The Newbie’s Guide to Survival in Bear Country

Bear spray is the first line of defense for hunters, anglers, and hikers who don’t spend much time around bears, but in some instances you will need a gun

Every year hunters and anglers find themselves chasing elk out west or casting a fly into a salmon run for the first time. For many outdoorsmen and women, that means time spent in bear country. If you don’t have experience hunting and fishing around bears, and you don’t have a course of action mapped out, this could lead to a dangerous or potentially fatal situation.

Luckily, grizzly and black bear attacks are rare, but they do happen, and you need to be ready. From 2000 to 2015 there were 183 brown bear attacks in North America (about 12 per year), according to a study by Scientific Reports. Most of those transpired in Alaska (51) and British Columbia (42). The rest were in Wyoming (29), Montana (25), and Alberta (18). Black bears have only killed 61 people on this continent since 1900, according to the North American Bear Center.

As hunters and anglers, we spend more time in the woods and fishing streams than most, making us susceptible to attacks. It’s important to know how to defend yourself from a grizzly or black bear. Gary L. Moses, one of the foremost authorities on bear attacks, believes bear spray should be the first line of defense. It’s a reliable and effective tool to bring to a bear fight. Handguns and rifles are effective too, and there are times when a lethal option is necessary, which I will tackle later with Outdoor Life contributor, Tyler Freel, who has been charged three different times by grizzlies in Alaska.

Moses was a District Ranger at Glacier National Park for 23 years and served as a ranger at Yellowstone before that. The two parks are considered the most densely-populated grizzly bear habitats in the lower 48 states. It is likely Moses has administered first-aid to more bear attack victims and investigated more incidents than anyone in the continental U.S. He promotes using bear spray for defense because it not only forces bears to retreat, but also teaches them to avoid humans. It’s also difficult for folks who have never experienced a bear encounter to be accurate with a gun should a charge occur.

“Here in Montana we had a hiker come upon a sow and her cubs,” said Moses, who now works as a bear education specialist for Counter Assault. “The hiker shot the bear and wounded it. Later, fish and wildlife agents had to track and kill the sow, and three cubs were captured and will likely be transferred to a zoo, removing four bears from the ecosystem.

“Those bears didn’t learn avoidance. Had the hiker sprayed the bear, it likely would have stopped the attack and the female and cubs would have learned to avoid humans because they would associate people with being sprayed.”

Moses thinks bears condition themselves to identify dangerous situations and avoid them. When he worked as a ranger, patrons of the parks would stop their cars to get out and take pictures of the bears. These “bear jams” as the rangers called them, had the potential for bear-human conflict. So the rangers would break up the bear jams by shooting rubber pellets or bean bags at the bears to disperse them.

“The bears began to understand that a ranger’s marked vehicle was bad news for them, and they would run off as soon as we pulled up in one,” Moses said. “We even started driving regular cars, and when the ranger stepped out in uniform, the bears would leave.”

He is trying to apply those same principles by advocating for bear spray when there is potential for an attack. His argument is it’s better bears learn to avoid humans (by spraying them), and studies show you are more likely to escape a bear unharmed if you use spray, though there have been cases where a gun was the right option, some of which you can read about here.

A study conducted by Brigham Young University and the University of Calgary tracked human-bear conflicts in Alaska from 1880 to 2015. It revealed people using bear spray altered aggressive bear behavior 93.3 percent of the time. Handguns were 81 percent effective, and long guns 75 percent successful. Another 2011 report in the Journal of Wildlife Management and Wildlife Monographs showed that in 173 instances where a person used bear spray in an attack only three humans where injured, resulting in no deaths. Conversely, in 365 incidents where a firearm was used, 113 people were injured, resulting in 17 fatalities. Realize, those statistics are subjective, because many attacks go unreported, and it’s also difficult to ascertain if a bear encounter was going to result in aggressive behavior. But the numbers certainly show bear spray is a good defense option, and if you don’t spend much time around bears, it’s your best bet.

If you’re going to frequent grizzly or black bear country, it’s important to come prepared. The first goal should be to avoid bears altogether, but if you stumble upon a large boar or sow with cubs, having a plan is paramount to survival. These tips will get you home safe.

1. Make Plenty of Noise

If you are hiking or fishing, there’s no reason to be quiet, so step on sticks, talk, whistle, brush up against tree limbs…anything you can do to make noise. That will let bears know you are around (and hopefully spook them), lowering the chances of an encounter. This won’t apply to hunters because we are trying to be as stealthy as possible in pursuit of wild game. So look for bear signs: droppings, bear scrapes on trees, an animal carcass, or birds circling (which means an animal carcass could be nearby).

“You also need to keep the bear spray on you, not in your pack,” Moses said. “Keep it on your belt or a shoulder holster.”

