the lower bag up with a stick or your hiking poles to get them even. Get the bags down in the morning by using a branch or your hiking poles to snag the excess rope on the last bag tied, then pull it down, remove it, and let the other bag down.
6) Hanging bags this way is simple in concept but pretty tricky and time-consuming in execution. Finding the right branch can be a problem, and then it takes awhile to get everything hung just right - and you're often trying all this in the dark and cold. Tree branches hardly work like greased pulleys - ropes get tangled and don't move smoothly on rough bark. And several bags of food and personal items can get heavy. That's why we like the bear canisters - sure it's a couple of extra pounds to carry, but it's a whole lot simpler and quicker to deal with.
7) Here's another bag-hanging alternative that isn't quite as preventative as the preceding method, but is quicker and works fine except against the bears with Engineering Degrees. This way requires a longer rope, but less finagling with the food bags. You also need two branches maybe 10 feet apart and at least 15 feet high that you can drape the rope over to then suspend the bags between these two branches.
Toss one end of your rope over one branch, pulling all of the rope over to the other side except for enough to tie off the now short end of the rope to another tree as high as possible to anchor it. Now tie the bags of food to that point along the remaining rope that would be midpoint between the two branches you've selected. Then toss the rope over the second branch and pull tight, which should leave the bags suspended high and between the two branches. Lastly, tie off the remaining end of the rope to a tree, again as high as possible. Adjust the anchoring points so that the food is between the two branches. The anti-bear concept here is that the bags will be out of the bear's reach, but the ropes that hold the bags will not be so close to the food bags as to be associated as such by the bear, and with somewhat less trouble than the first method. While you're at it, tie pots to your ropes, so that if a bear starts to yank the ropes in any manner, the loud noise should scare it off.
Here is an additional article on bear-proofing your camp site, along with some diagrams, from another author.
Despite your best efforts, you may still encounter a bear wandering during its daily travels. Upon spotting a human, the naturally curious bear will either run away, or stop to check you out.
- If you see the bear before it sees you, stay calm and quietly back away. If the bear has seen you, talk in a soft to normal voice, so the now-curious bear can determine you are a human - that may be enough for it to want to leave. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose in the air, it is trying to identify you. A standing bear is curious, not threatening.
- Avoid direct eye contact as bears may perceive this as a threat. Don't make any sudden movements, throw anything, or yell. If necessary, back away slowly to give the bear plenty of room to escape - including the right-of-way on the trail.
- Watch the bear for aggressive behavior--snapping its jaws together, making a "whoofing" sound, or keeping its head down with ears laid back. Consider any bear that moves toward you aggressive. If the bear does not seem to be displaying aggressive behavior, talk softly in monotones and slowly back up. While you're at it, slowly take off your pack - that may distract the bear for a bit and give you more flexible options if things go bad. But remember, wild bears rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.
- If a bear charges toward you, make yourself tall and stand still. Bears often "bluff charge", and then veer off at the last minute. But again, do not run - including to the nearest tree unless you are sure you can climb at least 10 feet before the bear reaches you. Black bears are agile climbers anyway, but may not be inclined to come up after you. Now's a darn good time to have bear pepper spray with you.
- If a bear roams into your camp at night, and has no food easily accessible, it will probably wander back out in a bit. If not, you can try to scare them off by making a loud, deep noise, or bang a shoe against a pot. That'll probably scare it off. If the bear tries to get into your tent, yell loudly (duh!) and try to get the heck out ASAP.
- Lastly, if attacked by a black bear, don't play dead, but fight like your life depended on it - it might. Throw things, kick, yell - whatever you have to do. Black bears are rarely itching for a fight, and will likely just take off if you fight back - at least that's the hope, isn't it? Grizzlies are a bit different - some experts suggest that you should play dead if attacked by one of those fellers since they tend to fight until the threat is gone. I guess just hope he's not too hungry . . . .