The chances of having a bear encounter on the trail are extremely low. In Yellowstone National Park, your odds of being injured by a bear are 1 in 2.7 million. Only about 2 people in the entire US are killed by bears each year.
But still, bears are kinda scary. And, all of life is an odds game, right? Wouldn’t you want to push the odds just a little more in your favor by being up to date on all the tips and strategies for bear safety?
There are a few basic 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.
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 the possibility and practiced a plan of action.
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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 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. I see the giant bears as I pass on the highway. I measure the claw marks in the mud on the path. 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 momma instincts in me need to make sure I’m protecting my kids when out in the woods just as much as I know mamma bear is simply trying to protect hers. (By the way, the bear in the Covenent is a mamma Grizzly, protecting her cub).
The Basics of Bear Safety
These are the most important 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.
Be bear aware
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.
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.
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.
Practice Bear 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 you 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.
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.
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 logs, and flip over rocks.
If ever you come across an animal carcass, just leave. Don’t 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.
Hike in a group
Never ever let your 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. 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 evidence of any attacks every happening to children while hiking in a group. The group is noisier and much more intimidating to a bear.
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.
I 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.
Be extra noisy when walking close to loud rivers and creeks. Make sure that the noise of the water does not drown out your own noise making.
(Here’s a video to sum up everything you should know!)
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?
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 attached on this article).
What about guns? I hike in National Parks where guns are prohibited. I also don’t like guns. So, I won’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.”
You can purchase bear spray at most outdoor outfitters and even online at Amazon.
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 encountered 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 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 and 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.
Here’s the brutal, but honest advice from biologist Tom Smith about an actual 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:
- Gather close together
- Pick up young children
- Pull out your bear spray and remove the safety clip
- Speak loudly and calmly to the bear
- Watch the bear while moving slowly away
- 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, 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
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?
- Save this article to Pinterest so you’ll be able to find it again and remind yourself of these kids and bear safety tips before you head out into the woods.
- If you do hike in bear country and don’t have bear spray, it’s time to buy some
- Join the Take Them Outside newsletter. Weekly, you’ll receive tips, news, activity ideas, and advice to motivate, encourage, and connect you and your family with nature and each other.
Other posts you’ll want to read:
- Do you actually know how to use your bear spray?
- How to simplify your camping packing
- Fun and Educational kids books about bears