Bear safety tips you need to know (for families!)

There are a few basic bear safety rules for keeping yourself and your kids safe around bears.  Below, you’ll find various information, tips, and tidbits gathered from reliable North American sources. These are some of the topics we’ll discuss:

  • Should we be worried about bears?
  • The bear safety rules?
  • The difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear
  • Being bear aware
  • How to talk to kids about bear safety and teach them about bears
  • Camping bear safety
  • And more!

The intention of this article is to arm you, not alarm you. 

Should we be worried about Bears?

Um… yes.

The chances of having a bear encounter on the trail are extremely low, even if you’re out hiking and camping in bear country. According to Parks Canada, the general black bear population for all of North America’s vastness is estimated to be around 600,000. (reference here)

But, statistically, the more time one spends in bear country, obviously, the higher the chances are of encountering a bear. So, if you go for a weekend camping trip once a summer in bear country, your odds of encountering a bear on the trail are much lower than if you live in bear country and your backyard is the local bear hangout!

Eitherway, whether you’re in bear country very minimally or frequently, the chance of encounter remains.

Use this information to educate yourself and your family so you can all decrease the odds of having a bear encounter in the first place.  And if you do encounter a bear, you’ll all know how best to escape that encounter uninjured because you’ve talked about bear safety with your kids and have practiced bear safety already.

A brown bear, text reads bear safety, hiking with kids

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First, some fears about bears

Have you seen the Revenent, with Leonardo Dicaprio?  Well, aside from being a long and intense movie about the incredible will of human body and spirit, it also has one of the most realistic bear attack scenes in movie history!  I’ll admit that the bits and pieces I spied between my fingers of that 6 minute scene have left me forever wary of the true power of a mama grizzly.

Would you describe yourself as unconcerned, well-prepared and informed, or paranoid when it comes to bears and hiking?

Maybe because I live in bear country and hear the stories and I meet the people who’ve had encounters, the threat is more real for me here:

  • I see the giant bears as I pass on the highway. 
  • I measure the footprints in the mud on the path.
  • I compare their claw marks to my hands climbing the tree trunks. 
  • I poke and inspect their poop left behind. 
  • I try to move the boulders I know they’ve thrown over. 

Bears and the threat of bears are real for me and my family.

Because of all these things, the moma instincts in me need to make sure I’m protecting my kids when out in the woods just as much as I know mama bear is simply trying to protect hers. 

A black bear on the side of the road
Black Bear, Jasper National Park

About bears & the difference between black and grizzly bears

There are 3 types of bears which inhabit North America: the Black bear, the Grizzly bear (which includes the subspecies of the Alaskan Brown or Kodiak), and the Polar bear.

Since most of us aren’t venturing into the Polar bear’s habitat, let’s talk about the other two.

The Black Bear can be found in almost all of the American states and Canadian provinces.  While the Grizzly Bear is only found in Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The Grizzly (or Brown Bear) is typically larger with noticeably large claws and a hump between their front shoulder.  The Grizzly bear tends to have variation in their coloring and are generally brownish.

A mother grizzly on the side of the road
A mama Grizzly on the roadside, Jasper National Park

The Black bear is usually a smaller bear with less noticeable claws.  They do not have a hump on their back and their colour tends to be uniform, but will range from blond, cinnamon, brown, to black.

This article will give you more detail and guidance on how to distinguish between a black bear and a brown bear.

While the Grizzly (or Brown Bear) has the reputation for being a fiercer bear, do understand that both bears can be dangerous and neither should be approached.

Teaching kids about bears and bear safety

It can be helpful to make sure your kids are comfortable with the idea of bears. That they know to be weary of them, but that overall bears are non-predatory towards humans. Reading about bears and learning about their behaviours is a great way to open up some discussions about bear safety with your kids.

Here’s a list of some of our favourite kids bear books.

What is the bear saying for safety?

You know that bear safety poem?

If it’s black, attack. If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s white, say goodnight!

Well, I agree, it has a nice rhyme to it, but it’s really not the most accurate of bear safety advice! Black bears aren’t always actually black… and should you seriously lay down just on sight of a brown bear before trying to leave its teritory? But the polar bear one… geesh! Those fellas are huge, scary!

My advice here, brush up on your bear species identification. Then, yes, don’t play dead with a black bear. And, if a grizzly gets close enough to knock you down, sure, maybe then stay down and hope your pack protects you.

What are the bear safety rules?

These are the most important bear safety tips for keeping you and your kids safe while hiking in bear country:

  • Be aware of bear activity in the area: read trail reports and watch for bear activity on the trail.
  • Hike in groups and stay close together.
  • Do not let children or pets run ahead on the path.
  • Make plenty of noise.
  • Carry bear spray, have it accessible, and know how to use it.
  • If you encounter a bear, gather close together, pick up children and pets, speak loudly and confidently while you all slowly back away. Do not turn and run.

1. Know the area before heading out

If you’re hiking in a park check out any posted trail reports or bear activity reports.  Take these seriously.  For example, here in the Canadian Rockies, Parks Canada puts out weekly bear activity reports which are available on line.

photo of a bear closure warning
A bear closure sign posted in Jasper National Park

2. Watch for signs of bear activity

When you’re out hiking in bear country, know how to watch for bear activity.  Watch the path for bear tracks and scat (poop).  Keep your eye out for bear diggings and rolled rocks.

