Mountain Equipment Company

Tips for safer travel in bear country

The best strategy for dealing with bears when hiking and camping is to avoid them. When bears become food-conditioned and are no longer wary of humans, they may need to be relocated or even put down by conservation officers. You can help keep bears safe in their natural habitat and protect yourself and other hikers by following the bear safety tips below.

Note: The information below includes recommendations from MEC and Parks Canada’s website on bear safety, but we can’t be held liable for any interaction or close encounter with a bear. You’re responsible for your own safety.

Before you go hiking

  • Check local park and trail websites for warnings about recent bear activity

  • Respect all trail closures and regulations

  • Carry bear spray and a bear canister if required or recommended

  • Plan to hike in a group of four or more

If you’ll be camping, find out if there are bear lockers or caches at the campsite and review these tips for avoiding bears while camping.

How to avoid bears while hiking

Bears are naturally wary of humans. If they hear or see you coming, they will likely run away, so make plenty of noise while you’re hiking to give them time to move away from the trail. Stay aware of your surroundings and watch for signs of recent bear activity like bear scat, dig sites, tracks, and clawed trees or stumps.

Follow these tips to prevent a bear encounter while you’re hiking:

  • Stay on designated trails

  • Make noise by talking loudly or singing as you hike

  • Be extra cautious around running water or when it’s windy, which could make it harder for bears to hear your noise

  • Try to avoid hiking at dawn and dusk, since bears are most active at these times

  • Stay alert when you crouch down, like when you’re getting water from a stream

  • Be aware of food sources around you, such as berries or spawning fish

  • Avoid bringing smelly food on your hike and keep food smells contained

  • Collect and pack out all food scraps and garbage (even compostable items like apple cores)

  • Keep dogs on leash

What to do if you see a bear

If you see a bear, don’t approach it. If the bear is aware of you but not threatening, remain calm. Gather your group close together and make sure everyone is present. Talk softly to the bear to make it aware that you are human. Back away slowly, leaving an open escape route for the bear. Wait to give it time to leave the area.

Remember these key bear safety tips:

  • Don’t run, because bears run much faster than humans

  • Don’t climb a tree, because most bears climb trees faster and better than humans

  • Keep dogs under control so they don’t excite the bear

  • If you spot cubs or discover a carcass, leave the area immediately

  • If you need to get past the bear, give it a wide berth

Do you need a bear bell or noise maker?

While bear bells are lightweight and easy to use, many are too quiet to be heard over outdoor sounds like wind and water. The noise of a bear bell also won’t identify you as a human, so it’s often better to use your voice.

Noise makers such as air horns and bear bangers are much louder and can be used to scare off a bear that’s still a distance away. But be aware that a bear might react aggressively to these loud sounds. It’s also possible to fire a bear banger so that it lands behind the bear and forces it to move in your direction (not good). To avoid these potential problems, most experts recommend bear spray as the best deterrent to carry while hiking.

How to use bear spray

Bear spray includes an ingredient called capsaicin that causes temporary burning in the eyes, nose and throat. It can also create a burning sensation on skin. The effects usually last from 15 to 60 minutes, and it causes no permanent damage to people or bears.

Using bear spray should be a last resort. Your best defense is to avoid a bear encounter altogether. But if you do have a surprise encounter with a bear, you may only have seconds to prepare to use your bear spray. Before you go hiking, read the instructions on your bear spray.

  • Keep bear spray on your belt or pack strap, not inside your pack

  • Practice removing it smoothly from the holster

  • Get familiar with the safety catch and trigger mechanism

  • Bear spray is effective at roughly 7 to 9 metres

  • Check the expiry date and replace your bear spray as needed

Never try to use bear spray as a repellent by spraying it on people, tents or packs. If you accidentally spray something, wash it off as soon as possible. If you accidently spray yourself or someone else, flush the eyes and skin with cool water. Try to stay relaxed and breathe normally while you wait for the effects to wear off.

Note: Most airlines don’t allow you to carry on or check bear spray. If you need to transport bear spray canisters, call the airline before your trip.

What to do if a bear approaches you

Stay calm and stand your ground. Get your bear spray ready and make yourself look big. Keep your backpack on, and if you’re in a group, stay close together. Pick up any small children and keep dogs close to you and as calm as possible.

Instead of trying to identify whether it’s a black bear versus a grizzly bear, we recommend thinking about whether the bear is acting defensive or aggressive.

What to do in a defensive bear encounter

This is the most common type of bear encounter. If you startled the bear or it’s protecting food or cubs, it most likely just wants to be left alone. Talk calmly to the bear and back away slowly.

If the bear bluff charges you, stand your ground. If the bear stops after a bluff charge, slowly wave your arms, talk softly and back away. If the bear doesn’t stop, use your bear spray when it is 7 to 9 meters away. Aim directly at the bear’s head, not above it.

If the bear doesn’t stop, play dead to show it that the threat is gone. Most experts recommend lying flat on your stomach or curled up with your hands clasped behind your neck. Stay quiet and the bear should wander away after a minute or two. If it makes physical contact for longer than two minutes, fight back.

What to do in an aggressive bear encounter

This type of bear encounter is very rare. If the bear acts curious, seems to be looking for food, or attacks you in your tent, it’s an aggressive encounter. The bear will be intent on you and will have its head and ears up.

In this scenario, try to move away from the bear. If it follows you, stop and stand your ground. Act as big and loud as possible by gathering your group, shouting and clapping your hands. Use your bear spray. If the bear makes contact with you, don’t play dead. Instead, fight back using bear spray, sticks, rocks or your fists to show the bear you’re not easy prey.

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