Backcountry and Bears: be aware and be careful

By Doug Williams
Publish Date:

Adventures in the backcountry can be serene as you traverse this beautiful country in peace. But there are dangerous predators that roam the wilderness, and it behooves every adventurer to be aware of them and how best to avoid an unpleasant interaction with one.

The dangerous predator that we are covering in this article is the bear; the apex predator of our backcountry. There are two species of bear and each should be treated with respect, but they do interact with humans in different ways, so the place to start is to identify the species of bear that you might encounter.

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

Grizzly bear, recognizable by it’s concave face shape

The distinguishing factors of grizzly bears:

  • Grizzly bears are most commonly a medium to dark brown, but color variations from cream to black have been known.
  • They have a distinctive hump on their backs, situated between the shoulders.
  • The long guard hair on their forequarters is often tipped with white giving them a grizzled appearance, hence the name grizzly.
  • The face is concave in shape
  • Ears are short and rounded in shape
  • Long claws, usually around 2-4 inch long
  • These are large bears. On four paws they stand around three and a half feet, but when standing upright, they may well reach over six feet tall.
  • Grizzlies have a wide weight range, averaging around 400-500 pounds, but adult males may well reach over 800 pounds.

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

Black bears are not always black!

Black bears are far more common than grizzly bears and can be identified by these characteristics:

  • Their coats range in color from black to a light cream. Many have a lighter patch on the chest, and in the western part of the USA, they tend toward a reddish color.
  • The face is straight from the forehead to the nose as opposed to the grizzly’s concave face.
  • The ears are larger and pointed.
  • Short claws; around one and a half inches
  • They are smaller in size than a grizzly, standing around three feet whilst on four paws and around five feet when standing on their hind legs.
  • These bears average around 300 pounds in weight with large males reaching 400 pounds.

Bear Tracks

If you come across tracks in the wilderness, it is relatively simple to identify the species that made them. This diagram from the Western Wildlife Organization clearly shows the difference between the two.

How to identify bear tracks found in the wilderness.  (

Around the campsite

Campsites are the places most likely to attract bears and are the places that bears will be condemned to death if you, the camper, do not take the necessary precautions. Bears have a phenomenal sense of smell and can detect the strong smells from our food and toiletries from great distances.

Campsite invader – Author: Valerie – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Do not cook in your campsite; move at least 100 yards away. You do not want the smell of cooked food close to your tent.
  • Food and strong smelling items such as the clothes you prepared food in, insect repellent, deodorants, and other toiletries, must be securely protected from bears. The best thing to use is a bear canister, but at a push, you can hang the items in a bag suspended at least ten feet off the ground and far enough away from the trunk of a tree that the bears cannot reach it.
  • Keep your camp clean; wipe all tables and put everything away.
  • Either burn your trash in a fire until it is completely incinerated or put any rubbish into the bear proof bins provided. If you are far from civilization then place all rubbish into your bear canister or hang it in the tree.
  • Do not leave food or any strong smelling toiletries in your car. You may come back to find the metal peeled back like a ripe banana as bears have torn it apart to get to the food.

Precautions to take out on the trail

Remember that you are the trespasser in this is a formidable predator’s territory

When out walking or hiking take these simple precautions if you are in bear country:

  • Make noise whilst walking. This may seem nonsensical, but you do not want to surprise a bear.  Make sure they know you are in the area and they will most probably move off without you knowing they have been there.
  • Traveling with a group is safer, and you will make more noise so the bears will find it easier to hear you coming.
  • Like most wild animals, bears tend to move around at first and last light so plan your trip accordingly and try to be safely in camp at these times. Take extra precautions at these times if you cannot.
  • If you know you are in bear habitat, keep a sharp lookout for tracks, trees that the bears have used to rub against, and scat. If any look fresh, then be extremely vigilant.
  • Do not be tempted to take your dog and let it run loose. Dogs have been known to frighten bears and then draw the bear back to the owner. It is safer to leave our dog at home.
  • Carry your bear mace on your person, not in a pack.

Bear Encounters

Cades Cove – Author: Edd Prince – CC BY 2.0

If you do stumble upon a bear, do not panic.

  • Stand still and don’t make any sudden movements whilst you try to identify the species that you are facing.
  • DO NOT RUN! Bears run much faster than you do and climbing a tree is not an option as it may follow you up.
  • If it has not seen you, quietly move away, detour widely around it and continue on your way.
  • Give the bear its space. Do not walk toward it or crowd it in any way.  If its behavior changes, you are too close.  Slowly back away and give it space.
  • If the bear has spotted you, talk loudly and wave your arms. You want it to identify you as human when it is far away not when it is a couple of yards away.
  • If the bear stands up, it is not necessarily a sign of aggression. Bears are curious creatures and will often stand up to get a better look at something.
  • NEVER throw food at the bear.
  • Pick up any small children that are in the party. Small children are identified by most predators as easy prey.

Bear Attack

Brown bear growling – Author: John Solaro (sooolaro) – CC BY-ND 2.0

If a bear charges you, stand your ground and DO NOT RUN. The majority of charges are a bluff, and the bear will stop or veer off before getting to you. When it stops, slowly back away. Remember to report all bear encounters to the relevant authorities.

Bear Attack: Black Bears

Met a black bear? Be ready with the bear mace, but first make yourself as loud and scary looking as you can

If a black bear continues its charge towards you, stand tall, wave your arms and make loads of noise. This will invariably chase the animal away. Use your bear mace if necessary and start spraying when it is around 40 feet away. This will ensure it runs into a fog of pepper spray.

Bear Attack: Grizzly Bears

If a grizzly really means business, the best thing to do is play dead

These bears are another kettle of fish altogether. If you are attacked, lie face down, put your hands around your neck for some protection and play dead. Keep your legs apart and do not move. Leave your backpack on to protect your back. When the animal leaves, remain still for a while and then carefully look around before standing up.

Bear attacks in the wild are extremely rare as the statistics prove. Many thousands of travelers hike, ride, and drive through our wilderness areas every year and bear attacks can be counted on the fingers of one hand, though many people do have what they term a ‘scary’ encounter with bears.

Seeing a bear in the wild is an exciting moment

With a few precautions, it is possible to have many years of angst free travels in our beautiful wilderness areas.  Think smart, behave smart and enjoy your backcountry experience.

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