Bear scat will look different depending on the time of the year.  In the late summer a bear’s poop may be berry coloured with specs and pieces of berries.  In the spring, it might look more like a very large dog’s poop or cow patty.  If you’re brave you can even poke the poop with a stick and see it’s soft and warm or hard.  Fresh poop means the bear is close by.

two piles of bear scat with an adult shoe for size comparison
Just some big piles of bear poop, Jasper National Park

Sure, checking out poop might seem pretty gross, but if you consider the poop from a more inquisitive mind, you could learn a few clues about the bears in your area.  Also, kids usually really love exploring for animal poop!

Bear digs are quite fascinating too!  Since bears eat a lot of roots, they’ll dig up plants to get to the roots underneath.  They’ll also smash open the burrows of small rodents, will rip open rotting logs, and flip over rocks.

If ever you come across an animal carcass, just leave.  Don’t stick around to investigate.  Chances are a predator or scavenger is close by.  And, you probably don’t want to be seen as a threat to either of these.

3. Hike in a group

Never ever let your little kids run ahead of you up a hiking trail.  I know that this can be hard because little kids love to run and explore.  But imagine what were to happen if your little one rounded a blind corner to find a mama bear sitting on the path eating some berries while her cubs frolic in the bushes?

Does that scenario make you shudder?

When we’re out walking in the woods we have a strict rule that kids must stay between the adults (or teenagers).  Usually this means one adult hurrying ahead to keep the fast explorers happy and one at the end with the doddlers.

Almost all of the bear attacks in North America have been on solo adventurers.  I could not find report of any attacks every happening to children while hiking in a group.  The group is noisier and much more intimidating to a bear.

4. Make noise.  Make lots of noise.

If you’re hiking with a group or with kids, making noise should be easy.  Generally the group will be talking loudly to each other or kids will be laughing, yelling, and hitting rocks with sticks.

Making noise alerts the bears that you guys are there and decreases the chance that you’ll startle the bear.  Bears don’t like us and usually they’ll leave the area if they hear people coming along.

What type of noise should you make?  We have taught our kids to yell loudly (not scream).  We might yell random sounds like “woohya, Hayoo” or “hey bear”.  We will also clap, bang sticks against rocks or tree stumps, and sign songs.

Should you wear bear bells?  Well, I’ll be honest and tell you that nowhere in my research today did I come across a recommendation to wear bear bells.  Here in Jasper I sometimes wonder if bear bells give hikers the false security that they’re safe if they’re wearing them.  I also wonder if the sound is loud enough or irregular enough to draw the attention and alert a bear.

However, I do like to use bear bells on my young toddlers so I know where they are in a campground.  But other than that, we don’t wear them.

I have seen backpackers wear their enamel camp mug on the outside of their pack and as they hike along this usually gingles and bangs against other items hanging from their pack. I’ve often wondered if this is intentional. And more and more I’m finding we encounter people listening to loud music as they hike along. Again, I wonder, are they doing this to alert the bears or because they really just want to listen to music and not the forest?

Last tip: Be extra noisy when walking close to loud rivers and streams.  Make sure that the noise of the water does not drown out your own noise making.

5. Carry bear spray

I am always surprised at how few trail users carry bear spray.  Bear spray works.  If you’re hiking in bear country, why wouldn’t you bring it along?

For our family, bear spray is an essential camping and hiking item… whether we’re going for a 20 minute walk from our home or heading out on a 4 day backpacking trip.

Not only should you have bear spray, but you also need to carry it where you can easily access it.  That means don’t stuff it inside your bag!  You must also know how to use your bear spray and teach your older kids how to use it.  (See the video below).

What about guns?  I hike in National Parks where guns are prohibited.  I also don’t like guns.  So, I don’t carry one.  I do know that carrying a gun is advice I frequently see when it comes to bear safety.

However, a recent research paper by biologist Tom Smith found this interesting statistic:

“Out of 133 encounters involving bear spray, only three people suffered injuries, which were all minor. But I found 269 incidences of gun defenses—with 17 dead people and hundreds of dead bears.”

So, again, last tip: Bring bear spray. You can purchase bear spray at most outdoor outfitters and even online at Amazon.

2 cans of bear spray sitting outdoors
Our well-traveled bear sprays

Camping Bear Safety – food smarts

If you are camping in the back country, properly hang your food or use a bear canister.  Get some very good bear safety and food storage advice from this article.

Do not feed bears and ensure all your food is packed away in vehicles or hard-sided campers before leaving a campground.

Some would even suggest not wearing strong perfumes and fruity shampoos before heading into the woods.

Here’s another important kid and tent camping tip in terms of bear safety: Make sure kids do not wear the same clothes they’ve eaten in to sleep in the tent. Make sure their hands and faces are washed of food as well.

I won’t share the horror story here, but I’m sure with a bit of imagination, you can guess at a gruesome tale which has prompted me to be wary of bears, tents, and food smells.

