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Backpacker Magazine – February/March 2013

The Truth About Bears: The Skills

Learn how to stay safe in bear country from myth-busting biologist Tom Smith. By Ted Alvarez


Illustration by Andy Potts


In 21 years of studying human/bear encounters, Tom Smith estimates he’s seen hundreds of bruins of each species in the field. The former National Park Service research biologist in Alaska and current associate professor at Brigham Young University has published groundbreaking academic papers, like last year’s report comparing bear spray to guns (more on that below). His studies have helped biologists—and backpackers—better understand bears. Here’s his advice for hikers, straight from the source:

Ignore conventional wisdom.
Most of it is not based on good science. As a novice to bear conservation 20 years ago, I assumed all of these [experienced] guys knew what they were talking about. I started hearing things, like “Don’t stare a bear in the eye.” They used to say you’re supposed to wave your arms overhead. Ten years later, I was like, “Why am I doing that? This is stupid. Am I a deer with antlers? Do you think a bear can tell if you’re staring at it in the eye?” This is not only baseless but dangerous—since really what you should be doing is paying attention to your surroundings [see below] and always carrying a deterrent in bear country.

Keep it simple. Predators don’t run through a checklist of potential responses; you shouldn’t either. A bear won’t wonder, “Gee, do I attack, do I run?” It just acts. My minimalist approach is this: Don’t go into bear country without a deterrent. I mean all bear country, density be damned. You can’t outrun them, you can’t outwit them, you can’t out-anything them. You need a way to say to the bear “this far; no farther.”

Be vigilant everywhere. A paper that Stephen Herrero and I published showed that the only predictor of bear attacks in Alaska was bear density—but not as you might imagine. The fewer the bears, the more likely the problem. We have a saying: “Bears are where they find you.”

Put your trust in bear spray. The efficacy of spray vs. guns was the subject of my most recent paper [published last year in the The Journal of Wildlife Management]. 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.

If you shoot a grizzly in the Lower 48, you’re moron of the year. Most states require you to hike out the carcass, and in some cases you’ll have to pay fines [for shooting an endangered species]. Those problems go away with bear spray. Plus, you can use bear spray with impunity—and with positive benefits for bear and human alike. A bear spritzed with pepper spray gets a good spanking—“Hey! These creatures are like skunks. Screw it, I’m outta here!”—and you’re positively conditioning it to associate that lesson with future hikers.

Despite what some people say, I’m not just pimping the [bear spray] industry. Those guys hate me. At one point, I showed that bear spray could actually attract bears. I just demonstrated that if you’re stupid enough to spray it around a tent, you just said, “Eat at Joe’s.” Not a lot of people were doing that, but there were enough that it had to stop. The media distorted it, and I was in a number of TV and radio spots where people said, “Bear spray doesn’t work.” But the correct human analogy for the ways bear react to bear spray is this: I like a milkshake, but I don’t want it sprayed up my nose.

“What do I do if I don’t have bear spray with me?” a woman once asked me. I said, “Don’t not have that stuff!” It’s irresponsible not to protect yourself, but also not to give [the bears] an alternative option. She kept going, saying, “But please answer my question.” I said, “Let me phrase it this way: You are telling me that you’re riding in a truck, and refuse to wear a seatbelt. Then, you’re asking me: What’s the best way to be ejected through the windshield?” That’s when I started realizing that the primary piece of information is this: Don’t go out there without a deterrent. That, and commit to making noise appropriately.


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Tom C
Nov 05, 2013

Good article, but the statement, "We don’t have a single incident in all of North America in which a bear has attacked a group of people. Yes, there was an incident in Alaska last summer when a bear charged and attacked a group [it was a NOLS crew, spread out]…" is not true. One made it into the Anchorage Daily News and another involved a direct acquaintance of mine (and was verified by Alaska State Troopers).

Also, bear spray is not allowed if you fly into where you're going on a commercial flight (and the charter guys don't like it much either). Thinking about what happens if the canister goes off where it can affect the pilot… I guess I understand the restriction.

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Nov 04, 2013

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Ryan
Nov 04, 2013

With the exception of the part where this guy said that predators don't go through a checklist wondering if they should attack or not, I call 100% BS. I have had 4 bear encounters (that I know of) and on all 4 encounters the bear stopped, looked at me, started huffing and then took off. If a predator doesn't go through a checklist then why did it stop, look at me? It was making a decision as to whether or not to attack. It was making a decision based upon life choices or previous encounters as to whether I was a worthy choice or not. I have even encountered a Mama Griz and she sized my group up. We were yelling, waving our arms and making ourselves look bigger. Guess what, the bear took her cubs and ran off. So she must be going through a checklist. Maybe not taking notes on a piece of paper, but you can definitely tell she was thinking, should I charge, bluff charge or should I walk away? Are they going to attack me? Are they bigger than I?

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Rob Lawler
Oct 25, 2013

Finally some truth. I have been preaching this for years. Living near the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, I see people stopping their cars, getting out and taking pictures of the bears too close for comfort. I suppose these people think the bears will pose with them or something. And other idiots actually try to coax them with food in their hands so they will come closer. Nothing worse than a tourist with a death wish. Lots of respect for the Rangers and Volunteers who make them get back in their cars. Read a sign, folks!

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Sean A
Aug 19, 2013

We need to distinguish between bear species - Black bears in California's Sierra Nevada are far less unpredictable than Grizzly Bears in Montana when it comes to attacking humans. I've come across ~40 bears in the wild without any issues, but most were Black bears, and we used various ways of protecting our food (the past ten years using bear canisters). I'd definitely carry deterrent when hiking and backpacking in Grizzly , Brown, or Polar bear country.

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Greg
Aug 19, 2013

I saw Tom Smith give most of this presentation on you tube on the NOLS channel. I actually is pretty funny and his presentation would be great for a group to watch.

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2 Trail Hikers
Aug 16, 2013

We have had a beer in camp once. Most likely out of curiosity, but we always stay aware of our surroundings and keep deterrent close at hand. We live in an area where sightings are becoming more frequent, hike areas where bears roam. Bottom line always be prepared.

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Gina
Jun 20, 2013

I just bought the bear fence and will test it this weekend in Upstate New York and in 3 weeks in Alaska - if it doesn't work, I won't complain... :-)
Ordered from eaglesafety.net
I think the air horn isn't a bad idea either, but I'm not sure what am I going to feel if I have to use it?! Noise will bother us, not just the wildlife...

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FWCanada
Jun 10, 2013

Interesting tips and thank you for the post, it is very important to consider safety first for both hikers and the species they will be interacting with.

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Jun 07, 2013

I would carry spray in the park regardless of the rule. www.mxsteez.com

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Mike T
May 15, 2013

My "go to" deterrent is actually an air horn (like what you see at in the stands at sports venues). It has better range than a spray, is not subject to the vagaries of wind and hurts the ears of most animals, convincing them to be elsewhere. Spray works if used properly, but can also be misused and be no help at all.

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Brian E
Mar 22, 2013

As to the last paragraph in this article... it's actually against park rules to have/use bear spray (or guns, of course) in Yosemite National Park. So I guess you have to ride in that truck without the seatbelt on, and hope making noise avoids any encounter at all. "Bear spray/pepper spray is not allowed in Yosemite." - http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/scarebears.htm

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