2. Get Away From The Carcass

pack out
Work as a team and keep guns and bear spray at the ready when packing game out of bear country. John Whipple

If you have shot an elk or deer and have to pack it out, don’t leave any of the cuts or quarters near the carcass—it’s a recipe for disaster. Bears are going to be attracted to all that blood and flesh, and you sure as hell don’t want to be there if they find that free meal. So move all the meat to a different area. In grizzly country, it’s smart to hang game meat from a tree as adult bears typically don’t climb due to their massive size. Ideally you want to move the meat away from dense cover. If there is a bear in the area, you don’t want to be surprised by him in heavy cover.

“I would have the bear spray in your hand with the safety on as you return to haul out more meat,” Moses said. “Make plenty of noise too. The hunt is over. There’s no reason to be quiet.”

When you are quartering an animal, use the buddy system. If there are only two of you, have one person watch for bears with a firearm and bear spray at the ready while the other hunter works on the carcass. Also, try to prevent blood from getting on your clothes and boots. It’s a good idea to throw on your rain pants while you’re working on the animal, since inevitably some blood will get on your pants. Then when you get to the nearest creek, you can rinse the blood off and stash them back in your pack. Always be ready for a bear encounter on a second trip for the last quarters. You can relax when you get back to camp.

It’s also important to keep a clean camp whether you are a hunter, hiker, or angler. Do not leave any food out during the entirety of your stay. Black bears have become notorious for infiltrating picnic sites and even getting into cars because human food has not properly been stored. In many parks, patrons feed the bears and they have associated humans with snack time.

Read Next: An Expert’s Guide on How to Stay Alive in Grizzly Country

3. Bear Spray as a First Option

It’s tough to prepare to shoot a gun accurately when a bear charges or mimic the intensity and surprise of an attack. Think about trying to shoot a basketball rolling down a steep hill with a handgun, rifle, or slug gun. It’s bouncing all over the place, picking up speed—that’s what it’s like to pull the trigger (and connect) during a bear charge, except in this case the basketball is going to maul you.

If you encounter an aggressive bear, the smart thing to do is give a few short bursts of spray in its direction (do not use the entire canister at once). Hopefully the mist comes in contact with the bear and it retreats, but should it come closer, you still have reserves.

“Bear spray will take away its vision and ability to breathe, and allow you the chance to get away,” Mosses said.

4. You Need to Practice

A bear sow and her cub walking across a hill.
A sow will protect her cubs at all costs, and you need to be ready for an attack. Pixabay

Before a hunt, you always practice shooting and dry-firing your rifle. The same holds true with bear spray. Don’t let an attack be the first time you have ever tried using it. Place the canister in its holster and practice removing it. You don’t have to actually pull the trigger on the spray, but get used to the process of unholstering it so you’re not fumbling around when it matters most. There are also inert canisters that have a propellant but not the actual bear spray inside them so you can get used to their functionality.

5. Know the Environment You’re In

It’s important to understand the habitat you are sharing with bears, so you can predict where they will be and know what they are doing. Moses said many people equate fishing in Alaska with bear danger because there are so many more grizzlies there, plus they are feeding on the same fish anglers are trying to catch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bears catching salmon don’t see humans with rod and reel in-hand as food. The fish are the food. You just have to be aware these bears are around; you’re sharing the river with them. Be cognizant of that.

At Yosemite National Park, bears are less leery of humans, because they have been fed by them for so long. They are more willing to come into camp and cause trouble.

“You need to know the habits of a bear population before you go into an area,” Moses said. “You need to know what that population does and doesn’t do. That can be the difference between avoiding a bear attack and finding yourself in one.”

An angler fishing in a stream.
Know the habits of bears in your area to better avoid them. Pixabay

6. The Reality of an Attack

Tyler Freel lives, hunts, and fishes in Alaska. He has been around bears his entire life and experienced three grizzly charges. In his opinion, every outdoorsman has to make their own determination when a bear is too close.

“It’s really tough to know what a bear is going to do, and every situation is different,” he said. “I can typically tell by a bear’s body language if they are serious (about charging) or not. But every person has a different line when they think a bear is too close.”

Freel relies on a gun for protection because he is confident in his ability to stop a bear with it and knows the difference between an aggressive bear and a curious one. He agrees that if you have not spent much time around bears, spray is the right call, though cautions its use in high winds, because that will certainly alter its reach and effectiveness. But there are also times that a gun is your only defense (if a bear is on top of you biting and clawing) and you should carry both. Just realize, you aren’t going to have time to use spray and then go to a gun. It’s all going to happen very quickly, so it’s one or the other.

“If you practice with a gun, it’s the better option for stopping a bear, but if you aren’t proficient with one, spray is definitely the way to go,” Freel said. “If you’re being charged and using a gun, trust your intuition. Let the bear get close enough so you cannot miss, and then let them have it.”