Into Bear Country, by George F.

As a result of moving into remote retreat areas, you may begin to have encounters with North America’s bear population. Even in suburban/urban areas, a lack of hunting and the return of forests has seen bears make a comeback, raising the likelihood of a bear-human encounters. Even if you live somewhere with a low likelihood of bear encounters, you should know the proper actions and make preparations, because bears can turn up anywhere. I’m going to outline the steps for bear camping, keeping your homestead secure from bears, traveling in bear country, tactics for a bear encounter, and bear defenses that will help keep you, your family, and your property safe. There is much confusion surrounding bears, so I hope I can clear things up for people with limited bear experience and remind experienced back country folks about good habits. Over the years, I have heard a lot of information about bears that is silly, wrong, or dangerous passed off as fact. Everything in this piece comes from personal experience or what I have been taught by friends with first hand experience. Here are two “facts” that I have heard thrown around that are preposterous:

Myth: Menstruating women should stay away from the woods because bears are attracted to the odors. Call this one busted; the National Park Service shows no correlation, with the possible exception of polar bears.

Myth: Bears are attracted to gasoline because they can smell the dead organisms that make up “fossil fuel.” A fellow student in a wildland firefighting class tried to tell me this one. Some of the other students actually believed him (bears may actually be attracted to the smell of gasoline but I highly doubt it has anything to do with the dead dinosaurs).

As with all things survival, seek out good advice, do your own research, and get multiple opinions.

There are three bears living in North America: Black Bear, Brown Bear, and Polar Bear. I have been lucky enough to observe all three North American bears the wild. They are fascinating but dangerous animals that should be kept at a distance. Bears are not your friends, but they don’t have to be your enemies either.

Black bears are the bear that most folks in the Lower 48 are going to encounter, as they live throughout North America. Black bears are expert tree climbers and prefer wooded areas. Sometimes they can be a bluish or cinnamon color instead of black. They are the smallest of the bears, although I have seen black bears in Alaska that looked big enough to be dark colored Grizzlies. Don’t let the smaller size fool you, as they can be feisty and mischievous, being notorious camp robbers. While they usually eat berries and plants and avoid confrontation, they can be dangerous if they feel threatened. Like all bears, they will violently defend carrion and cubs. My father, who is a former guide and bush pilot, has only once killed a bear in defense when a young black bear tried to liberate the moose that he had just bagged.

Brown bears have two subspecies: the inland grizzly and the coastal brown. They prefer open areas, like mountains above the tree line and tundra. Historically they were found in the American west as far south as Mexico, but now they are confined to Alaska, western Canada, and parts of the American Redoubt. They are omnivorous, with the bulk of their diet coming from salmon runs. Brown bears account for the majority of fatal attacks every year in the United States. They are less shy than black bears, simply because they are apex predator with no fear of anything in the wild except other bears.

I’m not going to discuss polar bear precautions and defense because it isn’t relevant for most of us, but I will throw out a few fun facts. Polar Bears eat almost exclusively meat, mostly Ringed Seals. They roam the Arctic Icecap during the winter, and I have personally seen them on the polar icecap just a few hundred miles south of the North Pole. They sneak up on their prey and attack by surprise, so many human victims aren’t even aware that an attack is imminent until the polar bear pounces. An Arctic marine biologist confirmed to me that polar bears have actually been seen covering their black noses with their paw to make themselves completely invisible against the ice as they sneak up behind seals. Also, Polar Bears are often unfazed by the sounds of gunshots because they are accustomed to the loud noises of cracking ice packs.

All of the bears I encountered in Alaska were very wild and still had a natural fear of humans. In the Lower 48, bears I have met have been less frightened by humans, possibly because they have come to associate humans with trash and other food. A bear that becomes habituated to people is a dangerous animal, as it will be more aggressive in seeking out humans and human activity as a potential food sources. This is especially true of cubs that are taught early on by their mothers to forage for trash and other food created by humans. By keeping bears in your area wild through best practices, you are protecting yourself and future generations, as well as the wild bear population.

