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10 Tips for Safe Hiking in Bear Country

Posted by AFPA | July 17, 2019


Grizzly bears are currently listed as a species of “Special Concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Grizzly bear habitat can range from dense forest, to alpine meadow, or even arctic tundra. Grizzly bears are averse to human interaction. Forest companies can meet grizzly bear habitat requirements by creating harvest areas that look like fires; large disturbances with lots of standing trees and retention patches throughout, and reclaiming old roads to reduce access.

Alberta has a world class Grizzly Bear Research program managed by the Foothills Research Institute and supported by the Government of Alberta, the forest industry and other industries in the province.

Do you work, live, or play in bear country?

It’s true that most bears will do their best to avoid humans — they’re just as scared of us as we are of them! And most bear encounters won’t end in an attack. But we know that it’s better to play it safe when it comes to wild animals, so next time you’re exploring bear country, follow these tips to stay safe and reduce your chances of an unwanted encounter:


1. Make Lots of Noise

It’s important to make noise as you venture into the backwoods. You definitely don’t want to sneak up on a bear! Making noise will alert a bear to your presence, and give them time to avoid you.

Contrary to popular belief, bear bells may not be enough. A good loud yell every few minutes, or even singing, can help a bear recognize that you are human and non-threatening — which is far more effective than bells.

2. Carry Bear Spray  

The best things you can have with you in a bear encounter are your wits and a full can of bear spray. Carry it, practice it, and use it when a bear won’t leave you alone. Studies show it works!

Wear your bear spray on your belt, or in a chest holder. It won’t do you any good if you can’t reach it when you need it.

3. Leash Your Pets

It might be tempting to take the leash off and let your four-legged friends explore the new and exciting terrain — but that could be a mistake.

Dogs can be helpful at detecting bears, but a dog on a leash is much less likely to get into trouble or provoke an unwanted bear encounter.

4. Keep Your Group Together 

A group of people will certainly make more noise than an individual hiker. We already know that making noise can alert any bears in the area to your presence. More people, and more noise means a greater chance of warning bears off.

Aside from noise, it’s important to keep your group close together. Small children should stay in between adults at all times, and never be allowed to wander. You don’t want anyone getting lost, and you certainly don’t want your child surprising a bear.

5. Pay Attention to Your Environment 

Be mindful of areas a bear may not hear, see, or smell you. Keep an eye out for bear signs, areas with dense vegetation, food sources, running water, strong winds, or a curve in the trail.

Bear tracks, fresh scat, and marking on a tree are all indicators that a bear may be near.

A bear will eat anything, but its natural diet is only about 10-15% meat. Berry bushes are a major food source for bears — especially in the late summer when the berries are at their ripest. If you come across berry bushes on your path, be sure to make plenty of noise and proceed cautiously to avoid any surprises.

6. Know Your Route

Staying on the trail may not always be the most fun, but it can certainly lessen your odds of an unwanted bear encounter. That being said, bears are still known to frequent common areas like trails, which is why it’s important to research the area you intend to hike and plan ahead.

Some areas will have a greater population of bears and are known for bear activity. Get familiar with these zones and plan for the safest route.

7. Don’t Underestimate Their Sense of Smell 

The eyesight of a bear is just as good as a human’s, but they rely on their sense of smell most. Opt out of the perfumes and scented lotions when you’re on the trail, to avoid inviting a curious bear.

Keep your food, toiletries, and other items that may have a smell packed up tightly, and don’t leave your bags unattended. Odours from hunting, fishing, or cooking can cling to your clothes, and even a small amount of food can attract unwanted attention.

8. Hike During The Day 

Bears can be seen at any time of day, but they are most active in the spring and summer at dusk and dawn. If you want to avoid stumbling across a bear on your trek, we recommend a trip during daylight hours.

9.The Encounter 

If you do happen to come across a bear on your journey it’s important to stay calm. Survey the area for cubs or a food source and leave the area slowly and calmly. Bears don’t want trouble — fights are hard work that can leave their cubs unprotected.

If a bear does take notice of you, fight the urge to run. Avoid making eye contact, but talk to the bear while slowly waving your arms. This can help the bear identify you as a human, and hopefully the bear will walk away and you can slowly make your exit in the opposite direction.

Running from a bear could trigger its instinct to chase, and they can run up to 60km/hr over short distances. If a bear comes too close, use an air horn or other noisemaker, throw rocks and sticks, make yourself look big, and don’t forget your bear spray!

A bear charges because it wants you to leave, but charges don’t usually end in contact. If a bear does make contact in a charge, lie on your belly, put your hands around your neck and keep your toes anchored in the ground. Once a bear thinks you are no longer a threat, it will likely leave you alone.

grizzly bear

Back Off

A bear will let you know you’re unwelcome
by huffing, snorting, clacking their jaws, or
pawing at the ground.

bear climbing

Bears Are Excellent Climbers

Climbing trees should be a last resort. Both
grizzlies and black bears are good climbers and
can make it up a tree much faster than you can.

10. Know Your Bears 

In Alberta we have two kinds of bears: Grizzlies, and black bears. It can often be difficult to tell them apart. If you are making your way through bear country, it’s important to know the difference.

Grizzlies are far more defensive than black bears. If a grizzly feels threatened they can be quite aggressive, whereas a black bear may prefer to retreat. Most black bears can be effectively scared off, however, if a black bear does attack it is usually with a predatory motive. If a black bear attacks, your safest option may be to fight back. Use your bear mace, a big stick, whatever you have at your disposal, because that bear is probably not acting defensively and will not stop.

Before you venture into bear country, do your research and know your bears, so if you do have an encounter, you can respond accordingly.

Think you’re an expert already? Take this quiz to find out.

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