WSU logo

In Bear Country: A practical guide to hiking and camping around black bears

By: Nick Paulson

Natrs 280 Student
Department of Natural Resource Sciences
Washington State University 

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the most common species of bears found in the United States with a home range that extends into 41 of the lower 48 states, and Alaska.  The estimate for the total population in the United States is about 300,000 bears.  Black bears tend to live in forested areas, but are capable of expanding their home ranges into open grasslands and residential areas.  One of the reasons black bears are so adaptive is that they are omnivores (eat both plant and animal matter).  This allows them to thrive in a wide variety of habitats.

Black bears are relatively small compared to their close relative the grizzly bear (Ursus Arctos).  Adult female black bears weigh around 150 lbs., and adult male bears weigh on average 250 lbs.   As a comparison, male grizzlies weigh 450-550lbs., and female grizzlies weigh 300-400lbs.  It is estimated that up to 85% of a black bear's diet is composed of plant matter.  The other 15% is mostly small invertebrates (insects) and the occasional animal carcass. 

Black bears are not always black.  Coat colors range from black to cinnamon to blonde.  There is even a species of black bear found only in British Columbia, Canada that is white.  These bears are nick named “ghost bears”.  Black bears are able to begin reproducing at 3 to 5 years, and typically give birth to 2 offspring while in hibernation during the months of January and February.  Black bears have litters every 2 or 3 years.  This is because a mother black bear will keep her young with her until they reach the age of 2, or sometimes 3.  Once the original cubs are kicked out of the den, the female is ready to produce another litter.

Black bear

When Black Bears Attack!

Although black bear attacks are rare and most victims come out unscathed, this does not negate the fact that black bear attacks do happen and are sometimes fatal.  Since 1900, there have been only 45-recorded deaths that were caused by black bears in the North America.  This number is very minimal compared to the over 500 conflicts between black bears and humans from 1960 to 1980.  Black bear attacks are much more common in the United States than are grizzly bear attacks.  The main reason for the difference is the population size of each species.  There are approximately 300,000 black bears in the continental United States, whereas there are only about 2000-3000 grizzlies still remaining in the lower 48 states.  The larger population of black bears greatly increases the probability of encountering one in the wild. 

Black bear attacks may occur more frequently than grizzly bear attacks, but this does not mean that black bears are more ferocious than their brown cousins.  Ninety percent of all known black bear attacks have only resulted in minor injuries, whereas over half of all grizzly bear attacks have caused major injuries.  Black bear attacks/encounters have been most common in national parks where the bears have been desensitized (also known as habituation) to the presence of humans, and have been conditioned to human food and garbage.  These “food conditioned” bears have learned to associate humans as an easy and reliable food source, which brings some bears in closer contact with people than would normally be expected.  More times than not, bears that have become habituated and/or food conditioned are killed because managers fear that the learned behavior will result in injuries, and possibly death to humans. 

Black bear attacks can be avoided if proper care and precaution is taken when traveling in black bear country.  There are many things that can be done while camping, hiking, fishing and general recreating in black bear country to ensure the safety of everyone involved, humans and bears.

Bear-Proofing your campsite

If you spend a considerable amount of time in black bear country, odds are you have and/or probably will run into black bears, whether it is at a backcountry campsite, or on a hiking trail.  Most encounters with black bears end quickly, with the bear turning and running away.  There are a few circumstances where the bear might not be so eager to turn and high tail it out of the area.  The first circumstance is when a bear is feeding on human food in a campsite. 
Black bears are opportunistic, and will feed on anything that is an easy meal.  At campsites, there are many chances for bears to feed on human food and garbage.  To keep black bears from invading campgrounds, here are a few suggestions to keep a “bear safe” campground:

·   Keep a clean camp.  Put all garbage into wildlife proof containers, or in a vehicle (for types and places to get wildlife containers go to (http://www.state.ak.us/adfg/wildlife/geninfo/game/harmony2.htm).

·   Keep food odors away from sleeping areas.  Cook food away from sleeping tents, and never sleep or keep cooking clothes in sleeping tents.  Store food at least 100 yards from sleeping area.  If possible, hang in a tree 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the trunk of the tree.  If there is not adequate trees to hang food from, dig a hole and place the food in it (100 yards away).  Storing food in a locked car is also an option.

