It doesn't matter if you hike once a year or once a week, every hiker needs to be aware of what to do in case of a bear confrontation.
The odds of seeing a bear vary throughout the year are actually quite small. I've spoken to forestry students who spent weeks in the wild over a period of years and had only 1 or 2 chance encounters.
Knowing what to do if you encounter a bear is always your best defense. There are a few simple things to remember when hiking:
- The first step is prevention. You can greatly reduce your chances of a bear attack by your actions on the trail:
- Travel in groups and stick together.
- Talk loudly. Bear bells do not carry far and usually do nothing but annoy the people you're traveling with.
- Keep your dog leashed and small children close by.
- Pay attention to your surroundings -- if there are fresh bear diggings, dropping or fresh tracks, don't risk the encounter. It's better to be unsure and cut a hike short than run into a bear.
- If you do encounter a bear, remain calm. Most encounters end peacefully. Remember:
- Stay calm and don't make any panicked or sudden movements. The bear is deciding if you are a threat and will sometimes try to "scare" you off by growling and snapping.
- Speak softly. Your voice alone may tell the bear you are human and not prey.
- Back away slowly. Do not run, the bear may consider you prey and you cannot outrun a bear.
- Stay in your group to appear larger and less vulnerable.
- Make sure the bear has an escape route.
- If the bear does attack, there are two types of attacks a bear will use. They are handled much differently and it's important to know the difference.
In a Defensive Attack, the bear is likely startled, defending its food or defending its cubs. This is the most likely scenario of any bear attack. If you find yourself in this situation:
- Use bear spray.
- If the bear makes contact PLAY DEAD.
- Fall on your stomach and lie with legs apart and hands crossed behind your neck. This protects your neck and keeps the bear from flipping you. Leave your pack on, as it will provide extra protection.
- Remain still. Once the bear sees you are not a threat it will leave the area. Bears usually stop a defensive attack within 2 minutes.
In a Predatory Attack, the bear sees you as prey. If a defensive attack goes on for more than a few minutes, the bear has switched to a predatory attack:
- FIGHT BACK, do not play dead any longer, the bear now sees you as prey.
- Try to escape into a building, car, or even up a tree. Use bear spray, your pack, hiking poles, anything you can find as a weapon. Show the bear you are not easy prey.
Predatory attacks are quite rare, but do happen, particularly during feeding season or when there is a berry shortage. Attacks rarely get to this point.
It's important to know what the level of bear activity is in your region. Before hiking, check with local and state/provincial websites for information about the trails and any warnings posted. Bear warnings are also often posted at the trail head, but don't rely on this as your sole method of information.
The thought of running into a bear should not dissuade you from hiking altogether. Like almost anything else, knowledge is power. Be aware of your surroundings, know what to do if you see a bear, and keep up to date on bear sightings and trails closures in the area. No one can guarantee you'll never see a bear, but you can guarantee how to safely survive if you do.