With 1 million bears roaming North America, chances are pretty good that you'll cross paths with one of them at some point. To make every encounter safe, from grizzly bears to black bears, bone up on bruin identification and etiquette.
Assess the Risk Statistically, it’s way less than you think. Since 1900, black bears have killed 65 people and grizzlies 57. To put that in perspective, lightning claimed 28 lives in 2008 alone. As cliché as it sounds, “bears are probably more afraid of you than you are of them,” Rogers says, and want to avoid you. But with dwindling wilderness, that’s harder to do. So while you shouldn’t let bear-phobia keep you tossing in your sleeping bag, keep a safe distance and protect camp food (read on for tips on both).
Stay Alert in Bear Hot Spots This lets you avoid startling a bear while also affording you a prime photo op. Here is when and where you’re most likely to see them:
>> Dawn and dusk Although bears are active at all times of the day, this is when you’re most likely to see them out and about. >> In the fall This is when they gorge themselves silly—called hyperphagia—to store fat for hibernation from October through March. But don’t assume all bears are hibernating. Some emerge to dig under the snow for food, and in the South, black bears stay out year-round. >> Food-rich areas Since bears are ruled by their stomachs, you’ll find them at nature’s buffet tables: berry patches, forests laden with hazelnuts, beechnuts, or acorns, clamming areas, near carrion, and salmonspawning areas. >> Avalanche chutes and trails Bears enjoy easy travel just like us. >> In the silence Bears probably will hear or smell you before they see you. To help avoid surprising one (especially if you’re downwind), make noise: Talk, clap, sing, jingle bells (in some areas, bears have learned to associate metallic sounds with people).
Identify Bear Signs
Since bears are omnivores, their scat resembles that of a large dog but is full of seeds, berries, roots, and other plants—and sometimes animal parts. Bears go through periods when they feed mostly on meat, like carrion and young ungulates. This usually occurs in the spring, when few food options are available; the protein also adds bulk to their lean, post-hibernation bodies. Grizzlies will defend food caches, so tread carefully around carrion. If the scat is black, runny, and contains lots of fur, it’s likely from a wolf, since bears tend to skin prey to avoid the fur.
Tracks Grizzly paws leave long claw prints while black bears don’t. Their front paw tracks measure 6” to 8’’ long (5” to 8.75” wide) and the hind tracks (shown above) measure 12” to 16” long (4.5” to 8.5” wide). A black bear’s tracks measure about 4.5” long (3.25” to 6” wide) in the front and 7” long (3.5” to 6” wide) in the rear (shown above).
Horizontal bite marks and vertical scratches five to seven feet up on trees
Bears rub against the marks, which hold scent. “Other bears can tell the sex, identity, and mood of the bear from the marking,” says Rogers.
Grizzlies (and to a small extent black bears) dig in the dirt to look for small animals and roots.