One of the Foremost Experts in Human-Bear Conflict Has Something to Tell You About Bear Safety
Do bear bells work? Is it best to play dead if you’re attacked? Is a gun just as effective as bear spray? Should anything that might possibly have come in contact with food be packed into a hard-sided bear canister including your clothing??
By the time I strapped on my first can of bear spray for a hike through Glacier National Park, I’d pretty much heard all the conventional wisdom passed down from hiker to hiker on managing bears while walking through their habitat, some of it contradictory.
And those contradictions left me feeling pretty nervous because I couldn’t sort out what works from what doesn’t, and determine if I had the right tools should I meet a bear on trail. So I decided it was best to talk to an expert, a bear biologist who has studied human-bear conflict for decades and possesses the best data on the subject – Dr. Tom Smith.
Smith is a Professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He’s conducted research in Alaska, India, and in bear country throughout the lower 48 states promoting bear safety and conservation – and has written, or co-written, nearly every important paper on the subject. What he shared with me underscored much of what I assumed, but also surprised me.
Here’s what I learned.
Ed. note: This story was adapted from the author’s 2021 interview with Tom Smith on the Walking Distance podcast.
1. Avoid Meeting Bears
In Smith’s work, he’s found that the vast majority of black, brown, and polar bears want nothing to do with us. It’s when we surprise bears at close range that they may respond in an aggressive-defensive manner.
“I’ve come around a corner many times and a bear will be two meters away, I mean it’s right there,” Smith told me. “It startles the bear, it startles me. But in most cases, I just kept walking and the bear stayed there and nothing happened. That being said, bears come unglued when something approaches their food cache, something that represents weeks of foraging.”
That same response, of course, goes for a mother and her cubs.
With only about 40 bear attacks per year worldwide, of which only about ten will prove fatal, you’re far more likely to be killed by lightning or even a shark than by a bear. Still, heading into a bear’s home increases the likelihood of encountering one. As beautiful and majestic as bears are, we need to keep a safe distance and avoid meeting them. That’s why Smith encourages making noise while hiking.
To prove his point, he conducted an experiment while leading a group of bear researchers in Katmai National Park. He sent a small group to walk about a quarter of a mile through thick brush without making a single sound. What happened was frightening – the researchers startled grizzly bears sleeping on their day beds, who huffed and grunted as they ran off in a mild panic. When Smith walked the same distance clapping his hands and yelling, “Hey bear!” the bears simply moved off, ahead of him without being seen or heard.
Fortunately for the experimenters, these bears were just napping. Had they sensed a threat, the scientists could have been in serious danger. So the very simple act of making noise to alert bears of our presence allows the bear time to get out of the way.
But do bear bells work, or playing music? “From a biological perspective nothing in their world trains them that tinkling means anything,” says Smith. In one of his experiments, he used a recording of voices at 70 decibels, about the volume of a typical conversation. Bears hear it, but they ignore it because it’s unimportant. When Smith increased the volume level to 110 decibels, everything changed –the bears became alert, their ears pricked up and their heads began moving towards the source of the sound.
So it’s a burst of sound – a clap, a “hey!” – that gets a bear’s attention. Of course, this is not to say when hiking you should be constantly making noise. “A hiker should make appropriate noise,” Smith emphasizes. Part of the beauty of being outdoors is the sound of birds, the wind, the water. But when approaching blind corners or brushy areas, these quick bursts can become the difference between safe passage and a surprise encounter.
Hike in Groups
I met a solo hiker on the CDT who played music from her iPhone while walking alone in Glacier National Park. Aside from the fact that playing music goes against all low-impact ethics, Smith points out that the sound is probably too soft and uniform to attract much attention. But headphones are not a good idea either, because you want to be alert to sound in the wilderness. Being alone also puts a hiker in a unique category that may encourage an attack.
“The simplest thing to do is hike in groups of two or more,” Smith says. “Bears are much more likely to engage with a single hiker.” Hikers in groups make more noise just with their footfall as well as talking. They’re also more visually intimidating.
In all of Smith’s research, he told me he’s seen no data on an attack of two people standing their ground. When I asked about a bear attack on a group of seven NOLS participants in Alaska, he commented that the victims were fleeing in different directions and the bear attacked each individually as if unique single threats. So grouping up also tends to discourage a meeting.
Another important factor is managing odors that are attractive to bears. “We have a saying that ‘bears are where they find you,’” meaning if you attract bears, they will come!