·   If you decided to bring pets, keep them on a leash while hiking and never leave them chained up alone at a campsite.  Dogs that are let off leash may get too close to a bear (due to curiosity), and this could very easily cause a bear to act aggressive towards you and your pet.  Chained up pets have no way to protect themselves, and could attract a black bear into camp.  

Bear and bees

If a black bear should enter camp, active deterrence is the best solution.  Loud noises such as banging pots and pans, throwing sticks and stones, and yelling can be effective deterrents.  The bear has entered your territory and bears have to learn that this behavior is not acceptable and that no rewards will come of it.  Just remember, “A fed bear is a dead bear”.  When a bear gets taste of human food they will ultimately have to be put down, because the behavior will likely continue.  This puts humans and bears in dangerous situations.

The second circumstance is a surprise encounter in the bear's habitat while hiking, fishing, or mountain biking. When encountering a black bear while hiking, the circumstances have changed.  You have invaded the bear's territory and active deterrence should only be a last resort.  Here are a few ways to keep safe while hiking in black bear country:

  • Hike in groups - the more the merrier!
  • Make noise - bear bells, clapping, singing and general chit-chat will notify the bear of your presence allowing them ample opportunity to run away
  • Move with the wind at your back - this allows a bear to smell you
  • Always be aware of your surroundings
  • Carry a deterrent - bear spray is very effective in close range situations (see section on bear spray below)

If you do happen to come into close contact with a black bear, here are a few suggestions to keep the situation from getting out of hand:

  • Avoid direct eye contact – this is a challenge to the bear
  • Stay calm, and identify yourself as human by waving arms and talking to the bear – don't run (bears can out run you!)
  • If you can, slowly walk back in the direction you came from.  Never take your eyes off the bear and don't turn your back.
  • If you cannot walk away, and the bear is not fleeing, try to scare the bear by yelling and clapping your hands.  Throwing objects may also be useful.
  • If the bear charges use  your deterrent (bear spray-see next section).  If you have no deterrent and the bear attacks, fight back.  Use what ever you can (hands feet, sharp objects) and direct them at the bears face.  As a last resort, rollover on your stomach protecting your face with your hands and play dead.

To Spray or Not to Spray

The active ingredient in bear spray is capsicum, a pepper derivative.  Bear spray has gained much praise as an effective bear deterrent in close range approach situations.  Capsicum is a nerve irritant that causes inflammation of soft tissues, particularly around the face (eyes and respiratory tract).  The spray is only a temporary discomfort to the victim.  The spray is most effective when dispensed from the canister in a fog, or mist.  This type of dispersal, along with the noise that the canister makes upon firing, seem to be just as effective of a bear deterrent as the spray itself. 

Bear spray is not always 100% reliable, especially when the user is inexperienced in the proper use of the deterrent.  This is why is it recommended to test out your bear spray canister to make sure that you know how to discharge it contents, because most bear attacks happen in split seconds and end just as quick.  The spray is most effective within a range of 20-30 feet.  The best place to aim the spray is at the bears face.  This allows the capsicum to irritate the nasal passage and lungs of the animal.

Human pepper spray and bear spray are 2 different sprays.  Always make sure that the spray specifies that it is a bear deterrent. Preliminary reports suggest that bear spray is a good deterrent against aggressive bears.  If spending time in black bear country, always be bear safe and aware of your surroundings.  Don't expect that bear spray will get you out of every hairy situation.  Bear spray is not a substitute for good bear safety techniques and common sense.

For a list of recommended bear sprays, visit www.fs.fed.us/r1/wildlife/igbc, and click on pepper spray.

Be Smart

Traveling in black bear country is something that millions of people do every year.  As civilization continues to move into uncharted territory, black bears and humans will have to learn to live in close quarters with one another.  Black bears are not aggressive animals if the proper precautions are taken.  Keeping a safe campground and staying safe on the hiking trail is ultimately up to those who use the area.  When in bear country, be smart.  Think about things that you should, and could do to make sure that black bears will remain a part of the United States wildlife for many years to come.  Black bears are amazing creatures; treat them with the respect that they deserve.

For more information about bears:

Brown, G. 1993.  The great bear almanac.  Lyon and Burford, New York.

Herrero, S. 1985.  Bear attacks: Their causes and avoidance.  Nick Lyons Books, New York.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (2002).  Living with wildlife in Washington: Black Bears   Retrieved October 13th, 2002;
http://www.wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/blkbear/blkbear.htm