Being from England, I’ve never had to think about my safety in terms of wildlife when hiking. There is pretty much nothing that is going to want to attack or eat you. Although, one of my close friends will make a strong case for cows (they can run faster than expected), it’s safe to go rambling around the countryside without a care. Because of this there was, for me at least, a slightly anxious feeling whenever we hit the trails here in Canada. The country is home to both black and grizzly bears, which gives hiking a bit more adrenaline.
We saw our first bear on our road trip to British Columbia. As we crossed the Alberta/B.C. boarder we were instantly met with luscious green, which was a beautiful thing to see after the grey winter of Calgary. I always sit with my camera ready when we’re driving, just in case, and this time it paid off. In a large parking lot on the side of the highway was a beautiful black bear. The area was big enough that we could sit safely in our vehicle and view the bear relaxing.
For me it was the ideal way to see a bear; he was safe, and we were safe. Everyone respected the bears personal space, recognised that he was a wild animal and we were in his home. However, this is not always the case. I have seen tourists actively following a bear cub to get a photo. If it’s a cub, there is a Mama bear not too far away! This a Bear safety lesson number one… do not follow the bear!
However, it is not just Canada that requires you to be bear aware. Other countries that are home to these fuzzy creatures are:
(not a full list… so check before you hike!)
There are also times when you need to be more aware. For example, you are more likely to see a bear during the summer months as they are no longer hibernating. Later in summer and into fall are when bears are most active as they are sourcing food ready for their winter slumber.
Due to my bear anxiety I have done quite a bit on research on how to prevent bear encounters and what to do if you do meet a bear in the woods. Here are my top tips:
Before You Hike
- Check relevant websites for bear sightings
For Canada I check the Parks Canada site as they do a weekly bear report which is shared on their social media outlets. Another great place to check is the provincial park sites. Both are a mine of information before a hike, letting you know what trails are open/closed and where bears have been recently spotted.
National Parks in Canada– https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/ours-bears/miseajour-update
Alberta Parks – https://www.albertaparks.ca/knowb4ugo/
- Pack the correct kit- and know how to use it!
When I speak to some Canadians about carrying bear spray they say there is no point. However, our fat tire bike instructor, who does a plethora of activities in the mountains said he always carries it which is good enough for me, so it goes in the pack. Make sure it is kept in an accessible place- you don’t want to be fumbling in a time of need.
Be sure you know how to use it, practice taking off the clip before you go and check the expiration date. Be aware of how far your bear spray will fire and always read the instructions.
Bear bells are also frequently debated. Personally, I don’t have one, I’m pretty noisy when I’m huffing and puffing up a mountainside chatting away to Matt. But if I was hiking alone, I’d pretty much be wanting to sound like a one-man-band in the style of Dick Van Dyke.
- Know your bears
You need to react differently with different bears. Black bears on average don’t want to know you, they just want to munch on the berries. Grizzlies on the other hand are called grizzly for a reason, whilst they aren’t actively seeking you out, they do react differently.
|Black Bear||Grizzly Bear|
|Claws are shorter about 1 ½ inches||Longer claws 2-4 inches|
|Straight face profile||Dished face profile|
|Taller ears||Shorter ears|
|No humped shoulder||Humped shoulder|
|Tracks are more rounded||Tracks are more square|
Also remember that both black bears and grizzlies come in a variety of colours ranging from blonde all the way through to dark black.
- Have an action plan
Talk about what you would do if you came across a bear. For example, if you are on a one-way trail- are you going to carry on or head back? Who is carrying the bear spray? The person you are hiking with may have different ideas so make sure you are the same page.
During Your Hike
- Hike in a group
Preventing a bear encounter is the smartest way to hike. Safest for you and for wildlife. Hiking in a group is a great way to do this. Bears don’t want to approach groups of people so travel in a ‘pack’.
Always keep your dog on a lead when hiking – they do not mix well with bears!
- Be aware of your surroundings
Being alert is key. Every now and then I like to stop and check around me, including behind/above, as bears are known to track. However, the biggest note on this point would be to listen. Bears are big, so they are going to be making a noise- if you have your headphones in you are not going to be able hear them. So, ditch the music and listen to the sweet sounds of nature.
- Make noise
Making noise along the trails is the easiest way to make your presence known. It gives the bear a chance to clear out before you even have the chance to meet. If you are running out of things to chat about, try reciting things such as the 50 US states, European Countries or Premier League Football clubs. (Yes, Matt and I have genuinely done all of these!)
- Check for signs of activity
There are a few signs you can check for along the way. The most obvious one is poop (scat), usually full of berries. They also scent mark so look out for large amounts of urine (yes, fun!) A little less obvious are scratches on trees, you’ll more likely see the other signs before this one, and it can be harder to identify clearly as bear activity.
