Contrary to what you may hear from people, or see in the movies, bears are not out to hunt humans. Bears prefer to avoid humans, though human carelessness can cause them to behave otherwise. Avoid creating situations that could become dangerous for yourself or future hikers in bear country, by learning behaviors that will decrease the likelihood of bears ever crossing your path.
While You Hike
Bears prefer dense cover, so if you are out hiking alone and come across an area of thick vegetation, make some noise! Bears can become aggressive if they are startled, so do everything you can to provide a warning that you are coming. If you travel with trekking poles, bang them together as you walk. Pick your favorite song and sing it loudly. Clap your hands. Carry a bell on your backpack so that you jingle as you walk. Let the bears know you are nearby and they are likely to clear out or leave you alone.
If you are traveling with children, keep them close by in the denser areas, don’t let them run ahead. If you are hiking with a group, stay close and keep up lively banter. A bear is most likely to be startled if they can’t see, smell or hear you coming, so be conscious on windy days when your smell is being blown behind your or in areas with noisy streams where a bear might not be able to hear you. If you are hiking at night in bear country, be sure your group is adequately prepared, because bears tend to forage for food at night.
Finally, as you hike, don’t leave your food or your backpack unattended. Make sure that you pick up all your trash, store it in Ziploc bags to reduce the smell, and pack it out with you so that you don’t attract any unnecessary animal attention.
Create a Camping Triangle
Once your hike is done for the day, and you are ready to set up camp, start by creating a camping triangle. First, check your desired camping area to be sure that it is free of bear scat or any other indicators of strong wildlife presence. Next, check the direction of the wind. Where is it blowing your smell? When you have identified that direction, draw a triangle in the sand, locating your tent in an upwind position from where you will use the bathroom and where you will cook your food. All of these points should be relatively equidistant, and at least 100 feet apart.
You also need to consider where you will store your food. If you place it near where you intend to cook or go to the bathroom, you will draw animals straight to it through the other smells that will linger in the air. Look for a tree to hang your food or a good group of rocks to wedge in a bear-proof container that is somewhere upwind from your tent, between your cooking and bathroom locations.
Store Your Food Appropriately
You have two options for overnight food storage in bear country:
• Bear Hang
• Bear-Proof Container
If you choose to hang your food, you want to make sure you have a durable storage sack such as the Ursack Minor, because bear teeth aren’t the only ones that will attack your hanging food. Mice, squirrels and other little animals have been known to get into food sacks and wreak havoc. In addition to your sack, you will also need paracord, a good carabiner and a rock. The rock you should be able to find wherever you are camping.
The rule of thumb for a good bear hang is that your food sack hangs 10 feet up in the air and 5 feet away from a tree, so a bear cannot reach it by either standing on its hind legs or climbing up a tree. The best trees for a bear hang have long, strong branches with smaller branches partway out, enabling you to get the desired distance away from the trunk.
Once you have identified your tree, tie one end of your paracord to a carabiner and wrap the carabiner and paracord around the rock multiple times. Throw the rock over the branch at least 5 feet out from the trunk of the tree. When it catches, let out slack in the paracord to lower your carabiner to eye level. Attach your bear sack to the carabiner and hoist the bag up until it is 10 feet in the air. Tie off the extra paracord to the tree.
The other option for storing food that requires no physical exertion at night is a bear-proof container, such as a BearVault. These containers are difficult for humans to open and impossible for bears because they require opposable thumbs. The only way bears have successfully beaten this device is by throwing it off a cliff, where it bursts upon impact. To avoid this situation, the best way to store a bear-proof container is to find a group of rocks or a Y-shaped space in a tree or bush and wedge the container into it. Ensure that this location is far away from ridges and cliffs so that an animal does not loosen it and use gravity to get it open.
If you are torn between the two methods of food storage, consider pack space and weight. A bear sack is lighter and more forgiving in terms of space in your backpack. It shrinks in size as you eat the food and it also more easily houses awkwardly shaped food items. A bear-proof container is heavier and takes up a good deal of space in your pack that does not decrease in size as the amount of food decreases. You must also consider the requirements of where you will be visiting. Some locations, such as Yosemite National Park, mandate the use of bear-proof containers and will require you to rent one if you do not bring your own because their bears have figured out how to defeat a bear hang.
Keep Smells out of Your Tent
Whichever method you select for carrying your food, make sure you have a little extra room in it to store your toiletries and your trash. Sunblock, chapstick and even hand sanitizers have a smell that has and will attract wildlife, so be sure to place all of these items with your food in your food storage container at night. Food wrappers are equally likely to draw attention. Bears are able to smell food up to one mile away, so your focus on removing all smells from your backpacking tent will dramatically decrease your likelihood of a late night black bear visit.
What to Do If You Encounter a Bear
If you are deep in black bear country, such as in the Great Smoky Mountains, you may encounter a bear despite your best efforts to avoid it. It is good to be prepared to know what to do in those situations. Your response should depend on what the bear is doing.
First, you must understand that bears will rear up on their hind legs out of curiosity, not because they are ready to attack. If a bear is merely observing you, talk to it in a soothing tone to show that you are human. Make yourself appear larger by lifting your arms, trekking poles or pack up into the air. If you are in a group, gather together, making sure that you are holding on to your children, so they don’t run or scream. Do not turn your back on a bear, but back away slowly, providing an ample escape route for the bear.
If the bear charges, hold your ground at first before backing away. Bear spray was created for this type of situation. If you packed bear spray, disperse it in a side to side motion in front of you for up to 6 seconds. This will create a cloud to deter the bear.
If you are able to retreat, but the bear follows you start making noise. Yell, clap, wave your arms and toss things in its direction but do not aim at the bear. If nothing else is working, drop something to distract it as you create more distance. Whatever you elect to drop, make sure it is an item that the bear will not want to seek out from future hikers, such as food or your backpack.
If you decide to hike in black bear country, adequate preparation can help you avoid unnecessary encounters. Before leaving, be sure to check out the common wildlife in the area and any special requirements the location may have for traveling through it. While you hike, remember to make noise in questionable areas, and to store and pack out all food and trash appropriately. When you camp at night, create a camping triangle and remove anything scented from your tent. If you encounter a bear, respond appropriately to their behavior.