If you are camping in a temperate zone, you are in bear country. Although there are thousands of bear encounters each year, bear attacks were responsible for fewer than 100 people in North America during the entire 20th century. Here are a few basic tips regarding these intelligent and powerful animals.
First, a bit of perspective about bears. Retired MMA heavyweight fighter Brock Lesnar comes to mind when I think of a guy with bear-like qualities. Six-feet three-inches tall, he weighs in around 265 pounds, can bench press more than 450 pounds, and deadlift over 700 pounds. It took a lifetime of dedication to strength training for Mr. Lesnar to achieve these figures and become a famous wrestler. A well-fed adult brown bear (or grizzly), species ursus arctos, stands around 12 feet tall and tips the scales at somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, or roughly four Brock Lesnars. Grizzly doesn’t care to bench press, but he can lift 675-pound rocks with one paw and toss around dumpsters weighing over a ton with no trouble at all. If he is in a hurry he can run about 30 mph, about as fast as a galloping horse, noticeably faster than world record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt. The lesson to learn here is to respect the bear. He may look like a cuddly child’s plush toy, but he’s a powerful animal that could hurt you badly without even intending to.
As you might imagine, it takes a lot of food to feed a muscular body weighing over a thousand pounds. Bears spend their waking hours searching for food with their extremely sensitive noses. If you like to hike and camp you’ve probably seen the stereotypical “Do Not Feed The Bears” signs many times. Feeding bears is a very bad idea for two reasons. First, it teaches them that where there are people, there is food, so by deliberately feeding a bear you increase its chances of encountering more people. Secondly, while Grizzly is very intelligent for an animal, he doesn’t understand where the food you are feeding him is coming from. He may get curious and wonder if your arm is made out of the same stuff as the food coming out of it. No? Maybe the food was coming from inside you–he’ll just open you up like a birthday piñata and check real quick.
It follows that your biggest concern regarding bears is what to do with your food while you’re encamped at night. Many people take all their food and put it in a “bear bag” strung up on a cable between two trees at a height of 10 feet or more. Sometimes this works, but black bears, who are good climbers, will often snap off the branches holding the cable, knocking down the bag. Another alternative is to stow your food in your car, but if you choose this method you must roll your windows all the way up to keep the smell of food from coming from the interior of the car. Glass windows don’t stand up at all to bear paws. If you are fishing on a riverbank and have some nice fish laid out in the sun and a bear is attracted to the fish? That’s right, those are Grizzly’s fish now. Keep in mind that he did not come into your campsite or onto your fishing spot, you came into his neighborhood.
If you encounter a bear up close, don’t turn your back to it. If he stands up on his hind legs and waves his head around, he’s sniffing and trying to figure out what you are. Back up while facing it, and do not run, because this can trigger an attack. Playing dead is a bad idea, since bears often eat dead carcasses as part of their regular diet. Leave your dog at home—wild dogs are natural enemies of bears (polar bears and wolves seem to be an exception although they compete for food). Your dog playfully bounding into the woods may come running back to you with a charging bear right behind it! If the bear snaps his jaws together, makes a woofing Chewbacca-like sound, or keeps his head down and his ears back, he is preparing to attack. Oh, crap.
At this point, advice differs. Some people advise that you use pepper spray, and considering how sensitive the bear’s sense of smell is, that makes sense. Some people say to talk to the bear in a loud, low voice. Some people say to go on the offense, throw things at the bear and try to make yourself look as big and scary as possible. I’m not so sure about that one. And of course, some people say to shoot the bear. But this is problematic. He has layers and layers of thick bones, muscles, and fatty tissue protecting his vital organs, and enough blood in that thousand-pound body that he may not bleed out for days. So, headshots then, right? Well, Grizzly’s skill is about two feet wide, so you’ll have a big target for sure. But his skull bones are three to four inches thick, and if he’s coming at you most of them are angled sharply away like the sloping armor on the front of an M1 Abrams tank. At this point, you’ll want to use solid brass bullets for maximum penetration, and no caliber is too big. Remember when people asked you why you bought that .500 S&W Magnum? This is why. A rifle is of course much better, but even then there are horror stories of bears receiving headshots with .45-70 lever guns and 7mm Magnum bolt actions, then shaking their mangled heads and walking away. Don’t place yourself at unnecessary risk by approaching a bear in the belief that if something goes wrong your gun of choice will bail you out.
Humans and bears have co-existed for centuries, but with less “backwoods” natural habitat than ever before, and more people trying to get there than ever before, the number of bear encounters is rising each year. Grizzly isn’t a critter to be paranoid and terrified about. He is to be left alone, and given an enormous amount of respect.