On a mini road trip this weekend, had the good fortune of seeing a fuzzy little friend from the safety of our car. There, directly on the edge of the highway, munching on a rather large clump of grass, was a juvenile black bear. We slowed down enough that he wouldn’t get frightened and potentially bolt onto the highway, and we drove past him so slowly that I could see how very large and very terrifying his claws looked. Eek! It got me thinking about being bear aware in the mountains.
I have a deeply rooted fear of bear encounters, coupled with an absolute fascination with reading about bear attacks. It all started with watching a supposedly educational short film in an outdoor amphitheatre in a relatively secluded campground in the Canadian Rockies at night. Why they would show these types of films to campers at night is beyond me, especially when it featured a bear attack survivor who had quite literally done everything right. What did he get for his bear savvy? Half of his scalp was torn off in the middle of the night, and the bear accomplished this feat through the camper’s tent fabric (!!!!!). And so, my healthy fear of bears/bear attack fascination was born.
I’ve spent all of my hiking years since desperately trying to avoid running into bears while hiking, which included a lot of reading about what does/doesn’t work. Today, I share the wisdom of my years of hiking, research and reading. The goal is to keep you from unintentionally surprising a bear on trail since the element of surprise is most closely tied to bear attacks.
Full disclosure: I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve also never been attacked by a bear so…I must be doing something right.
Do’s and Don’ts: Keeping Bears Out of Sight (but not out of Mind)
Don’t rely on bear bells: This is likely one of two controversial statements I’ll make in today’s posts. I think bear bells are a waste of time. Not only is the incessant tinkling annoying as hell when you’re trying to enjoy nature, but there is a lot of research that suggests they are not loud enough nor jarring enough to warn bears of your presence. This is particularly true around rushing water. My father insists on using his bear bell often, and sometimes I can’t even hear it one or two switchbacks away from him even without running water. They just aren’t loud. If you choose to use one, fair enough, but know that you may need to make extra noise in certain trail environments.
Don’t rely on bear spray: Yup, this one’s probably controversial too. But hear me out: I am not saying don’t carry it if it gives you some peace of mind, but I am saying don’t rely on it so much so that you’re not following other bear-aware basics. Personally, I don’t carry bear spray. It’s partly because I’ve tended to hike relatively popular and well-travelled trails, but it’s mostly because I know myself well enough to know that I would not be able to hold my shit together well enough to deploy it if it were necessary. If a bear is charging me, I’m going to panic. My better option is to do everything I can to minimize an encounter. The reality is that bear spray is a last resort and works to the extent that you can calmly aim and fire at the right time and distance. If you’re cool under pressure, you’re a better man/woman than I.
Do use your voice: Loud, frequent human voices seem to be widely recognized as the best way to avoid unwittingly surprising bears. This isn’t just talking to your buddies, though. It’s actually yelling. Back when I worked at a mountain lodge, the hiking guides were trained to get their groups making noise by yelling out “heeeeey bear” to which the rest of the group would yell at the top of their lungs “bear!”. Is it embarrassing? Hell, yes. Is it louder than a bear bell? Also, hell yes. I used to be mortified at the thought of someone hearing me yell to myself, but I just remind myself of things like the scene in The Revenant where my dear Leo becomes a chew toy for a grizzly.
Do heed bear warnings and closures: Bear warnings and area closures are put in place because there have been bear sightings and potentially even bears exhibiting aggressive behaviours. It’s best to wait until warnings and closures are removed. If you choose to hike anyway, make sure you’re fully prepared and, preferably, travelling with others.
Don’t assume that a lack of bear warnings means there aren’t bears: A couple summers ago, the rest of my family was out hiking on a very crowded, very popular trail on the Icefields Parkway. Despite hordes of people, they rounded a bend only to see a giant grizzly up ahead. They were able to back away slowly and safely, and no other hikers were harmed that day. The moral of this story is: bear encounters can happen any time/anywhere, even when there are no posted warnings.
Do pay attention to your surroundings: Keep an eye out for diggings, scat, bear prints, or carcasses. Any of these signs could mean a bear is in the area. Depending on the how fresh the signs are, you may want to hustle a bit faster or even retreat. I was once hiking a slightly more remote trail with zero other cars in the parking lot when I encountered one pile of fresh-looking scat, followed by another, followed by another, the last of which was literally steaming in the cool morning air. That was the end of that hike. Also be extra vigilant when hiking through berry bushes, particularly when berries are in season. It’s not just obvious signs, though. Anywhere you could unintentionally sneak up on a bear warrants some extra caution–shoulder high scrub, sharp turns in the trail, or hiking alongside raging creeks and rivers are all good environments in which to make some extra noise and keep an eye out.
Do hike with others as much as possible: There’s safety in numbers. A lot trails in Banff National Park actually have restrictions for groups of 4 or 6 hikers because attacks on groups are much less common. Even when restrictions aren’t in place, it’s better to hike with others (not just for bear safety, either!). People are natural noise makers, and even two humans looks more physically intimidating than one human.
I likely sound like a paranoid bear-phobic (I’m sure there’s a correct term for this, but I’m too lazy to look at up). I assure you that’s far from the truth. My fear of bear encounters has never caused me to avoid hiking and, really, as much as I call it a fear, it’s more of an incredibly healthy respect. Still, I’m going to do whatever I can to avoid ending up like that guy from the campground amphitheatre video…or poor Leo in the Revenant. Yikes.
Hike safely, friends.