January 17, 2024

Understanding bear behaviour, recognizing signs of their presence, and knowing how to respond in various situations is essential for Guests adventuring outdoors. Discover life-saving tips and learn pertinent precautions to increase your safety and enjoyment while visiting Canada’s beautiful bear country.

Introduction

Canada is known for friendly folks, diverse landscapes, outdoor beauty, and majestic wildlife. Visitors flocking to Canada’s national and provincial parks, and outdoor attractions for sightseeing and activities may be hopeful for close views and near encounters with non-threatening wildlife. While intimate connections with nature make for memorable moments, venturing into bear country comes with risks and requires visitors to be bear aware. Although bears are magnificent creatures, they are best enjoyed at a distance and any encounter with them can be dangerous if not approached correctly. 

Understanding the Risks of Encountering Bears

Encountering bears in Canada’s backyard is a possibility that every outdoor enthusiast should be prepared for. Bear encounters, while usually peaceful, can occasionally turn dangerous for Guests. Understanding bear behaviour and arriving prepared for a bear encounter will increase the chance Guests leave mountains and meadows with memories and reduce the chances of experiencing moments of mayhem.

Identifying Different Bear Species

Grizzly bears and black bears are the two most common species of bears found roaming Canada’s more rural and remote areas. They can be found munching in marshlands, fields, forests and occasionally close to towns and villages with accessible food sources like garbage, small livestock, fruit trees and bushes, and gardens. Learning to recognize each bear species is important as each require safety measures for encounters. Grizzly bears are in the family of brown bears and are typically larger and known to be more aggressive than black bears. Remember - both species can be equally dangerous if provoked. Grizzlies may be pale in colour – blond, reddish blond, light brown, darker brown or can appear close to black in colour within some regions. 

Grizzlies typically have what can be described as having a concave or dish-shaped face while a black bear’s profile is straight from forehead to nose tip. A key identifier is the Grizzly bears’ large muscle mass between their shoulder blades which has a ‘hump-like’ appearance. Grizzly bears also have short, rounded ears and long claws the length of a human finger.



Black bears have larger ears, no visible hump between their shoulder blades and sport smaller claws. Although grizzlies are typically larger than black bears, it is important to remember bears’ weight can dramatically fluctuate between the seasons. Interested in taking an online test to assess your bear identification skills? Visit Bearsmart's website for loads of valuable information.

Essential Precautions when Venturing into Bear Country

When venturing into bear country, there are essential precautions to consider.

Planning Your Route

Before embarking on a wilderness adventure, it is important to plan your route carefully. Avoiding bear habitats, blind corners, and areas with berry patches can reduce your risk of a bear encounter. Parks Canada invites Guests unfamiliar with bear country to enroll in an online or in-person bear safety course to assist in planning safer routes in these environments. It is also important to alert others of your location in bear country and when you plan to return, especially when back-country camping or embarking on hiking trips.

Recognizing Bear Hot Spots

With an acute sense of smell, bears are keen on finding food not intended for them. Pet food that has been left outside, bird feeders with seed, food at campsites (in coolers and tents) and garbage not placed in bear proof receptacles will attract bears. It is crucial to be aware of these attractants and take the proper precautions to safely store items or dispose of them properly when camping or venture outside.

Food Storage and Disposal

Proper food storage and refuse disposal work to reduce attractants in residential areas and campgrounds. When camping, be sure to keep foods and anything with strong scents (including perfumed items, lotions, and bug sprays) overnight in your RV. If you are in a tent, place food and scented items overnight in a vehicle a distance from tent sites.



Hibernation

Grizzly and black bears hibernate when their food sources dry up and the weather becomes cold, usually between the months of October and November. When April arrives and the snow starts to melt, bears awaken from their deep, months’ long slumber. Emerging from backcountry beds, bears are understandably famished and look immediately to fill their stomachs with nourishment. As a result, bears pose increased danger during the spring months and will travel further and into less isolated areas in search of satiating caloric goodness.

Preparing for a Bear Encounter

Even with careful planning, unexpected bear encounters can still occur. It is important to carry bear spray on your person while exploring isolated areas and know how to use it effectively. When encountering a bear, it is crucial to stay calm, avoid sudden movements, and alert the bear of your presence. Carrying bear bells, shouting out, or playing loud music on a device while hiking are terrific ways of informing bears of your presence. If you encounter a bear, it is important to avoid sudden movements that might surprise them.

Decoding Bear Reactions

Recognizing bear species and their behaviour can help decipher bear reactions. Understanding the difference between defensive and non-defensive bear behaviour is important for safe bear encounters. Bears often display defensive behaviours if they feel threatened, while non-defensive bear behaviour is typically calm and indifferent.

