Have you ever thought of the possibility of unexpected wildlife encounters in the woods? The idea is equal parts thrilling and terrifying! This month’s edition of camping safety is dedicated to what you should do if you accidentally run into one of these various wild animals while camping, hiking, or exploring. You’ll learn all about them, including how to recognize signs if they’re around, how to avoid them, and what to do during an attack.
Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter
Let’s start this list with a growl. Bears! Aren’t bears on TV cute and cuddly? They are in real life too…when they aren’t gnawing on your bones, that is. So let’s keep bears cute and cuddly by keeping them at a safe distance.
First off, let’s clarify that the chances of a bear attacking humans are laughably low. But that’s not to say you should not be prepared when hiking and camping in bear country. Always be prepared.
American black bears are the most common bears you’ll likely encounter. They are the most abundant bears that can be found in all US states, and the whole of North America. These bear species aren’t present anywhere else in the world.
Black bears have tall ears and their face profile is straight. Their back is smooth with no distinctive shoulder humps (unlike Grizzlies, who do). Black bear claws are also shorter at an inch or two long.
Smaller than its cousins
Black bears are the smallest in the North American continent. But don’t be fooled because they are actually medium-sized bears compared to all other bears. They can get pretty big depending on the time of the year. Some black bears can reach more than 1.8m (6 ft) in height.
Heaviest in autumn
Female black bears usually weigh around 60 kilograms (132 lbs), while males are around 85 kgs (187 lbs). Black bear males can even weigh up to a whopping 250 kgs (550 lbs) in autumn when actively preparing for their winter slumber.
They aren’t always black
Black bears are usually black, yes, but they can also be light brown, cinnamon, or blonde. There’s even a sub-species that are white or cream! You’ve probably never googled a more contradictory phrase than “white black bears” before. Here, we’ll help you if you want to know more about them.
So be careful because that brown bear may actually be a black bear and vice versa. It will help to remember that northeast and central states have predominantly black, black bears but the western states have more variations.
Monkeys disguised as bears
If you think you can climb a tree to flee from a black bear, think again. Those strong sharp claws aren’t just for flipping boulders and (sometimes) swiping at unaware hikers. Black bears are notoriously excellent tree climbers and the youngsters, especially, love scaling very tall trees. And oh, they’re also very good swimmers so don’t think you can escape in the water either.
What to do if you encounter a black bear
You’ve probably been looking for this section, huh. (Sorry, we just love black bears too much and hey, look at all these interesting facts!)
Black bears are pretty “timid” in comparison to the other two bears found in North America. Though, they will still eat you under the right circumstances.
If you see a black bear first, retreat quietly and slowly while keeping it in your line of sight. If the bear sees you, don’t turn your back and run. You won’t outrun one anyway and you will have succeeded in triggering some predatory instinct so the bear attacks. Instead, continue your calm retreat. Get your bear spray ready if you have it. (We hope so!)
If it starts to advance, stand your ground and scare it away by yelling and making loud noises. Raise your arms and try to look big and imposing. If you’re with a group, stand together to look bigger. Bang pots and pans and throw things at the bear. If you are carrying any food on you and the bear seems more interested in it, drop the food and move away from it.
If the bear attacks, do not play dead. Black bears are less aggressive but when they do attack and there are no cubs, it usually means that they are seeing you as food.
Fight back with whatever you can get your hands on. Let it know that you are not food. Stab it with a stick, beat it with the pots and pans that were so ineffective at scaring it away earlier. Punch away and target its nose and eyes over and over as much as you can.
North American brown bears—or “grizzlies’, as they’re often fondly called—are commonly found in the forests of the northern United States, Western Canada, and Alaska, with a few scattered in the lower states. There is a definite overlap in black and brown bear habitats, although grizzlies usually prefer the semi-open forest regions to dense, mountainous areas.
It’s important to know the difference between brown and black bears’ physical appearances because a black bear is not always black and Grizzly bears can be nearly black.
The first thing you may notice right away is the grizzly’s pronounced shoulder hump. It is distinctive and can easily be spotted from afar. They also have short, rounded ears and a concave face that looks dished in. Grizzly claws are curved and are two to four inches long. Yep, that’s as long as your fingers. Avoiding them is highly recommended.
