Into Bear Country- Part 2, by George Fox

In part 1 of this article series, I wrote about the likelihood of people encountering bear, the different types of bear, and began with an overview of how to detail with one in the event of an encounter. Today, we’ll go into more detail about preventing encounters and what to do if you have one.

Setting Up “Triangle” Camp to Avoid Bears

When you set up camp, there are procedures that should be followed to keep your food secure, 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.

Food Storage

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.

Homemade Bear Containers

Home made bear containers can be made from PVC pipe with a plug and a threaded cap. However, 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.

Kitchen Area

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 is often not practical.

Sleeping Area

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 fire arm. When you break camp, always exercise “leave no trace”– a trash discipline for 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

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.

Bear Boards

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 the whole area in every 1-2 square inch space. These were placed over every ground level window and in front of the door.

Electric Fences

For livestock pens, chicken coups, 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.

Keep Garbage and Food Secure

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 up in Alaska.

Bear Firearms

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, 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.

An Inadequate Gun May Be Worse Than No Gun

When it comes to killing a bear, a gun inadequate for the job can be worse than no gun at all. Emptying your .22 or 9mm into a bear to get a bear that is twice as angry is clearly a counterproductive move. That being said, a firearm is as much a noise-making 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 by your long gun.

Love Automatics But Go Big Or Go Home

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.

The King of Bear Defense Firearms

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.

Survival Guns– Shotgun As Best First Gun

JWR/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 inexpensive 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.

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 firearm for stopping charging bears, so it definitely belongs with your 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.

Bear Fire Arms Drills

I think it is useful to do a few bear specific fire arms 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.

Two Broad Schools of Thought

There are two broad schools of thought for bear-human encounters. On one side, there is the idea that as a visitor into a bear’s 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 just asking for trouble, 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 is 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, et cetera.

Bears Kill One Per Year in U.S.

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.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

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  1. I hunt and spend many days every year in Grizzly country. I have had bait sites and hunted and killed Black Bears with a bow, and many Grizzlies came into my bait site, I always carry bear spray and a Hi-Cap 45. I weighed the fact of do I want to carry my 44 Magnum with 6 rounds OR the 45 ACP with 14 rounds. I decided to go with the .45 ACP. Bear spray would probably be my first choice but I for sure will have my sidearm. Grizzlies just like Wolves need to be managed, but one thing about having the big predators around, it gives wilderness a whole different feel, so I love having them here but I’m always prepared. Trekker Out

  2. This Gentleman is giving you all some very good advise. “Just remember advise freely given is seldom taken.”
    ON building “Bear Boards”Several of my friends started using “Deck Screws” that stuck up an 1 3/4 to 2 inches out of the board. They work’s most of the time. One fellow told the story about a bear stepping on the bear boards and that really P. O. the bear. Needles to say he broke in the window after ripping off the shutter and proceeded to destroy the interior of the cabin. You never know what a bear will do. Just avoid them where ever possible.

  3. All of the guides I spoke with carried at least a 12 ga pump shotgun loaded with slugs. I didn’t know any carried buckshot as well, but I suppose that can be used for effect as well.

    Too bad there’s no cactus in Alaska. I’d plant prickly pear and spanish dagger all around a homestead up there if it would grow. Bears don’t seem to care much about briars. Bear boards and electricity seem to be the most effective homestead deterrent. Fire also seems to work well, but is hard to manage remotely. I could imagine a naked pissed off bear running through the woods with his tail on fire, though. What a sight to behold, as long as he didn’t see me, LOL

    1. Close counts with round ball. Low ballistic coefficient, velocity drops like a rock in the first few yards. You are correct–any multi-ball load is going to need to go into a soft spot to be effective. A properly-aligned hit to the oro-nasal cavity, throat, or side of the head is most likely to accomplish something.

  4. Great article! I like the triangle analogy.

    There are some inconsistencies with Bear Spray. First, the concentration of capsaicin is lower in Bear Spray than in human pepper spray. Bear spray is about 2% and pepper spray is about 10%. There is not an exact ingredient match so we cannot compare them exactly, but from my reading Bear spray is supposed to be an irritant and not disabling like pepper spray. You can do your own research.

    The second piece is regarding the effectiveness of Bear spray. It should be mentioned that there have been multiple case studies presented whereby Bears charge right through bear spray at a human. In my mind studies are inconclusive. That said, so are firearm encounters to some degree (based on mindset of bear and human and skill).
    As such I always carry both and practice with both.

  5. I am not opposed to bear spray per se. Perhaps for children or little old ladies it is a good option. But IMHO it’s use was prescribed by those who do not want any wild animal killed for any reason. Those same people would be the first to respond to a lethal bear mauling by saying that after all you are in their territory, as though that somehow makes it better. So if you cannot or will not carry a gun then I guess bear spray is a decent compromise. Expect though that it won’t prevent a bear from killing you. It is ineffective until the bear is really, really close. It is ineffective in windy or stormy conditions. It is ineffective in thick brush. But it is better, maybe, than laying down and playing dead. But my personal opinion is that bear spray is over hyped and a dirty trick played on you by those who would prefer that the bear live even if that means you die.

    1. My opinions have changed a little since i wrote this article a couple years ago. I think if you know how to be safe and handy with a firearm, that should be your first choice. I still think bear spray can be a safer option for people with minimum training. Also, bear spray can be good for light weight applications or as a back up.

