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In almost all cases bears are not a risk. Remember, bears are normally not aggressive, until provoked. 99% of all accidents is due to humans. Bears are curious though and are always looking for food. They have a very good sense of smell. So if they smell something that might be of interest to them, they will investigate it. So NO food in your tent and NO deodorant. Underneath you will find the basic rules. Read them first. Then check out the specific rules per species. They vary.

Grizzly bear eating a salmon in Alaska, Katmai national Park USA


Black bear cubs in a tree. Glacier National Park Montana, USA


Polar bear lying on the ice and looking at us. Svalbard, Spitsbergen, European Arctic


Grizzly bear close up

1. NEVER surprise a bear. Bears have their own personality. And like humans they can have a complete different attitude towards you when startled.  They don’t see very well in comparison to their sense of smell and hearing. Make sound while hiking. That doesn’t mean scaring all he animals in the forest, but talk to each other, or sing a song when you are alone. The use of a bear bell is not recommended anymore. The main thing is to let a bear know that you are there so that he can take his time to go somewhere else.

Grizzly bear eating a salmon in Alaska, Katmai national Park USA

2. Make sure you are not too close. Bears need a lot of personal space. The distance to keep away from a bear depends on the type of bear. And if it’s a male or female with cubs.  Most of them are friendly, gentle, flower loving individuals, but you also have guys with too much testosterone. So give bears their space. Like humans, each bear has his own "personal space". Once you enter this invisible barrier, it feels not at ease and possibly threatened. So it is a good thing to recognize bear behavior. If you see a change in behavior then it is time to back off and move away. If you are going to take a photograph, then use telephoto lenses! If you are too close for the "beautiful picture", you might be in the danger zone. More about safe distances and bear behavior in the chapters of the specific species.

Polar bear on ice with ocean view. Arctic. Svalbard

3. Smell human. They have an excellent sense of smell and interesting smells will attract their attention. Do not use lotions, aftershave, smelling toothpaste, hair spray, shampoo or any cosmetics with odors that may spread. Bears are very curious and will investigate it. A strange odor might mean food. It is not funny to have a bear ripping open your tent in the middle of the night just because you want to smell like a flower… Just smell like dirty socks or a sweaty t-shirt and you will be fine. The bear than knows you are human and will go away. Just wash yourself with water and a non-fragrant soap.

Polar bear on the ice. Arctic. Svalbard

4. Hike with a partner. Most accidents happen with solo hikers/ backpackers. When you hike with 2 or in a group a bear hardy ever comes close to you.

Black bear, cinnamon colored. Sequoia National Park USA

5. Trails usually go their own way and you have to follow them. But if you have a choice, having the wind coming from behind you might help.  When you have the wind from behind, the bear can smell that you are coming towards him. He knows that you are human and not prey or a rival bear so it might go away.

Black bear. National Bison Range, Montana, USA

6. If you find a carcass make sure you go away from it as soon as possible. A bear, puma or other animal will try to protect its food at all costs and therefore will never be far away. If you are too close to the carcass and the bear sees you, it will certainly react very aggressive and will try to get rid of you. If you find a carcass near the trail, get in contact with a National Park Ranger or Police Officer as soon as possible so that the area can be closed.

Black bear cubs in a tree. Glacier National Park Montana, USA

7. If you have a choice, stay away from dense vegetation. In dense vegetation, bears like to use the same small trail you are hiking on. Why do difficult if there is a trail, right? When you are on a trail in a forest with dense vegetation, make sure the bear knows you are coming. Make noise or start talking loudly. Do not make sharp noises like hitting on pots and pans. That might annoy and provoke them. Just let them now you are human and want to pass.

Black bear trap. Yosemite National Park, USA

8. Bears and trash. Bears have only six months to build fat reserves for their winter sleep and are always looking for something to eat. Therefore take all your trash with you. Especially food waste. Bears will investigate it and since they are very smart, they might link food with human smells. And we do not want them to learn that people carry food with them. People might not be on the menu, but our food certainly is. Once bears know that people have food, they become bold and dangerous. Some even need to be killed as a result. Please note that in most countries it is forbidden to feed bears. In the United States and Canada the fines are very high. Whether you gave food intentionally or unintentionally.

9. If you want to eat a snack or have lunch, make sure you do it on a spot where you have a good (preferable 360) view of your surroundings. If there is a bear around, it will investigate the new food smell. Being in an open space means that you can see the animal coming and can store away your food in time (bear proof food container or an ursack). 

Bear food storage rules. Kings Canyon National Park, USA

10. Camping & Cooking.

  1. Camp in an open, clearly visible place and keep your camp clean.

  2. Cook at least 40 meters downwind from the tent.

  3. Do the dishes as soon as possible.

  4. Wash yourself directly after eating with a non-fragrant soap.

  5. Store food, garbage and cooking equipment in an airtight bag, far from the tent, preferably between two trees. You can also use an Ursack (or something similar), or a bear proof food container (a.k.a. bear canister).

  6. Never store candy, food or scented things in your tent.

  7. Do not camp on animal tracks, directly next to salmon rivers/streams or close to berry bushes, carcasses, human waste or a used campfire were people have burned their trash.

  8. Never cook close to the tent (not even when it rains). The odors may stick to your tent.

  9. Cook strong scented food, such as fish and bacon, as little as possible.

  10. Never leave food on the floor, on your hands or on your clothes.

  11. After eating, never wipe your hands on your clothes. You may use the clothes as a pillow later. And at night a bear might want to investigate that food odor with its claws...

Grizzly in the river. Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA

11. Women and hiking. Some hikers have a fear of having their period while hiking in bear country. A bear might smell the blood. We have never heard of anyone having any trouble with a bear because of that. In fact, on our long distance hikes we meet a lot of single women who don't have any issues with it, concerning bears that is.

There are some things you have to keep in mind though.

  1. Although open for debate, it is best to use tampons.

  2. Rather not use sanitary pads. They smell a lot more.

  3. Use re-sealable plastic bags for used tampons and take them back with you.

  4. Never bury used tampons. A bear or other animals like foxes will dig them up. The smell of blood will then be connected to the human smells on it. And we do not want to teach bears that that is a good thing.

Normally bears will tolerate you in their domain and do you absolutely nothing as long as you follow these basic rules. Still, they are wild animals with their own characters, so it is no guarantee. We have been in bear country for more than 30 years. In that time we have had many encounters, some really close.  And we never had a problem so far. We do not take guns, pepper spray etc. with us, (except in Polar bear country). For us carrying those things is like a falls sense of protection. Bears look slow but are in fact extremely fast. To give you an idea: we have had grizzly encounters where the bear was in front of us in seconds, then showed us who was boss. We then slowly back away while talking gently in a low slow voice, not looking him in the eye. Letting him know who is king is usually enough. For us understanding animal behavior and react accordingly is way more efficient than a false sense of protection. Shooting a gun in the hope you do it right may only escalate things. A wounded or distressed animal is far more dangerous. Still, it is your choice. Someone who has been mauled might tell you the opposite. Just be aware. 99% of the time it is our fault, not the bears’. If you do want to carry some protection, pepper spray is probably your best option. But DO train with it before you go.

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