Heavy but super fast
Grizzly bears can weigh up to 365 kgs (805 lbs) and reach 2.7m (9 ft) in height. Despite their weight, they can still outrun Usain Bolt’s 44.7 kph (27.78 mph) top speed. Grizzly bears can cover short distances at 45 kph (28 mph), with top speed reportedly at 50 kph (35 mph).
They also climb trees…
Although more suited for digging, their claws will also allow grizzly bears to climb trees if they choose to. They just usually don’t because, well, you would prefer no to if you weigh 300 kgs too.
Only 25% or less meat diet
Grizzly bears are omnivores and contrary to one might believe, only about a fourth of their diet is meat. The other ¾ (or more) is composed of berries, plants, and nuts! They love to dig for roots and plant bulbs. Their shoulder hump is actually made of pure muscle and this adds to the bears’ digging power. They dig more than any other bear on the planet.
These bears also eat insects, grass, fish, carrion, flowers, fungi, rodents, pine cones, and other bears. Did you know that one of their favorite foods are moths? That’s a whole lot of moths though, as in 40000-moths-to-a-grizzly lots. Grizzly bears are curious about eating any and all creatures, it would seem.
What to do if you encounter a brown bear
Most brown bear attacks are defensive in nature so it may leave you alone once it determines that you aren’t a threat. So the aim is to be as non-threatening as possible.
If you see a grizzly first, keep your eyes on it and retreat slowly. Give it a wide berth and discontinue your route or find another. Get your bear spray ready if you have it. Continue your calm retreat even if it sees you.
If the bear stands up to look at you, start talking calmly and softly, and moving your arms up and down slowly to let it know that you’re just an insignificant, harmless human. Continue retreating quietly. Keep your attention on the bear but do not make eye contact.
If it starts to advance, this is likely to be a bluff charge. In a bluff charge, the grizzly bear’s ears will be up and it will huff at you. Don’t panic but stand your ground and continue talking calmly to the bear.
We know it’s only easy to say on paper but this may just be the only way to save you from becoming bear chow. If it stops charging and turns away, start retreating slowly again.
During a full-on attack, the grizzly will be silent, its ears will lie back with its head low for the charge. This is a fine time to use your bear spray. Be ready to discharge at 30 feet away. Keep your aim low so you don’t miss the bear’s head.
If the bear spray doesn’t work, play dead. Lie on your stomach and protect your neck with your palms, use your spread legs and elbows to prevent the bear from successfully rolling you to your back. If you do, continue rolling until you’re on your stomach again. Don’t make a sound and definitely don’t get up until you are sure that the bear is gone. Wait longer than you think you should.
After a black or brown bear attack
Depending on where you are, it can take time for help to arrive. Remember to do these steps after a black or brown bear attack.
-Stay calm but alert, in case a retreating bear returns.
-Keep your deterrents at the ready and watch out for signs of the bear.
-Make sure that everyone’s safe and accounted for.
-Call for help. You must have all the necessary contact details beforehand.
-Your report should include the following:
how many people are injured,
the extent of the injuries,
time of the incident,
how many are in your group,
the extent of property damage,
description and last known location of the bear involved,
and a probable reason for the attack.
Hiking and Camping Safety in Black and Brown Bear Country
General safety tips when hiking and camping in black and brown bear country.
–Do your research before the big day. Areas known for high bear traffic and activity should be avoided.
–Stick to the trail and don’t stray too far from the campground.
–Never (ever!) approach a bear, especially one with cubs. That’s just asking for trouble and much much worse. You’re not just endangering your life but the bear’s too.
Definitely no selfies. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re close enough to be dinner.
–Carry your bear spray, and ascertain that you know how to use it.
–Come with a big group*. Not only is there safety in numbers, but a big, noisy group can give a bear clear warning of your presence from far away. A solo hiker or camper is more likely to catch a bear unaware and lead to an aggressive, defensive response.
-On that note, make a lot of noise when hiking so the bear knows you’re coming. Bears are naturally afraid of little old you and me so they aren’t going to stay and prepare a welcome party for humans. We’re all talk and not enough meat, I say.
–Store food properly in a bear-proof canister or container. This includes food wastes, wrappers, trash, clothes used when cooking, and even personal hygiene products. Not sure if something should go in a canister? Place it in one anyway.
