Bear Country Basics, by “SNO” in Alaska

Many times when we think of survival skills, our minds turn to the most exotic and specialized of skills. When reading on Survivalblog about this writing assignment I fell victim to this same tendency. My initial idea was to write an article on the construction and operation of a fish wheel, commonly used here in my home state of Alaska, and a tool of great value in a survival/retreat situation. But the detail and complexity of such writing is more involved that practical for this forum. So rather than try and explain some intricate and complex device or skill, that will likely never be utilized, I remembered the old K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) principle and turned my attention towards a topic that is often overlooked: bear safety.
The tendency to think of the extravagant before we think of the mundane is fairly common in the outdoors and disaster prep/survival crowds. We all either know the type of person, or have heard of this type of person. You know it’s the guy with a virtual arsenal but who only keeps a couple boxes of ammo around. Or there is my own personal favorite, the “Survivalist” who owns all the latest electronic gadgets and gizmos, including a state of the art color display GPS unit, but has no idea how to use a map and compass. Here in Alaska, and in many areas out in “Bear Country” we see a plethora outdoorsmen both locals and visitors that are completely ignorant of basic safety procedures in these habitats.
Readers may be tempted to skip over this information or dismiss this essay because they “do not live in bear country.” This may be true for many readers, but when we discuss survival in times of disaster, being it natural or man-made, many people would be leaving their homes and venturing into the backyards of our Ursine neighbors. So weather your like me, and often encounter bears when out in the woods (or in your yard), or a city slicker well away from bear country, the following K.I.S.S. Bear Country Basics may prove to be valuable to anyone, and who knows, maybe it could even save your life.
Bear Basics
Most readers likely run a greater chance of encountering a black bear than any other species. The black bear can be found in many states across a large percentage of the country. Most black bears average 5-6 feet long and weigh from 150-500 pounds at best. While many black bears are indeed black in color, particularly in the Eastern U.S., these animals can also be found in various shades of brown, cinnamon and even blondish. Despite this variance in color, most black bears are either black or a much deeper shade of brown than your average brown bear. (See box below for identifying characteristics)
Brown bears, also known as Grizzly’s, are the other species of bear that one is likely to encounter in the wild. Brown bears are much less common in the wild and outside of Alaska and Canada they are likely to be found only in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and possibly Washington. The brown bear is depicted on the California state flag however none are thought to live there currently and they are generally considered to be a threatened species south of Canada.
Browns are seen in light shades of brown, golden browns to chocolate shades and although there are variations in color as with the black bear, most browns are generally a much lighter brown than the typical black bear. Brown bears can grow to be well over 10 feet tall and weigh 1200 pounds at their biggest. The largest of these brown bears are sub-species know as Kodiak brown bears as they are found only in Kodak and surrounding islands in Alaska, although other quite large bears can be found elsewhere as well. (See link below)
Lastly, a quick note on the polar bear: If you ever see a big white bear with a black nose, and your not standing at a zoo exhibit, immediately turn and travel due South (towards the sun) as you have likely made a navigational error.

Before continuing, I would like to stress that there is no way that anyone (myself included) can predict animal behavior. However the following information is widely available and generally accepted as the best steps you can take to minimize the chances you’ll have an unwanted encounter with a bear, and if you do, some of this information may help you handle the situation. But as always, use this information, as well as that from other sources, along with your best judgment to handle any bear encounter. Also, many of these same tips and suggestions may be applicable to other predators in your area if bear do not inhabit your home or retreat location. Finally, I’d like to remind readers that this is only to be a cursory overview of bear safety information and not an exhaustive essay on the topic. For further, and more in-depth information, please see the links following the text below for more information.
On the Trail
Bear encounters while walking through the wilderness are fairly rare, but they are a serious concern to those traveling through bear country. The worst thing that a hiker can do is to sneak up on a bear or surprise them in any way. This is particularly true if the bear is with a cub(s). Groups traveling in the woods generally have less of a problem with sneaking up on a bear(s) as larger groups will tend to make enough noise to warn to bear of their location. Solo hikers or small groups run a greater risk of sneaking up (even unintentionally) and surprising a bear, thus putting them a greater risk of an unwanted encounter and possible attack.
