Introduction To Bear Safety:
Bear safety is a critical safety issue in Alaska, the Yukon Territories and western British Columbia. These areas have a lot of bears and Alaska alone is home to 70% of the North American bear population. If you’re using a tent out there, you need to know about bear safety, protocols and self-defense mechanisms. This isn’t here to scare you, but if you do have an encounter, you need to know what to do.
The likelihood of being on the wrong end of a bear attack is extremely low, especially if you follow safe practices that are designed to ensure you won’t even have a bear encounter to begin with. Millions of people have spent time in areas where bears are known to exist, yet bear attacks are relatively uncommon. The most common reasons for bear attacks are entirely preventable, that’s why you need to be, “Bear Aware!”
When To Be On Bear Safety Alert?
Any time you’re camping in an area where bears are known to exist. That turns out to be many places and it never hurts to use good bear safety practices wherever you’re camping.
When you’re tent camping in Western British Columbia, the Yukon Territories and especially Alaska, always be on high alert and assume bears are in your area. Authorities are continually on the lookout for problematic bears that intend to harm or disrupt people’s recreational activities. You should not rely on that as a sole source of protection. You need to conduct yourself in a way that reduces your risk and if you do so, chances are very good you’ll be fine.
Food and Bear Safety:
The number one reason that bears come looking for people is their food. They’re almost always hungry and while they’re used to forging on their own in the woods, they will take an opportunity for an easy, low risk snack. You need to prevent that! These are the top food related bear safety practices you need to use every day.
- Never, ever store food (or scented anything) in your tent!
- Never, ever feed a bear or throw food at a bear under any circumstances!
- When you get your food out, put it away and do your dishes as soon as you’re finished. Don’t leave plates, food, leftovers or anything out for longer than needed.
- After eating, make sure you haven’t dropped any food accidentally and generally try to keep a clean, organized camp.
- Store your food in your vehicle, if possible, and park a fair ways from your tent. If you to need to leave food out, suspend it from a tree using rope or paracord at least 10 feet off the ground well away from your, and other people’s, tents.
- Change your clothes after cooking and before going to sleep at night. Keep the food smelling clothes in your vehicle or suspended from a tree like you would food.
- Make sure any food or food related packaging in your campfire is completely burned.
- Do not leave any food in your camp after you leave. Please take other peoples safety as seriously as your own.
- If possible, cook your food away from camp.
- If you’re in a campground and you see other campers blatantly disregarding bear safety (like leaving food out all night or otherwise), it might be appropriate to say something. Do so politely and with a concern for yourself and other campers. We’ve had experiences where people in the safety of RV’s have put us at risk unknowingly and most have appreciated being informed of the serious concern to other people’s lives.
- Pack all your trash and stuff out. Most of the time, bear safe trash containers are provided where bears are a problem. Use them and always follow the “leave no trace” mantra when you’re out in nature.
Dogs & Bear Safety:
We all love our furry companions, but dogs and bears are mortal enemies and don’t get along well. Some people can’t be convinced to leave their dog at home and if you can’t, you need to follow these precautions.
- If you can stand it, leave your dog at home in a safer place.
- When on walks, always use a leash. Even if you’ve “never seen” your dog take after something.
- When in camp, make sure you tie up your dog and he or she can’t go far from camp.
- If your dog is barking and making commotion, do your best to find the cause. Early warning is a good reason to have a dog, but if it’s a bear at your doorstep, the dog could escalate the situation very quickly and you need to be aware of this.
- If you have an encounter with a bear, your first instinct should be to save yourself and your loved ones, not the dog. If you see that you have time to respond, make an immediate attempt to get the dog and yourselves in your vehicle. If your dog continues to bark and you have no safe haven, realize that the dog barking could be cause for the bear’s continued pursuit. See tips on “what to do if you encounter a bear” for more information.
- In an imminent attack, you may have to consider the impossible scenario that your dog may be the subject of the attack. If it does play out this way, use the opportunity for your escape. Do not attempt to rescue the dog. Don’t be a fool, let nature take its course and you will live another day.