  6. I wrote this article a couple years ago, and my opinions have changed a little since then. I mostly carry just a .454 Casull in the back country in a chest harness. While I’m not against bear spray, but I don’t think i could draw it as fast. Plus the wind problems just make a pistol seem better. One nice thing about a big pistol in a chest harness is that you can always have it with you. A shotgun may be an armslength out of reach when you need it! Also, carrying a long gun in your hand through heavy brush can be a pain.

    Since I moved back to Alaska a couple years ago, I’ve noticed people carrying Glock .357 Sigs a good bit. This might work, but it seems silly to mess with thr tried and true formula (.44mag revolver or bigger). Some guys even use .500 S&W. Just make sure you can control one if you carry one for , they’re a very painful firearm to shoot.

  7. Please guys, we come to SB for facts, not tall tales of fireside lore. Seems some entertaining but not so believable whoppers being shared here. The biggest whopper is sticking a shotgun into a charging bears mouth. You guys take your campfire horror stories elsewhere please. The adults here expect better.

  8. When I flew my airplane to Alaska and back to the lower 48 a number of years ago, Canada required that I have a survival weapon on board. Of course, handguns were illegal, but any long gun was okay. I was amazed by the wide variety of guns that pilots provisioned for survival. On my return trip from Alaska, I encountered an RCMP pilot in Fort Nelson, who asked what I was packing for a survival weapon. When I told him a Remington 870 with slugs and buckshot, I was surprised when he said “perfect, but you can get rid of the slugs.” We discussed the matter extensively, and the bottom line was that your objective is to aim for the bear’s face to blind him. Any other chance, in the heat of the moment, is slim compared to blinding. So now you know what the experts in Canada use for survival against bears.

  9. Well here’s a campfire story for you. A couple of years ago I had a neighbor that was moving out of state and he had a can of old bear spray and ask if I wanted it, so I took it and not knowing how effective it was I decided not to use it as my primary defense, but I had built a ground blind 30 yards from a bear bait site for bow hunting and since I didn’t have a tree stand, I always had my sidearm as well as spray, to make a short story long I decided to just hang this old can of spray on a staub on the tree where I sit in case I forgot my usual can of spray. Anywho it was the last day of the season and when I sit down in my blind my eyes started burning and my nose was running like crazy and I was hacking and spitting and coughing and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so I figured I just as well leave cause there wasn’t no bear coming in with all that racket, so when I got up to leave I saw where all the contents of the can of spray that was hanging on the tree had run down the side of the tree, which was what caused my problems and I just figured the can had ruptured but when I got back to the truck I removed the holster which you carry it in and I saw where a bear had bit through the can. Sure bet he got a big surprise, I know I did. Trekker Out. TWB And That’s A Fact.

  10. When I first got to Alaska the only knowledge I had of bears was what I saw on TV. Of course I thought that I had to have a 44 mag (There’s so many of them in the store it must be the right thing). When I brought up getting one our resident Alaska old timer at work said “Best to get one with a short barrel and file the front sight down really smooth that way when you shoot one and it takes it from you and shoves that pistol where the sun doesn’t shine it doesn’t hurt so bad.” (Not his exact words but close.)
    Everyone laughed but he said after that the best bear defense is to not do dumb things that attract them, make noise so they hear you, and if it’s thick bear country have a shotgun with slugs or a rifle.
    That was pretty sound advice and honestly the bear encounters I’ve had since have luckily ended with “HEY!! GIT!!” No need for guns or spray. Others like to carry and who am I to argue with them? Might just save their lives.

    If anyone does come up to Alaska please put your pistol on as soon as possible because you have to go through the most dangerous part of Alaska first. Anchorage.

    George Fox this was a really good article. I like how you stuck to a no BS method of saying it without all the maneater urban legends that swirl around this place (Thanks Discovery.)

  11. One Point. I have never had to look a charging bear in the eye, and like most people on this site being a little Macho I always thought give me a gun in a bear encounter, and my thoughts have changed on this subject. That being said, whether bow hunting or just hiking in the wilderness we don’t always carry a long gun and many handguns might put down a Griz with a well placed shot, but under pressure I would bet the average person would have a lot better chance of being effective with bear spray. Trekker Out

  12. On my way up to Alaska for some prospecting. We will be using electric fencing around the camp as we will have to camp on our food. We’ll be running a 5 foot ungrounded fence of 8 strands 2000′ total connected to a 50 mile 12V charger backed by solar. That should have enough power to make that bear wish he was somewhere else!

    I would not try barbed wire or concertina wire as the bear will get tangled in it or break it. Think of what kind of mess you’ll have when you have an enraged bear ripping up that wire and dragging it all over and getting even more angry every time it catches on something and digs barbs into him. You’d have to shoot the bear at that point.

    Firearms will be underfolding AKM’s with 8M3 ammo. I would have chosen Saiga 12’s, but they’re not as compact.

  13. I have experienced a charging brown bear. Stopped at about 35 ft. I had a ,338 and was scared to death. The thing that surprised me the most was the noise level . Prior to spotting the bear I thought I was hearing a chain saw. Fortunately me and the bear both retreated.

  14. The bear mauling in”The Revenant” was probably the most realistic on film. Spray might deter a false charge but a committed attack(sow and cubs) probably only stopped by a brain/spinal cord injury.

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