Whether alone, in a small or large group, the best thing you can do to stay safe on the trail is to make some noise. Most any bear, and other predators will likely leave the immediate area if they know a group of people are coming their way. In this sense, the animal does not want to “encounter” you anymore than you want to “encounter” it. As a general rule, the thicker the surrounding brush and vegetation is, the more noise you want to make. High on a ridge above the tree line with great visibility, the noise becomes less important as the bear will likely smell you before they hear you anyway. But down in the forest, through the thick willows and such, making noise can prevent a dangerous situation by allowing the bear enough warning to move away from you path and avoid an encounter.
Hikers in bear country will often attach a noisemaker to their packs, such as bells, or even change in a small can to make a steady stream of sound, without requiring the hikers to continuously talk. This of course leads to the famous Alaskan joke: “How can you identify the scat from a Grizzly Bear? It’s the type with all the little bells in it.” But seriously, the bells are an effective noisemaker and have served my family (especially my kids) well over the years. Also keep on the lookout for bear sign, including tracks, scat, scratched up trees/posts and dug up ground to alert you to definite bear presence in the area.
The advice of making noise on the trail may become more of an liability than an asset in certain situations. Hunters obviously would need to observe some noise discipline once they reach their hunting grounds. Also, OPSEC concerns may cause some people to need to travel through the wilderness extremely quietly, come TEOTWAWKI. Just remember that even the largest of bears can travel extremely quietly, and when one does encounter a bear along a trail, they always seem to come from nowhere with little or no warning. My last Grizzly encounter: Three of us were hiking and stopped along the trail for a water break. I looked over my shoulder and there was an 8 foot tall Griz standing on his hind legs less than 20 feet away. He made no sound, no rustling in the willow thicket, and gave no warning at all. In those situations, keep you eyes and ears open, and be ready for anything that comes your way. (More on encountering a bear, below)
Camp Safety
This one is actually very simple, and boils down to just one thing: Keep yourself and your camp as clean and sanitary as possible.
The following bulleted points will be important in reducing the risk of a bear encounter/attack while at the campsite.
– Select a good campsite in bear country. Avoid setting up your camp next to a huge patch of blueberries (or other food source) for example. Before setting up your camp, scout the area looking for any signs of bear activity. This could be anything from a large ripped up patch of earth, to a partially eaten carcass. When in doubt, look for an alternative site. Campsites next to rushing water can also be problematic as the noise from the stream can mask the noises you may make that would alert a bear to your presence.
– Avoid packing fresh perishable foods that have a strong smell (meat, fish) that would tend to attract a bear. Dehydrated or freeze dried foods are preferred. Example: Oatmeal for breakfast will attract less attention from a bear than bacon and eggs.
– Also avoid wearing strong smelling cologne or perfume; even the scents from certain soaps and shampoos can attract a bear. Note: I always store EVERYTHING but clothing, sleeping supplies and a weapon (or 2) outside the tent site. This includes things like soap, deodorant etc. which is stored along with our food supply. NOTE: Once widely held, current theory is that bears are not attracted to a menstruating female so that should not be a big concern, but other scents should be minimized.
– Food should be stored in bear-proof containers or “bear bags,” heavy rubberized bags designed for food storage and to minimize scent transmission. If trees are present, it is best to suspend all food (and waste) at least 10 feet above the ground and 5 feet from the trunk of the tree. If possible, string a rope between 2 trees and suspend the food along the line in the space between 2 trees. This location should be well away from camp, and remember that food should never be brought into the tent or campsite.
– If above the tree line, use a bear-proof container if possible and always store food well away from the campsite. In open areas I have even used large stones to somewhat burry my food supply in a bear bag. This would likely prove useless if a bear came upon my food cache, but it always feels strange to leave a food bag simply resting on the open ground outside of camp.
