Northwest Bear Safety Tips

Most outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest know bears pose a real threat to campers, hikers and other nature lovers. But how many people know just how dangerous bears can be, or what to do if they were to encounter one? Before embarking on your next camping or hiking adventure, arm yourself with the following bear-related camping safety tips. You’ll be glad you did.

Where are bears most often found in the Pacific Northwest?

The common black bear can be found in almost any natural area of the Pacific Northwest. Grizzly bears are less abundant, but they are usually spotted around the northern Cascade Range.

Wild bears like areas near fruitful vegetation, rivers and lakes. Luckily, bears are naturally shy animals and will avoid areas they know to be full of humans. Stick to well-populated places, and you will dramatically decrease your chance of a bear encounter.

How can I reduce my chance of encountering a bear?

The best way to avoid a bear encounter is to be mindful of your surroundings. Avoid areas with plentiful food sources, such as berry bushes, and avoid trails that aren’t obviously for human use.

Another way to prevent a bear encounter is to keep a clean camp. Although they generally avoid interaction with humans, bears will have no problem coming into your camp if they smell food left out. Keep food away from the rest of your camping equipment – preferably in your car or, if that’s not an option, in a secure cooler. Don’t leave trash out in the open, as that can also attract bears and other wild animals.

One of the best ways to get a bear to attack you is to sneak up on it. If you’re in an area with limited visibility, high vegetation or nearby water, a good hiking safety technique is to go in a group and make noise while hiking. Singing, whistling, or talking loudly enough for a nearby bear to hear will suffice.

If you know you will be camping in an isolated area with the possibility of encountering bears, it’s especially important to ensure your camping equipment includes an emergency kit.

What do I do if I see a bear?

Bears are smart and generally not aggressive in nature. If you encounter a bear, do everything you can to allow it a way to leave. If you see it from a distance, calmly move in the opposite direction while talking or making noise in some other way. If you stumble upon a bear close-up, don’t panic. Talk softly to it. Let it know that you’re a human and don’t mean it any harm. If the bear stands up, remain calm – it is simply trying to identify what you are. Whatever you do, don’t run. Running signals to the bear that you are prey, and then the chase is on.

If the bear doesn’t leave after a few minutes, try shaking nearby leafy branches or snapping twigs you find on the ground. Bears often communicate to each other in this way, and the general meaning is, “You’re too close. Go away.”

What do I do if a bear attacks me?

Bear attacks are rare, but they can happen. If a bear charges you, drop a non-food item and move away without running. The bear will often investigate whatever you dropped – a hat or bandanna, for instance – giving you a chance to get away.

If a black bear attacks you, fight back. Use rocks, sticks or your fists to deliver blows to the animal’s eyes or nose. This technique should be a last resort, of course, and you should remain motionless until the bear leaves.

If you’re attacked by a grizzly bear, drop into a fetal position. Grizzlies, along with most other bears, will attack if they perceive you as a threat. Covering your head and throat will protect you from fatal blows, and the fetal position will signal to the bear that you don’t mean it any harm.

What else should I know about bears and camping safety?

Urine odors attract bears, so make sure you use restrooms where available. If restrooms are not available, include proper toilet accommodations with your camping equipment. Also, never camp or hike near an animal carcass, as a hungry bear will consider you competition for its dinner.

Bear attacks are uncommon in the Pacific Northwest, but not unheard of. If you stay in designated hiking or camping areas, use common camping safety practices and keep food in airtight containers, chances are you will have a bear-free outdoor experience.

~Ben Nystrom, 2010

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