More than at any other point in my life I have recently been asked what I am most afraid of. Fortunately, I’ve given the various ways I might expire a good deal of thought, so I am able to answer, merrily and without pause: “Bears!”. Having spent most of my life in England, where the biggest land mammal is a deer, and a list of the most dangerous things in nature includes ticks, stinging nettles and hairy caterpillars, the idea of encountering a bear terrifies me beyond belief. I haven’t ever seen a bear before, and while I find the idea of catching a glimpse of one thrilling, I’d really like for it to be off in the distance, doing its own thing, and preferably across a significant body of water; the thought of one sniffing around my tent at 5am will surely be one that keeps me awake at night. Lately, bears have featured regularly in my dreams, and I’m sure this isn’t going to change any time soon. We’ll spend the first five months of our trip in bear country (see map here) with the first two months in combined black and brown bear (AKA grizzly) territory. From what I can gather, it’ll be a miracle if we don’t encounter one, somewhere along our route.
In an attempt to rationalize my fear away, I have been reading a lot about bears. A friend loaned me the excellent Backcountry bear basics: The definitive guide to avoiding unpleasant encounters by Dave Smith. The authors stated aim is to provide the reader with information about bear biology and behavior to increase understanding and reduce fear. The following post contains some of the things I learned from the book and my other research. When I run across my first bear, I’ll post an update to let you know if it helped.
Most people that have spent any time in bear country are aware of the major species distinction between black and brown bears (there are in fact eight species of bear, four of which live in the North and South American continents). The names - black and brown - are quite misleading, as color isn’t actually a very good way to tell them apart; black bears can be black, blue-black, dark brown, brown, and even white. Grizzlies, likewise, can vary in color, from very dark to very light. Size isn’t a great indicator either, as while grizzly bears are, on average, larger than black bears, there are individual and sex differences, as well as regional and seasonal variations in size, and a ton of overlap between the two. However, black bears and brown bears actually just look quite different - the grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear doesn’t have. It also has a “dished” facial profile and smaller ears than the black bear. Something you hope you never find out: The claws of a grizzly are much larger than those of a black bear (click here to see a picture of both species).
The physical differences are important because, should you encounter a black or brown bear up close, your response should be different: black bears reputedly have a tendency to flee, so making yourself appear big by holding up your arms and flaring your coat, while making some noise, will most likely result in the bear high-tailing it off in the opposite direction. One researcher described in Dave Smith’s book found this response to be so predictable that he relied upon it for his research. In trying to get population estimations of black bears he discovered that when he surprised a group of bears by running full speed into a field they were resting in, it caused them to scatter and each climb a tree - making them easier to count. Grizzly bears on the other hand are less likely to flee, so your best bet is to stop and assess the behavior of the bear. You are advised to talk to it in a calm, low tone of voice, which helps it to identify you as a human. The next step is to slowly move away from the bear at an angle that allows you to keep an eye on it, increasing the distance between you, but without appearing to flee. In either case, the aim is to increase the chance that the bear will choose to simply move on. Less well known is the reason why black bears and brown bears should be treated differently in a close encounter: black bear habitat is primarily in heavily forested regions, so fleeing to seek quick cover is a response that is likely to effectively avoid conflict in an encounter with another bear. Grizzly bears on the other hand have evolved in a wider range of habitats and were once abundant in the central plains of North America. These more open habitats mean that when two brown bears meet, a quick escape may not be possible, so the best course of action is to stand your ground, and then quietly move away once the encounter has been deemed non-threatening. In the past, I’d always struggled to remember which reaction I’m supposed to have to which type of bear; having the added biological and evolutionary context of the environments black and brown bears usually inhabit has helped me to keep it straight in my head.
No matter the type of bear you come across, the absolute worst thing you can do is to run. Unfortunately, this is also the most understandable instinctive reaction when faced with a 600 pound, 6 foot tall hunk of muscle, claws and teeth. Running away may trigger an instinct in the bear to give chase – much like it does with dogs – and a race with a bear will almost never end well for you; bears can run at up to 35 mph and have the agility of a squirrel. This means that you are almost never going to outrun, or out maneuver a bear. Even on a bike, going downhill, with a brisk wind at your back, you will be hard pressed to outpace a bear (cue everyone’s favorite quip that Chris doesn’t have to outrun the bear, he only has to outrun me). Similarly, climbing a tree is a pretty terrible idea; despite their weight and size, both black bears and grizzlies can climb trees, and in almost all cases, will be faster and more adept at it than you are.
Obviously, it’s better for all concerned if you can behave in such a way that reduces your chance of coming into close contact with a bear in the first place. Many visitors to bear country know that they should make some noise as they move along the trail, either by talking or singing, or by wearing a bear bell. The idea is that since a bear doesn’t want to encounter you any more than you want to encounter it, if it knows you are coming, it will probably opt to move on before you even knew it was there. However, there are a few problems with this approach: First, navigating the wilderness loudly enough for all of its usual inhabitants to know you are there is a pretty obnoxious approach, and has the potential to negatively impact any other beasts (human and non-human) trying to quietly enjoy nature. Second, there is something inherently problematic about the assumption that it’s the bear’s responsibility to know you are there and get out of your way. Rather than blindly blathering your way through the wilderness, it might be wiser to pay close attention to your surroundings, give a well-timed shout or clap when rounding a corner, and to be knowledgeable about bear habitats and behavior so that you minimize the chances that you put yourself right in the path of a bear.