Defensive or Non-Defensive: Interpreting Bear Intentions

When a bear approaches, it is crucial to determine whether its behaviour is defensive or non-defensive. Defensive bear behaviour can indicate that the bear feels threatened and may attack. The bear may advance slowly or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing, closed-mouth bear usually indicates they are curious and usually trying to process information. Most bears do not want to attack you and desire to be left alone. Bears may ‘bluff’ by charging and then sharply veering as they approach. Bears may create woofing noises, yawn, salivate, growl, snap their jaws, or lay their ears back to indicate they are on the defense. Continue to talk to the bear with low-toned and steady voice which will help you to stay calm and reassure the bear you are not a risk. 

In every case, do NOT run.

Create distance between you and the bear by stepping in a sideways fashion. This will allow you to keep sight of the bear and will help you to refrain from tripping. While you are slowly side-stepping further from the bear, stop and hold your ground if the bear begins to or continues to walk towards you. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down and will chase fleeing people and animals.


The Dos and Don'ts in a Bear Territory

When in bear territory, there are certain dos and don'ts that should be followed to ensure safety.
  • Identify yourself by calmly singing or talking in lowered, deeper voices. This will indicate to the bear you not their ‘typical’ prey animal. Stand your ground by slowly waving your arms above your head.
  • Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal; screams and sudden movement may trigger an attack as they may think these are actions of a prey animal.
  • Pick up small children in your arms and be firm as you tell the bear to back off.
  • Hike and travel in groups of two or more. Groups of two or more tend to be noisier and increase unfamiliar scents in the air. Bears will be alerted to groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, your larger group will intimidate bears.
  • Make yourselves look as large and ‘tall’ as possible with your arms in the air. If you are near a large rock or fallen tree, step up if possible.
  • Do NOT drop your backpack as it can provide you with protection in the event of an attack.
  • Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees and you may mimic prey.
  • Leave the area if possible or wait until the bear moves away, remembering to leave exit point for the bear if they are cornered.
  • A female with cubs poses the highest risk for anyone to encounter. Never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. Move away from the cubs in a side-stepping motion.
The Use of Bear Spray

Bear spray is a valuable tool for staying safe in bear country. It is important to know when and how to use bear spray effectively.

Safely and Effectively Using Bear Spray

Bear spray should be used as a last resort and only when a bear is approaching and exhibiting defensive behaviours. It should be deployed by pointing the canister towards the bear (be sure of the nozzle’s direction) and spraying a cloud of spray in front of you for at least 8 seconds. Adjust the nozzle angle in accordance with wind direction. Sprays travel a distance between 5 and 8 metres and are most effective when the spray enters a bear’s eyes or nose. If the bear continues to approach and is within 5 metres, deploy in two second bursts, aiming directly into the bear’s eyes or nose/mouth area. If the bear is further away, aim below the bear’s face to ensure the spray does not float above the head.

After using bear spray, it is important to protect yourself from breathing in the spray while leaving the area calmly and quickly. While bear spray can be effective in deterring bear attacks, it is not a guarantee of safety. It is important to stay alert while moving away, keeping sight of the bear, as they may attempt an approach even after bear spray has been used. Reporting bear encounters and bear spray usage to park authorities is also important for ‘bear in area’ advisories and safety records.

Surviving a Bear Attack

While bear attacks are rare, it is important to know how to survive if one should occur.

Strategies for Defensive Attacks

During a defensive bear attack, it is crucial to act defensively and confidently. Use bear spray if available and fight back aggressively using any available tools or objects if the spray does not deter them.
Do NOT play dead during a defensive bear attack.

Coping with Predatory Attacks

Predatory bear attacks (when a bear has identified you as prey) are extremely rare, most common with black bears, and during the night. Bears preparing for a predatory attack will express intense interest in you with lifted heads and erect ears. If a bear does attack, the best course of action is to fight back aggressively, using any available object to defend yourself.

Conclusion

It is crucial to be knowledgeable and prepared for safe ventures into bear country. Understanding the risks associated with encountering bears and being able to identify different bear species and their behaviours is essential for your safety. Taking necessary precautions - reviewing Park websites to learn recent bear sighting locations, adhering to affixed signage on trails, reading posted park notices, planning your route, properly storing and disposing of food, and making noise to prevent surprises - can greatly reduce the likelihood of an ‘unbearable’ encounter.

Knowing how to effectively deploy bear spray when navigating a too-close-for-comfort bear encounter, whether defensive, non-defensive, and predatory, is crucial. Remember to stay calm, wave your hands above your head, talk in a firm, low-toned manner and slowly side-step if a bear approaches in close range. By following these tips and being mindful of your surroundings, you can ensure a safer wilderness and camping experience. 

Now that you have brushed up on essential bear basics, are you ready to reserve your RV for your next mountain rendezvous? CanaDream provides sensational special offers for our bear aware Guests!

Interested in other ways to prepare for wilderness adventures? Read our favourite tips on how to pack smart for your RV trip

 
 

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