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Bears live in the woods. Humans who encounter bears can surprise them, which is a bad thing. Bears will attack if startled, or if a maternal instinct to protect the young is triggered. You can avoid interactions with bears:

  • Always use a noisemaker (bell, whistle, your voice) when hiking -- use it nearly constantly when moving quickly (running or cycling)
  • Never leave food out at your camp site, hang food far from camp, and high up with a rope
  • Carry pepper spray (the special bear sized cannister, not the people kind)
If you do encounter a bear, you should be extremely cautious. If you encounter a rare predatory black bear (one of the more common kinds of bear in eastern North America).
  • Make lots of noise. Back away slowly. Do not run or climb a tree. Bears are excellent runners and climbers.
  • If the bear approaches you, throw a rock, try to look as tall as you can (e.g. hold a canoe paddle over your head), make noise, and try to scare the bear. Black bears are risk averse, and may decide you are too much trouble
  • Leave your backpack on. In a bear attack situation it can save you from injury.

Grizzly bears are more aggressive and less predictable. You have no chance of scaring away an attacking grizzly bear, and no chance of outrunning it. Lie down and play dead.

Having taken a late summer backpacking trip in Glacier National Park recently, I took the opportunity to read up a little bit on grizzly bear attacks. Grizzly bears are probably the most dangerous animals that we have here in North America because of their incredible power and their sometimes poor dispositions. Imagine having a bad day and then having 800 pounds with which to release aggression. That could be a pretty deadly combination to a 170 pound hiker creeping through the woods.

The same precautions outlined for the predatory black bear apply to grizzlies as well.

  • Constantly make noise to prevent a surprise encounter
  • When camping, keep all food at least ten feet above the ground and at least three feet from the nearest tree trunk.
  • Carry bear spray with you

Now here are the best practices to follow should you happen to encounter a grizzly.

  • Turn sideways to create a smaller profile. DO NOT look directly at the bear. Use your peripheral vision.
  • Stand in the most unintimidating position you can. Do not, however, crouch down because that could be interpreted by the bear as a defensive attack position.
  • Slowly walk away from the bear sideways. Do not turn your back to the animal.

In the event you are attacked, circumstance should determine your behavior.

  • If the attack occurs after a chance encounter, such as meeting a bear on the trail, playing dead is the best option. This attack is occuring because the bear likely considers you to be a threat either because cubs are present or possibly because a food source is nearby. Do not run and do not remove your pack because the pack can provide added protection. If at all possilbe, try to lay on your stomach with your hands protecting the back of your head and neck.
  • If you are attacked like prey, perhaps sleeping in your tent, you are dealing with a predatory grizzly. This bear wants to eat you. The only chance for survival in this case is to make yourself too difficult of a meal. Playing dead will be no good because the bear will not care. Kick, scratch, and claw to inflict as much damage as you can; hopefully it will be enough.

These precautions by no means ensure a happy outcome from a bear encounter. In the end, it depends completely on the bear. From encounters I have read, bear spray is effective about half of the time and there is no guarantee that you can stem an attack by following the submissive behavior outlined above. Keep this information in mind, but do not let it keep you from exploring some great outdoor wilderness. In actuality, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your life than you are to encounter a grizzly bear in the wild.

I am by no means a bear expert and will gladly correct any information that may be in error. This information has been gathered by individual research prior to my trip. For a good account of some bear attacks, check out The Mark of the Grizzly by Scott McMillon. I will be posting a writeup on that book soon.

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