The best approach to staying safe in bear country is to avoid an unpleasant encounter in the first place. There are certain factors that greatly increase the risk associated with hiking, hunting, and playing in the wilderness areas these large animals inhabit. Tom Smith, associate professor at Brigham Young University, and Stephan Herrero, professor emeritus with The University of Calgary, authored an extensive study of human and bear interactions in Alaska. Looking at records of 682 encounters over 135 years, they were able to identify important patterns. Examining these conflicts provides the wilderness traveler with some practical, actionable advice for heading out into bear habitat.
Make Some Noise
Making noise may be the simplest way to prevent a dangerous bear encounter. Vocalizing or creating other loud disturbances can announce your presence to bears who might not be able to otherwise detect you. Smith and Herrero’s research revealed that surprising a bear was the most common single cause of the conflicts they studied. Shouting, “Hey, Bear!” as you move along the trail is an easy way to project your whereabouts to any ursine ears ahead of you. I’ve covered many miles in the Alaskan backcountry while joining in choruses of shouting and hand-clapping. I have even strapped a Bluetooth speaker to my handlebars to broadcast some tunes when mountain biking through risky locations. One of the easiest ways to turn up the volume on your outing is to increase the size of your group.
The More the Merrier
Statistics support the conventional wisdom that venturing into bear country is safer in groups. The likelihood of conflict between humans and bears decreases dramatically when more than two people are traveling together. Of the 638 relevant interactions cited by Smith and Herrero, 562 (88%) involved encounters of only one or two people. More people make more noise, and that might contribute to the findings. Also, a larger group presents a more formidable presence to any bears that are encountered. Hopefully, such an interaction will result in the animal electing to leave the situation without incident. However, it is important that the group is actually present together and not hiking separately, out of view from each other and any wildlife. To be an effective deterrent, group size must be maintained in close proximity.
An awareness of environmental factors is also important to consider. A bear attack or incident is significantly more likely in areas with poor visibility. When entering an area of thick brush or twisting and rolling trail, it’s time to gather everyone together and make some noise. Other factors can contribute to the unwanted surprise of a bear. Background noise, like a rushing stream, can mask the sound of your approach, so move with extra caution and turn up the volume accordingly. Likewise, windy conditions will make it harder for a bear to hear and potentially interfere with the scent that could warn a bruin of your arrival.
Recognize factors that can attract bears and contribute to a higher density of these animals in an area. Food sources are of primary concern. As berries ripen throughout the summer, stands of these bushes, loaded with delicious fruit, can draw in hungry bears. Locations for easy, high calorie meals also deserve extra caution. I’ve had black and brown bears within a few yards of me while fishing for sockeye salmon on Alaska’s Kenai River. A fly rod is poor defense against these animals- it’s best to evacuate and let them have the spot. A bear defending a food cache, like a moose carcass, can be aggressive. Often, land management agencies will close trails where this type of activity is known and the responsible action is to heed these warnings. Importantly, don’t contribute to the creation of dangerous situations. Pack out trash and food waste and set up bear-conscious campsites.
While bear attacks are still quite rare, proactive and informed behavior will improve the odds even more. Gather some friends, then yell, laugh, and sing down the trail. The results could be more pleasant for you and the local bears- assuming they like your songs.