We’re again in that stretch of the calendar when bear awareness is paramount for outdoors people across much of North America. Both black and grizzly bears are mostly out of their winter dens, or soon to be (in the case of females with cubs, typically the last to get going in the spring).
Bears suffer from an overhyped dangerous reputation, and that’s especially true for grizzlies. In this post, we’ll present a refresher course on grizzly safety on the trail. For the most part, we’ll be focused on avoiding and properly handling grizzly encounters while hiking. But food and camping safety in bear country is equally important.
Let’s get started!
The grizzly bear is the primary North American subspecies of the widely distributed brown bear, which is also found across a huge Eurasian range. While in the past some taxonomists divided the North American brown bear into a whole bevy of subspecies, most contemporary experts agree on just two: the grizzly and the Kodiak bear. The latter—famously the heftiest of all brown bears, rivaling the polar bear for honors as the planet’s biggest terrestrial carnivore—is found in a very small domain in Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago. Often folks call the large, primarily chocolate- or even blackish-brown grizzlies elsewhere in coastal Alaska and British Columbia “brown bears,” reserving “grizzly” for smaller, inland populations of brown bears.
Grizzlies are found from Alaska and northwestern Canada down into the North Cascades, Columbia Mountains, and Rockies of the Lower 48. Prior to the mid-1800s, they were more widespread yet, found across much of the Great Plains, parts of the Columbia Plateau and Great Basin, the Cascades and Willamette Valley (our home base here at Mountain House), California, the American Southwest, and down into Mexico. Across this enormous territory, grizzly bears come in a wide range of sizes: The aforementioned coastal grizzlies of Alaska and B.C. may tip the scales at more than 1,500 pounds—as did the extirpated grizzlies of California—while interior grizzlies of the subarctic tundra or northern Rockies may “only” weigh several hundred pounds.
Regardless, the grizzly is a big critter, and exceedingly powerful. Unlike the forest-evolved black bear, grizzlies evolved from brown bears that crossed into North America from Asia during the Pleistocene. In the wide-open Ice Age tundra and steppes, these colonizing brown bears couldn’t readily hide their young from prehistoric North America’s fearsome lineup of fellow carnivores, which included giant short-faced bears and American lions. Thus, the grizzly was forced to actively defend its cubs (and, potentially, itself): one theory, anyway, as to why the North American grizzly is a generally more aggressive animal than Eurasian brown bears.
Aggressive, yes, but not bloodthirsty. The size, power, and surliness of the grizzly certainly make it a potentially dangerous creature, but it’s not out to get people. Nine times out of 10, a grizzly will run or hide from the sight of a human being. We’re mostly at risk of a bad encounter with a grizzly when we surprise the bear, prompting it to make a split-second decision: the “fight-or-flight” response.
There are some general rules about bear safety regardless of species, but there are also some important differences in basic responses to a black-bear versus a grizzly encounter. Although black bears are smaller than grizzlies, and generally less aggressive, they are also much more numerous and widespread in North America, making encounters with them far more likely on the whole. Statistics suggest that, these days anyway, black bears are somewhat more likely than grizzlies to attack people out of predatory intent—although such a predatory attack remains exceedingly rare.
Your average grizzly attack is likely to be defensive in nature, as we’ll get into.
So “bear” in mind (sorry) that the following information is grizzly-specific, and in certain aspects shouldn’t be applied to a black-bear encounter.
Given the grizzly’s current range, these tips are especially targeted to people recreating in the Middle and Northern U.S. Rockies, northeastern Washington and the North Cascades, and much of western Canada and Alaska.
The more paranoid among us may imagine a hike in, say, the Yellowstone or Glacier or Banff wilds is just about guaranteed to involve a grizzly sighting. In reality, your odds of seeing a grizzly are very low. That’s partly because the bears are, in most areas, thinly distributed on the landscape. It’s also partly because of grizzly activity patterns, and also because the bears are usually alert and keen-sensed enough to smell or hear us coming and hightail it without us ever knowing they’re in the vicinity.