Notes About Bear Spray:
Bear spray is an essential part to having an all-encompassing bear safety approach. It is a last-ditch precaution, an effective option when you have no other options.
- Bear spray is recommended to have on your person and in your tent when you are camping or hiking in Alaska, western BC or the Yukon territories. If you’re in camp, you don’t necessarily need to Wyatt Earp your spray in a holster, but always know where it is and keep it close.
- Bear spray is legal in the US, Canada and the Yukon Territories. US citizens can bring approved bear sprays into Canada without trouble. If customs asks about your transport of bear spray, advise them that you are carrying it and you won’t have any troubles. They will likely ask you a few questions about it to make sure you’re carrying the right stuff and compliant with Canadian law. Mace and other human self-defense sprays are not permitted in Canada without a permit.
- If you’re hiking in the wilderness, keep your bear spray with you. Again, no need to Wyatt Earp the spray, but maybe keep it in your pack’s side pouches to make sure it’s accessible on a moment’s notice.
- Be familiar with how to deactivate the safety on your bear spray canister. Study the mechanism and follow the manufacturers directions for your particular spray. Never remove the safety unless you are in imminent danger from a bear.
- If you are not comfortable with the use of a bear spray, many manufacturers make mock bear spray canisters that work exactly like your bear spray, but contain inert, non-dangerous discharge materials. We encourage practicing with mock bear spray before you intend to use it.
- Never use bear spray unless you feel that an attack is imminent. It should be a course of last resort, not a first. If you follow proper bear safety protocols, most bears will just simply go on their way elsewhere.
- Always remember that bear spray can affect and severely demobilize you. If you do ever need to use it, ensure you have a clear shot of the target bear and do your best to keep calm, aim, then pull the trigger.
- If you intend to take a flight at the end of your trip, you may be required to surrender your bear spray. Check with your airline ahead of time, however, it is likely they will tell you, “not allowed” even in checked baggage. It is likely permissible to transfer bear spray on a ferry between the mainland US and Alaska, however, you should check with the ferry operator prior to committing to it. Always store bear spray in a secure, safe place when it is not needed.
Notes About Firearms In Canada:
Since this site is dedicated to a road trip to Alaska, we would be remiss to not mention a bit about firearms. Firearm laws in the US are decidedly different from those in Canada. It is not permissible for US citizens to bring firearms into Canada, of any type. The only approved bear safety in Canada is bear spray and it must be specifically designed as a bear deterrent.
Do not try to smuggle a firearm into Canada as its discovery could literally mean jail time, costly legal fees and your forever ban from entering Canada ever again. It is just simply a bad idea and customs does reserve the right to search your vehicle, no matter how right or wrong you may believe that is.
There are exceptions for firearm entry into Canada, however, these are scenarios that absolutely need permission, permits and other papers to do so. You will be required to present your permits and papers when crossing customs and you must declare your firearms. Be advised that this is somewhat a lengthy and costly process and not advised unless you intend to hunt for game or have other, logical reasons for doing so.
We feel that bear spray is an adequate, if not better, deterrent for an imminent bear attack and is recommended as the proper alternative. Bear spray has been shown to be effective and safer than a firearm when trying to dissuade a bear from an attack.
General Bear Safety Precautions:
- If you are on a hike in an area where bears are known to exist, make noise while you travel, even if you’re traveling alone. (Sing, talk to yourself, etc.) It’s better to travel with a group of people and keep up the banter along the way. Bear bells that make noise are also known to be effective. This will make your presence known well before you encounter a bear, and most will move on from the unknown noises.
- Bears tend to be more active in the early morning and late evenings. Be aware of this and keep your senses heightened at these hours.
- Always stay on marked trails and when possible, camp in established campgrounds with other people around. If you find yourself alone or near alone in a campground, take extra bear safety precaution.
- Keep an eye out for signs of bear. Scat, tree bark being removed from trees, obvious fresh holes in the ground from digging and dark hair attached to a tree’s bark are all signs of a bear’s presence and likely frequenting of an area.