Whenever traveling in bear country always stay vigilant, and if the situation allows, alert bears to your presence. This is especially thick brush and undergrowth, where you should announce your presence to any bears by yelling, singing, or whistling. Bears will generally move over for humans if they know you are coming. If you are hunting or in a survival situation that necessitates noise discipline, it is doubly important to keep a sharp look out for bears that might be sleeping or foraging, as a surprised bear is an angry bear. I almost learned this lesson the hard way walking in some dense alder brush in Alaska when I was fifteen years old. I accidentally got within 30 feet of a sleeping brown bear that looked about as big as a VW bug at the time. When he woke up, he roared loudly, and ran away towards the mountains as fast as he could go, leaving me shaken but wiser about bear country travel. Also worth noting is that I had become complacent because I had seen so few bears in the area over my years of exploration. Bears roam around and you never know where one might turn up. There’s a survival lesson that applies to all areas: Complacency is the enemy. This is a case where there is real safety in numbers. For every additional person in your group, the chances of attack decrease and drops to near zero once you have five people. Leave your dogs at home if possible, as dogs will chase and try to fight bears, probably resulting in the deaths of both the bear and the dog.

There are three general bear situations that you may encounter:

  • Meeting a bear that is traveling/foraging/resting,
  • Meeting a bear defending carrion or other food, and
  • Meeting a bear with cubs.

The latter two are the most dangerous situations, as the bear could be confused about your intentions and become aggressive.

Never get between a female bear and cubs. Always give a female with cubs a wide berth. To the sow bear, you are the equivalent of the stranger with the rusty van and free candy. A mountaineering guide I knew was out walking one day with his wife on a trail near Anchorage, Alaska when they inadvertently moved between a female and two cubs. They held there ground at first, but the mother bear started to charge, and they did not have a firearm or bear spray. He turned to run, and the bear was on him in an instant. Ultimately, he survived the mauling, but he almost lost an eye and his face had to be rebuilt with metal plates. A few lessons: (1) Always hold your ground or retreat slowly facing the bear (2) Always pay attention to where you are going (3) Have a means of defense.

In the wild, carrion or other meat is something that a bear will fight for. If you come to a bear that is sitting on carrion, avoid the bear, try to leave the way you came, and give the bear wide berth. The bear sees you as a possible competitor for precious food and may become aggressive. If you are hunting in bear country, do your best not to leave killed game unattended, as a bear will not hesitate to claim your kill. Of course, in a survival situation, you may have to kill the bear to ensure that the bear does not take what you need to survive.

Walk through the woods and open country long enough, and you will run into bears who are minding their business. Some bears may be curious when they meet you, stopping to look and even standing up on their hind legs for a better view. In any bear stand off, help the bear make up its mind by holding your ground, waving, and yelling. The goal is to present the bear with a novel situation that makes it want to retreat. If the bear still doesn’t budge, fire warning shots to get the bear to run. My former employer, who was a hunting guide on Kodiak Island and a polar bear guard for oil crews on Alaska’s north slope said that this was enough to put almost every bear he encountered on the run. By helping bears associate negative things with humans, you protect bears and other people. Try to end all bear encounters by scaring the bear away. If the bear begins to charge, use your bear spray or gun to stop the bear. If you do not have a means of defense available, stand your ground because as soon as the bear sees you run, it will chase you. The possible exception to the “stand your ground rule is if you are near an easily climbable tree (keep in mind that bears can climb trees). Often, bears will simply be bluffing when they charge, so continue to hold your ground and do not run. If it the bear is attacking and you have not been able to stop it with your means of defense, get into a tight fetal position to protect your belly and face. This may help you survive the worst of the attack. You can’t outrun a bear, so don’t try.