Certain hiking practices can further reduce the already low odds of directly encountering a grizzly on (or off) the trail. Ideally, you should hike with others in grizzly country. A group of three or more people is much less likely to have trouble with bears: Such a party makes more noise than one or two hikers, for one thing, and is also more intimidating to a griz.
In grizzly country, avoid hiking in the early morning or evening hours, when bears—which are often crepuscular and/or nocturnal in habits, especially in landscapes with moderate or heavy human presence—are more likely to be out and about.
Making noise is another fundamental of minimizing the chance of surprising a grizzly bear. This doesn’t mean you need to be stomping around the backcountry banging cymbals or blasting thrash-metal music from your speakers. Talking at moderate volume is often sufficient. If you’re hiking through dense vegetation, along a babbling stream, or in windy weather, you may want to shout (“Hey bear!”) or clap periodically. If you’re hiking into the wind, in particular, you should make more noise and otherwise be extra-cautious, given a grizzly upwind is less likely to scent you coming. For all their popularity, bear bells don’t carry as far as a loud human voice or handclaps.
Keep your eyes peeled for bear signs, which can be quite obvious if you know what you’re looking for. Tracks, scat, clawed or rubbed tree bark (perhaps with brownish or silvery hair attached), and torn-open logs or diggings where grizzlies have foraged for roots, insects, or rodents are all examples. If you see plenty of bear signs, and they look (or—ahem—smell) fresh, be especially vigilant; you may even consider leaving the area if there’s been a lot of recent bear activity.
It’s worth highlighting a specific kind of bear sign that’s particularly dangerous. If you see an animal carcass—especially a partly buried or obviously fed-upon one—you should backtrack immediately. Grizzlies are enthusiastic scavengers and also occasional predators of hoofed mammals. Meat is a prized, energy-rich food source for the bears, and they will aggressively defend carrion. Grizzlies often rest close to a carcass (sometimes even on top of it), so you should assume a bear may be close by—and apt to be riled-up by your presence—if you see a good-sized dead critter.
Anyone hiking (or hunting, or otherwise recreating) in grizzly country should carry bear spray. This beefed-up pepper spray can be highly effective in repelling an attacking bear. You want to make sure the bear spray functions correctly (you can do a test without depleting its contents) and isn’t expired. You also want to ensure you’ve got the spray in a holster or hand as you hike; bear spray stuffed in your backpack doesn’t do you much good in a sudden, up-close encounter with a grizzly.
What if you actually see a grizzly while hiking? Well, first of all, don’t panic! If the bear is far off—on a distant slope, say, or on the other side of a big river—enjoy watching it through binoculars. If a grizzly that’s somewhat closer hasn’t seen you, consider turning back (without taking your eyes off the bear, and proceeding slowly) or following a broad detour while making plenty of noise.
If the grizzly appears to be aware of you, talk loudly and steadily (but don’t scream or shout) and wave your arms slowly above your head. Your goal is to reveal yourself to the bear as an unaggressive human being. Registering that, the grizzly is very likely to bolt. Some experts recommend not staring at the bear, which might be interpreted as a threat, but you do want to roughly face the animal.
Keep in mind that a grizzly will often rear on its hind legs in such an encounter. A bear standing up like this looks super-intimidating, but this isn’t aggressive behavior. Rather, the grizzly is just trying to get a better look—or a better whiff—to determine what you are.
If the bear in question is a female with cubs, you’re in a particularly dicey situation. Along with a grizzly defending a carcass, a mother bear is as dangerous as grizzlies come, given she’s intent on protecting her vulnerable young. But any grizzly that feels threatened by you is potentially dangerous. The closer you are to the bear, the more likely it is to feel defensive. A threatened grizzly may huff, slowly shake its head, swat the ground, flatten its ears, clack its jaws, and/or make a bluff charge (more on that shortly).
