Being Safe in Bear Country

These are the opinions and observations of a guy who’s spent a lifetime outdoors and a great deal of it in bear country. There is no right or wrong way of dealing with a bear encounter. There are some excellent rules of thumb to know, some common-sense lessons to learn, and a fair collection of experiences to draw on.

My father and grandfathers with whom I learned to hunt, trap, and track and be a steward of the wildlife and their home, introduced me to Mr. Bear. They taught me respect for Mr. Bear. All of us are visitors there, nothing more.

Of the several members of the family Ursidae that live in the parts of Alaska, Canada, and the northern Rockies that I tromp around in. The bear brothers are always a consideration regardless of the sport or hunt I’m involved in.

Of the eight scientifically accepted living members of this family inhabiting our planet, three live in North America, and of those, two are the largest of this family of bears in the world. Their diet varies from the total carnivore of the polar bear to the panda bear who eats only bamboo. The six remaining family members are omnivores and will eat nearly anything that comes their way. It’s well to learn the habits of those you may or are likely to encounter.

Of the eight family members, there are three of which we find in North America and concern those of us who spend time in their environment. They are the polar bear, brown bear, and the black bear. The brown and black being the ones most will meet in the wild!

The brown bear branch of the family includes Mr. Kodiak and his near twin brother Mr. Coastal Brown Bear—who is likely the largest of the brown bear clan to roam on this planet, and live in Alaska and Canada.

Grizzly Bear

Brown bears also referred to as grizzlies in some places, are found in the general area of the Western U.S. and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. They appear much alike although the Kodiak, named for the Alaska island of Kodiak, is somewhat different since separating from its mainland brothers and sisters since the last Ice Age. The Kodiak, considered somewhat smaller on average than the Southeastern Coastal Brown Bear, have been known to reach a weight of around 1100 pounds and be the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Within the Brown Bear Clan are several variants due to either isolation since the last Ice Age or by their current but quite different ranges and diets. There has also been the recent emergence of a brown bear-polar bear cross on the Arctic Coast of Canada and Alaska. There is only minimal information available, but the evidence may show the emergence of a new family member if this trend continues.

Considered to be the largest of the family is Mr. Polar Bear who, by virtue of their environment, is at the top of the food chain there. It finds humans to be simply another food source, as well as a destructive influence on its environment. They are a protected member of the bear family from most hunting and trapping. There are a few exceptions, however, they are very few. It’s a toss-up in size between the polar bear and the southeast brown bear. As a general rule of thumb, it’s considered that the polar bear has the edge. The polar bear is certainly the most streamlined of the bear family as they spend most of their life in Arctic oceans waters and on the ice pack.

I don’t actively hunt bear anymore and haven’t hunted them for some years now. I happen to like them in the environments I hunt and enjoy their presence. That does not mean I’m unaware of them; I am always on guard for any unwelcome appearances. I live, play, and work in the Alaska outback and bush where I am a visitor in THEIR home and backyard.

Much about being around Mr. Bear is simply common sense. Many of the interactions between Mr. Bear and humans that turn into unfortunate incidents are the visiting humans’ fault, not that of the bear who generally gets the blame and pays the price for the human’s actions.

Handguns

Taurus 454 Casull

The Taurus 454 Casull comes in three barrel lengths: 5-, 6.5-, and 7.5-inch

My preferred carry handgun calibers are the .41mag and a .454 Casull. Barns 180gr in .41Mag or the 325gr .454 Casull. A factory 200 to 225gr JSP if my handloads are not available. The .460 is also gaining popularity. These calibers are brutal, have tremendous recoil, and chambered in heavy revolver platforms. They are close-in, hard-hitting, last response firearms. If you’re going to carry such a caliber, learn to shoot it with proficiency or it will be useless to you. Shoot several hundred rounds in speed drills for this handgun caliber to become a useful tool in the field. You may only get one or two shots and they must be accurate as it’s unlikely that given ‘the worst case you can think of’ encounter that you may get another. The majority of incidents on record suggest that the human are at fault or cause when such close interactions happened. Lack of attention, surprise, disregarding area warnings, target fixation, or just plain not seeing it evolving, to name a few have all placed the human within the bear’s aggressive zone and in danger.

Shotguns

What about a shotgun you may ask. Well, my choices for shotguns are pump actions such as the 870 Remington or 500 Mossberg, 16- to 20-inch barrel, extended mag. I prefer a bullpup configuration to factory furniture, but not going to be picky here, loaded with DDuplek Monolite32 or Hexolite32 in the first four-round position followed with buck and ball loads or 00 buck and a slug combination, if that’s all I have available. There is not an outdoor experience in Alaska in which a shotgun with proper munitions for dangerous game is a bad choice. Simple to use, and operable by most family members over the age of 10 (well a 12ga anyway). This type of firearm is an inexpensive and cost-effective platform with use across a broad spectrum of requirements. Even with slugs, one must be aware of the range limitations of this platform and its various shell choices. Train with what you’re going to carry in the field.

Remington 870 Super Mag 12ga

The Remington 870 Super Mag 12 gauge is an affordable shotgun for use in the backcountry.

