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Bear Safety for Hikers

Crash. Crack. We looked ahead and saw something moving in the woods, running off to the side. A bear. Small, light brown, round ears, gone. Silence.

We waited and a thousand questions churned in my mind. It looked like a small bear… was it a young bear? Was the mother nearby? It was light brown… a grizzly? It ran to the side, in the same direction the trail was now heading. Do we proceed?

The most dangerous part of hiking is usually the drive up to the trail head. Yes, the likelihood of dying in a car crash is far greater than a bear attack. Greater too is the likelihood of dying because of lightening or bees. But people get excited about bears.

And yes, bears are exciting. But they shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the great outdoors!

Overall, you should:

  1. Take the right actions to avoid bears.
  2. Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
  3. Don’t be bearanoid! Get out and enjoy the wild safely.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a public talk on bears which was highly informative and I am sharing my notes below. For more information on bear encounters, see the Bear Smart website.

Knowing Bears

The West Kootenay contains both grizzly bears and black bears, and you should know the difference. A light brown bear is not always a grizzly.

It’s also important to know what motivates bears. Bears are bumbling around looking for:

  • Food – especially in areas with lots of vegetation, berries, or spawning streams.
  • Cover – bears like to stay hidden.
  • Mates
  • Dens

Also interesting – bears eat a lot of veggies. For the Kootenay grizzlys, plants can make up to 90% of their diet. Those long claws? For digging.

Avoiding Bears

Hikers can minimize the chance of bear encounters by making the right choices on their hike:

  1. Choose good hiking routes.
    • Hike on maintained trails with good visibility during daylight hours.
  2. Stay alert and look for signs of bear activity.
    • Bear signs include footprints, scat, diggings
    • If you encounter a fresh kill, leave the area immediately.
  3. Make lots of noise.
    • Talking or sing or clap your hands, especially in areas where there is low visibility or lots of background noise (creeks, wind).
  4. Travel in groups of 3 or more. Keep dogs on a leash.

Encountering Bears

  • Always: carry bear spray, assess the situation, stay calm.
  • Never: run.

You see bear, bear does not see you

Stay calm and move away from the area quietly. Make a wide detour and avoid surprising the bear with sudden noises or movements.

You see bear, bear sees you

Talk calmly to bear and slowly wave arms above head to appear bigger. Move slowly away and don’t stare directly in bear’s eyes.

You see bear, bear approaches you

Stay calm and stand your ground – do not run. Keep your pack on and take out your bear spray. Assess the type of situation:

  1. Bear is defensive
    • Examples: mother bear defending cubs, frightened bear, bear defending carcass.
    • Talk calmly to bear and do not make eye contact. Slowly move away.
    • If bear approaches too close or charges, use bear spray.
    • As a last resort, you can play dead in a defensive attack.
  2. Bear is not defensive
    • Examples: bear is curious, bear wants the food in your pack, bear wants you as food
    • Act aggressively, make eye contact, shout, stamp your feet, step forward.
    • If bear approaches too close or charges, use bear spray.
    • As a last resort, fight back using any means necessary, targeting the eyes and nose.

Again, for more information check out Bear Smart!

What we did

Okay, so in our situation with the small light bear running off into the woods, we decided to assume the worst: it could be a young grizzly with a mother nearby.

We were hiking down switchbacks, so it wasn’t easy to move away from the area. Both the trail forward and the trail back were going in the same direction as the bear. There was lots of bush around and it was hard to see far ahead.

We took out the bear spray and waited and listened and looked around. After a few minutes, we talked loudly, then waited again. Nothing.

We walked slowly down the switchback in the direction of the bear, talking loudly, then stopping, waiting and listening again.

We continued this pattern of talking, waiting, listening, moving slowly all the way down until we were out of the area. There were no more signs of the bear. Probably it was long gone, but you never know! On the way back down, we warned anyone else we encountered heading up the trail.

**Photo credit:

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[…] what can you do? We finished our hike with lots of loud talking and vigilance and a touch of […]