As potentially dangerous black bear sightings continue to rise, knowing how to successfully prevent an encounter – and deter an attack – can save your life.
Much has changed in 2020. For starters, the “new normal” of social distancing during a pandemic has many people returning to the outdoors – or visiting them for the first time. At the same time, protected species of bears are seeing their numbers increasing in populated areas. When you combine these two happenings, the likelihood of bear encounters increases dramatically.
Such is the case for hikers and campers, with black bear encounters rising drastically in 2020. Some have proven fatal. Most, thankfully, have only served as intense reminders that these wild animals are exactly that – wild. And unpredictable.
Black bears can – and do – kill people. Fatalities from native American black bears are rare, but any encounter holds the potential to be dangerous. As a result, knowing how to successfully navigate such an encounter – and prevent one entirely – can save your life.
Research ahead of time, especially in Spring & Fall
While black bears are the smallest of their kin in the U.S., the typical individual vastly outweighs any human. Some can weigh a whopping 700 pounds, and all are equipped with five two-inch claws on each paw. All of this suffices to say that no person, no matter how experienced, can hope to overpower a black bear in a one-on-one confrontation.
As such, preventative knowledge becomes an outdoorsman’s best weapon against wild encounters.
For starters, black bears are most active in fall when they’re in full-on feeding mode. Many find themselves in nature during this beautiful season due to the incredible colors on display. Fall is also, however, when black bears are feeding intensely to put on the pounds before winter hibernation. This can make them overly aggressive toward potential meals – which includes humans and their food.
Spring, too, sees an uptick in black bear activity. As nature comes out of its own hibernation, the bears are doing the same – and are very hungry. As a result, your chances of a black bear attack or encounter drastically increase during the season.
Ask your park’s rangers about local black bear sightings
In turn, if you’re planning to enjoy the outdoors during any season, know if you’re in bear territory. And if you are, the best thing you can do is ask a park ranger in the location you’re visiting if any black bears are in the area. If any aggressive bears have been spotted recently, it is best to put up camp (or hike) somewhere else. Rangers will always be more than happy to help accommodate this.
The prior holds true especially during the spring, when mother bears are birthing and rearing cubs. Mother bears, of all animals, are overly protective of their young. The majority of attacks are due to people coming too close to cubs, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time near a mother bear.
Starting by researching each locale you plan to visit online is a great preventative measure, too. Some parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Appalachian mountains, are black bear hotspots.
Control all waste – especially foods
As with any predatory wild animal, avoiding an encounter in the first place is the best case scenario. By principle, however, wild animals are unpredictable. While this makes any “fool proof” planning impossible, one big rule of thumb will drastically decrease your chances of attracting a black bear.
For these notoriously curious bears, food is the name of the game. For campers, especially, this causes all sorts of trouble.
If you’re going to be eating at your campsite, never leave food – food wrappers – scraps – or food waste in the wild. Don’t even chance it by throwing a bit of uneaten anything around your campsite. This means no apple cores, no banana peels, and never meat scraps or grease.
The same goes for any pans or dishes used to consume food, too. And if you’ve had meat drip grease onto a fire or grill, scrub it clean, then douse it with soil from nearby ground to mask any scent. Once everything is spick & span, disposing of waste at least 200 feet from your campsite is recommended by the U.S. National Parks Service.
Bear-Bagging is a must, alongside reputable bear cannisters
The most popular method of controlling all the above is known as “bear-bagging”. This pro-tip includes putting all waste from a campsite into a bag and tying it high in the air. Bring along a thick trash bag and rope makes this an easy feat to accomplish. Hoist your waste bag from a large, sturdy tree branch with the rope, and tie it securely to the ground. In the end, you’ll want the waste to be at least ten feet above ground level. This way, any black bear standing on its hind legs can’t reach the bag. Place it far enough out from the tree’s trunk, too, or a bear will simply scale the tree to retrieve it. Black bears are, after all, incredible climbers by nature.
“Waste”, too, defines anything that smells strongly. Bears are not picky eaters, especially in spring & fall. It’s best to leave deodorants, lotions, and toothpastes locked in a vehicle. Bloody materials from injuries or overly-sweaty, smelly clothes fit this bill, also.
If car access isn’t available for these items, then in your bear-bag they go. Otherwise, they’ll do just as much to attract bears.
But what if you’re in a black bear ecosystem void of tall trees? In this situation, bringing your own solid, bear-proof bear canister is the only way to go. Use the same rope to secure it to the base of a tree or rock away from the campsite. Amazon sells plenty of proven and affordable bear canisters.
All of this applies to campers, hikers, and any outdoor activities, but especially fishing, too. If you plan on filleting fish, or cooking them on-site in any manner, double down on every single tip above. Polluting streams or any body of water with organic waste is never advised, so come prepared.
Deter black bears: Be big, noisy, and boisterous
The way nature works, however, you can do absolutely everything right and still encounter a bear. In this case, knowing how to discourage them from approaching is key.
To begin with, if you do spot a black bear, the NPS asks that any person give any bear a minimum of 300 feet of distance if possible. For reference, that’s the length of a football field (100 yards = 300 feet). If this is impossible, however, it’s up to you and your party to discourage the bear from coming any closer.
Carrying bear spray as a last-ditch deterrent should be mandatory for any venture into bear territory. Thankfully, though, black bears typically frighten easily. Knowing this, the following should prevent the majority from suffering a black bear attack.
To scare off a black bear, make yourself sound and look as big as possible. If you’re wearing a coat, fan it out. Raise your arms and wave them while yelling directly at the bear. Banging pans – or any noisy items – together, works well, too. As such, carrying an air horn and/or whistle along for your venture is a must, too.
While some outdoorsman advocate the use of firecrackers to scare off black bears, this one does not. Any fire hazard should never be taken into the wild -especially in summer or fall when habitats are dry and prone to wildfires. Never be the one to disappoint Smoky the Bear, and leave your fireworks at home.
Never run from – or turn your back to – a predator
If all else fails and you find yourself being pursued or charged: never run from a black bear. This is critical to survival.
As with any large predator – be it a bear or mountain lion – stand your ground. Make eye contact with the animal at all times, and never turn your back to them. Fleeing is what prey does – and you never want to make yourself look more like prey.
It is extremely rare for a black bear to full-on attack a human. But if you find yourself under assault: fight back.
This cannot be stressed enough: the old wives’ tale of playing dead does not work. If a bear wants to kill you – it will try as hard as it can to do so. Therefore, it becomes your job to try just as hard to survive.
In this case, stabbing at/or punching a bear in the eyes will be the quickest way to make it release you. If you can’t get to the eyes, go for the nose. Use any object you can. Carrying a knife is a rule of thumb for most outdoorsmen, and can also save your life in the event of an attack. While bears are enormous and strong, they don’t want to be stabbed any more than we do.
Camp well and hike free, nature enthusiasts!
Hopefully all your outdoor exploits go off without a hitch, and you’ll never have to worry about fending off an aggressive black bear attack. Following all of these guidelines will help decrease your chances of a black bear encounter tenfold. At the same time, you’ll be drastically increasing your chances of survival – and a wonderful time in nature, as well.