- If a bear is standing on its hind legs, it is not necessarily a sign of immediate attack. Many bears will rear on their legs to get a better view of the situation.
What To Do If You Encounter A Bear:
- Insure that you and no one in your party panics or creates sudden movement. Do not run, do not scream, do no do anything but methodically think through the situation you are in and how you’re going to get out of it alive.
- Immediately scan your surrounding to see if you can see any other bears in your sight. If necessary, split your attention on any that you see.
- If you see the bear, but the bear does not yet see you, get away and out of sight immediately and with as little noise as possible.
- Give the bear plenty of space. Keep on your way, or back away at a firm, but not panicked pace. If you see the bear change their behavior in any way, give the bear more room.
- If you see a bear at a distance and you’ve caught its attention, talk loudly to it and wave your arms in the air. You want it to know you’re human and are higher on the food chain that he or she is.
- If bear starts pursuing you, throw something on the ground as you get away. Something like a water bottle or anything you have with you, even a camera, cell phone, hat or sunglasses. If you are wearing a pack, do not throw this down as it can protect you in an attack situation. Chances are good the bear will stop to check whatever you threw down while you can escape. Whatever you have with you is less valuable than your safety.
- Although it was mentioned before, never, ever throw food at a bear. You might think it’s a good distraction, the bear thinks there’s more where that came from.
- If you encounter a bear in your camp that seems to have taken a particular interest in you or your camp, try to get help. Consider packing up camp for better pastures in severe scenarios. A simple run-in with a bear is often terrifying, but it’s not necessarily an indicator you’re in mortal danger. That said, we would totally understand the desire to flee from the situation, if that’s what you feel is right for you.
What To Do If A Bear Attacks Your Tent:
This is a terrifying scenario and if you’ve taken every precaution to avoid food smells or other scents in your tent, it is extremely unlikely. That said, it has been known to happen, albeit rarely. Many bear safety recommendations fail to consider this scenario, so this is what you should consider if it happens.
- If no one is in your tent, make your escape as quickly as possible. Try not to draw attention to yourself, but make your escape brisk without running or panicking. Your tent can be easily replaced, you and yours cannot. Make safety to your vehicle or well away from the situation until all is clear.
- If you are attacked and in your tent, your instinct will be to immediately panic. You will be unable to identify the type of bear and therefore the right procedure to use. Fight like hell. Kick, scream, yell, punch and use whatever you can to fight the bear to the best of your ability. Fight like your life depended on it, as it very well does.
- If you see an opportunity to escape your tent, do so and continue to fight, yell and scream. Do not try to run from the bear as it will likely see you as prey.
- Try to draw as much attention to yourself such that other campers might wake and come to your aid, perhaps scaring the bear off.
- If you are able to escape, immediately notify rangers of the situation. They need to know about severe attacks like this to capture and relocate the bear to safe areas. Do not give yourself to sympathy for the bear, even if you escape. The next victim might not be so lucky.
What To Do If A Bear Charges:
- This will be a terrifying event, whomever you are. Continue to keep calm and take methodical action.
- Do not try to climb a tree as you may have heard or seen elsewhere. Many, if not most, bears can climb trees better than you can unless you’re a lumberjack by trade and freely climb trees with great skill.
- Bears may charge you and veer off at the last moment in an attempt to intimidate you. Do not take action until a direct hit is imminent. If the bear veers off, continue backing away slowly.
- Do not run from the bear. Always move away slowly and firmly.
- If the bear continues to advance on you, is clearly menacing towards you and is within 40 feet of your position, this is the right time to use bear spray. Be accurate, purposeful and hit your target. Use short bursts of spray and fire when needed. Try to escape firmly, but not in a panicked fashion, once the bear’s face is enveloped with spray and is clearly distracted.
All of the above bear safety information is true, regardless of the type of bear that you encounter and these things will simply ward off the overwhelming majority of attacks. The most complicated aspect of bear safety comes with the actual point of attack and it is also a source of confusion or misinformation for a lot of people. You have to know your bear types to determine the best course of action in an attack situation. There are only two types of bears, black and brown, and what you need to do in an attack situation is highly dependent on which of these two basic types are attacking you.
