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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

That doesn’t mean scream at the top of your lungs all the time. We’re out there to be part of the flow of nature. Good lord—we don’t want to have this blast zone. That’s stupid. In a lot of Alaska where I hike, I’m sharing the same area with 100 bears. But I never have trouble with them because I make noise appropriately. If you come to a blind spot, and there’s good probability there’s a bear nearby, clap, talk loudly, that sort of thing. If, after all you’ve done, something happens, and there’s a bear: 1) stand your ground; 2) ready deterrent; and 3) yell “hey, bear!”

Don’t hike alone. 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], but to the bear it was 10 groups of one—it was one kid at a time. When you tease these things apart, you find that bears are risk-averse: They will avoid you if you group up.

Keep your distance.
In Kenai Fjords, we worked with black bears, and we were able to figure out at what distance—75 yards—people disrupted or displaced them. With black bears, you don’t expect an explosive response—but there were a few bears that reacted like, “Bring it on, little man.” Good stuff to know.

Be aware of the signals you telegraph. Don’t act like you’ve been violated when you get attacked after washing your hair with a fragrance that makes you smell like a 200-pound strawberry. If you smelled a bacon-and-egg shampoo with a vanilla conditioner, wouldn’t you come running? Why would you come into the world of an animal driven by olfactory capabilities and dope yourself to smell like a giant piece of food?

In the Alaskan tundra, don’t bring a banana-colored tent. I’ll release a paper this year mapping bear response to human-generated stimuli. In four years of field research, we’ve tested 728 scents, 487 sounds, and 88 visuals. When we tested a variety of fabrics, it should come as zero surprise that camouflaged fabrics were simply not noticed. But solid-colored fabrics of unusual colors (like bright yellow) solicited bears’ attention. Boldly colored tents and clothing make you an obvious feature on the landscape. Would I not have a yellow tent? All of my tents are bright yellow! But I don’t perch them out on a promontory where the whole world can see. Be aware that when you telegraph your presence by introducing novelty into a bear’s environment, you shouldn’t be too surprised when it comes to check you out.

Store your food properly. Canisters, though bulky and limited in volume, are nearly 100-percent bearproof. Hanging works but is a pain and ‘smart’ bears like those in Yosemite can get food bags down unless you follow all of the height/distance-from-tree-trunk rules [see diagram, right]. Lightweight, very portable electric fence systems are underutilized. In my field camps, we use a system that weighs just a pound or two, and we keep the food inside the fence with us. For instance, Sureguard [sureguard.com
.au] makes a palm-size model that runs on two AA batteries and delivers a very hot 8kV to the fence line.

Never, ever, ever play dead unless you’re knocked down by a grizzly. This is some of the most misunderstood advice out there. [And it shouldn’t be needed if you alert bears to your presence, carry spray, and use it.] But 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.

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Is BACKPACKER so Liberal or is the writer on Bloomberg's payroll? The obvious answer is to carry a .44 revolver! Fire to frighten, kill if you have to, at least if the bear wins, he won't enjoy is meal with a bullet hole in him. Good Luck on trusting your life to an aerosol spray can, my room freshener doesn't work half the time!

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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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Dave R
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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