There is a possibility of encountering a bear population regardless of whether you reside in a heavily forested region, the desert, or near large lakes, in North America. Living in a remote location raises the likelihood of encountering a bear, particularly during camping. While camping in a bear sanctuary is not advisable, taking precautions can prevent a bear attack.
To prevent a bear encounter and defend yourself in case of an attack, it is essential to be informed about bears and their way of life. While conducting individual research with your local wildlife authority is preferable, below is a beginner’s guide to the bears you are likely to come across:
American Black Bears
The American black bear is the most widely distributed bear species in the United States, with over 700,000 residing in 40 mainland states and an additional 300,000 in Alaska, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You could encounter one of the 16 distinct subspecies of the American black bear, ranging from the Olympic black bear in Northern California to the Florida black bear in the southeastern states, regardless of where you live.
Despite having a primarily vegetarian diet, American black bears will eat young deer and moose and scavenge already dead carcasses. Northern American black bears consume more during the summer months because they hibernate for up to seven months in the winter, while Southern American black bears usually hibernate for two to three months or may not hibernate at all due to the availability of food year-round.
Females of the species typically weigh up to 400 lbs., while males can weigh up to 500 lbs. and they possess non-retractable claws that allow them to climb trees swiftly. Their top running speed is approximately 25 mph, and their sense of smell is seven times more powerful than that of a dog. Bears typically communicate with each other by scratching and rubbing their bodies against trees, and they make two types of vocal sounds: aggressive sounds such as roars, snorts, woofs, and growls, and content sounds such as pants, mumbles, and squeaks. The high-pitch whine of cubs is a distinctive cry that their mothers can easily recognize when they are separated from one another.
It is essential to note that American black bears are not an inherently aggressive species and will only attack when they feel threatened, which may include feeling startled, fearing for their cubs, or protecting their food source.
Brown bears do not inhabit most parts of the United States, but are primarily found in the Northwestern United States, Western Canada, and all of Alaska. While there are 17 different subspecies of brown bear, only seven are found in North America. It’s important to note that despite the smaller population, there are over 3,000 Kodiak bears, a subspecies of brown bear, in Alaska. The Kodiak is the second largest bear in the world, with only the polar bear being larger. No subspecies of brown bear has any natural predators.
Being omnivorous, the brown bear eats both plants and animals, but due to its size, it relies more heavily on an animal-based diet. Brown bears are known to eat leaves, grass, bugs, and a variety of animals, including deer and sheep. Some brown bears are even known to eat smaller black bears.
Those living in close proximity to human populations have become accustomed to finding food in landfills, dumpsters, and open trash cans. Brown bears hunt and eat constantly, storing fat for their long hibernation in the winter, which can last up to six months depending on how far north they live.
Brown bears come in different sizes, with their weight ranging from 700 to 1,500 lbs, depending on the subspecies. Adult brown bears’ long and straight nails prevent them from climbing trees, but cubs are capable of climbing trees and often do so when they feel scared or when their mother is not around. Adult brown bears can run at up to 35 mph.
While the brown bear’s sense of smell is as strong as that of a black bear, they primarily use it for hunting rather than communication with other bears. Brown bears rub themselves against trees to let other bears know they have been there. Male brown bears are highly territorial and often fight over food or females.
Scent left on trees is useful to bears, especially to cubs. If a grown male bear is attacking a cub, the cub will rub itself on a tree that the male bear has rubbed on to pick up some of its scent, as grown males are less likely to attack a cub that smells like them. Brown bears have a wider range of vocal sounds than black bears. Aggressive sounds include growls, roars, woofs, champs, and smacks, while non-aggressive sounds include woofs, grunts, and bawls when they’re in pain.
Brown bears are primarily nocturnal animals and are often found wandering around at dusk and dawn looking for a place to sleep, as well as hunting and traveling at night.
Protect yourself at home
To ensure your safety at home, it is important to prevent bears from coming to your house for food. This may be challenging, especially if you reside in a bear-populated area. Avoid leaving any food outdoors, including bird or rabbit feed, fruit trees, gardens, compost, or pet food.
A bear can do much more damage than squirrels or rabbits. Invest in bear-proof trash and recycling containers or build a latch system to keep bears away from your trash. Store your garbage cans in a garage or indoor area if possible. Sprinklers and electronic noisemakers can also deter bears from approaching your home.
Do not leave your pets outside as they may be perceived as prey or provoke the bear. Ensure all entrances to your house are closed and sealed to prevent the bear from detecting any food smell. Lastly, walk your animals on a leash and supervise them while outside.
Protect yourself while camping
Stay well-informed about the bears in the area. Even if you are familiar with the bears around your home, different species may exist in the place you plan to camp. Find out how many bears live there, whether they are accustomed to human presence, how many attacks have occurred in the region, and when the bears hibernate.
Wrap up your food when hiking. While covering your trash to prevent odors from escaping is necessary, it is even more critical to ensure that your food is wrapped in multiple layers of plastic or cloth and buried deep inside your bags. Otherwise, you will leave a scent trail that bears can track back to you.
