Ask most people what to do if they encounter a bear and that’s about all you’ll get. Lay down, don’t move, and hope they don’t kill you. Anybody who saw Leo’s Oscar-winning turn in “The Revenant” this last year has seen what playing dead really means. A monster with teeth and claws sharper than Nicky “The Blade” will tear at you, drool on you, snort, crush your skull. Sure, if you play dead a grizzly will ideally leave you alone at some point. But that could very well be when you’re actually dead.
On the other hand, bears have more to fear from us than we do from them, as evidenced by the recent death of two grizzly cubs under the wheels of high-speed Yellowstone-area drivers. And if you roll up with some basic food for your headspace and a couple simple tools, you’ll be able to safely enjoy one of the most majestic creatures in its wild habitat, one of the most life-changing things you’ll ever experience.
Tips on How to Dial in Your Safety While Traveling in Bear Country
1. Bear spray. Buy bear spray. ($44.00 USD) And make sure you know how to use it. If the whole idea of “depress button, point at bear” confuses you, try out a few practice sprays. Just make sure you’re not spraying into the wind.
2. Learn how to tell the difference between bears. Specifically blacks vs. browns/grizzlies. You can’t always base it on fur color though. A telltale difference is the big hump of muscle between the shoulder blades right behind the neck. Another easy telltale: a black bear snout is basically a straight line from crown to nose; the grizzly’s profile drops down over the eyes, then goes out for the snout.
3. Use common sense when planning your day. Try not to go bush whacking, especially around dusk or dawn, when animals are out hunting for food. A telltale difference is the grizz’s big hump of muscle between the shoulder blades right behind the neck
4. Make a habit of making noise. Unless you’re on a spy mission in a national park (or maybe on that James Bond trip to Siberia) there’s no reason to be quiet as you hike. Some people will carry bells ($3.95 USD) though unless you’re one of Santa’s reindeer, carrying jinglers 24-7 might not be for you. Just let out calls every now and then; stop and clap some rocks together, smack sticks on trees. Basically do all the fun stuff you would have done if you were still 10 years old and playing in the woods. Which is really why we’re out in the woods anyway, trying to recapture that childish wonder found only in nature.
OK, so you see a bear – what now?
1. First off you should always be so in tune with your surroundings that you see the bear from a ways off; even better get the eyes on it before it gets its eyes on you. In that case you can make some noise, even talk. Use a deep, calm but firm voice, like you’re disciplining your toddler or your boyfriend.
2. If they see you, back away slowly while moving your arms slowly. Let them know you’re not a threat, nor are you prey; bears don’t want to eat you. They prefer blueberries and fish. But if you’re a threat to them, their blueberries, their fish or their cubs, especially if you get between a mama bear and her cubs, get ready for…
1. Don’t run. Sure, it’s easier said than done but if a bear charges stand your ground. This is where the spray comes in handy. Sometimes the bear’s just playing a fun game of chicken. Half a thousand pounds running at you. Fun. If you run, the bear just might chase you because, well, that’s their idea of fun. Bears are twisted like that.
2. Grizzlies can’t climb trees. Black bears can. Remember that. At the same time.
3. Black bears are usually more skittish than grizzlies and a show of force is usually pretty effective in getting them away from you. But if you can get out, escape, anyway you can get out that joint, GTFO.
4. Nowhere to climb. No spray. The bear’s not bluffing. This is when you play dead if it’s a grizzly. Fall on your stomach so your backpack can provide some protection. Spread your legs so the beast can’t flip you over but otherwise lay completely still. Try not to cry out in pain as that ursine claw digs a few inches into your love handles. Or as the 600-pound ball of muscle stands on your spine. On the other hand, if it’s a black bear
5. Don’t play dead. Fight. Hit for the nose, the eyes, anything. Again, black bears are easier to run off than grizzlies. The whole play dead is really the thing you do when you’re probably gonna die anyway. Just bein’ real.
How can you prevent bear encounters?
So this is pretty common sense. When the park tells you not to have food just sitting around, it isn’t because the NPS likes acting like dicks. It’s because any food left lying around will likely attract bears and their fiendish senses of smell. If you’re still there, you could just be inviting a bear into your tent. If you’re not but you leave a pile of food, or even food wrappers (you scumbag), then the next camper can thank you if he or she survives the mauling that will likely ensue.
On the other hand, if you’re driving through a bear area go slow. You won’t get carjacked, I promise you. But with grizzles endangered and black bears simply being pretty awesome, a traffic accident that kills one is nothing short of tragedy. If you kill a mama bear, you could lead to the subsequent death of anywhere from 1 to 3 or more cubs. Not to mention the fact that bears have very intimate connections to their offspring. This is why we recommend taking wildlife adventures tours for your first time in new location. Get acquainted with the local wildlife from the comforts of a guided tour!
Recently in the Jackson Hole area, a motorist killed a cub of famed Teton grizz 399. Bear 399 dragged her baby off the road and licked it, nuzzled it, cuddled with its dead body. If that doesn’t raise a little welling in your throat, then perhaps you don’t really like wildlife as much as you claimed. I hear the big cities of America are great places to visit and you have absolutely no chance of running into a bear or any wildlife in most of them.
In the end, there’s one simple rule for all of this: If you don’t respect nature, you have no place in it. People who don’t respect it either destroy it or it destroys you. And there are few more magnificent icons of nature than the bear.