Staying Safe in Bear Country

Published 2019-10-03

Photo cred: Noah Cowgill

By: Tim Hoffer, North American Sales Manager, Hunting

For anyone who tuned into the news recently, it’s hard to miss that in a span of about two weeks in September, four hunters were attacked by grizzly bears. Thankfully none of the encounters were fatal, but it is a sobering reminder that spending time in bear country requires preparation and mindfulness to reduce the possibility of an encounter of your own.

Having spent roughly three decades traveling, fishing and hunting throughout much of Montana and a fair bit of Canada, I have essentially been in “bear country” for most of those years. There have been a few close calls of surprising black bears at point-blank range on the trail hiking out at night, watching a grizzly feed on a moose kill from a respectable distance, and one bluff charge from a big cinnamon-phase bruin while, ironically, out bear hunting that got the heart pumping, but I thankfully can’t chalk up any destroyed camps, raided food bags or actual attacks. I consider that a small victory and a trend I want to continue.

A good part of that “luck” is attributed to preparation, how I behave while in bear country and understanding basic bear behavior. Consider the following:


Whether you prefer bear spray or a gun, pick your deterrent of choice and practice with it (safely and frequently). Also, be mindful of how you carry the spray or firearm – Does it ride in a holster on the waistbelt of your backpack? Mounted to a shoulder strap? Chest rig? Now, can you get to it instantly, rain or shine, sun in your eyes or pitch black? Think it through before heading out on your hike or hunt. I am a fan of bear spray, as I frankly don’t trust my ability to quickly deploy a handgun and dispatch a charging grizzly in the heat of the moment. If I mess up with the handgun, the bear, myself or a hunting partner run the risk of injury or worse, but if everything goes “right”, I now have a dead grizzly to deal with and some serious interrogations from a game warden on how it all went down. I’ll go with the spray.

Situational Awareness

This is a fancy term for simply being aware of what is happening around you in terms of where you are, where you are supposed to be, and whether anything around you is a threat to your safety. Scan ahead and around the area you are moving through. Be cautious of hiking through dense brush or at prime times for bear movement, such as first and last light, watch out for likely food sources (berries, lush greens around creeks, etc.) and watch for fresh sign – namely tracks and scat. When field dressing and quartering an animal, stop and look around frequently. Be vigilant.

Don’t Hunt or Hike Alone

Contrary to popular belief, bears are risk-averse. They don’t want to tangle with humans and will do a lot to stay out of our way. In bear country, there is safety in numbers. According to a recent National Park Service report, no bear attacks were reported on groups hiking together. Even with just one other person, the safety factor increases for several reasons. Having more sets of eyes and ears to be aware of a bear nearby are a benefit, and the “intimidation factor” of two people vs. one; who would you rather brawl with, one guy or he and his buddies?

Store Your Food Properly

Late summer and fall is an important time for both black and grizzly bears, as they enter a state of hyperphagia and attempt to pack on as much fat as possible before winter. They are hungry, roaming and seeking out any available food source. That will include the last remaining berry crops, greenery and roots, and gut piles and carcasses left by hunters. It also can include a backpacker or hunter’s poorly hung food bag. Proper food storage is a critical step, and too often people get complacent about it. On a recent summer backpacking trip, I watched two hikers hang their bear bag 20 feet from their tent and FIVE FEET off the ground. A motivated Chihuahua could have gotten into it, let alone a 400-pound grizzly smelling trail mix and jerky. Don’t set yourself up for an encounter with a bear because you were in a hurry, or don’t know how to properly hang or store your food. My vote is the PCT Hang Method. If that is not practical or allowed in the area you are visiting, a hard-sided, bear-proof food canister is your best bet. If you go the bear bag hanging route, practice! The bag needs to be at least 10-12 feet off the ground, and roughly 5-6 feet away from the tree. Practice in your backyard, a local park, anywhere. Get good at it.

Field-Dressing in Bear Country

When you notch a tag on an elk or deer in grizzly country, it is critical to have your head on a swivel. As you are processing, stop periodically to check your surroundings or have your hunting partner be on the watch and have your bear deterrent on you. It might sound a bit paranoid, but you don’t want to be surprised by a bear with blood on your hands and an elk carcass at your feet.

If you can’t get your meat out of the kill area quickly in grizzly terrain, get it at least 200 yards from the gut pile and carcass. Bears typically go to the strongest smell first, which is the intestines; personally, I prefer to use the gutless method as it makes for a much cleaner process thereby reducing scent. Interestingly, the meat itself doesn’t have much of an odor. Also, hanging the meat even a few feet off the ground from a stout limb and covering it with freshly cut fir or pine branches helps with scent control as well as dissuading scavenging birds like ravens or magpies. Lastly, cache the quarters in a location that you can approach with good visibility to ensure a bear hasn’t found the carcass or quarters overnight or while you are packing out loads

Respect and Enjoy Bear Country. Don’t Fear It

If your passion, whether hiking, fishing, hunting, trail running, etc. puts you squarely in bear country, it doesn’t mean you have to stop doing it or live in fear of the idea. On the contrary, part of why we venture out into the wilderness is because of the intrinsic wildness of it all. The country that bears call home is big, expansive, beautiful and rugged. Navigating it requires common sense, preparation and being highly aware of your surroundings. Do your research, practice the tips listed above, and get out there and enjoy it.