While some hikers hope to see bears when on the trail, others fear an aggressive encounter. A traveler well-versed in bear-country etiquette and procedure usually has no trouble with these striking animals, but run-ins are always a possibility. This describes basic bear safety in hiking and backpacking situations, focusing on black and grizzly bears (and not on polar bears).
Recognizing Bear Sign
You needn’t be an expert tracker to recognize basic bear sign on—and off—the trail. Any of the several excellent tracking books on the market, from Olaus Murie’s classic A Field Guide to Animal Tracks to James Halfpenny’s A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America, can offer a good tutorial, and are portable enough to become a backpack staple.
in general, bears leave four types of prominent sign: tracks, scat, tree scratchings, and evidence of feeding. Bear prints are usually quite distinctive: Under reasonable conditions, all five toes typically register, often with claw marks (spoor of grizzlies and black bears can frequently be distinguished based on the distance between claw and toe mark); the hind prints are remarkably human-like. Scat is highly variable in shape and consistency, but generally bears are capable of producing quite monstrous examples; such droppings typically out-size any other carnivore’s, and can sometimes be clearly distinguished—with a field guide’s counsel—from similarly sized ungulate leavings.
Both black and brown bears will scrape their daws on tree trunks. It’s not easy to gauge the freshness of such sign, which might be decades old, but certainly score marks oozing sap, exposing green wood, or edged with dangling ribbons of bark may be of more recent origin.
Besides scat, feeding sign can come in many forms. Examples include a shattered log, sometimes a clue that a bear has been seeking grubs in the decaying wood; the characteristic mountain-side excavations of a grizzly bear in pursuit of ground squirrels and marmots; and a litter of half-eaten fish parts along a stream during a run. All of these are best interpreted by cross-referencing with tracks or other available sign. Most foreboding are partly buried animal carcasses: When scavenging, bears can be extremely territorial, and they may be resting in a hidden daybed near the carcass, alert for any interlopers. Leave the area immediately if you find such evidence.
Avoiding High-use Areas
A little foreknowledge of bear behavior can help route your travels away from areas that may be heavily used by bruins. Think in terms of the seasonal food resources proffered by a given landscape. A spawning run of salmon or trout will attract both black and grizzly bears, just as it does human fishers; the average hiker might want to steer clear of spawning streams during these times. Thickets of fruiting shrubs should also be left alone; bears relish berries, and the limited visibility of such brambles sets the stage for sudden encounters.
Keep in mind that bears, like many other large mammals, sometimes adopt human trails as travel corridors. Especially at dusk or dawn, it’s conceivable you may encounter one taking the same path as you. (Following some of the suggestions below can minimize this risk.) If you’re traveling cross-country, don’t camp along game trails for the same reason. Try to situate your campsite – If you’re not using a pre-established one—away from natural travel corridors like ridgelines and valley bottoms. Remember that dense thickets or tree groves make prime daybeds for bears, which often punctuate their foraging activities with naps in such deep refuges.
Proclaiming Your “Humanness”
Except where habituated to expect handouts (which is less and less the situation in North America) or in exceedingly rare predatory instances, bears want nothing to do with people. While some hikers may wish to travel stealthily through a landscape to better their chances of seeing wildlife, a somewhat noisier approach may be called for in areas heavily frequented by bears. Talking at a normal or slightly elevated volume with your companions—for traveling in groups is always safer in bear country—is usually sufficient to alert keen-eared ursids of your approach. The human voice tends to both carry better than “bear bells” and more readily identify you.
Shout and clap your hands when moving through areas of limited visibility or where sounds are masked, as along babbling streams. A common— and rather friendly—approach often heard in the backcountry is the loud, firm announcement: “Hey, bear! Hey, bear!”
Keeping a Clean Camp
The ethics of leave-no-trace camping demand the sensible upkeep of a clean campsite—never leaving trash or food scraps lying about, and generally minimizing your impact. One of the more severe of possible “punishments” for creating a dirty camp is attracting a bear to the vicinity, drawn by the scent of food or other odorous items. Keep such supplies in a bear-proof container or rigged up a tree (and away from its trunk) when you’re not using them. Anyone in grizzly country, in particular, should consider widely separating food-preparation and sleeping sites, and even changing clothes after cooking and eating, treating them as potential attractants, too.
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