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What do I do if I encounter a black bear?

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Chances are you could see a Black Bear on your trip, but with some education and common sense no harm will come to you.

Except during breeding season and while raising their young, bears are generally shy, retiring, solitary animals. They try to avoid humans and are considered non-aggressive except when injured, protecting their young, or protecting themselves. The bear tends to escape from human presence. Bears are most active in the cool of the evening or early morning. During the heat of the day, they will seek shade in dense underbrush.

Bears can feel threatened if they are surprised. Hike in a group or make noise as you hike. Whistle, talk, sing, or carry a noise-maker. Most bears will leave if they are aware of your presence. Stay in the open as much as possible. Be especially alert when traveling into the wind – a bear may not get your scent and be forewarned of your presence. And, in dense bush and near rushing water, the animal may not hear your noise-maker.

Move on if you come across dead animals or berry patches, important food sources for bears. Bears mostly eat plant life, but will eat meat when available, and may be nearby.

Leave your dog at home. Fido might come across a bear and may come running back to you with the bear in pursuit! Keep children close at hand on trails.

Avoid wearing strong cosmetics, perfumes, hair sprays, and soaps.

Menstruating women should be extra careful. Bears can pick up the scent of blood.

Set up cooking, eating, and supply areas at least 100 yards from your sleeping area. Suspending your food in the air is the best thing to do. Clean utensils and cookware away from your tent as well, and then dump dishwater at least 100 yards from your sleeping area. Put garbage and leftovers in containers immediately after eating. The lingering odors of food invite bears, so you don’t want those odors near or in your tent at night.

Change your clothes before going to bed — do not sleep in the same clothes you cook in, or in the clothes that you carried snacks in during the day.

Treat personal items (such as deodorants, toothpaste, make-up, soap, and lotions) just like food as far as storing for the night – any odorous product, including inedible items like candles will attract bears.

Most bear encounters occur in camp when the bears smell food and come looking for the source. If it’s well out of the way or inaccessible, there are rarely problems for the campers – the bear loses interest and moves on. But once a bear finds easy food at a camp, their behavior can quickly become dangerous as they start to expect food from any human camp.

You may still encounter a bear wandering during its daily travels. Upon spotting a human, the naturally curious bear will either run away, or stop to check you out.

If you see the bear before it sees you, stay calm and quietly back away. If the bear has seen you, talk in a soft to normal voice, so the now-curious bear can determine you are a human – that may be enough for it to want to leave. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose in the air, it is trying to identify you. A standing bear is curious, not threatening.

Avoid direct eye contact as bears may perceive this as a threat. Don’t make any sudden movements, throw anything, or yell. If necessary, back away slowly to give the bear plenty of room to escape – including the right-of-way on the trail.

Watch the bear for aggressive behavior–snapping its jaws together, making a “whoofing” sound, or keeping its head down with ears laid back. Consider any bear that moves toward you aggressive. If the bear does not seem to be displaying aggressive behavior, talk softly in monotones and slowly back up. While you’re at it, slowly take off your pack – that may distract the bear for a bit and give you more flexible options if things go bad. But remember, wild bears rarely attack people unless they feel threatened or provoked.

If a bear charges toward you, make yourself tall and stand still. Bears often “bluff charge”, and then veer off at the last minute. But again, do not run – including to the nearest tree unless you are sure you can climb at least 10 feet before the bear reaches you. Black bears are agile climbers anyway, but may not be inclined to come up after you.

If a bear roams into your camp at night, and has no food easily accessible, it will probably wander back out in a bit. If not, you can try to scare them off by making a loud, deep noise, or bang a shoe against a pot. That’ll probably scare it off. If the bear tries to get into your tent, yell loudly and try to get the heck out ASAP.

Lastly, if attacked by a black bear, don’t play dead, but fight like your life depended on it – it might. Throw things, kick, yell – whatever you have to do. Black bears are rarely itching for a fight, and will likely just take off if you fight back. Now that you know all this, relax. You’re much more likely to get strike by lightning than have an encounter with a bear!