That’s why it’s critical to properly store food in a bear-resistant container like an odor-proof Ursack/Lopsak combination or a hard-sided container like a Bear Vault, or by hanging your food ten feet above the ground and ten feet from the nearest tree. Incidentally, bears are attracted to bright colors, too, so it’s wise to store food in neutral colors. Other smart behaviors include cooking and eating away from where you sleep, not storing food inside your tent and never putting food scraps in the fire ring.
“Humans and bears have an inverted priority of senses.” Smith reminded me. “Whereas ours is sight, sound and scent; theirs is scent, sound and sight. Bears learn the world through their nose.”
What was most interesting to me was his set of experiments with freeze-dried dinners, placing them in varying degrees of accessibility – inside ziplocs, closed, and opened. It’s not that the bears didn’t smell them, but the food rarely produced enough of a scent to attract attention. And neither did clothing with food spilled on it. “Some of the things people say like strip off your clothes and put them in your bear canister is just crazy!”
But Smith pointed out that it’s not the food odors in and of themselves that cause problems, but the connection of humans with the availability of food. Everything we touch has a human scent. That’s why you never want bears to get your food because it trains bears to see people, tents, and backpacks as a source of food. That all sounds obvious, but Smith’s research changed the way the National Park Service and all natural resource agencies started managing their garbage – including putting up fences and bear-proof containers.
Non-Food Scents Matter Too
On the other hand, sweet-smelling soap like Dr. Bronner’s or Herbal Essence shampoo drew bears in, as if coming for a “150-pound strawberry.” So while food smells aren’t everything, it is important to limit your use of fragrances and secure scented items (not just food) at night. And, shockingly, he found cooking gas and capsaicin, the active ingredient in bear spray, were unusually appealing to bears. Imagine 100 700-pound grizzlies coming close just to check out those odors!
Other scents matter too, like poop and pee, which should be left (for obvious reasons) far from your tent. But you also may want to check the wind direction before digging that cat hole, because any interesting odor can invite a curious bear.
“A grizzly bear will see you, but the first thing they do is stand full height, wag their head and huff to pick up scent. They’ll run at you, circle, trying to figure out what you are. Once they have the scent, they might leave right away, even after they’ve been looking at you.”
Bears have a bimodal activity pattern and are mostly active at dawn and dusk. That means if a bear is hanging around after dark, you have a problem on your hands. That behavior is not normal.
Neither is a bear that doesn’t move when you haze it with a “hey bear!”
Which brings us to –
2. Deter Bear Encounters
“It’s basically irresponsible to go into (grizzly) bear country without a bear deterrent because you’re attracting these animals in their own home.” Smith said. “If you get involved in an incident it’s always bad for bears. It’s often bad for people too, but let’s not set them up to fail.”
Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. Its key ingredient is capsaicin, a chemical compound derived from chili peppers. When delivered to the skin, it elicits (temporarily) intense burning, causes involuntary spasms that forcibly shut the eyes, and restricts the bronchia, making breathing exceedingly difficult.
If a bear charges, a hiker can deploy a cloud of spray (which is easily seen because manufacturers add a dye) and it hits the bear at a distance of about 30 feet. “That changes the bear’s agenda. He’s no longer interested in attacking because he needs to breathe!” Smith just laughs when I tell him I’ve heard advice to check the wind direction before deploying bear spray. “With a bear that can run 30 miles per hour, there’s no time. Just spray!”
Smith is adamant about carrying bear spray and having it always at your fingertip whether on a pack strap or on your hip. Sadly, after a recent double-fatality in Alaska, it was discovered the victims kept their spray wrapped in plastic. I met a backpacker in the Grand Tetons who kept his spray deep in his pack. When Smith walks in areas with a high probability of surprising a bear, he actually keeps the clip off and swings the spray from his finger.
What About Guns?
I asked him about guns as a deterrent. Smith’s research showed hunters are hesitant to use lethal force, and often, hunting weapons like bolt-action guns, require too much time to ready and shoot plus are not as accurate as a wide cloud of capsaicin. Ninety-eight percent of people who used bear spray escaped injury (with 2% being knocked over but not killed) as opposed to only about 50% of people using guns.
“With a deterrent, now you’ve got at least a little calmness and peace of mind to deal intelligently with this animal rather than last-ditch crazy things like climb trees, run, or play dead.”
Leave the Scene
Speaking of “playing dead,” this was an area where I heard the most contradictory advice. Smith underscores that playing dead does have a place in the suite of bear safety messages, but should be the absolute last option. “If there’s no immediate threat, it’s akin to a sacrifice.”
This goes back to the idea of hiking in groups. Standing your ground as a group represents a counter-threat to an aggressive bear and unloading a can of bear spray usually stops a charge. But most important of all is to leave the scene. Smith was called to help investigate a fatality in Montana where a hiker sprayed a bear then laid down to play dead. Smith felt he would have stood a chance of survival had he remained standing.
