Your average backpacker doesn’t fall into the “neutral” category when it comes to bears: You’re either jazzed about seeing one in the backcountry, or the prospect legitimately terrifies you. It follows that a breakdown of how to find bears doubles as a primer on how to avoid them—so hey, something for everyone.
The simplest way to locate a bear? By its nosh. Bears pursue a diverse omnivorous menu that shifts from month to month, so tracking down the shaggy gourmands means considering the calendar.
Since they roam a collectively vast range, grizzly and black bears diets vary quite a bit, but we can generalize. We’ll spell out by season some of the prominent foodstuffs that draw bears to various corners of the ursine landscape, keeping a couple of things in mind:
Despite their fondness for red meat, black bears and grizzlies are hardcore plant-eaters. They’ve got a carnivore’s short, simple gut, though, so they’re not super-efficient at digesting roughage. That means they mostly seek out green vegetation in its early-growth phase when it’s soft and energy-rich. Bears therefore spend much of their spring and summer tracking greenup.
A bear’s M.O. is packing on the pounds ahead of its winter sleep. So it’ll ditch one menu item to capitalize on another that’s more nutritious, abundant, or easier to procure. Many prized bear foods—mast, fruit, salmon—are highly variable, providing a bumper crop some years and next to nothing in others, forcing to bears to look elsewhere for fodder. So the trick to narrowing down possible bear locations is paying attention to when major food sources become available—the exact timing varies year by year—and keying into “backup” foods if one of those major sources, such as huckleberries, has a lousy season.
Without further ado, here’s a food-oriented guide to locating (or dodging) bears in a given season.
Hungry bears fresh out of winter dens forage for grasses, sedges, and forbs. These start growing earliest on south-facing slopes, in draginages, within recently burned areas, and along roadway shoulders. Long-clawed grizzlies also dig roots this time of year from river flats to mountainsides. In some areas, overwintered berries and tree sapwood provide important kickstart sustenance, so you may find bears seeking them in woods and brushfields. Bears sniff out winter- or predator-killed carcasses, too, but those tend to be more randomly scattered (find one? Steer clear—bears defend meat aggressively).
Both black bears and grizzlies also hunt newborn ungulates in late spring. In May or early June in Yellowstone, for example, monitor elk herds with scruffy spotted youngsters; you may end up seeing a grizzly rocket from the closest timber to try and run one of them down.
In mountainous terrain, bears commonly follow greenup into the high country: Expect them in lush montane meadows and open chutes left by winter avalanches, plus north-facing basins and other pockets that melt out late. Spring through summer, bears dine on favored horsetail, cow-parsnip, and angelica in moist glades, streamsides, and bottoms.
When berries start ripening, bears beeline for them: huckleberries, thimbleberries, cranberries, buffaloberries, grapes, cherries, and more—often found in forest clearings, open woods, and riparian corridors.
In jackstraw woods or old burns with plentiful deadfall, watch for both grizzly and black bears slurping ants and grubs.
In parts of the Northern Rockies, grizzlies climb above timberline in high summer to scarf army cutworm moths among talus. And from Yellowstone Lake to the Olympic Peninsula and Alaska, salmon or trout runs are likely to be enthusiastically attended by both black bears and grizzlies.
Late summer to autumn, bears double down on their food intake in the cranked-up, pre-winter feasting mode known as “hyperphagia.” Berries remain important, and you’ll find bears gobbling fruit in old orchards, too. Black bears join whitetails, razorbacks, and squirrels in gorging on mast (tree nuts) in oak, hickory, and beech woods, sometimes snacking from perches in the canopy. Where whitebark pines grow, grizzlies raid subalpine pinenut stores.
Grizzlies also sometimes stalk sex-addled bull elk during autumn rut and pilfer hunter-killed ungulates. Be vigilant about carcass-lording bears this time of year (whizzing bullets, too).
Other Habitat Clues
Food’s the main key to finding bears, but other factors influence their movements. Afoot midday in grizzly country, off-trail hikers should (ahem) “bear” in mind that the bruins often nap amid shady thickets or groves. In areas with a heavy human presence, bears often do most of their foraging at nighttime—not uncommonly along hiking trails.
In areas where black bear and grizzly populations overlap, you’re unlikely to see the former spend much time in open country far from timber: They mostly stick to woods so they have an escape route—up a trunk—if a grizzly harasses them.