Staying safe in bear country

This July I had an encounter with a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs. I want to share that story and some thoughts for staying safe in bear country.

This is not an exhaustive guide for bear safety. There are a million resources from nonprofits, the National Park Service, Parks Canada, etc. that go into great detail around things like how to tell different bear species apart, how to read bear body language, and the nuances of competing brands of bear spray.

Rather than re-hash all that, I want to focus on broad preventative strategies in the context of my encounter. This is just my attempt as someone who spends a lot of time running and camping in bear country and has survived a grizzly charging me (defensively while protecting her cubs) to communicate some crucial points and dispel some bad info that’s out there.

My encounter

I was solo, camped just west of No Fish Lake in the basin between East Saint Mary’s and Grey Wolf peak in Montana’s Mission mountains. There is no trail to this spot and there was no previous sign of people camping there. I also had not seen any bear sign in the area when I set up camp the day before.

At 6am on July 4th I was woken up by a woofing / growling sound from a bear. I opened my eyes and there was a mother grizzly with two cubs, thirty feet away. She stomped her front feet, growled again, I yelled something at her, sat up in my sleeping bag, and she charged. There was only about five seconds between when I woke up and when she charged; it happened unbelievably fast. I sprayed her with bear spray as she charged and thankfully when she hit the cloud she immediately spun away, and she and the cubs ran away. She was ten feet away at the closest point and left a scuff mark in the dirt that I could measure to my sleeping bag. To that moment, I was just reacting; the fear and shakes from the adrenaline dump came later. I didn’t see them again the rest of the day, nor did I see any of their sign as I hiked through the basin. 

I believe this was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. I had my food / attractants stored in an odor-proof bag inside an Ursack, placed about 50 yards from my sleeping spot. Since my camping spot had never been used before (it was just a random rocky/grassy bench above the lake), I don’t see any reason why a bear would have associated it with people / food. I think they were just passing through and happened to come right by me. But that’s just a guess; it happened so quickly it’s difficult to infer too much. 

I got lucky. I also did a couple things right. Hopefully these can help keep you safe, too.


Your first and best safety tool is your mind. Mindset is key. I went into the trip knowing I was in bear country and I could do things to lessen the chances of an encounter and protect myself, but the risk of an encounter is always there. We are visitors in bear country and must plan & behave accordingly.

It’s easy to become complacent to rare risks like a bear encounter. It’s on par with something like a lightning strike, getting hit with rockfall, or being in a major car or airplane accident.

Complacency in the outdoors comes as our comfort and familiarity with an activity grows and our attentiveness drops. “I’ve gone [insert activity here] thousands of times, I know exactly what to expect.”

Complacency kills.

And this may be a hard pill to swallow, but you have or will make a mistake of complacency in the outdoors. Everyone does. Everyone includes you, and it includes me. Ask anyone who’s spent a significant amount in the outdoors if they’ve made a dumb mistake from being sloppy or inattentive, and every single person will have a story. Thing is, most of the time the stars do not align between our complacency and external hazards. We get away with things and never get feedback on how lucky we were.

A quick read of the American Alpine Journal’s Accidents in North American Climbing provides limitless evidence of the times complacency meets bad luck, though.

I fight complacency with three tactics: gear planning, future visualization, and pre-commitment.

Gear planning is just having a structured way to think through the gear you need for an activity, rather than just throwing things in a pile. I often use spreadsheets. For short things close to home I don’t plan and spreadsheet everything out, but I’ve found my experience doing so for larger adventures helps me be more intentional and thorough on all outings.

Future visualization is purposefully imagining the worst-case scenario a given piece of gear is necessary for. I do a lot of ultralight running and hiking stuff where every gram counts. The temptation to leave things at home is very, very strong at times. When I feel that urge rising as I pack for a trip, I stop and visualize myself in the future facing a bad situation where I need the special piece of gear — helmet, ice ax, InReach, med kit, bear spray, etc. I visualize both what would happen when I have the gear with me, and if I did not. This method ties in behavioral science research that shows how we tend to discount the future in favor of the present (here is an accessible overview for the curious). With this, we tend to overweight the immediate satisfaction of carrying one less item and a lighter pack, while discounting the effect this decision could have in the future. Mentally putting yourself in the future helps give that future scenario appropriate mental weight. You can extend this tactic from just gear planning to also your actual movements out in the outdoors.

Lastly, pre-commitment is another tactic borrowed from behavioral science. I mentally commit to a specific decision long before I have to make that decision, which helps me stick to it when the moment comes. For instance, I think to myself, “every time I’m going rock scrambling on anything class 3 or higher I wear a helmet”, or, “every time I travel in bear country I carry bear spray”. After a few instances, these commitments become part of my identity, just like I brush my teeth every day.