Making a good decision about where to camp is one way to minimize the likelihood of a bear encounter. Unfortunately, bears tend to hang out at the same places that people tend to hang out. The bank of a river or the tree line along the edge of an open field are as appealing to a bear as they are to you. Dave Smith’s advice is to think about how likely you are to find yourself in an unexpected close encounter with a bear when selecting your campsite. Stay away from obvious food and water sources and try to pick a place with good visibility so you won’t be surprised by a bear stumbling onto your camp. An aspect of camping in bear country that had never occurred to me before was the impact of tent color; bears are curious creatures - a bear that rears up on its hind legs isn’t being aggressive, it’s standing on its tippy-toes to try to get a better view of you. If a strange new object appears in the middle of a field, its likely to attract the attention of a curious bear. A bright blue object is more likely to be noticed by a bear than something that is more subdued in color. For a bear, ‘investigating’ can mean sniffing, scratching and biting the object of interest. Consequently, lining the sides of your tent with gear is a good idea so that it is your backpack that a bear takes a curious nibble on, rather than your arm. I really wish I’d read this book before purchasing our bright orange two-person tent with just enough room for our bodies side by side...
Given the advice is to stay away from natural sources of bear nutrition, hopefully it goes without saying that you should also make sure you are not a source of food for the bear. A bear that associates humans with food (a ‘food-conditioned’ bear) is more likely to interact with humans in the future, and that’s bad news for everyone, especially the bear. Always remove food and anything that smells like food (e.g. cooking equipment or toiletries) from your tent and pack before going to bed. A bear bag (a high-density polyethylene bag that a bear cannot easily tear open), or bear can (a hard-shell plastic cylinder with a screw top) can be used to secure food. Bear bags should be hung carefully to ensure they can’t be reached (see some tips here). If bear-proof bins are available, you can open these up at the back and store your food (still inside your own container) inside for an extra layer of protection. The smell of cooking food is as distinct and delicious to a bear as it is to you, so avoid cooking if you can; if you can’t, stop to cook in one spot before moving on and camping in another. The clothes that you cooked in should be treated as you would treat the food itself and placed in a bag or can. All of these extra steps take thought, effort and care, which can be hard to muster at the end of a long day of riding or hiking, but it’s an extremely important aspect of keeping bears and humans at a safe distance from each other.
Suppose you did everything right, yet still, you round a corner, and find yourself 50 feet away from a bear and despite your best efforts to deescalate the situation, it’s not going well…the bear is threatened. Your attempts to give it room only seem to agitate it further. It is advancing toward you. What now? It may make a charge, many of which will be ‘bluffs’, which are aborted before contact is made, but it’s not clear how you are supposed to know a bluff charge from an imminent attack. What to do? Just in case we are unlucky enough to ever find ourselves in this position, we plan to each carry a canister of bear spray. Bear spray is high concentration pepper spray, that has a range of approximately 30 feet. If used correctly, it reportedly deters 90% of bear attacks. This is the time when you really hope that your bear spray is close by. My plan is to carry my bear spray in my handlebar cup holder on my bike by day and attach it to my clothes by night. A bear charging you at top speed from 100ft away will be on you in 2 seconds. So, it is probably wise to practice reaching for it and aiming it so this response can be as instinctive and quick under extreme stress as possible. The next challenge is to hold your nerve until the bear is within 15-20 feet so that your chances of effectively deterring it with an unpleasant face-full of pepper spray are as good as they can be. Clearly, bear spray can’t be used when you are inside your tent, so if you detect a bear outside, the safest thing to do is to get up, go outside, and be prepared to use your bear spray if needed. We’ve been asked a few times if we plan to take a gun for protection. Anyone who knows us well knows we wouldn’t consider it for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that unless you are an exceptionally skilled shot, a gun is unlikely to do any more than annoy a bear. Bear spray is by far the better option for most people to deter a bear attack. It’s like insurance: You have it, but you hope you never need to use it.
If the worst should happen, and you find yourself in contact with a bear, the advice is to play dead, lie flat on your stomach with your legs apart so the bear can’t easily turn you over, and use your arms and hands to protect your head and neck. However, if after a minute this strategy isn’t working, it’s unlikely to start working any time soon, and you should fight like hell – landing as many kicks and punches as you can. Your hope is to convince the bear that you are too much of a hassle to eat. One last tidbit of gruesome information: If a bear manages to drag you away from camp, it will likely only move you a few hundred feet. After that, it will settle down to consume your soft tissue. Human-beings can survive this sort of assault for as much as an hour, meaning that someone who is attacked by a bear will probably be close enough and alive enough that a life-saving intervention is possible for quite some time. This was supposed to be the good news!
In amongst all of these horrifying possibilities, I don’t want to lose sight of the main thing I took away from Dave Smith’s book: Bears aren’t likely to be aggressive toward humans. It’s not in the bear’s interest to get into conflict with other bears, and that same evolutionary drive to avoid potentially costly physical confrontations is also likely to guide how it responds to you. It’s also extremely unlikely that a bear will predate a human - their favored foods are things like grasses and roots, ants and fish. Unpleasant human-bear interactions happen from time to time because, just like people, bears have personal space boundaries, and they feel threatened when you cross that line. Think about how you feel when some stranger sidles up and stands too close, invading your personal space. It’s a guaranteed way to make someone feel uncomfortable and often threatened. Moreover, just like people, bears differ in how much personal space they need before they start to feel uncomfortable. This variability may be part of what leads to bears being labelled as unpredictable; one bear may be fine with you being just 30 feet from it, whereas another bear may need you to stay at least 100 feet away in order to feel safe. Context matters too; a bear with cubs is an obvious example of a time when a bear may have expanded personal space boundaries, but a bear that is close to a favored food source will be less easy to spot; better to play it safe and keep as much distance as possible between you and all bears, since when you enter a bear’s personal space you leave them with no option but to flee or fight, and that’s stressful for both of you.