How to Not Get Eaten by a Bear this Summer

By Alison Karlene Hodgins

Most Canadians know not to approach a bear or feed it. But what would you do if a bear approached you slowly? What if it ran full-tilt at you? Should you play dead or fight back?

Approximately one quarter of all the bears in Canada—and half of the grizzlies in Canada—are in British Columbia. That’s an estimated 15,000 grizzlies and between 120,000 and 150,000 black bears. Whether you’re RV camping, tent camping or hiking, it’s imperative to be aware of bear activity in the area and to have a basic understanding of bear behavior in order to prevent and survive unwanted altercations.

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Prevention

Respect the Wilderness

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” – James Rollins

A healthy respect for the sheer power and strength of a bear is necessary before trekking into the woods. Cubs might look cute or cuddly, but rest assured their protective, fearsome mother is always nearby. That is one family you do not want to get in the middle of.

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Pick Up After Yourself

It’s a common saying: “a fed bear is a dead bear,” but what does it mean? When bears become “food-conditioned” to eating human food or waste, they will return to the source. Even an apple core can result in a bear connecting the smell of humans with the reward of food. Bears that become food-conditioned are most often destroyed. Bear-hanging your garbage, using sealed bear-proof containers and only leaving rubbish in sealed trash bins can save you and the wildlife.

Keep Your Smelly Stuff at Home

The outdoors is not the place for perfume or heavily scented products. Even common items like toothpaste, deodorant and gum should never enter a tent you ever intend to sleep in. These odors can attract wildlife.

Keep Your Dog on a Leash

A common misconception is that having a dog with you will keep you safe from a bear. In reality, about half of human conflict with black bears in North America over that last ten years has occurred because off-leash dogs chase after a bear and then return to their owner, leading the bear back to them. Avoid an unwanted altercation by keeping your dog on a leash.

Make Some Noise

Talk loudly with your hiking companion. Sing to yourself. Clap your hands. Basically, do anything you can not to catch a bear off guard, and to alert surrounding wildlife of your presence. Bear bells, bear bangers or air horns are certainly loud, but human noise is best—it tells a bear what species you are. Catching an animal off-guard may result in aggressive or defensive behaviour.

Be Alert

Put your phone away and pay attention. Look for signs of recent bear activity, such as bear dung, fresh scat, or torn or clawed trees. Stay away from carcasses as a bear may come close to feed. If there is a posted sign warning not to go in the area, don’t go. It might be tempting to get close for a good photograph, but a cool Instagram post isn’t very cool if you don’t live to share it.

Carry Bear Spray

Keep bear spray within reach, not in your backpack. There are some nifty gun-like holders that attach to the belt or chest. Pepper spray or dog spray won’t do the trick. Check the expiry date of your bear spray before entering the woods. Bear spray may deter other aggressive wildlife such as elk or cougars. Bear spray has been shown to be about 92 per cent effective in deterring bear attacks. Make sure you know how to use it first!

How to Distinguish a Bear

Grizzly

Kenny Breedlove, flickr.com/photos/kenny73116, CC by ND 2.0

Grizzly bears have round ears, a dented snout and a noticeable shoulder hunch. They are big, ranging in size from 200 kg to 450 kg.

Black Bears

Jitze Couperus, flickr.com/photos/jitze1942 CC by 2.0

Just to confuse things, black bears can be black, brown or even blonde. In contrast to grizzlies, they have a small, barely noticeable hump. Adult males can weigh anywhere between 80 and 300 kg, but they are typically smaller than grizzlies.

Experts debate on what to do if a bear attacks, but there are general guidelines to follow, depending on if the attack is predatory or defensive.

If you see a bear, but the bear doesn’t see you…

Back away slowly. If you need to continue past the bear, give it a wide berth.

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If you surprise a bear, stumble upon a bear feeding or with its cubs…

Remain calm. Show that you are human and not a threat by raising your arms and talking to it gently. Try to avoid eye-contact, as this can be seen as a sign of aggression.

If a bear charges you in a defensive manner, with its head low and ears back…

Stand your ground. Most defensive charges are just for show, to intimidate you. Try to show you’re not a threat. If the bear gets within close range (about a car’s length), use your bear spray. Aim carefully, as a standard canister usually only contains 6-8 seconds worth of deterrent.

If a bear makes contact with you…

Play dead. Lie on your stomach or curled up in the fetal position and lace your hands behind your neck. If you’re wearing a backpack, it may protect you slightly. Don’t move until you are certain the bear has left the area.

Some attacks are not spurred by surprise and defensive—some attacks are predatory. If you are being stalked by a bear, it doesn’t simply want to make sure you’re not a threat—it wants to kill you.

If a bear approaches you slowly, with its head up, it may simply be curious—or it may see you as prey.

First, try to get out of the bear’s way. If it seems intent on you, circling you or following you, show the bear that you’re going to put up a fight. Stomp your feet, yell at it, make yourself as big and scary as possible. Grab your bear spray or anything you can use as a weapon. Aim for the bear’s head, eyes or nostrils.

Do not try to run or climb a tree.

Black bears are much better climbers than humans. Grizzlies can run as fast as horses, uphill or downhill. The fastest human alive couldn’t outrun a bear.

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Always report any bear sightings or attacks to the Park Staff.

Now that you’re sufficiently terrified and scenes from The Revenant are flashing through your mind, be realistic about the extremely slim possibility of a bear attack. While bear sightings are common, chances of a bear attack are 1 in 36 million. Be smart, careful and informed, but don’t let the possibility of a bear encounter keep you from enjoying the Canadian wilderness this summer.

Have you ever encountered a bear in B.C.?
Have any insider tips?
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Christine Ly

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