If the bear’s not moving, move sideways slowly but steadily while continuing to talk and wave your arms. Your goal is to turn back or make a major detour around the grizzly to get out of its general vicinity. But you don’t want to run or turn your back on the bear. Running could activate the grizzly’s predatory instinct and compel it to chase you—and a grizzly is much, much faster than you are. (We’re talking racehorse-fast.) Turning your back may also prompt a chase, or if nothing else means you’re not able to closely monitor the bear’s behavior or whereabouts.
Occasionally, a grizzly—especially a mother with cubs, or a bear that feels boxed-in—may charge at you. In most cases, this is a bluff charge, and the bear will halt or veer away upon getting closer to you. That’s a freaky predicament to find yourself in, no question, but here again—don’t panic. Hold your ground, still facing the bear. The grizzly may bluff charge a few times, but often will ultimately run off.
And, hey: Don’t climb a tree in the face of a charging grizzly, despite all those movies and cartoons. Yes, a full-grown grizzly isn’t as proficient a tree-climber as a black bear, but it’s definitely capable of pulling itself up a trunk. Besides, it’s unlikely you’d be fast enough to reach and scramble up a tree before a grizzly reaches you—and your scurrying tree-ward might excite the bear’s predatory response.
If the grizzly doesn’t abort its charge—well, that gets us into the realm of a legitimate bear attack.
If it appears that a grizzly’s charge is not going to end up a bluff, but with actual contact, it’s time to whip the bear spray out from its holder or otherwise readily reached position and deploy it. Aiming the nozzle at the ground in front of the grizzly is most likely to create an effective cloud of spray in its face. Usually, this aggravation to the eyes and nose is enough to convince the griz that you’re too much trouble to mess with—and to temporarily handicap it so you can hasten out of the area.
If you have a backpack on, don’t take it off and throw it at a charging grizzly. That pack can provide important protection to your body in the event the bear attacks you, and, besides, if you’ve got food within it, the griz may feel rewarded for confronting you and end up aggressively confronting some future hiker.
If the pepper spray doesn’t work—or if you don’t have a canister, as you should—fall to the ground belly-down, spread out your legs (to better brace yourself and prevent the bear from rolling you onto your back), and clasp your hands around the back of your neck.
Play dead in the face of the oncoming bear attack. In most cases, a grizzly attacking you will bite and scuff you for a short while, then move off. The aim of a bear defending itself is simply to neutralize that which it perceives as a threat. Playing dead usually quickly convinces the bear you’re neutralized, and it’ll stop the assault.
If the grizzly persists in attacking you past a couple of minutes, it’s time to switch tactics from passively playing dead to fighting back. Use anything you can to strike the bear in the face.
Fighting back is also the recommended first course of action—and not playing dead at all—if a grizzly attacks you after seeming to stalk you or otherwise follow you inquisitively, rather than showing clear signs of distress and agitation before charging. The same goes for a grizzly that attacks you when you’re in your tent. Such cases are likely vanishingly rare instances in which a grizzly views you as potential prey. Most of us, even if we spend years recreating in grizzly country, will never find ourselves in such a situation. But if you do, vigorous, active defense is essential. (Bear spray can also head off these frightening encounters.)
Firearms are not a terribly effective way to repel a grizzly bear, more often than not. Most people will find it difficult to aim lethally in the face of a charging bear, and a wounded grizzly is apt to crank up its aggression. In other words, employing a gun can often worsen a bear encounter. Bear spray is a much better weapon—and it doesn’t risk harming a grizzly that, after all, is simply doing its thing in its own habitat.
It’s worth making special mention of grizzly safety while mountain biking. Mountain bikers in grizzly country are at enhanced risk because surprise run-ins with bears are all the more likely when moving at swift speed down trails. Even while talking or shouting, it’s harder to give adequate advance warning to bears while pedaling at full speed. Carry bear spray, bike in groups, and consider biking in grizzly-less recreation areas.
For additional and more in-depth information on grizzly bear safety, check out our “Bear Country 101” article as well as the following resources:
And make sure you’re practicing responsible bear awareness when cooking up our Mountain House meals at the trailside or at the campsite!