GRIZZLY BEAR BEHAVIOUR - RULES
To prepare us for a number of expeditions in Alaska and Canada we were trained by National Park rangers and other behavioral experts. Which was a good thing. Since 1992, we have had several close encounters with grizzly bears in the back country. Especially in Banff, Jasper and Katmai National Parks. Close means just a few meters (feet) away with fake attacks (showing who is boss) etc. Underneath you will find some basic rules. Normally nothing happens to you if you obay them. That said, these animals are unpredictable and their reaction depends on their personality and the circumstances of the encounter. We can not be held responsible for anything that might happen to you. You are entering their domain where they make the rules. If unsure, go with a guide.
Please read the rules in the General Behavior section before reading this. The following is specific for grizzly bears and deals with encounters.
1. NEVER surprise a brown bear. Brown/ grizzly bears do not like surprises. A black bear might be scared by the surprise and run away. A grizzly will most likely do the opposite. He knows he is king and will hit you down to the ground. Maybe even bite and maul you. Normally, a brown/ grizzly bear does not want to eat you. You are not its normal prey, it just wants to make sure you are not a danger to him in any way. Let him know you are coming. So when you do not have a good 360 view, sing a song, speak in a loud tone. Although not recommended anymore, some people use a small "bear bell" that you can hang on your backpack.
2. Close encounter rule 1. So there is one in front of you, what shall I do? It's important to let the bear know you are human. They rely more on their smell and hearing then on sight. Therefore speak to the bear in a normal friendly tone (not with a high pitch) and move your arms slowly. This helps the bear perceive you as being a human being.
3. Close encounter rule 2. If the bear is still unshure what you are, then it may be possible that it will stand on its hind legs. Although the movies want to believe you otherwise, THIS IS NOT AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR!!
The bear is only trying to see and smell you a bit better. An upright standing bear is usually curious, not aggressive.
Should this situation occur, then walk backwards, quietly and preferably diagonally (to move away from his direct line of escape). However, do not turn your back to him. If the bear follows you then stop and stand still, even if it comes closer. Keep talking in a low and friendly voice.
4. Close encounter rule 3. If it is still moving towards you than it wants to check you out up close. DO NOT RUN AWAY! You cannot outrun a bear. They are faster and more agile than you think and, like dogs, they will always chase a running animal. Once you start running, the bear will unconsciously see you as prey and will treat you as such. So stand your ground how frightening that may be.
5. Close encounter rule 4. When up close, never look a brown/ grizzly bear straight into their eyes. They perceive that as dominace and will act accordingly. Be submissive. Bow your head a little bit downwards and look to the ground.
6. Close encounter rule 5. If it comes really close, you want to play dead. In a slow movement put yourselve on the ground. Lie still with your face to the gound, on your belly with your feet towards him (others prefer the fetus-position). Protect you neck and head with your hands. And now it is waiting what it will do next. It might just sniff and move away. The more aggrasive ones might poke you with their claws and/or bite you (mauling). Although you might get hurt, brown/grizzly bears normally do not eat humans, so endure. While lying on your belly, the backpack shields your back. A brown bear will normally break off the attack as soon as he feels that there is no more threat. Play dead as long as possible until the bear is gone. The bear usually stays around for a while without you seeing it. If you move too early then the brown bear might launch another attack, and you have to play dead again.
7. Fake attacks. When you are too close to a bears comfort zone, it might do a fake attack. Usually this means that it runs towards you and makes a sudden stop right in front of you. However, they make no contact. If this happens start with rule nr 2. Look to the ground, start speaking in a normal voice and slowly move backwards, giving him right of way.
8. Guns, pepperspray, flare guns and tazers 1. We normally don't take them with us on a regular hike, too heavy for hiking. Also in grizzly bear country. We are trained in bear behavior, have experiance with them and feel comfortable when we are in their domain. However, it does depend on the season and where you are going. Normal hikes are not somewhere on the Bearing Sea in spring time. What we mean is that a hungry bear, just coming out of hibernation, in a terrain that does not offer much food, might attack you anyway, driven by hunger... So when we go to those far remote areas, we might decide to take something with us. It all depends on the expected circumstances. Also, in the far north, polar bears are now more frequently on land due to global warming. So that high up north, we do take a rifle, flare gun and pepper spray. Just in case.
9. Guns, pepperspray, flare guns and tazers 2. What to take when? This is open for debate. We have met hunters that think we are crazy to go without a gun/rifle. Wildlife/ National park rangers will tell you the opposite, although some parks, Like Glacier National Park, do recommend bear spray nowadays.
We normally do not take bear spray or guns with us in Europe and the lower USA. Also not in the sourthern parts of Alaska/ Canada where food is abundant. We take something with us when we are in the true Arctic (Svalbard, upper parts of Canada/ Alaska). If you decide to take something with you, make sure you know how to use it before you go !!
Tazers and the likes. Won't work on bears. Their fur is too thick.
Pepper spray. True, you wish you have it with you when you are (almost) getting mauled. And people that have been mauled will probably not go into the wilderness without a canister. It is really effective and many people use it. But how often does someone really get mauled while hiking? Almost zero if you compare it to the amount of people that are on the trails world wide. Also, pepper spray is for a short distance and you must have a clear head when you start using it (again PRACTISE). Another effective way is to hike with 2 or a small group if you have no clear sight. It is very rare that a bear comes towards you if you are in higher numbers. So if you do not feel comfortable, and there might be more hikers on the trail, just hook up with them for that distance. But still, it is up to you if you want to take pepper spray with you.
Rifles. We only talke them to protect our groups in the high arctic. And normaly only in Polar bear country or early in the season.
Hand gun. Nope, never took one with us. It is for short distances and knowing bears, shooting a couple of holes in him when he is charging probably won't stop him. Too big and too powerfull. It will only make him more mad. Pepperspray or a flare gun is a better option we think.
Flare gun. Yes, we take this with us, but only to the Arctic region which is polar bear region. A flare gun has several options.
You can use cartridges that produce a very loud bang. We use these ones first to scare it away which is usually enough.
If the bear isn't scared away and is still coming, we use flares. After shooting, they burn fiercely for a long time in a bright color, usually red and they create a lot of smoke. We shoot it on the ground between us and the bear.
If it's still not scared and keeps on coming, we have to shoot it with a rifle. Never let such a bear get too close to you or your group. It will single out someone and will suddenly run very fast and will grab that person. Luckely for us, we never had to shoot a grizzly or a polar bear. We have seen plenty of both though, also up close, but we always parted our ways without harming each other.
Flare guns can of course also be used to get rescued.
Attacks from brown bears/ grizzlies are extremely rare. Therefore, there is a high probability that you are not in danger at all. Most bears are only interested in protecting their young, food and their "personal space". Once this threat is no longer present they normally go away.