How to Hike in Bear Country
Adapted from Washington Trails magazine January + February 2012 article, "Bear in Mind", written by Tami Asars and the September + October 2011 article "Wolves and Grizzlies," written by Eric Neumann.
Seeing a bear while hiking can be an incredible thrill, but there are some key things to know about bears when you hike, camp, or live in bear country.
Identifying black bears and brown (grizzly) bears
- If you spot a bear in Washington state, it's almost certainly a black bear.
- Grizzlies (brown bears) pose little danger to hikers in the Cascades, due to the sheer unlikelihood of running into one. The tiny population only lives along the border with Canada, predominantly in the northeast corner of the state.
- Black bears aren't always black. They can have a cinnamon or brownish coat.
What black bears eat
- Black bears are omnivores, and eat mostly plants and bugs, with a small amount of meat from fish, mice, voles, squirrels, eggs, and the rare fawn or elk calf.
- According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the spring diet of a black bear consists mostly of herbaceous plants, from emerging grasses and sedges to horsetail and various flowering plants.
- In summer, bears typically add ants, bees, grubs, and a host of later emerging plants to their diets. During late summer and fall, bears typically shift their diets toward tree fruits, berries, and nuts, but they still may consume a variety of plants.
- In fall, they may forage up to 20 hours a day to increase their body weight by 35 percent in preparation for winter.
Hiking near bears
- Make noise by singing or clapping your hands while in bear country, and especially around streams and blind corners. (The goal is to avoid surprise encounters.)
- Hike in small groups during daylight hours.
- Watch for bear signs, such as tracks, piles of scat laden with berries and small trees scratched to bits by hungry bears looking for grubs.
- Keep small children close and on trails, and keep hiking dogs on leash.
- Are you planning to make your hike an overnight or multi-night backpack? Then keep a clean camp. Learn how to bear-proof your camp and hang a bear bag.
- You can also carry bear-spray into areas where bear encounters are more likely.
Although aggressive behavior is very rare, a bear will defend its young or food source if it feels threatened. Startling a bear can also lead to distress and agitation. Most times bears prefer to avoid confrontation and will flee, but when they are agitated, you’ll be able to read the signals clearly.
They wear their emotions on their big, furry sleeves, and you’ll see signs of distress such as jaw popping with head turning, huffing or vocalizing, or aggressive slamming of their paws to the ground. If a bear behaves this way, it’s trying to tell you that you’ve crossed the line. In this case:
- Do not look the bear in the eye; this is perceived as a challenge and a sign of dominance.
- Never turn your back to a bear; if safe to do so, slowly walk backwards and give the bear as much space as possible.
- If you are hiking with small children, pick them up (so they do not run, scream or panic).
- Talk calmly and quietly so the bear can identify you as a human, and do your best to diffuse the situation.
Occasionally a bear will bluff charge as its way of trying to resolve the situation on its own. This is when a bear charges, then stops short of you and veers off, running away. If you practice good bear etiquette this should never happen to you—but if it ever does, your body language in this situation could save your life. Stand your ground and hold as still as possible without making eye contact. Don’t even take half a step backwards. Once the bear is gone, promptly find a tree to hide behind and change your soiled drawers.
If you do encounter a bear who has acted aggressively toward you, it's important to stop by (or at least call) a ranger station and let them know.
Keep dogs on leash to prevent conflicts
While bears are shy of people, they may act differently towards dogs, especially if they have cubs nearby. The biggest conflict a hiker could expect to get into with bears would be having a pet dog attacked.
- The best prevention for any conflicts is keeping your dog close and on leash while you hike. WTA has heard from a hiker who had an off-leash dog injured by a bear. If you have your dog leashed, you will be able to control the situation and keep everyone safe.
- If you're backpacking with a dog, make sure your pup stays inside your tent with you.
- As you hike, stay aware of your surroundings, so you don't stumble into an encounter (this is good advice for all wildlife encounters).
Living near bears
- Take trash out the morning of garbage day, instead of the night before.
- Avoid using bird feeders, except in winter.
- Clean outdoor grills after each use, including any grease drippings.