Rifles

It is, to some degree, due to Mr. Bear and his family that many here in the Great White North hunt with somewhat larger calibers than hunted commonly in the lower 48. For most of my hunting here I use a .300WM, either 168gr or 185gr Barns TTSXBT. Although the 168 may be a bit light for a big Brownie at distance inside of 80 to 100 meters, it is sufficient. When hunting as a guide or backup to other hunters I prefer my .338WM using 200gr or 210gr Barns TTSXBT. In the lower 48, Bear country the .308, 7mm Mag and those upper mid-range cartridges work very well.

Bear Spray and Air Horns

Sprays and air horns are OK and often effective. The greater the chemical makeup and concentration of the spray the better. It must be BEAR SPRAY! Normal pepper spray marked for humans, while somewhat of a deterrent to bears, is by no means an effective deterrent. Bear spray is a suitable deterrent for around the homestead, joggers, hikers, bikers, and in some cases fishing. However, it is a not a foolproof means of driving off Mr. Bear. The air horn may cause a bear to pause and reconsider its actions. This has been the case on several occasions but not one I would wish to hang my hat on. Learn to use this device correctly. Be aware of wind direction and the effective range of the spray you own. You do not want this material blowing back into your face. Foaming wasp spray will work in a pinch if nothing else is available.

Explosive, Pyrotechnics

Large fireworks (M45s and M80s) and seal bombs are effective IF there is time to deploy them and providing that they are legal to possess and use. 12-gauge “cracker” shells, like an M80 in a shotgun shell, will also often drive away Mr. Bear, However, not always. It’s a good first round but should be followed by a 00 buck or slug next in the magazine just in case the detonation is ineffective. Such cracker shells may be found on emergency gear sites.

Bears don’t like loud noises for the most part or things that go flash and boom close to them. Eight out of 10 times, more or less, the blast will turn them away. It’s the 2 out of 10, more or less, that don’t run that you need to be prepared for. Often a single gunshot in the ground near it is enough to make it run.

In some places, bears are students of human behavior in general. In some places, have made the connection to hunters and/or the sound of gunshots as a free meal dinner bell! These bears are not as cowed or frightened by loud sharp noise or flashy detonations and will at times challenge for a downed kill regardless of what you do. It is a rare thing to have one stand its ground for a downed kill but not unheard of and in recent decades become a more frequent occurrence. It’s a toss-up and a judgment call as to what you do next.

The ranges in these encounters are often very short in both distance and time and with little or no forewarning and little to no lag in engagement time. If this is the situation one finds themselves in it would be well that they have a firearm as a backup and a plan before you go on your hunt.

Mr. Bear’s response has a great deal to do with several factors from my point of view and personal experience.

First off, one doesn’t have to kill or possibly wound many of bears that will challenge you for your downed game. They just want to see if they can get a free meal for the most part and are posturing to see if you will back down.

Beware of Female Bears with Cubs

The one scenario in which all bets are off is a female bear with cubs. This bear will defend against ANYTHING it sees, thinks, or determines as, is, or maybe, a possible threat to its cubs. She will not back down and may be extremely aggressive. Never turn your back on her, never run from her, never look at her directly. If possible, determine where the cubs may be and move directly away from them and the mother. Directly but slowly with purpose showing not aggressive actions of your own. There are many options here and I don’t mean to know them all or suggest this is the best. It has been effective for me where I’ve been in contact with such a female and her offspring.

Face-to-Face Meeting: Tips for a Safe Departure

For better or worst I try to use this set of criteria on the several occasions where I found myself, or those I’m with, in this kind of face-off with Mr. Bear. Consider that your kill or game is down at the 12 o’clock position of a clock dial and that your position is at the center position of the clock face.

  1. If the downed game in question is between you and Mr. Bear and Mr. Bear is positioned someplace in the 10 to 2 o’clock arc, it is likely that it just wants to see if you’ll back down and give them a free meal. If you stand your ground or advance on the downed game, it will more often than not give ground. Be louder and be proud but don’t directly challenge it by looking at it or acting aggressively they don’t like that kind of attitude and may decide to further their challenge when there is no need for such an escalation.
  2. They will often respect a respectful counter stand on your part. Give them time to think and a bit of space and they will likely leave you alone. If so, remember the kindness and leave a neat gut pile for them as they will likely remain in the area and may even watch you. This does not apply to polar bears. Most polar bears don’t recognize you as anything more than a source of protein.
  3. If Mr. Bear appears in the 8:30 to 10:00 or 2:00 to 3:30 position to you (one’s peripheral right or left) and the downed game, then it may be a bit more problematic. This bear may be one of several things:
    • Smarter due to experience
    • Have been following you
    • Possibly a female with cubs
    • A young bear with little human contact or experience or just out of position when seen

Their response will tell you which its likely to be by the sounds they may make and most certainly by the body language they exhibit. These may or may not be aggressors but must be judged carefully, time permitting. Again, don’t look them in the eye—they just don’t like it. Some say this is an old wives’ tale, not so! Be LOUD but not outwardly aggressive, claim the kill but don’t give reason to have that claim challenged.