Of course, many of us venture into the wilderness so that we can see bears and other wildlife in their native habitat. If you see a non aggressive bear at a safe distance (outside 200 yards is my comfort zone) it is fine to watch and take pictures, but don’t try to get closer or do anything to antagonize the bear. It seems like many people (people who don’t read SurvivalBlog) expect the wilderness to be like Disneyland. Bears are wild animals with claws and teeth, so leave them alone.

When you set up camp, there are procedures that should be followed to keep your food secure and to keep you safe and to prevent bears from coming to the tent to look for snacks. I was taught to establish a camp in a type of triangle with each side at least fifty yards long. At the first point of the triangle you should have your food storage area. Your food can be stored in bear proof containers or on a line between two trees at least twenty feet off the ground. I have used Garcia Bear-Resistant containers and have not had any problems. Home made bear containers can be made from PVC pipe with a plug and a threaded cap, but these are very heavy if you are traveling on foot. Buried caches are a bad idea in general for bear country, as bears are expert diggers. The second point of the triangle should be your kitchen area. Keep all utensils, dishes, and vessels here, as well as any scented items such as soap and toothpaste. You should keep any clothes you cook in here as well, but this often not practical. The third point of the triangle is the sleeping area. Keep it sanitary, and do not bring any food to this area. All human waste should be buried well away from the camp. In an unplanned survival situation where you are unable to cache your food you may have to combine all three stations into one, but don’t do this unless you have an appropriate firearm. When you break camp, always exercise ‘leave no trace” (called trash discipline by military types) by packing out all garbage and burying human waste to prevent the habituation of wildlife to human food.

Bears can wreak havoc at your homestead because of their curiosity and their perpetual hunt for food, but there are steps you can take to make your retreat secure. A good start is to make sure all structures are sturdy and “over built” (at least by the standards of what passes for construction in America nowadays). Bears can easily claw through thin plywood and break down weak doors. Make sure your dwelling’s doors have strong hinges and bolts that can be locked from the outside on the top and bottom of the door. At remote areas in Alaska, we used “bear boards” as a deterrent for bears trying to break into unoccupied cabins. These are made from pieces of plywood with 16 penny nails driven through [facing outward and covering] the whole area spaced every 2 square inches. These were placed over every ground level window and in front of the door. For livestock pens, chicken coops, and other sensitive areas, electric fences can be effective for keeping curious bears out. One of my friends in Alaska whose cabin was over a mile from his airstrip used this concept to build a small solar powered electric fence enclosure around his Piper Super Cub, as bears are notorious for shredding cloth covered bush planes. It is possible that concertina or barbed wire would be an effective alternative, but I have never seen this used. Do your best to not give bears a reason to come around by keeping garbage and other food secure. “Haze” problem bears by firing warning shots or using air horns.When securing the homestead, think of bears as extra large puppies who will chew on anything they can reach. They are crafty scavengers and will exploit any shortcomings in your retreat’s security as some friends of mine learned when they had a bear hibernate under their remote cabin in Alaska.

I left the discussion of bear firearms for last because if you use your smarts in bear country, your likelihood of needing your firearm to kill a bear is low. Your good habits in the wilderness will be your first and best defense against bear attack. I have met far too many newcomers to Alaska who believed that their gun was a magical talisman against bears. The simple act of taking a gun into the woods is not a comprehensive plan on how to deal with bears. While I am usually the last person to enter into the endless debates on the pros and cons of this or that gun/caliber, I do have a few pretty strong opinions about bear guns. When it comes to killing a bear, a gun inadequate for the job can be worse than no gun at all. Empty your .22 or 9mm into a bear to get a bear that is twice as angry, clearly a counterproductive move. That being said, a firearm is as much a noisemaking device for bear defense as anything else because firing warning shots will send the vast majority of bears on the run. A bear is nature’s version of a Panzer tank, with dense bones, thick fir, and heavy layers of fat and muscle, calling for some serious firepower. First, there is no such thing as an ideal bear pistol, because there simply isn’t a caliber powerful enough to guarantee that you can stop a charging grizzly in its tracks. However, a .44 Magnum is the minimum for an acceptable bear defense for those of you who don’t want to live be your long gun. Just so you don’t think I am being biased here: I love automatics. The first paycheck I ever earned I used to buy a 1911, but no experienced woodsman I have ever met in grizzly country ever carried anything smaller than a .44 Magnum. If you are exclusively in black bear country, .45 ACP might be sufficient but a .357 Magnum or larger would be preferable. Go big or go home when it comes to pistols for bear defense.