But without any spray at all, the chances of outrunning or out-climbing a bear are minimal. “The analogy I like to make about carrying bear spray is that I’ve driven a car for forty years and never had a wreck, so why bother with a seatbelt? People think it will never happen to them. But for a $30 product, it’s just not worth taking the risk.”
That being said, if bear spray doesn’t stop an attack, what does one do?
3. Survive a Bear Attack
“As a general rule I don’t let hairy four-legged creatures make significant decisions for my life,” Smith quipped. He pointed out that it’s important to know the difference between black and brown bears. Black bears roam most of the United States and are very active in the Sierra, the Appalachians, the North Woods, and many of our favorite trails. Brown bears, or grizzlies, live in Alaska and in the lower 48, mostly in Montana, Wyoming, and the Northern Rockies, as well as in much of western and northwestern Canada.
Know What Kind of Bear You’re Dealing With
One rule of thumb for dealing with a black bear who approaches: never lie down, ever. Black bears do not protect their young or animal carcasses and normally do not aggressively interact when surprised. Hazing usually works best to force a retreat, but if attacked, you should be prepared to fight.
With brown bears, if threatened they may aggressively charge. Smith advises emptying your bear spray and if the bear keeps coming, turn away at the last moment so it hits your backpack and not your face. “Bears are 4-and-a-half times more likely to bite your neck and head. That’s how they fight because their biggest and most lethal weapons are their teeth.”
But let’s say you’ve been knocked to the ground and your spray is out of reach. That’s when you use your last-ditch effort – lying face down, hands behind the neck and legs akimbo so it’s difficult for you to be turned over. Smith suggests staying absolutely still (playing dead) until the bear leaves because his data shows that at this point, the bear perceives the threat has been neutralized. This means you should not check to see if the bear is still there because that could set it off again. However, if it begins nipping or biting, you should be prepared to put up the fight of your life – and hope a hiking friend has bear spray at the ready.
Keep Your Distance
Feeling terrified by Smith’s descriptions of bear attacks, I asked one more question that puzzled me. A hiker in Alaska told me there was no need to make noise until I actually saw a bear. While this runs counter to his studies, I was curious if Alaskan bears were different from the ones living in Montana.
They are quite different and need different handling, he said. “Bears require a dynamic distance around them that is a function of the underlying resource.” Alaska is resource dense with about 30 giant bears able to share just a square mile of space. “If there’s food everywhere, fighting doesn’t make any sense because it’s dangerous. Their personal space amongst other bears is about the size of their paws.”
In Montana, it’s inverted with grizzlies roaming large ranges of about one bear per 30 square miles of relatively resource-poor land. They’re smaller than Alaskan bears and far more protective. While it’s reasonably safe to simply sit and watch an Alaskan bear outside of 50 yards, their southern cousins require at least 100 yards. (Incidentally, for polar bears, it’s 500.)
The trouble with breaching this distance to get a closer look or a photo is that it agitates the bear and it can charge. This is a conservation issue as well as one of public safety: when a bear mauls someone, the animal likely has to be euthanized.
But keeping a distance is not all there is to bear safety. “The fact is, we don’t care about good bears who see you and flee. It’s the bear looking at you with no surprise, not running off, sizing you up and approaching that’s a problem.”
Though they make up only a small percentage of bear attacks, predatory bears do exist. Oftentimes they’re called “garbage bears” that hang around a campsite until the auditory and visual cues stop. They need to be managed with the tools mentioned above like having a deterrent at the ready, hiking in groups, and making appropriate noise, as well as choosing paths and campsites carefully to make it more difficult for bears to approach. It’s also important to be prepared with a flashlight and bear spray should they come close to your tent, and to create a plan with the rest of your group.
“We love these animals.”
All this talk left me a little spooked and I wasn’t feeling so sure anymore about backpacking in bear country at all. Could I even enjoy bears in their natural habitat? Dr. Smith offered tips on using portable electric fences and “critter gitters” (though I’m not convinced thru-hikers would want the added weight even if it meant a better night’s sleep) before assuring me that it is possible to share this natural space.
“You can take an entire wilderness with no bears and there’s just something fundamentally different about it. We love these animals; they’re wonderful. So I would never avoid going into bear country and I’m confident if you just do these simple things you can avoid a confrontation.”
- For more information on bear safety best practices, check out Dr. Smith’s Bear Safety Handout.
- To listen to Alison’s full interview with Dr. Smith on Walking Distance, click here.
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Dr. Tom Smith.
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