Safety Tips - Bears


European Brown BearIf you are planning on walking or wild camping in areas inhabited by bears you may find the following information useful. Please note that the tips and anecdotes contained within this page are not absolute nor prescriptive, but highlighted simply to raise your general awareness to help prevent bear attacks or unwanted encounters. We all love bears, but in certain circumstances that we will explore they can be dangerous.

Bears often wander along the same tracks used by humans, so if you are quiet and the wind is blowing toward you and away from the bear, it may not notice you. If this happened on a blind bend in the forest then you may have a bear encounter and the bear will  make an instant decision to charge or run away. If you are alone the best way to avoid such a scenario is to clap your hands every now and then, especially if you are on a winding track and cannot see far ahead. You should even consider singing whilst walking. Not very practical when you are trying to look for wildlife but very effective in preventing unwanted encounters. The bear won't look for trouble and if given the choice will try and avoid contact with a human.

I have interviewed nine villagers in Ozsdola that have been mauled by brown bears and the circumstances of their attacks were very similar. Usually a man walking alone in darkness looking for his horse or cow that has failed to return to the village, during the months of autumn. Autumn can be a dangerous time as bears use the same paths and roads as humans to enter the village where they raid gardens for apples, plums and pears. Bears usually keep away from human habitation and activity but as food becomes more scare in the forest the bear will take more risks to access a ready source of food to lay down fat for the winter lethargy.

When camping food should not be stored in your tent. There are at least two attacks on backpackers a year in Romania, usually foreign tourists with little comprehension of the threat posed by bears. Traditionally campers cook food just outside their tents. However, in bear country the smell of the food draws bears in and even if you have made a good job of clearing up, it may not be enough to prevent a visit in the night. Therefore your cooking area should be at least 80 metres away from where you are sleeping. When you have finished clearing up, you should then change your clothes before returning to your tent.

Brown Bear TrackPreferably food should be stored in airtight containers at night, suspended well off the ground by rope from a tree. The size and type of tree is also important. With a large hardwood tree it is better to hang your food over a tall overhanging branch. Place the food too close to the trunk the bear will simply climb up the tree  and fetch it down. However, it may climb the tree but will be far more reluctant to venture along a branch away from the safety of the trunk. If you are in a pine forest where branches are spindly, it is better to choose a tall but narrow trunk. If the bear gauges that the trunk is not strong enough to take its weight it is unlikely to climb. However, if the bear is very hungry it may knock the tree over. If the latter happens, this is a far better scenario than the bear crashing into your tent when you are asleep.

An all night camp fire is a good idea as bears tend to shy away from fire. However, don't be fooled into thinking that the fire will offset the danger of storing food in your tent. This is especially true in Autumn and spring when bears tend to be ravenous and far more willing to take risks unthinkable at other times of the year when food is plentiful in the forest.

Paul White & FoxyIs walking with your pet dog in bear country a good idea? Transhumant shepherds in Romania use several pack dogs which work together to protect flocks from large predators. However, contact with a bear when walking with a single dog does not always have the same desired effect. Many hikers believe that having their dog walking in front will alert them to the presence of a bear on the track ahead. This in turn gives the bear ample opportunity to avoid confrontation and disappear into the forest before the dogs owner arrives on the scene. However, the reaction of the bear often depends on the nature of your dog. If it is generally protective, but never had a bear encounter before, the dog may not perceive the level of threat. The dog may stand barking or even run directly at the bear. In turn the bear will either walk or run away or make an instant decision to charge. If the bear is female with cubs, it will more than likely charge. The mother will do everything and often more than is necessary to protect her young. If she perceives any threat at all she will put her own life in danger to protect her cubs. A single dog will soon understand this danger and make the intelligent decision to run back to it's owner, but may also draw the bear in with it!

A dog is a distinct advantage to have around when wild camping. When sleeping at night your dog should be tethered close to your tent and not allowed to roam freely. Most dogs will alert you to the presence of a bear near camp which will give you extra vital seconds/minutes to wake up and react appropriately. Remember, dog food will be just as tempting to a bear downwind, so make sure that food bowls are empty before sleeping and all dog food is stored up in the tree along with your own.

Remember, where there is food in the forest bears will be close by. When foraging in an area frequented by bears first look around for signs of bear activity before collecting fruit. If crushed bushes, bear scat or tracks are seen move on as the bear maybe close by. Make plenty of noise when approaching the berry bushes and continue to talk whilst picking fruit. If a bear hears you approach they will usually disappear into the forest to avoid confrontation. Continue to make noise as if you go quiet whilst eating the bear may return believing you have moved on. If you are alone talk to yourself or sing, no one is watching so there is no need to feel embarrassed!

To prevent or break of an attack by a bear, please remember the following:-

When walking in an area populated by bears carry bear pepper spray. When deployed the spray creates a large cloud, which usually stops a bear in it’s tracks.

If you do meet a bear don’t run! The bear may confuse you with prey and will continue chasing you. Face the bear and stand your ground talking calmly. Then start walking backwards slowly away from the bear continuously talking with a calm voice. "Hey bear" is a commonly used term. Never make the potentially fatal error of believing you can outrun a bear, as they can reach speeds of up to 30 mph!

So you have done everything you can to avoid a bear attack, but what should you do if the bear decides to charge and attack anyway or makes it through your wall of pepper spray? Drop to the ground into the foetal position and cover the back of your neck with your hands and play dead. Brown bears often stop attacking when they feel there is no longer a threat. If they think you’re dead, they won’t think you’re threatening. However, even when the bear walks away you must continue to lay still as brown bears often wait around to see if their victim will get back up.

In the rarest of situations none of the above measures may work and the bear may attempt to eat you. In this scenario you will have no other choice but to try and fight back, making as much noise as possible. One victim that I interviewed reached this stage. He said he went for the bears eyes and when this failed managed to grab and twist the tongue of the bear which broke off the attack. This was a large, stocky man that worked in a timber yard. I am not sure this desperate act would have worked for somebody less fit and strong, but does demonstrate that it is possible to stop an attack.