– Never bring food into your tent or immediate camp area. All cooking, cleaning and food storage should be done at least 100+ feet from the outer perimeter of your campsite. (Preferably downwind from campsite)
– When ever possible, wash up before entering your campsite especially after meals to remove odors that may be present. If you have spilled food on any clothing, it is best to wash the clothing immediately or store it with your food supply if that is not possible. Do not take soiled clothing into the tent with you.
– Garbage should be disposed of immediately (packed out or burned) and dirty dishes should be washed promptly. If burning food waste, ensure that it is burned to ash and that the burning is done away from the tent site. When making a campsite make two fire pits if needed. One at your cooking site, and a “clean” fire site beside your tents to use for heat and light, but no food should be in this area.
With a little time and practice, these simple measures to prevent attracting a bear to your campsite will become second nature. Insist on keeping a clean campsite with a separate food storage and preparation site located adjacent to your tent site. A bear has average hearing and vision, but extremely sensitive sense of smell, so it is imperative to keep all odors that may be alluring to a bear well outside of your tent site.
Bear Encounters:
So you’ve let your presence be known on the trail, or you’ve done all you can to have a safe and clean campsite, but you still attract or otherwise encounter a bear. Here are some simple steps to take to help you through the situation. Again, these are just general recommendations and are not always completely foolproof as animal behavior is unpredictable. However the following recommendations are generally accepted as solid advice when encountering a bear.
– STAY CALM! Assess your situation, and use your best judgment. Remember that there are no actions guaranteed to be life saving when encountering a wild animal. A bear just like a dog or any other animal can sense fear. Screaming or throwing things or otherwise acting aggressively toward the bear may provoke an attack.
– Never feed or otherwise approach a bear. Even (or especially) a cub who appears all alone may have mom very near by, and if you are closer to the cub than the mother bear is, you will likely be seen as a threat.
– Do not run away! This should be a LAST RESORT. Running away from a predator may excite it to chase after you. (Its predatory instinct). Running can essentially turn a non-aggressive bear into a real threat. Besides bear can run as fast as 30 miles and hour, so the possibility of outrunning a bear is next to zero.
– If there is space, simply continue to face the bear and slowly back away while speaking to the bear in a calm even voice. Once a safe distance from the bear, raise your noise level so the bear can be aware of your location and attempt to find an alternative route to your destination if possible. (Note: In well over 40 unexpected bear encounters I have had, this simple technique has worked in all but a couple of situations.)
– A bear standing up on its back legs does not signal aggression or an impending charge. Generally bears will rise up on the back legs and sniff the air to better pick up your scent.
If the Bear Charges or Attacks
Here everything would essentially be thrown out the window, however here are a few ideas to keep in mind if the situation occurs. You essentially have three options: play dead, run, or stand your ground and fight. Always look for a way to avoid confrontation and leave the bear an avenue of escape if possible. Although brown bears are known for their bluff charges, consider any movement toward you as aggressive behavior (most bears will simply run away the other direction). Other aggressive behaviors include making a “whoofing” sound, and pulling back their ears or stomping the ground with their front paws. BE READY TO ACT!
– As soon as you see a bear, try and determine if you are dealing with a black or a Grizzly (brown bear) as you actions may differ depending on the animal your dealing with.
Playing Dead
This is actually a viable option, although the nerve it requires in hard to fathom. I have met one person who used this technique and lived to tell about it. This guy as his rifle tied to his pack (oops!) and couldn’t get to it in time and got charged and mauled by a brownie in the mountains outside Delta, Alaska. The pack served as a shield (he spun it around to his belly) and he laid flat on his back. His partner, about 25 yards back was able shoulder his rifle and shot the bear, as it began to charge toward him. I actually saw the bag the guy was wearing and it had some big gashes in it, and the aluminum frame was bent but the guy escaped with only bumps and bruises.
– Playing dead is only an option if you are viewed as a threat to the bear. If you startle a bear or if you get to close to a cub, you are a threat and playing dead may remove the threat for the bear and end the attack.
