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SOL: Encountering a Bear in the Backcountry

Bears occupy a place in our collective imagination that’s wildly disproportionate to their presence in the actual landscape.

We watch endless hours of documentary footage, cover suburban incursions with breathless news stories, and actively seek out bears in wilderness settings. And, sadly, we seem to be unhealthily fixated on bear attacks.

In truth, though, there have been only a handful of fatal attacks in the last decade, and the good news, if you can call it that, is that you have an infinitely better chance of being hit by lightning, suffering a fatal fall in the shower, or of being mowed down by a car while crossing the street. Encouraging, right?

But as we increasingly encroach on their habitat with development and as successful species management has increased bear numbers nationwide, we’re coming more in contact with bears. In northern Ontario, black bears have been wandering through urban neighborhoods and causing absolute panic. In suburban Florida, bears are seeking out open garages to root through garbage cans. New Jersey has even authorized a six-day bear hunt to help manage the exploding population. And as more of us wander through the backcountry, we’re also going to come across them more in the wild. Yellowstone, for instance, has seen more attacks in the last few years than in the last few decades.

Your aim should always to be to avoid direct encounters entirely, and proper caution will do a great deal to avoid problems when they visit our neighborhoods. Following are some elementary tips to consider before you head out into their part of the world.

Brown vs Black Bears

Knowing some elemental differences between these species can make a huge difference in your approach … and your retreat.

First, brown bears aren’t always brown, and black bears aren’t always black. There’s color variation in both groups. But the browns are generally brownish, often with the “grizzled” or highlighted fur that’s their trademark, and the blacks are generally blackish, although they can range from deep black to cinnamon.

And while we tend to think that grizzlies or other brown bears like Kodiaks can be differentiated by size, that’s not entirely true, either. What does decisively separate them from black bears are a broader, concave face and snout, rounded ears, longer claws, and a distinctive shoulder hump (as shown below). This mass of muscle just behind the head should decide your identification of a brown bear if all else eludes you.


Flickr/Frank Kovalchek

Black bears have a straighter, sloping snout and longer, sharper ears, less prominent claws, and no hump. They’re also generally less aggressive, even when accompanied by youngsters. Whereas Grizzly mothers are infamously protective, black bear sows very rarely engage humans in order to protect their young, and cubs will frequently take to trees if threatened. Nonetheless, a black bear mother and cubs should always be avoided if possible. Cubs discovered alone should be carefully left to their own devices, however strong your nurturing instinct might be.


Flickr/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Bear-Proofing Your Camp

When it comes to setting up camp in bear country, consider establishing yourselves away from heavily-used trails or campsites, and make a point to avoid spots with obvious trash or food scraps. Bears will follow trails and look for food in familiar places. And whether you’re in established campsites or by yourselves in the boonies, isolating and protecting your food ought to be the first order of business. Choose a cooking site well away from your sleeping area, ideally downwind, and hang your food and cooking equipment from a line or pole.

There are many methods for hanging food bags, but in most heavily trafficked parks and wilderness areas, there will be food storage infrastructure available. The most common options are anchored poles, logs suspended between trees, or wire lines strung between trunks. Increasingly, in locations like the High Sierra and Yellowstone, you may be able to store your food in a burly, bearproof locker provided for that purpose.

Carefully wash your dishes and implements, your hands and face, and don’t take food into your tent. It’s also recommended that you not sleep in the same clothing in which you cooked. Bears are hugely intelligent, strong, and dexterous. They also have possibly the most acute sense of smell of any animal, surpassing even dogs. They can smell food from literally miles away, and are drawn to easy food sources like coolers, cars, and tents.


Flickr/Ian Collins

In 2007 in American Fork Canyon, just south of Salt Lake City, an 11-year-old boy was dragged from his tent and killed by a marauding black bear. The bear had raided the same campsite less than a day earlier, rummaging through unsecured coolers and tearing through another tent in search of food. The boy had taken to a granola bar and a can of soda into his tent.

Your trash needs to be carefully dealt with as well, stored away from your tent and hung along with your food. If you burn trash, remember that it needs to be thoroughly disposed of, and burnt to ash. Ideally, pack out what you packed in.