What to do if you encounter a bear?

Don’t run.  If you encounter a bear stay calm and confident.  I know this is hard.  Even with all this mental practice, I didn’t act the way I should have the one time I had a close encountered with a bear.

This meeting happened in a campsite.   I was minding my own business walking alone to the outhouse.  I rounded a bush to catch a bear sniffing at the ground about 10 feet ahead of me.  I’d like to point out that I was neither in a group nor making noise… nor did I have my bear spray with me.

I still remember the feeling of my breath getting caught in my chest.  The bear didn’t notice me (or didn’t care).  I took a few steps back, turned and ran.  That was a big no no!  Don’t run!

Why shouldn’t you run?  Apparently, running makes you look like prey.  You don’t want to be prey.  You especially don’t want your small children to look like yummy running prey.

If you encounter a bear stand your ground, get out your bear spray, and retreat.

If you are a group gather close together.  Pick up the young kids.  Stay facing the bear, speak loudly but calmly and move away.  You might say “Hey bear I see you.  Sorry to have bothered you… we’re just walking away now”.

The bear might rise up on its back legs.  They’re just trying to get a good look.  They’ll sniff and may grunt.  They may even paw or thump the ground.

If, in the very, very unlikely event that the bear charges, you will spray the bear with your bear spray.

What should you do is a bear attacks you?

Here’s the brutal, but honest advice from biologist Tom Smith about an actual Grizzly attack:

“… if you’re being mauled by a griz? Stay face down, legs spread, and cover your neck with clasped hands. Let the bear unleash its fury on your backpack. Stay still, and don’t move until it’s done. Black bears only attack to kill, so playing dead with one of those will be facilitated by the fact that you will, in fact, be dead soon enough.”

So, again, what should you do if you encounter a bear?

  1. Gather close together
  2. Pick up young children
  3. Pull out your bear spray and remove the safety clip
  4. Speak loudly and calmly to the bear
  5. Watch the bear while moving slowly away
  6. Use the bear spray if the bear approaches within a car’s length or runs at you

How to teach bear safety to kids

Teach your kids these skills and use games to practice:

  • Show them how to make their voice carry
  • Encourage them to examine their environment for signs of wildlife
  • Practice hiking closely and gathering quickly as a group
  • Know how to back up together (this can be tricky for kids)

How we teach bear safety to our kids:

When I’m walking in the woods with my children we will sometimes have bear drills.

A bear drill looks like this: I’ll randomly yell “Stop, everyone to me now!” The kids know to get to me quickly without running.  Our kids have also been shown how to flip their jackets up with their arms in the air to make themselves appear bigger.  We practice speaking loudly and backing up as a group.

We haven’t yet taught our kids how to use the bear spray, but they are quickly approaching the age where they should be taught this as well.

If I am the only adult with the kids the largest kid walks in the front and the littlest close to me.

We have taught our kids how to make their voice carry, what bear scat looks like, and to keep their heads up scanning the woods for wildlife.

We try to remind our kids to make extra noise when approaching blind corners in the trail, through dense bush, along noisy waters, or when hiking on windy days (because bears might not be alerted by your smell).

We’ll play games like I spy in the woods or when I spot an animal I’ll make them find it instead of me just showing them where it is.

Go out and have fun

Again, the intention of this article was to arm you, not alarm you. 

If you’d like to learn a little more, check out this article also about staying safe in bear country.  Remember, in most cases, if you’re in a group and making noise, you’ll never encounter a bear.  And, if you do, stay calm, be loud, and leave the bear alone.

P.S. Bear safety is serious stuff.  If you live in or are adventuring in an area frequented by bears you should also always try to get some local advice regarding the bears for that area.

What should you do now?

a image of kids walking in the woods and an image of a black bear in the woods

10 thoughts on “Bear safety tips you need to know (for families!)”

  1. This awesome tips for safety. Do not cooked food nearby the camp. Bear is very small sensitive. Don’t do this . Thank you for the advice.

    1. Yes, Andrea, you’re completely right. It is very important to cook foods well away from the tent. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Also remember that bears aren’t the only predators in the woods. Cougar (aka mountain lion) frequent the wilds across much of the American West. I caught a massive cat (200lb easily) on a game camera I placed just off a mildly used trail. (Along with hikers, bikers and horseback riders)

    1. You make a very good point Jan, thank you:) You’re right… bears, wolves, cougars, even moose and elk can be dangerous and worthy of respecting safety guidelines in their territory as well.

  3. Great information on how to stay safe in bear country! This past summer, most of our vacation was spent in Glacier and the Canadian Rockies–prime grizzly country. We live in NH, where our kids are used to hiking ahead. On this trip, we strictly enforced the rule that we hike in a group–usually with dad out in front with the bear spray and mom in the back.

    1. Thanks for reading:) Sounds like you had a good plan. It’s hard sometimes with our kids since they’re at an age where they boys want to be adventuresome and on their own up ahead, but yes, keeping the group together is definitely a good idea. Happy hiking!

  4. This is an AMAZING post on bear safety. It’s usually only my husband and I on adventures, and there are some trails we hesitate to take due to known bear activity. You can never be too careful.

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