Diving into the research

Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero are two of the most influential researchers around human / bear incidents. Drawing from their exhaustive 2018 study Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015 that studies a dataset of 638 human-bear encounters spanning 135 years, here are the three top-line pieces of evidence that inform my mindset.

1. Surprise kills.
Most human-bear conflict happens when a person surprises a bear.

2. Terrain matters.
If the bear can’t smell, hear, or see you, then you’re in greater danger.

3. Safety in numbers.
People traveling in groups enjoy significantly smaller odds of experiencing conflict with a bear than either people going solo or traveling with a partner. This is pretty eye-opening.

How to read this graph: the black bars are the group size reported across 682 human-bear conflicts in the dataset. The grey bars are the size of the group that was directly involved in a conflict with a bear. So, if three people were hiking together they were recorded as “3” for the black bars of “group size”, but if they were spaced out and only one person got into a conflict with a bear that would be recorded as a “1” for the grey bars of “encounter size”.

Two main takeaways here:

There are only 71 total encounters for groups of 3-7 people, less than half the encounters for groups of two (185), and a tiny fraction of the encounters with solo people (377). Your chances of conflict drop sharply when traveling in groups of three or more.

Human-bear conflicts for solo people are overrepresented. Compare that group to people traveling with a partner. They are almost identical in terms of the total number of those groups (218 solo travelers and 223 groups of two), but conflicts with solo people are twice as likely as a group of two getting into conflict with a bear (377 solo incidents versus 185 incidents with groups of two).

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then these graphs have a lot to say about how to minimize risk in the first place.

Travel in groups of three or more, make lots of noise, and pay special attention to areas where it’s hard for a bear to know you’re there (thick brush, loud creeks/rivers, blind corners, etc.)

In my case, I was solo, the highest-risk category. But in my favor is I’ve had the importance of making noise and paying attention to your environment ingrained from being taught well as a child and practicing for years as an adult. There have been days trail running in Glacier National Park where it’s been especially low-visibility — the trail choked by lots of brush, crossing creeks, and curving through blind corner after blind corner — where I’ve ended the day hoarse from yelling out “hey bear!” for hours. That’s lots of loud yelling.

Be loud! Sing, talk to yourself, call out “hey bear!” — the words don’t matter, the volume and the sound of a human voice does.

Don’t worry about spoiling anyone’s wilderness experience with your noise. Your life is far more valuable, and anyone who complains about you being too loud needs to be educated on why making noise in bear country is so crucial.

I’m not saying you should lose your voice after every day in bear country, but if the terrain calls for it it’s better than a trip to the hospital or morgue.

Have a system. Practice the system.

I sleep with the bear spray on my right-hand side, within reach from the sleeping bag, with nothing else near it. Always the right side. It goes in a right-hand pocket of my pack, too. And I’ve tested deploying the spray from every pack I use in bear country.

Set up a system with your bear spray that works for you and keep it the same every time. Why not give yourself the benefit of muscle memory?

Practice getting your spray from your pack, holster, whatever, and shooting it at home, before you ever head into the hills. There are practice spray canisters you can practice the movements with; they’re cheaper and built the same as the real thing but they spray a harmless cloud. Or, at least practice pulling the spray out and taking the safety off even if you don’t want to shoot the spray.

We know now that most human-bear conflict happens when a bear is surprised. Five seconds, that’s all I had. Your goal should be to pull the spray out with one hand and disengage the safety in three seconds, without looking. You may need your other hand for something else, and you may well want to keep your eyes on the bear.

Bear types

I said I wouldn’t go into the nuances of telling bears apart, but I walk that back to say one thing: grizzly bears are by far the most dangerous of the three North American bear types: grizzly, black, and polar. It’s crucial to educate yourself to tell the difference between grizzlies and black bears, especially. And if you can’t tell the difference between polar bears and grizzlies, you need more help than I can provide here.

Attribute this danger to grizzlies’ evolutionary history:

On the sparsely treed tundra of North America where grizzlies evolved, the best defense may have been having a good offense: attack first and evaluate later. Alternately, forest-dwelling black bears have opportunities to avoid conflict not afforded grizzlies by either climbing a tree or disappearing into the underbrush.

Smith & Herrero, 2018: Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015

Deterrents: guns and bear spray

There have been some important scientific studies researching bear encounters and the two main deterrents we have available — guns and bear spray.

At this point, there’s just not conclusive evidence to say definitively that bear spray or a gun works better to deter conflict with a bear. This Outside Online article from Wes Siler does a good job of explaining why — mainly it’s an issue of small sample size and studies using different methodologies:

The bottom line is that no study has ever attempted to compare the effectiveness of bear spray to that of firearms. All studies are limited both by the outright rarity of bear attacks and the inability to recreate them in a controlled environment. We’re parsing an incredibly small number of encounters influenced by a huge number of variables, then trying to arrive at definitive conclusions.

