Bear Safety

The northern Rockies are bear country—grizzlies and black bears are a presence throughout the region. Seeing one across a valley, through a pair of binoculars, is fun, but meeting one at closer range isn’t. There have been few fatal encounters, but almost every summer there are incidents involving bears.

Practical Precautions

Avoid sudden encounters. Whenever possible, travel in open country, during daylight hours, and in groups. Make noise—talking or singing is preferable to carrying "bear bells"—and leave your dog at home. Most attacks occur when a bear is surprised at close quarters or feels threatened.

Stay alert. Look for signs of bears, such as fresh tracks, scat, matted vegetation, or partially consumed carcasses.

Choose your tent site carefully. Pitch the tent away from trails, streams with spawning trout, and berry patches. Avoid areas that have a rotten smell or where scavengers have gathered; these may indicate the presence of a nearby bear cache, and bears aggressively defend their food.

Keep food away from campsites. Cook meals at least 100 yards from tents, and store food and other items that give off odors (including personal products such as soap, shampoo, lotions, and even toothpaste) away from campsites. Hang food at least 10 feet high between trees where possible, or store your food in bear-resistant food containers. Avoid strong-smelling foods, and clean up after cooking and eating. Store garbage in airtight containers, or burn it and pack up the remains.

If You Encounter a Bear

Identify yourself. Talk to the bear in a firm, low voice, to identify yourself as a human. Don’t yell. And don’t run. Running will trigger a bear’s predatory instincts, and a bear can easily outrun you. Back away slowly, and give the bear an escape route. Don’t ever get between a mother and her cubs.

Bigger is better. Bears are less likely to attack a larger target. Therefore, increase your apparent size. Raise your arms above your head to appear larger, and wave them slowly, to better identify yourself as a human. With two or more people, it helps to stand side by side. In a forested area it may be appropriate to climb a tree, but remember that black bears and young grizzlies are agile tree climbers.

As a last resort, play dead. If a bear charges and makes contact with you, fall to the ground, lie flat on your stomach or curl into a ball, hands behind your neck, and remain passive. If you are wearing a pack, leave it on. Once a bear no longer feels threatened, it will usually end its attack. Wait for the bear to leave before you move. The exception to this rule is when a bear displays predatory behavior. Instead of simply charging, a bear hunting for prey will show intense interest while approaching at a walk or run, and it may circle, as if stalking you. But remember that such circumstances are exceedingly rare and most often involve black bears, which are much smaller and less aggressive than grizzlies (and can be driven off more easily).

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