It’s a documented fact that there are bears that recognize a hunter and a rifle. These bears are known to be more aggressive if the firearm is lifted, pointed or shouldered. Keep your firearm pointed at the ground but at the ready. Be at the ready but not aggressive.

On rare occasion, and this has only ever happened to me once in all the years of hunting in the north, Mr. Bear may truly be smart, aggressive, and not liking his area being invaded and his food supply impacted by soft, chewy, warm two-legged predators such as ourselves.

He will have had and survived previous encounters with humans and will view them as dangerous and excitable. Such a specimen of Mr. Bear’s family may choose to hunt you as an intruder. This bear will appear in an arc between 3:30 and 8:30 with the truly dangerous position being the 4:30 to 7:30 arc (for those who don’t see this…that would be behind you or your blind spot). This can be an uncomfortable to very bad situation depending on how quiet they choose to be, how close they actually get to you, or if they decide to announce themselves. Point is that now YOU are in the middle, between the bear and the kill. This bear is very interested in your kill and may indeed be challenging you for it. He may also only may be interested in just YOU.

An important note at this juncture—this is also the reason placing a fresh round in the chamber and putting in a fresh magazine immediately after shooting your game! You don’t want to be turning to face a 1000-pound coastal brownie with a spent round in the chamber and only two or possibly three in the magazine and no time to correct this oversight.

Once again be LOUD! It may be enough. It certainly won’t hurt. The difference here is that he’s likely to already have a plan, he is also likely to recognize that you have a gun and that it’s dangerous to him (don’t laugh, studies have shown this to be true as I said). Do not take your eyes off him but don’t make direct eye contact either. There is better than a 50/50 chance you’re going to have to fire on this bear. Take a moment, think it thru first and second shots as it’s likely that’s all you’ll get time for and what you will do then. If you thought buck fever was bad, an aggressive bear will change this viewpoint. Bears are fast, they can be VERY fast. THEY are much faster than YOU!

Final Thoughts

These general guidelines are mine and I have found them sufficient, to date, in dealing with Mr. Bear. Nothing is perfect but one’s got to start a plan and response somewhere…

Note: The ideas expressed here DO NOT APPLY to polar bears. In Mr. Polar Bear’s world, EVERYTHING IS FOOD, that includes YOU too! One must be very aware of their surrounding environment when visiting their home range. I cannot tell you what it feels like to have an adult polar bear ghost in through an ice fog bank and stand there looking at you! A thrilling but very unpleasant experience.

Well, food for thought anyway. In North America and the Lower 48, most hunters will likely run across Mr. Black Bear for the most part. Black bear is found everywhere, with the exception of the Arctic coast. Although not as big as their brown relations they are more likely to have more human interactions than most of the Bear Clan. Do not underestimate them. Black bears can and will be very aggressive when placed in a position they feel they need to defend. They are curious and can be destructive to property. This includes the so-called cinnamon bear, who is actually a black bear, whose fur is in a color phase that turns it brown to red-brown, very handsome and from which this moniker comes from. They are mostly seen in the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Alaska. They have been mistaken for small BROWN BEARS at times which they are not. If you’re not sure, look for that shoulder hump, black bears don’t have them.

The thoughts, opinions, and suggestions noted here are mine. They work for me and have worked for others. They come from a life of learning from others and applying those lessons. I hope at best that they bring a thoughtful response. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

What works for you? What are your suggestions for different responses and actions? Share with us in the comments.

About our guest blogger Rocky Speck – 65 trips around the sun to date. Out-lier, military, outdoorsman, builder, traveler, reader, student, writer, occasional teacher. Surrounded by good friends, food, wines, and music. Places worth going are those not seen.

9 Comments On This Article

  1. Dave from San Antonio

    Alaska has issued an advisory for hunters, hikers, etc. regarding bears. They advise people to wear little bells attached to their gear to warn bears of your approach. They recommend a suitable pepper spray, also. Too, they recommend learning about bears signs, in particular the difference between the types of bear dung. Black and brown bears may have bits of berries, nuts and the occasional fur patches from small animals and is usually a ‘lighter color’. Grizzly bear dung is darker in color and will contain small bells and smell like pepper. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)
    Excellent article.

  2. Keep a clean camp; don’t bring food into your tent, do your dishes, store food away from camp, up a tree in a bear bag…….common sense! They have great sense of smell….

  3. I’m planning on doing some solo camping along the Al-Can highway. The Canadian government rightfully doesn’t appreciate armed American visitors so much. Is it worth the trouble to get a permit in bear country?

  4. good article and solid advice. i’ve had one bear encounter and possibly 2 more. i’ve read just about every bear book. it’s always a good idea to go anywhere w a friend, especially bear country. do your research first, be knowledgeable and respectful of the land and animals. particularly those that can kill you.

  5. Can someone explain to me why OC used for humans, typically containing 10% OC, would be ineffective against bears compared to “bear spray,” which contains 2-3% OC?

    I’m not a doctor, but I’m going out on a limb to say that 10% OC is going to be considerably more effective than 3% against a 500-pound bear.

  6. Awesome article… just got back from northwestern Montana. Was very aware of my surroundings. Always interested in learning more about one of nature’s biggest carnivores.

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