Refrain from bringing along strongly scented foods, and consider storing food items in odor-proof bags, even with the added protection of a canister. You may be required to carry canisters in many national parks and wilderness areas, and while some hikers complain that they’re bulky and uncomfortable in their packs, they’ve been proven to be effective. Due to too many careless hikers and hunters, they’re unfortunately necessary. And be aware, these rules also apply to intriguingly scented toothpaste and lotions.

Encounters on the Trail

These are a set of simple, straightforward prescriptions for encounters on trails, developed over decades by wilderness professionals. They’re also routinely ignored or actively dismissed, and those lapses are directly related to attacks and deaths.


Flickr/Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Be aware of time of day.
Early morning and evening are when bears are most active, and when you should be most on your guard.

Don’t go alone.
Bears avoid groups, and attacks occur overwhelmingly to individuals hiking or hunting alone. Parties of three or more are thought to be optimal. In places like the Alaskan backcountry or Glacier National Park, you may be actively discouraged from setting out by yourself. Take those advisories seriously.

Make noise.
Many of us hike largely for the quiet solitude of the trail, but in bear country, noise is an elemental protection. Don’t hesitate to make a racket. And particularly on trails where you have poor visibility (blind bends in the trail, encroaching vegetation, etc.), go ahead and stomp, sing, yell or yodel. It’s easily the most effective means of avoiding contact.

Stay calm.
If you do stumble into a confrontation with a brown bear, stop immediately, make yourself as small as possible and back slowly away. Do not make eye contact, as that may be interpreted as aggressive. Whatever you do, don’t turn and run, as that only encourages a chase. Keep in mind that grizzlies can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour; even a world-class sprinter would get run down in a hurry trying to flee a charging bear. If pursued, you can try dropping a pack or other personal item to distract the animal and give you time to escape. However, it’s important to keep in mind that dropping your pack can teach bears to associate food with humans and that wearing a pack can offer bodily protection if the bear attacks.

Grizzly mothers with cubs should be avoided at all costs, ideally from a significant distance. However adorable you may imagine the cubs to be, and however much you may want a photograph, provoking the mother could be a fatally poor choice.

You should behave identically with black bears, although they’re generally less aggressive than brown bears, and may be chased away by loud shouting or noisemaking should they get too close.

Carry bear repellant.
In Grizzly country, it’s a last-ditch solution but a proven one. First of all, be aware of what it can and can’t do: it’s not like insect repellent, you don’t spray it on to keep the bears away. In fact, there is some evidence that it actually attracts curious bears to campsites that have been sprayed down in a misguided attempt to repel bears. Bear spray is pepper spray, more or less what you’d use on forays into dark parking garages late at night. In fact, if you have nothing else available you could bring along on your hike spray intended for defense against muggers. Just be aware that spray designed for bears is a bit stronger and usually shoots farther, a quality you’ll appreciate when a big, furry missile is heading at you at high speed.

Be sure to read the directions on your canister before setting off, and practice drawing and deploying the spray. Know how to use it before you have to, and make sure it’s in easy reach (a dedicated holster is ideal) because you may only have seconds to react.

Would a gun offer better protection? You’re absolutely within your rights to carry a firearm into bear country, as long as you comply with federal, state, and local laws. But you’d better be an excellent shot. A firearm, even a large-caliber one, may be the least effective deterrent. If you do manage, even in the incredible stress of a confrontation, to hit a bear, your bullets may be more likely to enrage the animal than kill it. Keep in mind that most bears’ skulls are so thick, bullets can just bounce right off. Many advocates of firearms encourage travelers to employ both options.

Overall, though, bear spray is hugely successful, provided you know how to use it. In 2010, on a trail in Glacier National Park in 2010 that has seen several serious bear incidents, Columbus Zoo Director Jack Hanna and a small party of hikers stumbled on a trio of bears, a mother and two yearlings. One of the juveniles charged the party as they tried to retreat, and Hanna drew his repellant canister. He discharged it three times, at 40, 20, and 10 yards; on the last shot, the animal “stopped like he’d hit a wall.” Already an advocate of spray over firearms, Hanna became even more of an evangelist afterwards. And on the same weekend, in a very rare convergence of encounters, two other accidental meetings in Glacier were defused with spray.

Take care on the trails and in the backcountry and you may never see a bear close-up. But if you do, take proper precautions and you may come away richer for it. Count yourself fortunate to have experienced, and survived, an encounter with one of the most remarkable animals still roaming the wild.

Learn more about getting along with bears here.


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