– If a bear attacks you in a tent, or from the open, in a situation where it has a chance to escape but charges anyway, then playing dead is most likely not an option. These types of attacks are generally by juveniles and occur in the fall when they are desperate to pack on some weight before winter. In such a scenario, you would be viewed as a source of food, not a threat, so your choices would be to run or fight back at all costs.
– It is said that playing dead is generally more effective with Grizzly bears rather than black bears. I’m not sure why that is the case, but several game biologists, park rangers as well as the bear safety presentation at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center included this information. Their message was simple, if it’s a black bear FIGHT!
Running Away
To me running away really has only two chances of being successful. One is that the bear is mounting a bluff charge, or otherwise terminates the charge as you turn to escape. Remember, even the biggest bear can run twice as fast as the average person so your chances here are slim. Two, if a Grizzly charges you and there is a climbable tree in the immediate area (big enough to escape danger and not get swatted down by the bear) running may be a good option given ample time/space. Black bears are incredible climbers and if they are looking for a meal, a tree won’t stand in their way, and thus the previous advise to fight a black bear if it attacks. Brown bear are able to climb tries but only in a very limited way. If the tree is ample size and height, it should offer you a good chance at safety from a brown.
Stand Your Ground and Fight
Again, there is noting here that any man can say that can really guide you as what to do, but here are some thoughts, and this is where we, as self-reliant people who are generally very well prepared would hopefully have an advantage over your average Joe. Your first option here is a can of bear spray which is essentially a large canister of pepper spray that shoots a large stream of chemical irritant with a range of 20-30 feet. These spray cans are quite effective and they are your only real option (under normal circumstances) in national parks, as firearms are not allowed within most parks. The big drawback with the spray is that it doesn’t last long and you don’t even want to think about spraying it into a strong wind.
I’m sure most people reading this are quite familiar with firearms so I will spare you too much detail in this department. I follow the principle of shoot the biggest round that you can comfortably and accurately shoot. I favor the .44 magnum revolver for always with you bear protection, and often carry a .45 semiautomatic as well for insurance. Larger rounds are available in droves, but I’m comfortable with the .44. I’ve heard offhand accounts of black bears being killed with a 9mm, but to me that’s just pushing your luck a bit. Still when venturing into bear country, I would take ANY firearm over none at all.
Long guns, rifles or shotguns, are of course a great too here is you have the space to use one. Rifles at least .300 [Magnum] and up would be recommended, probably bigger if you know you’ll frequently be encountering and/or hunting bear, particularly Grizzlies. Shotguns are certainly effective as well. I would recommend the heaviest shot you can get your hands on. Some people here in Alaska will alternate a slug shell with heavy shot for bear protection, which I’d assume is effective when called upon. The bottom line, like any situation where a firearm may be needed is to be prepared. I myself have had bear encounters outside my cabin where you set the shotgun down for “just one second” when nature calls, or to do some work, and out of nowhere a bear comes strolling into view. That’s why you always keep your sidearm with you if there is even a chance of a bear in the area.
One final note on shooting a bears is that they have extremely thick bone structure in their foreheads that can deflect a bullet. This is particularly true of Grizzly bears, but all bear share this trait. Th eFish and Game Department here in Alaska has some Grizzly skulls with little channels bored out in the forehead from bullets striking the skull and glancing upward. If possible, I would recommend aiming for the chest rather than the head if the bear is charging at you
In Summary
Bear encounters and attacks, as well as other predator attacks are very rare, but they do happen, so prepare for them as you would prepare any other threat that you may face. I hope that this essay will prove to be of some value to you whether preparing for a family vacation or perhaps when the SHTF. Keep in mind that these same principles can be applicable to some extent with other predatory animals as well, although each individual animal is quite unpredictable, and no book, essay or lecture can ensure your safety.
Some Links:
Alaska State Parks – Bear Safety
Black Bear Facts
Brown/Grizzly Bear Facts
Amazing Pics of Massive Grizzly – along with myths and true story of the photos
Hunting in Bear Country – tips and info with attack story