Signs that a bear is around
Bear signs are relatively easy to spot if you know what to look for. They love to brush up against trees and branches so wearing away on tree barks in bear country may be a sign that they frequent the area. And since bears love berries, berry patches are hot spots that should be avoided.
Fresh bear tracks and droppings are glaring warning signs to keep away. Bear poo is large and tubular, while their tracks are, well, large. They look like these:
You can also differentiate black and brown bears from their track marks. Black bears’ claw marks are straight and are one to two inches long. Brown bears’ tracks are curved so their two to four inches long nail impressions will be deeper.
Planning a long-awaited trek through northern Canada and Alaska’s arctic tundra? Then prepare to meet none other than the polar bear.
Largest land carnivore in the world
Polar bears are massive creatures of the ice. They are the biggest of the bear species and the largest land carnivore in the world. Male adults can reach up to 3m (10ft) long and weigh up to a whopping 800 kg (lbs).
They are incredibly strong and despite their size, polar bears are swift and agile on land and ice. They can run at 40km per hour (25 mph) on solid ground.
The polar bear’s Latin name is Ursus maritimus: sea bear. Yes, polar bears are legit considered as marine animals, just like dolphins, sharks, and their favorite prey, seals. Why not, when they are the only bear species on Earth that depend on the ocean and its abundant world to survive? The polar bear life is inexplicably tied to the sea ice and their primary food source beneath it.
In fact, polar bears are impressive swimmers and divers. Their saucer-wide paws are up to 30 cm (12 in) across and are adapted to swimming. They also make use of those big hind legs as a sort of rudder. These allow them to propel through and navigate the water for hours upon hours with ease. Sea bears can swim constantly for days from sea ice to sea ice, covering long distances and reaching speeds of up to 10 kph (6 mph). Some have been spotted 100 km (62mi) away from shore.
Polar bears are actually black
Polar bear hair is transparent with a hollow core that traps heat to keep the bear warm. It also scatters and reflects light, making it appear white. Beneath all that thick, colorless fur, the polar bear’s skin is black. Just look at its mouth, nose and the area around its eyes.
You and me, we’re food
Unlike black bears and grizzly bears whose diets are more or less 70% plant-based, polar bears mainly consume other animals. They live in some of the harshest environments on the planet, after all. That and their size have got to require massive amounts of energy for survival.
Unfortunately, “other animals” can include you and me, if we happen to be around. Most encounters between humans and polar bears are harmless but know that if one decides to attack, you’re pretty much food without a weapon or back up (even then, sometimes).
Though these bears actually only have about a 2 percent success rate when it comes to hunting. So if you are still able to fight a bear off long and hard enough (go you!), it may give up. This won’t really work on a truly hungry bear, by the way. Nom nom.
What to do if you encounter a polar bear
What, you got yourself on a polar bear’s crosshairs? Good luck. And follow these steps.
Once you see a polar bear in the distance, stop, and assess the situation. If it appears unaware of your presence, quietly and slowly leave the area. Under no circumstances should you approach. Stay downwind and keep your eye on the big guy as you retreat.
If it sees you, the bear will try to figure out what you are. Polar bears are very curious. It might stand on its hind legs for a better look and start sniffing the air. It might even try to circle downwind for a better sniff.
If the bear exhibits signs of interest like any above, let it know that you’re human by waving your arms slowly up and down, while talking firmly. Stand your ground but get your deterrents ready. If with a group, gather together to look bigger. Once it identifies you as human, a bear will usually go on its own way. Then you can slowly create some distance between you.
Remember, don’t run. Never try to outrun a bear. It won’t work and you will have signed your death sentence. Running is what prey does. You don’t want the biggest predator on land to decide that you’re prey.
If a bear is more defensive than curious, it might stare right at you or move its head from side to side. It may also make distressed noises like huffing, hissing or growling and show you a bluff charge, going straight at you and stopping short. A mother with cubs or a surprised bear will often behave this way.
This is a warning that the bear senses a threat and is feeling defensive. Heed that warning and slowly back away. Once you’re far enough away, a defensive bear will usually stop advancing.
If the polar bear starts to attack, it has decided you are prey or a big enough threat. A polar bear on the attack will not make a sound. Its ears will prick and its mouth open, keeping a laser focus on you.
