The most common large predators you'll encounter outdoors in North America, bears also really, really, really want to eat your food and sometimes even you. Here's how to keep them from getting either.
When I say bears are common, I mean that you've probably already seen one in your back yard, on a camping trip or while visiting a national park. Bears are opportunistic scavengers looking for an easy meal. Sadly, due to carelessness and ignorance, us humans have created a situation where many bears now think of us as a food source. They routinely raid garbage cans, campsites and even coolers and backpacks as part of their main diet. Smart and capable of learning — like a dog — some bears have even figured out how to open car doors in pursuit of a tasty morsel.
The vast majority of us have nothing to be afraid of. Black Bears, by far the most common species in North America, have only killed four people in the last four years. 11 Americans have been killed by the much more rare, but also more aggressive brown bear during that time. To put that in perspective, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs here each year.
Still, it's no fun losing your dinner to a bear or even unexpectedly stumbling across one in the backcountry. Both types of encounter are entirely preventable and, even if one does stand up and roar, you've got options.
Types Of Bears
Photo: North Cascades National Park
Black Bear: There's 900,000 of these little guys in North America and adults range in size all the way from 100lbs sows to big 500lbs boars. The "black bear" name is actually a little deceptive; they can be anything from white to black to brown and even a reddish cinnamon. The best way to tell them apart from the much more dangerous brown bear is in their size and build — a black bear is not just smaller, but slighter and has longer ears and a slimmer build. You can effectively scare most black bears off.
Brown Bear: Also called Kodiak or Grizzly bears depending solely on geography, brown bears usually do tend to be brown, but that fur can appear blonde too. While black bears exist across most of the US and Canada, only 200,000 brown bears roam through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Washington and Western Canada. You'll know it's a brown bear because it'll be huge — 200 to 1,400lbs — and distinguished by a prominent hump on its back, as well as the fact that it's going to be utterly unafraid of you. If you see a brown bear, the best option is to get far away from it.
Photo: Visit Greenland
Polar Bear: You know what a polar bear looks like. If you're doing stuff in the outdoors where they live then you're probably already aware of their behavior and precautions you must take. No one should roam polar bear territory without a gun.
Like most things in life, the best way to deal with a bear problem is to prevent a bear problem. It's worth noting that bears don't just want your picnic basket, they're attracted to stuff like deodorant, dirty dishes or even sealed energy bars too. Put absolutely anything that may smell nice in a bear bag or canister and place that at least 100 feet outside camp. Don't clean fish or create other compelling odors near where you plan to sleep.
Bear Canisters: These come in a variety of shapes, sizes and purposes. You'll find "bear lockers" in organized campsites that tend to have problem bears and increasingly, their smaller, more portable cousins are required for people backpacking through bear country. Essentially a large, very tough plastic food container, bear canisters came about because we were all too stupid to hang bear bags properly, so now we get to lug these things around. The idea is to put your food in it at night, then stick it 100 feet or more outside of camp. That gives the bears something to play with all night. Bonus points for still hanging or placing one where a bear can't get it, but don't put it somewhere that it's going to be knocked off a cliff or into flowing water, where you'll lose it. In escalation of the bear/human arms race, some bears in New York's Adirondack Mountains have already figured out how to open these.
Bear Bags: The idea is to counter balance two sacks full of your tasty food from a narrow branch both too tall for a bear to reach and too slim for a bear to climb out on. You retrieve it by pushing one bag up with a long stick till the whole thing falls into your arms. Trouble is, bears are smart and humans are stupid. The bears have learned to climb neighboring trees, then drop onto bear bags from above or to find and cut support ropes. Most of the time, they haven't had to though, most people hang bear bags too low, too close to a nice, climbable tree trunk or in an otherwise vulnerable position.
Bear Bells: You can also encounter bears while you're just hiking along, minding your own business. That's only if you're being quiet though. Attaching bells to your pack (just plain ol' jingle bells pulled off a Christmas decoration work just fine) or talking amongst a group of hikers will warn bears of your approach and shoo them away from the trail.
Bear Dogs: The scent and sound of a dog or dogs is as effective a bear deterrent as any that exists. Keep your dog on-leash while hiking in bear country and tie it up at night, but never leave a tied-up dog unattended.
Fire: A campfire keeps most animals away, but tending it all night can prevent you from sleeping and in areas where there's a ton of camper/bear interaction (such as the Adirondacks), the bears may no longer be wary of fire.
Running Away: The best way to win any fight works equally well in this one. But, rather than running, just walk like you mean it. Running away from animals can trigger their prey drive. No meal or fish or any amount of ego is worth getting eaten over.
An Anti-Bear Armory
Even the most responsible of campers will occasionally find themselves face-to-face with a hungry or curious bear, particularly in areas where they frequently interact with humans and consider us a food source as a result. If that happens, you'll need to scare the bear off.
Propaganda: Animals are instinctively afraid of humans for a reason. You need to be that reason. Stand up to your full height, open your coat or jacket so you appear larger, move in a purposeful considered manner and wave your hands in the air while shouting menacingly.
Pots and Pans: Banging metal cookware together loudly nicely supplements the above.
Flare Pistol: Straight redneck stuff. If you've got a bear problem, it's nice to be able to keep that bear problem away from you. A flare pistol can be roughly aimed and can travel a hundred yards or so, enabling you to scare off a bear at a distance with a loud bang and bright flash, but probably won't hurt the bear. Just beware firing incendiary rounds into the woods if there's a high risk of fire. This is probably illegal pretty much anywhere, be advised.
Air Horn: Like a flare pistol, these will work with some distance between you and the bear. The very high decibel noise hurts their sensitive ears, driving them away.
Bear Mace: Here's the deal with bear mace. It's only got an effective range of 15 feet or so and has been known to piss off a bear as much as scare it away. I don't know about you, but I a) don't want a bear within 15 feet of me b) don't want to piss off one that is that close c) I don't want to get really strong pepper spray in my eyes because I didn't take the time to consider wind direction while a bear was within 15 feet of me.
A Big Stick: Whacking a bear upside its head with a big stick is as effective a deterrent as I've found. There's something in a big stick understood by animals on a primal level, much more so than with a funny piece of orange plastic or a silly human jumping up and down and shouting.
Rocks: Pick them up and throw them, aiming for the bear's face. You aren't really going to hurt a big ol' bear with a thrown rock, but you may annoy it enough that it decides to leave you alone. Pairs well with shouting.
Your Backpack: As a last ditch method of survival, a backpack might keep a charging bear off you. Most aren't dead set on mauling you, so maybe also cross your fingers.
So, Should You Be Scared Of Bears?
A little. Ultimately, being attacked by one would go pretty badly for you, black, brown or whatever. But, that's an extremely unlikely occurrence. Be responsible, prevent them from getting your food, make some noise as you hike through their territory, take your dog and you won't have any problems. If you do see a bear, enjoy watching it from a distance and, if it moves close to you or your campsite, you'll probably be able to scare if off. They're a part of the nature you came to see, don't aggravate or harm them and we'll all be able to keep laying awake in our tents at night, thinking every little sound is an approaching bear, for a long time to come.
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Lead Image: Stephen Oung