Safety Tips: Bears

by Paul White

If you are planning on walking or wild camping in areas inhabited by bears you may find the following information useful, but please note that the tips and anecdotes contained within this article are neither absolute nor prescriptive. My intention is to raise awareness and help prevent bear attacks and avoidable encounters. We all love bears, but under certain circumstances they can be dangerous.

European brown bear

Bears often wander along the same forest trails 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 resulting in an avoidable encounter. To help prevent such a scenario clap your hands every now and then, especially if the trail ahead is bendy and visibility is poor.

Personally I always choose to clap my hands but I know others that sing or whistle when walking through the woods. Not very practical I know when looking for wildlife to photograph but definitely better than bumping into a bear.

Bears (in general) are not looking for trouble and if they can avoid you they will. People that walk in pairs or groups are less likely to be attacked.

Several years ago I was asked to assist a film company with a documentary about bear attacks. In advance of the crew's arrival I interviewed nine villagers that had been mauled by bears over the years. These discussions were very insightful and I learned a lot.

The circumstances of each attack were similar. All nine victims were men, they were alone and had their encounters with bears in low light.

Bears are generally most active at dawn and dusk. Autumn can be a particularly dangerous time for locals as some bears will enter villages to raid gardens for fruit, especially as food becomes scarce in the forest. Bears are less risk averse when hungry and the closer they get to the winter the more frantic their foraging becomes.

Food should not be stored in your tent when camping. 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 cooking, eating and have tidied up, you should then change your clothes before returning to your tent.

Never be lulled into thinking that a camp fire outside will offset the danger of storing food in your tent. A hungry bear can be very unpredictable.

Preferably 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's 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 it's 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 sleeping.

I understand the attraction and freedom that wild camping brings, but sometimes in areas with a high density of bears it is safer to camp in a bear proof site with electric fencing. This will give you peace of mind and better sleep.

Electrified bear proof fencing gives campers peace of mind in bear country

Avoid camping in places where little care is taken to dispose of food waste. Open access bins are commonplace in Romania and act as an attractant to bears and should be avoided. This applies to winter camping too. Do not be deceived into thinking that all bears hibernate through the winter. If a bear has regular access to human food waste they will remain active.

Unprotected food waste

Remember the adage that 'a fed bear is a dead bear', so always safely dispose of your food waste in a bear proof bin. Bears that become habituated to consuming our food are far more likely to enter into conflicts with humans and end up being shot.

Bear proof bin

Is walking with your pet dog in bear country a good idea?

Some believe that having their dog walking in front will alert them to the presence of a bear ahead. Whilst this may be true, the reaction of the bear often depends on the nature of your dog.

If your dog is generally protective but has never had a bear encounter before, it may not perceive the level of danger it's in. Your dog may stand barking or even run directly at the bear. In turn the bear will either move away or confront and charge.

If the bear is female with cubs, it will more than likely charge. The mother will do everything and often more than necessary to protect her young. If your dog is charged it will quickly  realise the danger it's in and run back to you for protection, often with the bear close behind. So the best advice to avoid such a scenario is to keep your dog on a lead at all times.

Bear sow with cubs

When wild camping 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 can give you time to wake up and react appropriately. Remember, dog food will also be tempting to a bear, 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 often be close by. When foraging in an area frequented by bears first look around for signs of their activity before collecting fruit. If you see crushed bushes, bear scat or tracks, move on as the bear maybe close by. Make plenty of noise when approaching berry bushes and continue to talk whilst picking fruit. If a bear hears you approach they will usually move away to avoid confrontation. But it is important to continue making noise whilst picking fruit as the bear may return if you go quiet, falsely believing that you have left.

Bear spray

When walking in an area populated by bears carry bear spray. The spray should only be used to deter an aggressive, charging bear. When deployed using a circular motion the spray creates a large cloud which usually stops the bear in it's tracks.

It is proven that you are far more likely to avoid serious injury from a charging bear when using bear spray to protect yourself compared to using a gun.

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. However, even when the bear walks away you must continue to lay still as bears often wait around to see if their victim will get back up.

For further useful information:-

How to avoid a bear attack - BBC Wildlife Magazine

Pepper spray questions - North American Bear Center

Documented encounters:-

Bear encounter whilst camping

British hiker, 23, saved her boyfriend's life when he was savaged by a bear - Daily Mail - 9th June 2019

Academic papers:-

G. Bombieri, J. Giulia; Naves, et al. (2019). Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective. Scientific Reports. 9. 10.1038/s41598-019-44341-w. Available: Last accessed 24th June 2019