Brown Girl’s Guide to Bears

Important disclaimer: I am not a wilderness expert, and these tips, while founded on research, should be combined with local guidance. You are ultimately responsible for your decisions and safety.

When I prepared for my last backpacking trip, I read blog posts and watched YouTube videos about a handful of different topics: setting up a trekking pole tent, the merits of a down sleeping bag vs. synthetic, and more. But when it came to preparing for bear country, I read dozens of posts and spiraled down a rabbit hole of bear safety videos. Why was my fear of bears so consuming? Yes, they’re dangerous, but my chances of running out of water or getting stuck with a twisted ankle were much higher than being eaten, or even injured, by a bear. What’s more, when I told people I was backpacking alone, invariably someone would ask “What about bears?” before something more pressing like “How are you preparing for altitude?” Backpacking expert Andrew Skurka discussed this disproportionate focus on bears in a blog post (which I highly recommend reading after you finish this post!):

“Backcountry users who may have no idea how to read a map and compass, keep themselves warm when it’s cold and wet, or achieve a taught pitch on a shelter seem absolutely convinced that their demise in the backcountry will be caused by a bear, not their own shortcomings. It seems that bears embody all that is unknown and scary about the wilderness.”

Andrew Skurka, Food Protection Techniques in Bear Country

While bears can be dangerous, it’s important to weigh your real vs. imagined risk. And like all dangers in the wilderness, good preparation goes a long way toward managing your fears!

Bear Safety While Hiking

For the most part, bears are solitary creatures and don’t want to confront a human. Because of this, it’s a good idea to let bears know you’re coming while hiking. This is pretty easy to do when you’re in a group—just stay together and keep the conversation going. Every now and then you can clap or sing, but a steady conversation is usually enough to alert bears to your presence. If you’re hiking alone, making noise can be a little trickier. On popular trails, it can help to inconspicuously “follow” a large group and rely on their conversation noise. If you’re alone alone, you can clap every now and then, knock your trekking poles together, or play music from your phone in your pocket (try not to be obnoxious about this). If you choose this last option, it’s good hiking etiquette to switch the volume off when you near other groups—and of course if you are near other groups, having noise isn’t as needed.

What about those “bear bells” you see at camping stores?

Most sources I’ve read indicate that bear bells are either unnecessary, ineffective, or conversely, sound enough like an injured animal to actually draw a bear to you. Whether or not these bells work, a constant ringing bell is pretty annoying to you and other hikers, and it’s generally easier and less obtrusive to just clap and talk.

What if I encounter a bear (!?)

I found a lot of my tips on this REI blog post. To summarize:

Black Bears:

  • Try to make yourself bigger using your arms or trekking poles
  • Yell loudly to show the bear you are not a prey animal
  • Don’t play dead! If the bear attacks you, fight back!

Grizzly Bears:

  • Talk firmly but calmly to the bear
  • Get your bear spray ready in case of attack
  • Back up slowly (don’t turn around) and avoid eye contact
  • If it does attack you, “play dead.” That means, lay flat on your stomach and protect your neck with your hands. Spreads your arms and legs out long so the bear can’t roll you over.

Do I need bear spray?

Bear spray is an effective way to deter an aggressive bear. Bear attacks in the lower 48 states (meaning, not Alaska) are relatively rare, but grizzly bears are known to be more aggressive and bolder than black bears. Accordingly, many of the National Parks in “grizzly country” recommend carrying bear spray, but be sure to check with the ranger station before you pack it! Because I was hiking alone on my last trip, I played it safe and took bear spray into black bear and grizzly bear country. I figured having the spray could deter anything from a bear to an aggressive moose, to a dog (or, let’s be honest, a serial killer!).

Clipping your spray to your pack isn’t the coolest option, but it might be the safest!

If you do bring bear spray, it’s super important to learn how to use it before you need it. You’ll also want to keep your spray accessible, so don’t bury it in your pack (I clip my to my shoulder strap). You can find tips on using bear spray here, but here are some takeaways:

  1. If you see an aggressive bear on the trail (or, frankly, any bear on the trail), grab your spray and remove the safety clip.
  2. Notice where the wind is blowing and try to aim the spray downwind away from you.
  3. Spray! Bear spray isn’t like mosquito spray—you’re trying to create a big cloud of spray between you and the bear.

Bear Safety at Camp

Deterring a bear from coming into your campsite is arguably the most important part of being “bear aware.” Not only does it help protect you, but it also prevents bears from learning that they can find tasty food at that site, protecting future campers. In fact, some of the parks with the worst bear issues—like Glacier and Yellowstone—have a history of visitors leaving trash and food around campsites and trails for bears to find.

One of the popular “bear feeding station” attractions in 1920s Yellowstone, National Park Service

In the simplest terms, when you’re trying to make your camp bear safe, you’re trying to cut down on the smells that can attract a bear. Of course, nothing about backpacking is ever that simple. Until I camped in bear country, I had no idea how many of my toiletries were scented!

Safe bear country camping means properly storing food and any other scented things (think wet wipes, trash, toothpaste, scented tampons, lip balm…etc.) in a hung bag, a bear canister, or a camp-provided locker. Especially when grizzlies are around, it’s also a good idea to cook and eat your food away from your camp. And of course, wherever you camp, practice Leave No Trace principles.

I like to write a “bear canister checklist” on the lid!

A Note About Periods

There’s a persistent rumor out there that period blood attracts bears, but I’m here to tell you that it’s just not true (at least where black bears and grizzlies are concerned— polar bears are another story). To be totally honest, I’m convinced this rumor was invented by men to keep women inside 🤷🏽‍♀️. To be fair you do need to take a few extra precautions on your period because menstrual blood, like all scented things, can draw a curious bear. I’ve been lucky enough to have my period on three of my longest overnight backpacking trips, and I’m a big fan of using a menstrual cup. I use my trowel to dig a six inch cat hole and pour the contents of the cup into the hole. I then rinse the cup with my purified water and use an unscented wet wipe to clean it thoroughly. You have to pack out wet wipes (even unscented allegedly “biodegradable” ones), and I put my trash in my bear canister, but for hygiene’s sake it’s totally worth it.

Final Thoughts

If you are lucky enough to see a bear from a ways off, don’t panic! Take a quick photo (at a safe distance), and be on your way. Bears serve as a reminder that we are guests in many wilderness spaces. To have a safe and fun trip, you may have to play by some of their rules. But by camping and hiking smart, you’ll help protect yourself, other campers, and (ultimately) the bears themselves!


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