HIKING AND BACKPACKING IN BEAR COUNTRY CAN BE A BIT SCARY (BEARS ARE MASSIVE AFTER ALL). BUT IF YOU FOLLOW THESE SUPER HELPFUL BEAR SAFETY TIPS THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE NO PROBLEMS ADVENTURING OUT IN BEAR COUNTRY.
So what is bear country exactly?
Well, as the name would suggest, bear country is anywhere a bear lives. In the case of North America, almost every state in the USA and almost every providence or territory in Canada is "bear country" (even a bit of Mexico is home to bears). The location you are in will actually decide what bears you will possibly encounter: if you are in the far northern region you might come across a brown or grizzly bear and/or a black bear (like in the case of Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park), while if you are in most of the lower 48 states of the USA you will almost only interact with black bears (this includes in such popular hiking destinations as Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park).
Below are some very helpful things to know about hiking and backpacking in bear country, including how to differentiate between types of bears, how to know if you are in prime bear territory, and what to do if you spot a bear. Finally, we also outline 10(ish) important tips on how to adventure safely in bear country. Because at the end of the day, the overall goal is to keep yourself and the bears safe.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF BEARS IN NORTH AMERICA
American black bears are the most widely distributed and common bear in all of North America. In fact, they can be found in a wide variety of biomes and ecosystems - including high alpine mountains, dense forests, wet swamplands, and even along the coast. Because of this wide distribution, the black bear isn’t always black (aka so don’t rely on the coloring for identification). Instead look for its distinctive shape, which includes a flatter back, a straight face, larger, oval-shaped ears and shorter claws.
GRIZZLY BEARS AND BROWN BEARS
You might sometimes hear these two common names interchangeably. That is because they are actually the same species - Ursus arctos. While both have the same distinctive body shape - shoulder humps, long claws, a dish-shaped face - the main difference is their geographic location. Brown bears live along the coast of Alaska and subsist on marine life for food, while grizzly bears live inland and have very limited access to marine life for food.
HOW TO KNOW WHETHER IT IS A BLACK BEAR OR A GRIZZLY BEAR
Below is a handy diagram to help you better understand the main differences between a black bear and a brown/grizzly bear. Again, when you come across a bear while hiking or backpacking, don’t try to identify it on color or size alone (this can sometimes be misleading). Instead, use the bear’s physical appearance (body shape, face profile, etc.) and its tracks to identify it. Also, before heading out on the trail, do some research to learn about what bears live in the area you are planning to explore.
Likely a much less common type of bear to encounter, but still one worth mentioning is the polar bear (or Ursus maritimus). Polar bears have a much smaller range than the two bears mentioned above; in fact, unless you are exploring the farthest northern coasts of Alaska and Canada you have a pretty small chance of encountering one. But with that being said, it is always smart to be aware.
The most common identifier of a polar bear is their white or yellowish coat that is made of water-repellent hair. Similarly, unlike other bears, polar bears have longer necks, smaller ears and narrower heads. Likewise, their feet are quite large and almost totally covered in hair.
A black bear on the left and a brown/grizzly bear on the right.
THE MOST COMMON PLACES FOR BEAR ENCOUNTERS
You can find bears in over a dozen United States - from the mountains of Colorado and Montana to the coasts of Alaska and California to the swamplands of southern Florida. In fact, black bears live in nearly 40 of the 50 United States and every province and territory of Canada except Prince Edward Island.
While you can find bears all over North America (including in parts of north-central Mexico), the most common places for bear encounters will be in the mountains and specifically in densely forested areas. Bears like places that have a high number of trees, a wide array of edible plants (specifically berries and flowers), a water source, and an overall lack of people.
Overall, the most common place you will encounter a grizzly bear in North America will be in such places as Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park and up in the 8 Alaskan national parks. In other popular hiking and backpacking destinations - including Rocky Mountain National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, you will only encounter black bears.
WHEN ARE BEARS THE MOST ACTIVE?
Bears - including black bears and brown/grizzly bears - are most active during dawn, dusk, and night. Therefore if you are planning to hike and backpack in bear country make sure to be extra aware of your surroundings during these times of the day.
If possible, always try to avoid hiking at night. Not only because this is prime bear time, but because hiking at night is also more dangerous overall: you have a higher chance of tripping on things you can’t see, other wild animals are also out and you have a higher chance of losing your trail and getting lost.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR
Below are a few of the most important things to keep in mind if you do come across a bear while out hiking or backpacking.