Part 1 of Bear Safety: How to Prevent a Bear Encounter

May 9, 2015 How to

As adventurers, we seek remote, remarkable places for our outdoor activities. These places are where wildlife roam; we are in their home. We must respect every species of wildlife that we encounter, especially the fear-inducing, yet majestic, bear.

Black bear

Black bears are found in both Canada and the U.S. Find black bears in the Appalachian Mountains, Rocky Mountains, Alaska, the West Coast, and even as south as Texas. Photo Credit: USFWS on Flickr

Grizzly Bear

Grizzlies (or brown bears) are found all over the world. In North America, they mostly reside in Alaska, western Canada, and the northwestern United States. Photo Credit: chascar on Flickr

Whenever I first tell others about my hiking habit, I am always confronted with the question, “well, aren’t you scared of bears?”

Honestly, yes, I am scared of an aggressive bear encounter but I have never put myself in a situation to have a frightening confrontation with a bear. I know how to respect bears, how to prevent a bear encounter, and what to do if an encounter does happen. Preventive actions are needed to keep us safe and to keep bear populations healthy. These preventive measures can be applied for both black bears and grizzly bears (brown bears).

If you are in bear country, preventive measures should be taken before you even head out for your adventure, especially if you intend to camp overnight. Here are a few things to keep in mind before and during your outing to prevent a bear encounter:

    • Check with park rangers for recent bear sightings
    • Check for signs of a bear nearby while hiking and at camp
        • If you notice fresh droppings or diggings in the area, a bear is most likely close.
        • Continue on the trail with caution. You will have to take a detour if you spot the bear on the trail.
        • To prevent a bear visitor at your campsite, inspect your site before you set up.
          • Inspect for food/trash that other hikers might have left behind.
          • Do not camp near game trails.
          • Look around for any signs that a bear might be nearby (fresh droppings).
          • When you leave your site, make sure you take all trash with you.
Berries, but no Bells

Bear scat. Photo Credit: Tuchodi on Flickr

    • Stay Alert
      • Don’t forget to look up! A bear encounter could happen closer than you expect if you are constantly looking down at your feet. Stay alert and look up so you can spot a bear before you end up hiking right up to one.
      • Mountain bikers should stay alert and stay loud. Since a bike is quick and quiet, sing or talk to let bears now you are approaching.
    • Bear Bells
        • A bear encounter can be prevented by making yourself known to the animal. A bell on your pack lets the bear know that something is approaching. If a bell drives you nuts, I like to sing while on the trail. Making any noise while hiking alerts wildlife that you are here.
bear bell

This bear bell velcros to your pack.

    • Bear canister (or bear can)
        • A bear canister is a hard sided, bear resistant food storage container. Some parks require you to have a bear canister for backcountry camping.
        • You can either hang a bear canister or keep it on the ground well away from your tent. A bear might approach the canister and toss it around a bit but will be unable to get into it. Place ALL items with a powerful scent into the canister, not just food but things like toothpaste, deodorant, other toiletries, and cookware.
Putting food in bear canister

Inside of a bear canister. Photo Credit: daveynin on Flickr

Bear canister at campsite, Yosemite valley

Some campsites might have huge bear canisters permanently in place. If you are in the backcountry, however, you will most likely not see this. Photo Credit: Jerome Bon on Flickr

    • Cook away from where you sleep
      • Bears have a great sense of smell. Therefore, always cook and eat a safe distance away from your campsite.
    • Bring rope to hang a bear bag
        • Bear canisters are not always necessary and a bear bag should suffice in some areas. In bear country, you will need to either hang a bag or carry a bear canister. You should do either one or the other. Never sleep with your food in your tent.
        • For a bear bag, you will need a waterproof stuff sack, carabiner, water bottle with water in it (or a rock), and 15 meters (50 feet) of 550 paracord.
          • The waterproof stuff sack is where you will stash your food, toiletries, and cookware.
          • The water bottle full of water or a rock is simply there to use as a weight. Tie one end of the rope around the water bottle or rock and throw the water bottle over your desired branch.
        • You will want the branch for your bear bag to hang from to be tall, strong, and long. You bear bag should be about 10-12 feet above the ground, four feet from the trunk, and a bit away from your tent site.
        • Once you throw the weighted end of your rope over your desired branch, untie the weight and use the carabiner to clip your food bag to the rope. Then, string the other end of the rope through the carabiner as well.
        • Pull up your bag using the opposite end of the rope that is strung through the carabiner. Hoist up your bag to branch level. Tie off the end of the rope on the tree or nearby tree.
        • Bears aren’t always the hungriest culprit. Bear bags are extrememly effective against rodents and other wildlife that might get into your food.
Hanging our bear bag

Photo Credit: Chris Waits on Flickr

Our bear bag

Photo Credit: Cvjetichologue on Flickr

  • Do NOT feed bears
    • Bears do get addicted to garbage and human food, especially bears that become accustomed to human contact.
    • These bears might actually frequent spots where humans are known to be. Do not feed these bears. It is not healthy for the campsite or the bear.
  • Know the signs of a bear’s kill site
    • If you see circling birds, dead carcasses, or smell a putrid odor, avoid the area. This could be a bear’s common kill area.

Through my experience in the backcountry, bears typically run at the sight or sound of humans. I have seen dozens of bears and have never had a serious confrontation. These tips will help you have a safe and remarkable adventure in bear country. A bear sighting can truly be amazing but remember these tips to prevent a bear encounter in bear habitat.

Read Part 2 of Bear Safety: What to Do During a Bear Encounter. This article discusses defensive options and smart tactics you should do if you happen to come into contact with a black or a brown bear.


Do you have any other tips for preventing bear encounters? Let us know in the comments below!


Madison Dragna

Banff Highline Backpacking Trip
February 22, 2017

[…] precautions are necessary. Aside from making noise and hiking with bear spray which can prevent an unwanted encounter, it’s important to stow your food so bears, or any other animal, can’t get to it. All […]