Get Out There

Prepare for Bears While Hiking

Over the years, we have written many blogs about how to prepare for hikes. While we’ve discussed proper equipment, shoes and planning, we have never addressed bears. Bears are always around. Once you head into nature, there are animals all around you. But, in fall, bears are more of a danger than in other seasons. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to prepare yourself.

It’s important to note that nothing you do can completely protect you against wild animals. A couple and their dog were recently killed in Canada by a grizzly. They had a permit to be in the area. They were carrying bear spray. They hung their food in a tree to avoid attracting animals. There were no bear warnings when they were in the park.

The only thing that might be considered a “mistake” that they made was hiking with their dog. It hasn’t been released if the dog was leashed when the bear attacked. Unleashed dogs can provoke bears to become defensive. But many people don’t know that, and the poor couple certainly can’t be blamed for their deaths.

“Dogs, unfortunately, are a factor in most bear attacks. Even though bear attacks are rare… dogs are very commonly involved,” said Mike McIntosh, founder and president of Bear With Us, an Ontario-based bear sanctuary. “Bears in general, especially cubs and small bears, have also been threatened through thousands of years by wolves. And there’s not much difference in dogs,” he said. “When a bear comes across a dog, it’s a negative response. And usually, if the dog harasses a bear, the bear will respond by chasing it… ideally, leave the dogs at home.”

According to Liz King, executive director of Teton County Search and Rescue in Wyoming, bears are drawn to areas where hunters have gutted animals during hunting season. They get protective of innards left behind. They are hungry as they get prepared for winter. Avoiding hunting grounds is best if bears are in the area.

Bears are in a state called hyperphagia. “It’s a period in the fall where bears are eating anything and everything to fatten up for hibernation,” said Beth Pratt, the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. “They eat everything: Ants. Roadkill. Flowers. Nuts. And, unfortunately, human food that’s not secured. Our food is very attractive to them; it’s easy calories.”

Don’t leave food in your car if you go hiking or camping. A bear can get into your car. If you are in a tent or camper, put your food in a bearproof cooler and put it in a tree 100 feet away from your tent. Dispose of your food and any disposable cookware in bear-resistant trashcans. Bears that eat human food are more attracted to areas with humans, so you don’t want them getting used to it. You also shouldn’t cook next to where you are going to sleep. The scent of cooking can travel a long way, and it smells as good to bears as it does to us. If you don’t want the risk of waking up with a bear next to your tent, cook away from your tent.  

While bear spray is a good tool to protect yourself against an attack, it is your last line of defense. And it’s only useful if you have it where you can reach it. According to Nick de Ruyter, the WildSmart program director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley, having it on a belt on your hip or chest is best.

Mr. McIntosh said the best weapon is actually your voice. Talking or singing loudly will show a bear that a human is in the area, and it will leave. Humans are apex predators. Bears don’t want to meet us any more than we want to meet them! The more people who are together, the more likely a bear is to walk away.

Bears might not always leave; they are wild animals and unpredictable. Recently, a bear and her cub joined a group of 13 hikers for 20 minutes. Thankfully, the group had an experienced guide who kept everyone calm and walking slowly. If you run, the bears are more likely to give chase. Walking and talking are your best options. Although all our instincts tell us to run and scream, remaining calm and steady keeps the animals relaxed. Eventually, the two bears ambled away.

Hiking and camping in the fall is lovely. The weather is gorgeous. The sights are breathtaking as the seasons change! But you do have to take more care. But thinking ahead and being aware of your surroundings, you can have a great — and safe — time!

Banner image: Zdeněk Macháček via Unsplash

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