Canada is renowned worldwide for many things: maple syrup, endless forests, crystal clear lakes, towering mountains, hockey, and poutine. But one thing stands above the rest in making Canada a stand-out nation and popular tourist spot, despite our weather. I am, of course, talking about our diverse and populous wildlife.
For most of day to day life, an average person is only likely to run into the cuter side of our country’s fauna. A rabbit in the garden for example, or a raccoon crossing the driveway. On a good day we might spot a deer wondering through the suburbs. But what about those instances when something a little bigger wonders into town? Or crosses our paths on a camping or backpacking trip?
In this post, we’ll be discussing how to avoid a bear encounter and what to do if you are confronted by one of these magnificent animals.
Before camping or hiking
As with so many emergencies, preparedness will give you a big advantage when encountering any predator. If you know you’re heading into bear country, pack smart! Be sure to bring bear spray and know how to use it. Someone worked hard to write all those instructions and safety warnings, and it wasn’t just to meet industry requirements! Bear spray follows the same rules as spitting: don’t spray upwind.
Before you head into bear country, be sure to check the campground/trail webpages, and keep an eye out for signs warning of bears in the area. As you walk watch for bear droppings, paw prints, or leftovers. If you spot anything, or think there might be a bear in the area, there are things you can do to mitigate your risk.
Unless a bear is unhealthy or too used to humans, they will want to avoid you. You can help them do this by making lots of noise as you hike. Singing, clapping, whistling, or carrying a bear bell are great ways to give the local wildlife plenty of time to move out of your path. Stay together and keep pets on leash to avoid surprising any bears that might hear the main group, but not a solo wanderer. And sorry Fido, but Yogi doesn’t want to play.
If you’re camping in the back country and don’t have an official bear vault handy, don’t forget to check your provincial guidelines on how to best store your gear and set up your campsite to avoid an unexpected or curious dinner guest. In BC, hanging one’s gear from trees, keeping a clean campsite, and keeping the cooking area far from the tents are top tips for keeping a bear-aware campsite.
Time to Fight a Bear.
Okay, maybe not, but I couldn’t resist that headline.
Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare or plan or educate yourself, things just happen. A bear might wander into your suburb, or your brother-in-law might leave a full stick of pepperoni in the tent (true story), or you might sing your heart out only to encounter the one deaf bear for miles. So what do you do if you come face to face with one of Canada’s biggest predators?
- Don’t run. Running makes you look like prey.
- Speak in a low, calm voice – whether or not you think the bear has seen you yet. You don’t want to surprise it.
- Make sure you are not between it and its cubs.
- Back up slowly, not turning your back to it.
- Don’t stare. It’s bad bear etiquette and they will take it as a challenge.
Sometimes, despite all our best efforts, we can’t help but look delicious. In the rare instance when a bear might approach you, remember the most important rule of dealing with predators: Do Not Run. Bears are adorable, but they are also incredibly fast (35 km/h). There are two ways a bear might approach you, and it’s important to know the difference:
A Defensive Charge: this is the more common interaction people have with bears. It occurs when the animal feels threatened and wants to prove it’s scary. Black bears are notorious for “bluff charging” and you can see one in action in this video: (2:13 is a good example).
If a bear is being defensive, but closes the distance, use your bear spray. If you have none, lay on your stomach and protect your neck with your arms. Don’t ditch your pack (if backpacking) as that will provide valuable armour. The bear should lose interest quickly once it is sure you’re not a threat.
An Offensive Charge: These are the things of nightmares (nightbears?). Very rarely, a bear might see a human as food, and stalk them along the trail. If you see this behaviour, calmly make your way inside a building, car, or up a tree. Bears can climb, but it’s much harder to hunt climbing prey. If they charge, use your bear spray, and failing that, fight it with anything at hand. Sticks, rocks, hiking poles – anything can be used to fight. Best case scenario, you make yourself too much trouble and it leaves to hunt easier prey. Worst case scenario… well at least your friends and family can say they knew the hero that went down swinging.
Thank you for reading!
Article written by Zenia Platten – Writer and emergency preparedness professional.
Good article, thanks!
As someone who’s had close encounters with about 75 black bears and 25 grizzlies, I’ve probably had a bit more experience than many.
I would add a nuance to the bear fighting. If a black bear is attacking you, fight back. If you want to, or have to play dead, then worth a chance. But the stats are in your favour for fighting back. For grizzly, play dead and protect your head and back of neck as best you can.
As far as climbing trees, I’ve seen grizzlies climb to about 10 meters. (think of the 10m platform at the pool). They don’t like to climb typically, but if you are going to climb, don’t rest after a few feet up. Black bears can climb very well. Here’s a good example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hURgA_BNSGc
I’ve never surprised a bear ever. No matter how quiet I was. I am not a believer in bear bells. Bear bangers will work with the most timid or slightly curious bears, but not for any other bears. They simply don’t care.
I was happy to see your comments about not looking at them and talking to them. Spot on.