Be Bear Safe (rather than bear-ly safe)

As the world thaws in the spring, everything’s waking back up – trees, flowers, bees, your outdoor plans…and bears. And they wake up hungry. As bears search for food after a long hibernation, it’s important for us to be bear-safe with our food and accidental encounters.

Know your bears

The two species of bears you’ll find in North America are black bears and grizzly/brown bears. But don’t be fooled by the names – you shouldn’t use the color of their fur alone to distinguish which kind of bear it is. Both species can range in color: from blonde and cinnamon to darker shades of brown and black. The color of their coat can change depending on the environment and genetic mutations. You can generally learn to tell the difference between the two species by:

  • Anatomical differences in their snout, ears, shoulders, paws, and general size are the clearest giveaway.
  • Geographic region could be a clue for the bear species you might encounter, although the populations have been migrating and crossing over due to environmental changes.

All of these differences are detailed in the GOES app, including how to look for signs of bears.


Bears have a strong sense of smell and will follow their nose. If you’re camping in bear country, use airtight containers to store anything with a scent, such as:

  • Food
  • Wrappers and trash
  • Clothes you cooked in
  • Hygiene products (lotions, toothpaste, chapstick, etc.)

Tuck the scented bundle away and sleep at least 100 yards from it and from your cooking area. There are several methods to keep food safe from inquisitive bears: 

  • A specialized bear canister will protect the food if a bear comes sniffing.
  • A bear bag is lighter and easier to pack, but should be hung at least 15 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from the tree trunk.

Note: There are high-traffic areas where bears have gotten comfortable and wise around humans. For example, the bears in Yosemite have been known to break into cars to get to food. Because of this, the park has regulations around storing food in designated bear lockers. Before you arrive at your next destination, check with the local recommendations and policies.

If you encounter a bear

Remember that bears are wild and strong creatures. If you see one, it’s best to stay calm, walk away slowly, avoid eye contact, and do not yell. 

If a bear walks towards you, do the following:

  • Pick up small children immediately.
  • Avoid eye contact.
  • Put your arms up slowly to appear bigger, wave your arms, and tell the bear to back off in a firm voice. 
  • Back away slowly and sideways (to minimize the chance of tripping), do not turn your back on the bear. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. 
  • Avoid appearing like prey. That includes making loud noises or screams, running away, or climbing a tree. All of these behaviors will appear prey-like to the bear and trigger an attack response. Bears are like dogs in that they will chase a fleeing person. And remember, bears can run uphill and downhill, swim, and climb faster than humans. 


Bear spray

Bear spray is a concentrated pepper spray that inflames the eyes and breathing system of a bear. If used correctly, it can deter an aggressive bear. Research suggests it is 90-92% effective against black and grizzly bears, and 98% of users had no injuries in a bear encounter. 

In case of attack, you can spray at a charging bear 20-30 feet away. Carefully read the instructions on bear spray and keep it within reach when traveling (and sleeping) in bear country. 

Bear repellent is very irritating to the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs.  Avoid touching your face or breathing it in after being exposed. This is NOT like bug spray. Do not apply it as a preventive measure. 

Adventure safer

You never know what you’ll run into in the wild. But even if you’re off-the-grid, deep in bear country, GOES will go with you to give you confidence and peace of mind for all your adventures, big and small. For more best bear practices in the backcountry, download the GOES Health app. 

As bears search for food after a long hibernation, it's important for us to be bear-safe with our food and accidental encounters.
Share the Post:

Related Posts