Bears are constantly menacing hikers in the Canadian Rockies. Not through direct encounter, which is rare, but through the towering, terrifying shadow they cast across hikers’ imaginations. As a result, countless hikers are so intimidated, they never probe the wilderness deeply, never stray from the most popular hiking trails.
We want you to fully appreciate the Canadian Rockies. That’s not possible if you limit yourself to short hikes on crowded trails. Because there’s more to experiencing wilderness than simply seeing it. You must feel it—which you can’t do if constantly distracted by the sight and sound of other people.
Wilderness hiking requires confidence. Confidence that a bear encounter is unlikely. Confidence that, should you see a bear, you can prevent a close encounter. Confidence that even in a close encounter with a bear, you can walk away uninjured. Such confidence is based on knowledge. So here’s what you need to know.
But first, would you rather listen than read? Download our 30-minute Bears Beware! MP3. Click on “Books” in our home page menu. You’ll find it under “Bear Safety.” Listen to it at home, or on your iPod while driving to the trailhead.
You prefer to read? Carry on here. We’ve shortened the 30-minute MP3 for you:
Only a couple hundred grizzly bears roam the Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks. The black-bear population is comparable. You’re more likely to see a bear while driving the Icefields Parkway than while hiking most backcountry trails.
Grizzlies are the slowest reproducing land animals in North America. Only the musk ox is slower. So Banff Park’s grizzly population will remain small.
The Banff Information Centre posts trail reports that include bear warnings and closures. Check these before your trip; adjust your plans accordingly.
Grizzly bears and black bears can be difficult to tell apart—even for an experienced observer. Both species range in colour from nearly white to cinnamon to black. Full-grown grizzlies are much bigger, but a young grizzly can resemble an adult black bear, so size is not a good indicator.
The most obvious differences are that grizzlies have a dished face; big, muscular shoulder humps; and long, curved front claws. Blacks have a straight face; no hump; and shorter, less visible front claws. Grizzlies are potentially more dangerous than black bears, although a black bear sow with cubs can be just as aggressive. Be wary of all bears.
Any bear might attack when surprised. If you’re hiking, and forest or brush limits your visibility, you can prevent surprising a bear by making noise. Bears hear about as well as humans. Most are as anxious to avoid an encounter as you are. If you warn them of your presence before they see you, they’ll usually clear out.
Use the most effective noisemaker: your voice. Shout loudly. Keep it up. Don’t be embarrassed. Be safe. Yell louder near streams, so your voice carries over the competing noise. Sound off more frequently when hiking into the wind. That’s when bears are least able to hear or smell you coming. To learn more about what sounds to make, where and when, download our Bears Beware! MP3. It’s subtitled “Warning Calls You Can Make to Avoid an Encounter.”
Bears’ strongest sense is smell. They can detect an animal carcass several kilometers (miles) away. So keep your pack, tent and campsite odor-free. Double or triple-wrap all your food in plastic bags. Avoid smelly foods, especially meat and fish. On short backpack trips, consider eating only fresh foods that require no cooking or cleanup.
If you cook, do it as far as possible from where you’ll be sleeping. Never cook in or near your tent; the fabric might retain odor. Use as few pots and dishes as you can get by with. Be fastidious when you wash them.
At night, hang all your food, trash, and anything else that smells (cooking gear, sunscreen, bug repellent, toothpaste) out of bears’ reach. Use the metal food caches provided at some provincial-park backcountry campgrounds. Elsewhere, a tree branch will suffice. Bring a sturdy stuffsack to serve as your bear bag. Hoist it at least 5 m (16 ft) off the ground and 1.5 m (5 ft) from the tree trunk or other branches. You’ll need about 12 meters (40 feet) of light nylon cord. Clip the sack to the cord with an ultralight carabiner.
Backpackers who don’t properly hang their food at night are inviting bears into their campsite, greatly increasing the chance of a dangerous encounter. And bears are smart. They quickly learn to associate a particular place, or people in general, with an easy meal. They become habituated and lose their fear of man. A habituated bear is a menace to any hiker within its range.
If you see a bear, don’t look it in the eyes; it might think you’re challenging it. Never run. Initially be still. If you must move, do it in slow motion. Bears are more likely to attack if you flee, and they’re fast, much faster than humans. A grizzly can outsprint a racehorse. And it’s a myth that bears can’t run downhill. They’re also strong swimmers. Despite their ungainly appearance, they’re excellent climbers too.
Climbing a tree, however, can be an option for escaping an aggressive bear. Some people have saved their lives this way. Others have been caught in the process. To be out of reach of an adult bear, you must climb at least 10 m (33 ft) very quickly, something few people are capable of. It’s generally best to avoid provoking an attack by staying calm, initially standing your ground, making soothing sounds to convey a nonthreatening presence, then retreating slowly.
What should you do when a bear charges? If you’re certain it’s a lone black bear—not a sow with cubs, not a grizzly—fighting back might be effective. If it’s a grizzly, and contact seems imminent, lie face down, with your legs apart and your hands clasped behind your neck. This is safer than the fetal position, which used to be recommended, because it makes it harder for the bear to flip you over.
If you play dead, a grizzly is likely to break off the attack once it feels you’re no longer a threat. Don’t move until you’re sure the bear has left the area, then slowly, quietly, get up and walk away. Keep moving, but don’t run.
Arm yourself with pepper spray as a last line of defense. It’s available at outdoor stores. Keep it in a holster—on your hip belt or shoulder strap—where you can grab it fast. Cayenne pepper, highly irritating to a bear’s sensitive nose, is the active ingredient. Without causing permanent injury, it disables the bear long enough to let you escape. Many people have successfully used it to turn back charging bears.
Research presented to more than 300 bear experts at the 4th International Human-Bear Conflict Workshop, in Missoula, Montana, suggests pepper spray is more effective than firearms at stopping a bear attack. The combined results from two studies are convincing: 98% of people who used pepper spray to stop charging bears walked away from their encounters unharmed, and none of the people or bears died. 56% of people who used firearms to stop charging bears were injured, and 61% of the bears died.
Vigilance and noise making, however, should ensure you never encounter a bear at close range, thus preventing you from having to so much as unholster your pepper spray. Do so only if you really think your life is at risk, at which point the bear is at risk as well. A bear confronted by a human being is at one of the most precarious, dangerous moments of its life.
Any time bears act aggressively, they’re following their natural instinct for self preservation. Often they’re protecting their cubs or a food source. Yet if they maul a hiker, they’re likely to be killed, or captured and moved, by wildlife management officers. So when you go hiking in the Canadian Rockies, you’re accepting responsibility for the protection of these beautiful, magnificent creatures.
Merrily disregarding bears is foolish and unsafe. Worrying about them is miserable and unnecessary. Everyone occasionally feels afraid when venturing deep into the mountains, but knowledge and awareness can quell fear of bears.
Just take the necessary precautions and remain guardedly alert. Experiencing the grandeur of mountain wilderness is certainly worth risking the remote possibility of a bear encounter.