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.
Navigate a Close Encounter
First, don’t panic. Easy to say, we know, but the bear might not be attacking. Most of the time, it will saunter off. “Even when it pounces forward, slaps the ground, or blows air, it actually means the bear is nervous and won’t attack,” Rogers says. “In 40 years of being around wild black bears, I’ve seen that behavior a lot and never had one come after me.” But if a face-off is, indeed, underway, follow these pointers. And rehearse them in advance (your partner can play the bear).
Black bear The best defense is to carry a pepper spray like Halt! Dog Repellent ($8, halt.com). Though marketed for dogs, Rogers says it’s strong enough to fend off a black bear. It shoots a stream about 15 feet, rather than a mist that can blow back into your face. If the bear comes after you (or is rummaging in your food), aim at its forehead and arc down. “I’ve squirted myself in the eye,” says Rogers, “and there’s no lasting harm. It teaches them a lesson: Campgrounds are no place for a bear.” Otherwise, a “nuisance” bear could be killed later by wildlife managers or a camper with a gun. If you don’t have spray, throw rocks and talk loudly in a deep voice. To appear bigger, grab a camp chair or sleeping bag and hold it over your head. “Doing just about anything aggressive will scare it away,” he says. If the bear does attack, your reaction depends on the circumstances: >> Predatory In rare cases, black bears have, for unknown reasons, stalked and attacked people. In this scenario, don’t play dead or run (black bears and grizzlies can sprint at 35 mph). Rather, “Fight back with any weapon available: fists, feet, sticks, rocks, whatever,” he says. >> Defensive “If it’s an even rarer attack by a mother defending cubs, which black bears hardly ever do, drop into the fetal position, since lying still has proven effective time and again,” Rogers says.
Again, pepper spray is your best option, but you’ll need a stronger brand, like Bear Deterrent from Counter Assault ($45, counterassault. com). If the bear makes contact anyway (like with a mother protecting cubs), lie in a fetal position, torso facing the ground, hands around neck. A curious bear might flip you. If so, keep rolling until back on your belly. Playing dead fails? Fight back with all you have. Protect Your Food
Bears have remarkable noses. “I once monitored a bear who sniffed out a hazelnut crop 40 miles away,” Rogers says. “Two days later, she was there chowing down.” Ergo, in bruin-populated areas, store your food, garbage, and other odiferous items—clothes with food stains, sunscreen, toothpaste, lotion, bug dope, fuel (yes, really)—inside airtight bags, then keep the bags safe with one of the following methods.
>> Use bear canisters Rogers recommends the Backpackers’ Cache canister ($65; 2.7 lbs.; backpackerscache.com). Place the canister about 100 adult steps downwind from camp in case odors leak. Note: Many national and state park visitor centers rent—and, in some cases, require—canisters.
>> Hang a bag In places with less bear activity, where the weight of a canister isn’t justified, a bear bag can suffice, though experts disagree on their effectiveness: Some say an ambitious-enough black bear can always reach them. But since properly hung bags also keep out rodents and other critters, they’re a good idea in either case. Choose a tree 100 yards downwind from your tent, then attach your food bag to one end of 100-foot nylon cord. Tie a one-pound rock to the other end, toss it over a large branch, hoist the bag, and secure the line. You want the bag 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the trunk. View a step-by-step demo at backpacker.com/hangabearbag.
>> Set up a fence Surrounded by grizzlies? Keep them away by enclosing your campsite with a portable electric fence, like the one from UDAP ($250; 3 lbs. 8 oz., with batteries; udap.com). The wireand- mesh fence easily stakes into the ground in about 10 minutes, encloses a 27-by-27-foot area, and delivers 6,000 volts via two D-cell batteries—just enough shock to make any animal (including you) jump back, but not enough to inflict lasting damage.