This may sound laughable when a single swipe of that massive claw can kill you in an instant, but you have to stay calm and stand your ground in the face of an attacking bear. Again, do not run. Make loud noises, look as imposing and act as aggressively as you can. Then, unleash your bear spray as soon as the bear reaches striking distance. Use your deterrents. Shoot to kill if you must. If none of these works, your best chance is to fight with all you’ve got, use anything you can get your hands on. If possible, focus your hits on the eyes and nose.
After a polar bear attack
Because polar bear territory is such a remote place, it can take a while for help to arrive. Just like any bear attack, you must follow these steps:
-Stay calm but alert, in case the polar bear returns or worse, starts hunting you again. The fight may have also drawn curious, unwanted visitors.
-Keep your deterrents at the ready and watch out for signs of the bear.
-Make sure that everyone’s safe and accounted for.
-Use your radio or sat phone to call for help. You must have all the necessary contact details beforehand.
-Your report should include the following: your status, how many people are injured, the extent of the injuries, your location, time of the incident, how many are in your group, the extent of property damage, description and last known location of the bear involved, and a probable reason for the attack.
Hiking and Camping Safety in Polar Bear Country
There’s a sort of dark, funny catchphrase going around about what to do when you encounter a bear:
If it’s black, fight back~
If it’s brown, get down~
If it’s white, good night~
Hey, this is actually useful for the first two. But “good night” on the third one, because again, once a polar bear decides to attack, and you don’t have an effective means of defense, the fight’s already over.
That’s why the best defense against a polar bear attack is to avoid getting placed in that position in the first place. Ideally, you will have a guide who is an expert in polar bear country safety.
Stay alert and aware. The polar bear’s territory is a harsh but stark environment—wide expanses of uninterrupted snow, often with minimal cover. You can use this to your advantage because it means that a bear can be spotted from a distance, preventing surprise close encounters.
-Regularly perform 360-degree scans of your surroundings with binoculars.
-Keep an eye for signs of bear presence—droppings, bear tracks, diggings, dens, and carcasses.
-Bears like to hunt during the night so hike only in daylight.
-Avoid areas where you have a limited view of the surroundings.
-The more, the merrier and safer. Never hike in polar bear country alone. The larger the group*, the safer you’ll be from a bear. Plus more people to help, just like this group of hikers attacked by a Polar bear at night.
Steer clear of feeding areas and den sites. Avoid surprising them in their own turf or getting in the way when they are actively hunting for food. Do thorough research beforehand and know where bears are likely to be found.
-Coastal areas are hotspots for polar bears as this is mostly where they hunt for food. Be extra vigilant and wary of places where a bear may hide behind, such as driftwood, blocks of sea ice, vegetation, boulders, and the like.
-Seals are the polar bear’s primary nutritional source. It’s best to avoid these feeding areas. If passing through is unavoidable or if you want to observe the wildlife, be on full alert, do it from a distance, and don’t stay too long.
-Be on the lookout for possible den sites. There is no one time when all the bears are inactive and in hibernation in their den. You have to be careful all-year-round. Maternity dens are especially dangerous. A mother with cubs to protect will be extremely aggressive and ready to attack.
Don’t sleep outside. Camping under the stars is a no-no in polar bear country. You may look like a seal in the dark. Seal = polar bear food.
-Camping in tents should also be avoided. Polar bears hunt at night and do attack tent campsites while the occupants are asleep.
-Always sleep inside a secure building when possible. If tent camping is the only option, camp inland and avoid beaches, coastlines, islands, and rocky islets.
-Camp away from blind corners, pressure ridges (formed when sea ice is pushed up), snowbanks, thick vegetation, and anything that a bear can hide behind.
-Avoid areas where drifting sea ice is blown to shore as they may carry a big white marine mammal who will eat you in your sleep.
-An electric fence to surround the camp (with enough volts to deter a bear but not hurt it) is a good idea. Keep your bear spray where you can reach it easily. Other deterrents like loud explosives and shotguns with non-lethal rounds may also be used. Make sure that you know how to use them properly before arming yourself.
-Deterrents work better if there are no attractants. Polar bears can smell food from miles away. Cook and store food downwind, away from sleeping areas.
-Never leave food and food wastes unattended. These must always be stored in bear-proof containers that will eliminate or reduce their odor.
*Please exercise current mandates on proper social distancing.
Bear to read more about wild animals and what to do when you see them? Stay tuned for the upcoming Part 2 of this Camping Safety series and get to know bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, gators and more!