- Know your route
You may need to change your route so knowing where you are is a great advantage. Furthermore, should you encounter a bear you’ll want to leave it a clear escape route. Knowing your surroundings will help with this. For example, its useful to know if there is 5km of switchbacks ahead or a clear opening.
If You See a Bear
- Quickly asses your situation
Hopefully, you’ve followed the above steps and know where in the trail you are, what lies ahead of you and what lies behind you. Asses what type of bear you have come across, so you know how to react. Communicate calmly with you hiking buddies. Locate your bear spray (but don’t get trigger happy!)
- Don’t panic
As with any animal remaining calm is and advantage. Whilst it is a shocking experience, panicking will surely make it worse. Try to remember you are more likely to be struck by lightening than be attacked by a bear!
- Make your presence known
If you come across a bear, make them aware that you are there. They don’t like to be surprised, so softly talking and standing your ground allows the bear to see you and acknowledge you as non-threatening. One caveat to this is if you’re 100% sure that the bear hasn’t seen you then back away slowly and don’t disturb him.
- Do not run
Even if you are Usain Bolt, do not run! It may encourage the bear to chase you and you probably won’t win. Instead, make yourself big by waving your arms slowly and back away. Aim to get at least 100 metres away.
- If it’s a Black Bear
Black bears are naturally inclined to flee, so chances are you won’t need to actually use your bear spray. As they are naturally inquisitive, behaviours such as standing on their hind legs are not signs of aggression. Mamma bears will sometimes do ‘bluff’ charges but again these are warnings rather than attacks so try to stand your ground. If it does escalate to an attack, with a black bear you should fight back.
- If it’s a Grizzly Bear
You follow the same rules for a grizzly bear until it come to an attack. In this case you should play dead. Lie on you stomach, preferably with a backpack still on you back. Place your hands across your neck for extra protection. Spreading your legs will make it harder for the bear to flip you over.
After Your Hike
- Report any bear sightings
After you’ve calmed down and got to safety, report your bear sighting/encounter to local authorities. This helps keep other hikers safe and enables wildlife to live happily. If you see other hikers on the way back to safety let them know there is a bear on the trail and roughly how far away.
Our Bear Encounter
Matt and I put all of these into action when we came across a young grizzly one day! Yes, it happened, and we survived!! Just after England got knocked out of the World Cup semi-finals, we had intended to go for a 2-3 hour hike. However, slightly depressed from not making it to the finals and realising football was not coming home we decided to take a much shorter hike nearer to the town of Banff. Classed as a scenic drive, Vermillion Lakes provides beautiful views of mountains and blue waters on a flat trail of a few kilometres.
We ambled along the trail taking in the views, which looked much different from when we were there in Spring last year. The trail is actually on the road and several cars and bikes passed us on the way. On the road we noticed some scat, but it was pretty dried up and didn’t look fresh so we carried on. At this point a Parks Canada employee drove past so we figured if there was a bear that they’d tell us.
We chatted about the wildlife we’d seen here previously (deer, elk and moose) and joked that after the way the match had gone it would be just our luck to see a bear. On the return down the in-and-out track, we’d gotten a bit quiet and tired. But as we turn a bend, Matt grabs my arm and says, ‘There’s a bear!’ OMG, it’s happened! A grizzly bear! Humped shoulders and a dished faced. My research had paid off in identification.
Not the best picture, but we were not going to be fumbling around for a photo!
While I froze to the spot Matt reminded me to breathe and not panic. Luckily Matt is super calm in these situations and tells me to start walking backwards and slowly wave my arms. I’d always wondered what I’d say to a bear in this situation. Turns out it’s “I am not food!” At this point the bear is about 80 meters away so at a safe-ish distance. We are not sure if he’s noticed us, but we continue through our bear safety steps as he walks in our direction and get the bear spray ready. My hands are sweating so much (its also super hot!) so I pass it over to Matt.
Fortunately for us it’s a busy road and a car comes up behind. Before the owner can even ask if we need to get in we are pulling on the back-door handle. We clamber in, practically sitting on the laps of the people on the back seat. Explaining we’d seen a bear they are more than happy to drive us to safety, before heading back to try and find him from the safety of their car. So, thank you to the wonderful Australian family for helping us out!
After my hands had stopped shaking, my heart rate had returned to normal and I was able to breathe again we headed back in to town to report our sighting at the Parks Canada office. The bear showed us no signs of aggression, but I was so glad to have done my research and learnt what to do. Even more fortunate for me to have the most relaxed hiking partner in Matt!
I hope you enjoyed this week’s post and that these tips are useful! Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever had a bear encounter!!