Safety Tips: Bears

If 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 walking alone it is a good idea 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 bears and the circumstances of their attacks were all similar, usually they were alone and walking in low light. People that walk in pairs or groups are less likely to be attacked.

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.

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. Don't be fooled into thinking that a camp fire will offset the danger of storing food in your tent. A hungry bear can be very unpredictable.

Bear sow with cub

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 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 sleeping.

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. 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. A dog will soon understand this danger and will run back to it's owner, but may also bring the bear with it. So the best advice to avoid such a scenario is to keep your dog on a lead at all times.

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.

When walking in an area populated by bears carry bear 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 bears often wait around to see if their victim will get back up.