As soon as you encounter a bear, try to determine its type. Color alone is not an indicator. Try to commit the basic differences to memory so that you can fundamentally understand the difference between species.
This is a brown bear (click on image for larger size):
Brown bears, also known as grizzly bears, are colored between black and light blonde and feature somewhat “frizzy” type hair. Their most distinct feature is a hump on the back of the neck, a tell-tale indicator of a brown bear. Another major distinction are the ears, which tend to be short and round in size and shape. The are usually large, from 350 to 500 pounds, with some getting up to almost double that size. Their stature is usually between around 3-1/2 feet and 6-1/2 feet tall at the shoulder. Their prints tend to show distinct claw marks on the ground.
This is a black bear (click on image for larger size):
Black bears are commonly black, however they range from black to light blonde. Most have a distinctive patch on their chest or their nose and some western varieties are largely reddish brown in color, slightly mimicking a brown bear. They lack the hump feature and their faces tend to be more slender than their brown bear counterparts. Another major distinction is black bears tend to have pointy ears, not small and round like their brown bear counterparts. They are usually smaller than brown bears and range in size from 110 to 300 pounds, though some can get up to 400 pounds and be larger than a female grizzly bear. Their stature is usually between around 2-1/2 feet and 3 feet at the shoulder, typically smaller than a brown bear. Their prints do not usually feature claw marks.
What To Do In An Attack:
Hopefully you have become familiar with the major distinctive features of the above two types of bears and can identify them if you have an encounter. These are the bear safety procedures you can use if you are actively being attacked by a bear and all other measures have failed. Chances are extremely good that the above measures will adequately protect you from the bear encounter and will prevent an imminent attack.
Brown bear attacks:
- Do not run!
- Play dead. Immediately fall to the ground face first with your back towards the sky and spread your legs apart.
- Don’t move and try to limit your breathing or any noises you make.
- Leave your pack on, if you’re wearing it it may protect you from bites or slashes.
- Unless you are being bitten or severely hurt, continue with the above procedures and hopefully the bear will back off.
- If the bear backs off, stay silent and immobile for as long as you can. The bear may be keeping an eye on you and will come back if you move. Hold out as long as you can.
- We disagree with a lot of attack guides that don’t consider a severe attack scenario. If you are following the above advice and are actively being bitten or severely wounded (not just sniffed, pawed or lightly nibbled) to a point you can no longer stand, then fight like hell. It will probably escalate the situation for the bear as well, but we feel it is the appropriate action over being eaten alive. Punch its nose, claw it’s eyes, scream, yell, kick and do whatever you can to save your life. Use whatever bear spray you have left and try to get right in the eyes. You will probably be enveloped too, so try to take precaution if you can. Use anything within reach if it’s better than your fists.
- If you are able to escape, immediately notify rangers of the situation. They need to know about severe attacks like this so they can capture and relocate the bear to safer areas. Do not give yourself to sympathy for the bear, even if you escape. It’s next victim might not end up so lucky.
- If necessary, seek medical attention immediately.
Black bear attacks:
- Do not run!
- Immediately make as much noise as possible. Jump, scream, flail and act as tough as you possibly can.
- Use whatever bear spray that you have left and try to aim for the face and eyes.
- As soon as the attack hits, fight back with everything you’ve got. Punch, kick, scream, yell, claw its eyes, punch it’s nose and do whatever you can to fight it off. If there are objects like a rock nearby, to gain access to it for self defense. Spray, spray, spray it’s face if you have any remaining bear spray.
- Keep fighting. If you win the fight, get up and firmly make your escape. Do not run.
- If you are able to escape, immediately notify rangers of the situation. They need to know about severe attacks like this so they can capture and relocate the bear to safe areas. Do not give yourself to sympathy for the bear, even if you escape. It’s next victim might not end up so lucky.
- If necessary, seek medical attention immediately.