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Hiking In Bear Country - OutdoorPlaces.Com

 Hiking In Bear Country

A Hikers Worst Nightmare, Grizzly Bear, File Photo, OutdoorPlaces.Com, All Right ReservedWhen humans enter bear country, our status of being on the top of the food chain changes.  Bears are very cunning creatures who will go to great lengths to get to food.  Bears that live in areas that are impacted by humans pose a special problem.  Many people wonder what they should do when going into bear country.  The first thing is to relax.  Your odds of winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning are much higher then being mauled by a bear -- let alone killed.

It is a reality that every year hikers and campers are killed by bears.  If you study a little bear philosophy you can greatly reduce your chances of being a target.  So many bear encounters are caused by humans that simply did the wrong things.  It is the exception, not the rule that a human was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As you move further north into bear country, especially states like Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine as well as most of Canada, bears spend a large amount of their lives asleep or in a twilight sleep.  During their active period, which in some parts of the world can be as short as four-and-a-half months bears are eating machines.  They are on a mission to pack in as many calories as possible before the next winter.

The next thing that you need to learn in bear philosophy is that bears have an acute sense of smell.  They can smell one-thousand times better than humans.  Bears use this sense of smell to detect food.  When you combine the quest for food attitude of a bear, with their keen sense of smell, and then add humans into bear country with our perfumes and delicious food, one can quickly learn why bear encounters are so common.

In North America there are black bears and brown bears.  Black bears aren't always black, and brown bears aren't always brown.  Black bears can be brown, red, yellowish, and  honey in color.  Brown bears, or grizzly bears can be black in color.  Black bears have longer snouts then brown bears and are smaller, on average two-hundred to two-hundred-and fifty pounds, but can weigh over five-hundred pounds.  Brown bears have a distinctive hump on their shoulder and shorter noses.  They are much larger then black bears and weigh in around three-hundred-and-fifty to four-hundred pounds, but can weigh over one-thousand pounds.

Depending on your location and altitude, bears can be active from as early as late February through to November and December.  In most parts of the mountains where bears are common, such as Glacier NP, Yellowstone NP, and Yosemite NP, bears are typically active from mid-April to mid-November.  Bears in general do not have a more dangerous time then others when in the forest.

 For example in Yellowstone bears are dangerous from April through May as they are bulking up from the winter hibernation.  Then in June and July bears are dangerous because it is calving season and they are after easy prey.  August female bears will be roaming the woods with cubs and in September and October the bears are bulking up again for the long winter hibernation.  The bottom line is you must always be prepared.

If you are going to go hiking in bear country, there are a number of procedures that you should follow:

  • Tell a friend, co-worker, parent, neighbor or someone where you are going.  You should set a specific date and time that if you do not contact this person that they should contact a specific authority.  You should also make use of trail head registers if available.  If trail head registers are not available, you should register or notify the controlling authority of the area you are entering.

  • Check with the local park service or controlling authority on any reports of bear activity.  You should heed any specific warnings you are given.  If you spot bears or signs or recent bear activities like tracks or fresh droppings, you should report this to any other hikers you meet and the controlling authority.

  • Never hike alone in bear country.  In some places like the eastern part of Yellowstone NP it is required at least four people travel on certain trails that have very high bear activity.  Thousands of years of evolution has taught bears that humans are formidable opponents in a group and are more likely to avoid groups of humans then a lone traveler.

  • You should wear a pack when you enter into bear country.  Even if you are going in for a day hike.  In the event that a bear charges you the pack can save your life if you sacrifice it as a diversion for the bear.  A small, inexpensive daypack is more then adequate.

  • When hiking you should make a lot of noise to alert bears of your presence.  This is very important in dense vegetation or forest, where the trail turns, bends, or rises, around rivers, lakes and streams, or in thermal areas.  Bells, whistles, clapping or loud talking are all excellent ways to alert bears.  On windy days the bears acute sense of smell can work against them.  If you are coming upwind on a trail (the wind is blowing in your face) you should be especially careful of surprising a bear as you scent will be masked and your sound muffled by the wind.

  • Do not wear perfume or use scented products when hiking in bear country.  There are a number of unscented products on the market today including deodorant, shaving cream, sun tan lotion and insect repellant.  The flowery and sweet smells in perfume and common household products like deodorant can attract bears.  You will also cut down on the number of insects bothering you if you stay away from scented products.

  • Make sure any food you pack with you is stored in well sealed plastic bags and does not have a strong odor.  Most experts recommend double sealing your food stores, even on a day hike.  If you stop for a break make sure you pick up any food you may drop.  Not only does this follow Leave No Trace protocol, it discourages a wandering bear to find the rest of the food source.

  • Bear spray is optional and should only be carried for peace of mind.  When purchasing bear spray make sure the product you are buying is specifically for bears.  Typically these products will come in a twelve-ounce or larger can, have a shot gun style spray pattern with a range of 25 feet, and cost between $40 to $60 US.  Smaller products with a targeted spray designed for humans require the bear to be even closer and precise aim.  Keep in mind also that 25 feet is a very short distance and if will require nerves of steel and good weather conditions to accurately deploy the bear spray.

  • If you are hiking in an area where there are established trails, stay on them.  You increase your odds of encountering a bear the further away you move from human contact and deeper into bear country.  The combination of this plus backcountry terrain adds to the risk.  If you must leave the trail, for example to go to the bathroom, try to traverse a sparsely vegetated area and make noise.  Be especially alert and try to move down wind (wind to your back) so your scent and noise will carry further.  Remember, part of Leave No Trace protocol is to move at least 300 feet from the trail and bury your waste in a six to eight inch hole dug with as little impact to the top soil as possible.  Carry out all toilet paper and feminine hygiene products in double wrapped plastic bags.

  • Menstruating women should wear tampons while hiking in bear country.

Continue to learn about what to do if you encounter a bear...



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