The Truth About Bears: Bear Country Safety

Learn how to stay safe in bear country from myth-busting biologist Tom Smith.
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Learn how to stay safe in bear country from myth-busting biologist Tom Smith.
Reader Photo Bear-445x297 27972

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.

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.