Make noise while in bear country. The most crucial thing to do is to alert bears to your presence. If they know humans are nearby, they will likely stay away. Additionally, making noise will prevent startling a bear unexpectedly, which is a significant trigger for aggression. Talk loudly, sing, break sticks, or do anything else to create noise while hiking.
Be observant. Keep an eye out for trash, human food, and animal carcasses, and get away from these items as soon as possible. If possible, dispose of the trash in a safe container.
Avoid bear cubs. If you encounter a bear cub, do not approach it because the mother bear may be nearby. Cubs can also cry and attract the mother bear even faster, so move away from the cub and its surroundings.
When setting up camp, choose an open area and avoid camping near a river. Bears tend to search for food and water near rivers. In an open area, you can set up a fire and have a clear view of your surroundings.
Keep your food at a distance from your campsite, up to a mile if possible. Although it may be a hassle to go that far to eat, it is better than waking up to a bear going through your bags in the middle of the night. If feasible, bury your food underground or hang it from a branch that a bear cannot easily reach by standing up or climbing a tree.
Leave no trace when you depart. Clean up all your trash, and burn any food that you are not going to eat or take with you. This is not only to protect yourself but also to help the environment and the next campers who come after you.
Always carry bear spray. While regular pepper spray works, bear-specific pepper spray is more effective. Although you hope you will never need it, always be prepared.
Surviving bear encounters
If you find yourself face to face with an 800 lb. bear despite taking precautions, it’s important to know how to react. Here are some tips:
First, remain calm. Bears can smell fear and respond to authority. If you show you are not afraid and pose no threat, the bear is less likely to attack.
Next, walk away slowly and never turn your back or run, as this could provoke an attack.
If the bear stands up, it is likely curious, not aggressive. Allow it to assess you, but don’t approach it.
If the bear walks towards you, use a firm, authoritative tone to tell it to back away. Speak as if to a dog or child, and the bear may understand that you are not a threat.
If the bear charges towards you, use bear spray. Stand your ground and spray it directly at the bear for 6-7 seconds. The bear should stop and paw at its face.
If the bear strikes you, play dead by lying face down and placing your hands over your head. Anchor yourself to the ground and wait for the bear to leave.
Remember, bears are not naturally aggressive towards humans and typically avoid them. By taking preventative measures and knowing how to react if necessary, you can minimize the risk of a bear attack.
Although some people may choose to hunt bears, it is important to approach this activity with caution and preparation. Before heading out on a bear hunt, it is important to research the legal requirements for hunting in your state or county, as well as the best times and locations for finding bears.
Know When to Hunt:
Before planning a bear hunt, it’s essential to understand the regulations regarding when hunting is permitted in your state or county. A new big game hunting license is required every year, and all necessary information can be found online or through local authorities. Additionally, it’s essential to research the time of year when bears are most active.
Know Where to Hunt:
While your local wildlife authority will provide information on where it’s legal to hunt, it’s even more critical to know where bears are most abundant. Typically, bears can be found near water sources, but it’s essential to do your research and gather as much information as possible.
Bears are challenging to track, so it’s crucial to go on scouting trips before attempting to hunt them. During these trips, take as many precautions as you would on a regular camping trip, including bringing your gun. The goal is to observe bear behavior and habits, such as feeding areas, feeding times, and gender, as this information is invaluable when hunting.
Know How to Hunt:
Before hunting bears, it’s essential to understand all legal requirements, including whether and how you’re allowed to bait bears, how many bait stations you can set up, and what bears you’re permitted to shoot. Wildlife authorities will also provide information on where to place hunting signs.
To maximize your chances of hiding from a bear, avoid wearing scented products, eat before going hunting, and wear clothing that makes minimal noise.
Set Up Your Post:
When hunting bears, a tree stand located no more than 20 yards from your bait is the safest and most effective option. Ensure your stand is secure and that you have a harness to avoid falling out.
Set Up Your Bait:
A bait system that dispenses food slowly, requiring the bear to work for it, is the best option. A hole cut in a closed container works well. Place the dispenser in a way that positions the bear’s front side towards you.
Go Early or Go Late:
Dusk and dawn are the best times to hunt, so set up your post well before either time, allowing you to remain hidden when the bear starts looking for food.
Be Prepared to Wait:
Hunting bears requires patience, and you may not find one on your first outing. Be prepared to wait and understand that it takes time and experience to successfully hunt such a powerful animal.
Be Prepared to Shoot:
If a bear approaches your bait, aim to shoot it twice in the chest, ideally hitting its lungs. Bears are tough and powerful animals, so missing or hitting them incorrectly can cause severe injury, possibly angering them and leading to an attack.
Be Safe and Enjoy the Experience:
Hunting bears can be an incredibly rewarding experience, whether you’re doing it for the trophy or the meat. Remember to prioritize safety and enjoy the process. Killing a bear is a significant accomplishment, and you can take pride in knowing you’ve successfully hunted one of the most feared animals on earth.