Wes Siler, “Does Bear Spray Work?”

My take is that using both a gun and bear spray is a learned skill, so lacking conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of one over the other it’s best to go with bear spray because it is a simpler skill to learn.

Both approaches have potential mechanical issues, like the bear spray trigger malfunctioning or a gun jamming, and human issues, like emptying the spray too early or tripping and falling when trying to shoot a bear. So there are a variety of things that can go wrong mechanically with both approaches, as well as opportunities for human error.

It’s safe to say the majority of folks out recreating in bear country are not highly skilled with guns. And highly skilled here should not mean the “I’ve shot a gun once” crowd, but high proficiency to the point where you can make a split-second decision in a chaotic situation and hit a charging bear at close range with little warning, likely in brush or trees that reduce visibility. I’ve spent all of my life pretty darn involved in working or recreating in bear country in the mountain west and can think of about four people I’ve ever met that fall into this category, and they’re all professional hunting guides or outfitters.

Be real with yourself. It’s just human nature to believe we’re better at things than we are. So consciously examine that bias and then come to a conclusion about how much skill and experience you’ve developed with a gun.

From Smith’s 2012 study Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska, check out the main reasons firearms failed to protect people:

Firearms failed to protect people for a variety of reasons including lack of time to respond to the bear (27%), did not use the firearm (21%), mechanical issues (i.e., jamming; 14%), the proximity to bear was too close for deployment (9%), the shooter missed the bear (9%), the gun was emptied and could not be reloaded (8%), the safety mechanism was engaged and the person was unable to unlock it in time to use the gun (8%), people tripped and fell while trying to shoot the bear (3%), and the firearm’s discharge reportedly triggered the bear to charge that ended further use of the gun (1%)

Percentages should be compared against the study’s sample: there were 48 cases where a firearm was used unsuccessfully out of a total of 213 incidents where a gun was used in a bear encounter. Study looked at incidents in Alaska during 1883–2009.

In a high-stress situation, you want to lean on easier skills and less complexity. As the Greek poet Archilochus famously said: “we don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

For the majority of folks, bear spray is the better approach because using it effectively is a simpler skill to learn.

The last important piece to consider is that there has never been a documented case of bear spray killing a bear. Guns, obviously, are a different story. Given that the vast majority of conflicts with bears come from bears acting defensively rather than as predators, I personally feel bear spray is more morally defensible for keeping people safe while protecting these amazing omnivores that are so crucial in so many ways.

Bear bells

The US park service and Parks Canada both do not endorse bear bells. That should tell you all you need to know. The reason is twofold: there’s nothing about a tinkling bell sound that tells a bear there’s a human nearby. And the sound is also not loud enough to alert a bear at a reasonable distance.

Bear bells: not even once.

Oh, I’ll just outrun the bear or climb a tree

You’re delusional. Go to :28 and be brutally honest with yourself about how fast you can run and climb. Spoiler alert: it’s not happenin’.

It’s true black bears climb trees better than grizzlies. Would I personally stake my life on a grizzly bear being a shittier climber than me? Nope.

What bear spray should I buy?

Counter Assault, UDAP, Sabre Frontiersmen, Mace Brand, Guard Alaska. Different chemical formulations. Different sizes, length of time they can spray, and effective distance they can propel the spray towards a bear. Some can only spray for up to four seconds, some can spray for nearly 10. One brand has an effective range of 15-20 feet, another claims it can spray up to 40 feet.

I say the more, the better. Lean towards bear spray that can shoot as far as possible for as long as possible. I personally have been carrying the 8oz version of Counter Assault for the last several years, and that’s what I used in my encounter earlier this summer. But I’m now going to go with the 10oz version for its larger range and spray time.

And this is coming from someone who weighs his gear and keeps spreadsheets of gear and food weight so I can tackle ultralight adventures. When it comes to bear spray though, the weight just is what it is. Focus on the total spray time and effective range instead.

Your life is worth more than the extra ounces.

Bear spray ≠ bug spray

I gotta end with this gem of a passage from Smith’s (2008) Efficacy of Bear Spray Deterrent in Alaska:

Importantly, latent bear spray residues have been found to attract brown bears rather than repel them (Smith 1998), which was evident in 7 instances in Alaska where persons applied bear spray to objects with the intention of repelling bears. Unfortunately, bears were attracted to, and subsequently destroyed, the property that had been coated with bear spray, similar to observations reported by Smith (1998).

At least they didn’t spray it on themselves…

One thought on “Staying safe in bear country

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