POLAR BEAR BEHAVIOUR - RULES

So, you are going to hike in the Actic region? Nice :-) Wilderness at it’s finest. Usually no trails just hiking on skis or on the tundra. No one around, just raw and unspoiled nature. Hiking in this region of the world means that you have to know what you are doing. Knowing to be totally self-sufficient and being capable to deal with almost anything nature throws at you. And that includes polar bears.

Wilderness guide Andre de Jel on Svalbard, the Arctic, Norway.

We have worked as guides in the Arctic on Svalbard (Spitbergen). A beautifull group of islands north of Europe. In that time we encountered several polar bears. Underneath we will be talking about how to go camping in Polar bear country, and what to do if you see a polar bear. We just show you some basic rules to give you a general idea. If you decide to go, GET A GOOD TRAINING FROM AN EXPERIANCED GUIDE, AN INUIT OR OTHER KNOWLEDGABLE PERSON. We are not responsible in any way if anything happens to you. Approach this sort of hiking like walking and sleeping in a tent while there are lions about. Know what you are doing.

Please read the rules in the General Behavior section before reading this. The following is specific for polar bear encounters and camping.

1. NEVER surprise a Polar bear. Bears do not like surprises. A black bear might be scared by the surprise and run away. A polar bear probably not.  Although you are not his normal prey, you may become breakfast if he is hungry and sees an opportunity.  Make sure you always have a good (360) view. Polar bears are good camouflaged. You usually only see them when they are moving. WE ALWAYS HAVE BINOCULARS ON US. Although the following is kind a scary for most people, know that a normal polar bear encounter is usually one where he tries to avoid you. They are actually pretty AWESOME !

2. Close encounter rule 1. So there is one coming towards you, What next? Make loud noises. Especially loud bangs might scare it away. For that reason we carry flare guns. A flare gun has several options. When he is still some distance away we first use a big bang to scare it off. If that does not works we shoot a flare in front of him. It burns fiercely on the ground with a lot of red smoke. This is usually enough. Flare guns can of course also be used to get rescued. 

Also, do not run, they out run you easily.

3. Close encounter rule 2. When it's not scared away, and keeps on coming, you have to shoot it with a rifle. Never let such a bear get too close to your group. It can suddenly run very fast and will grab someone. If you could not kill the bear and it comes close to you be aware that pepper spray might not work. It has never been adequately tested on polar bears. Also canisters of any kind don’t work very well in cold conditions. So shoot it before it gets too close. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PROPER TRAINING IN RIFLES AND FLARE GUNS AND KNOW HOW TO USE THEM.

4. Close encounter rule 3. Although very rare; He is still moving straight towards you. This means that you might become dinner. The closer it gets, the more aggrasive you have to be. Never play dead with a polar bear! You are just an easy meal then. No, fight as hard and aggrasive as possible. Grab anything that you have lying around and focus on the face. Especially the eyes and nose. Smash a rock on its nose (very sensitive) or poke his eye. You have to keep fighting, never stop. Luckely if you have followed rules 1 and 2 it normally will never come to this. People getting killed by polar bear are very rare. But you are in their domain where food is scarce. Just get out of each others way and you are usually fine. Also be aware that ​tazers and the likes won't work on bears. The fur is too thick.

5. Camping. Setting up a camp in polar bear country means that you have to do something extra.

There are 2 ways to protect your camp. 1 is the electric fence, the other is trip wire and flares.

The electric fence is used for base camps and too heavy (poles, battery etc.) for hiking. Check out this video from Jouke Prop about electric fences and polar bears. It has some great close up polar bear footage too.

With hiking, the only viable option is a portable trip-wire or motion detector alarm system. Still this weighs somewhat. When there is enough snow, you might want to use telemark cross country skiis with a sled (pulk). When making camp, set-up a the trip wire around your tent(s) to alert you if a polar bear approaches your camp. A trip wire system usually consists of 4 or more poles, the wire, and flares attached to the poles. When the bear hits the wire the flares will go off with a big bang. This confuses the bear. In almost all cases it will go away. But to be sure, always have your gun / rifle with you in the tent.

As mentioned, this is not something you do as a beginner. Get training from experienced people or go with a guide. Preferabely in a group.

Although you have to be cautious, worldwide only 3 or 4 times a year a human gets into trouble with a polar bear.

Check out the following links for more information:

Polar bears in Svalbard (including trip wire system explenation)

Nasa Polar Bear Safety Brochure

Polar Bear Safety Guide by Bear Smart