In my opinion, a semiautomatic 12 gauge shotgun is the king of bear defense firearms, and that is what I prefer to carry in the back country. I usually load the first two rounds as slugs, with the rest as three inch double aught buck shot. If you don’t have a semi auto shotgun, a pump action 12 gauge is a close second. A lever action .45-70 is also a good choice, and some professional guides swear by them. A large caliber rifle can also be an effective defense, but you will have fewer shots, and it will be more difficult to aim and take quick follow up shots. JWR’s SurvivalBlog has a static page on survival guns that is well thought out and a good guide for building your battery. If you currently do not own any firearms, I believe that a shotgun is the first gun that you should get, simply because it is so cheap and versatile. Whether it is used for rabbit hunting, bear defense, or as a tactical weapon it is an indispensable tool for the survivalist. In no way am I suggesting that it should be the last firearm you should procure. Like JWR, I believe that the “ultimate survival gun” debate is irrelevant. If you are carrying a long gun that is under powered for the job (that includes assault rifles), you really should be backed up by a secondary weapon or bear spray.

What about bear spray? If you are a good survivalist, you already have a bear gun. However, I think that bear spray, for casual purposes, such as backpacking and walking around the woods can be an effective alternative in these pre-TEOTWAWKI times. Bear spray has been shown to be more effective than a firearms for stopping charging bears, so it definitely belongs with you preps. It is convenient because it is light to carry, requires virtually no training to use, and is easy to aim. It is five times hotter than pepper spray for human attacks, so don’t get any on you when using (pay attention to wind direction), and always put it on the outside of any vehicle or aircraft in case of accidental discharge.

I think it is useful to do a few bear specific firearms drills to prepare yourself for bear attack. To simulate a charging bear, set up three targets, one at 50 yards (a typical distance for a hostile bear encounter), one at 30 yards and one at 10 yards. With your bear gun of choice, practice putting a third of your rounds into each target starting from the farthest and working to the nearest, with the goal of accurately emptying your weapon in 3-5 seconds. You need to be highly proficient with your weapon if you hope to stop a charging bear.

There are two broad schools of thought for bear-human encounters. On one side, there is the idea that as a visitor into bears’ home, it is your duty to be respectful and do everything possible to avoid a confrontation with bears. On the other side, you have people like the hunting guide I used to work for who always said “I’m sleeping on top of my food. If a bear wants my food, I’ll shoot him in the face!” I’ve always believed that it is in everyone’s best interest to minimize bear-human confrontations, and people who come to the wilderness without the knowledge to stay safe are, but we should never hesitate to defend our lives and property. Follow safe procedures for travel, camping, and securing your homestead, and the likelihood of needing to actually kill a bear are low. My greater fear while solo in the wilderness is death by hypothermia or being injured and not being rescued. Sometimes I think we survivalists can get too focused on the exciting, adrenaline pumping aspects of survival and ignore the fact that the difference between life and death is often the mundane: starvation, exposure, disease, etc.

Bears kill approximately one person per year in the United States, including Alaska. Almost all of these deaths are preventable, because bear behavior is predictable. Bring your smarts and your means of defense into bear country and you will be fine, and make sure to teach your children exactly what to do if they encounter a bear if they are alone. All in all, I think human predators are far more dangerous than bears. After all, when is the last time a bear killed someone to get $20 for their next crack cocaine fix? Stay safe out there.