Being Bear Aware – Hiking in Bear Country

It is an exhilarating opportunity to watch bears and cubs forage, play, wrestle, and sleep in their natural habitat. Whether you are hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, or even rafting in bear country, it’s important to know what to do, or not do, when you encounter a bear.

All of Yellowstone is bear habitat—from the deepest backcountry to the boardwalks around Old Faithful. Prepare for bear encounters no matter where you go.

Even if not in Yellowstone, anytime you’re in bear country you need to be prepared to encounter a bear.

Don’t be surprised by a bear encounter. Be ready, be alert, have a plan and carry bear spray! Educate yourself about bear encounters.

When bears come out of hibernation, they look for easy food sources. Often, the quick meal is a carcass of an animal that has died during the winter (winter-kill), like elk and bison. Later in the Spring, young newborn elk become the meal of choice for some bears but the young elk are only vulnerable to bears for a few weeks. When they get about 3-4 weeks old, elk calves can run fast enough that they are rarely caught be bears.

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Bears remember and recognize familiar food sources like favorite berry patches, decaying logs swarming with delectable insects, and streams and rivers teeming with fish that provide much-needed fat and protein.

Bears are always searching for food. Bears are curious, intelligent animals that have great memories. Their eyesight is similar to humans and their sense of smell is seven times more powerful than a bloodhound’s, enabling them to smell food from miles away.

Those are the very traits that can sometimes get them – and us – into trouble. Most bears are wary of humans and try to avoid them.

However, bears can learn to associate people with food and be tenacious in their pursuit of something to eat. Even if humans are around.

Be Alert

See a bear before you surprise it. Watch for fresh tracks, scat, and feeding sites (signs of digging, rolled rocks, torn up logs, ripped open ant hills). A bear that’s feeding may not see you as quickly as you would think. Pay attention, and see the bear before it sees you…and before you surprise it.

Don’t hike alone

Hike in groups of three or more people. 91% of the people injured by bears in Yellowstone since 1970 were hiking alone or with only one hiking partner. Only 9% of the people injured by bears were in groups of three or more people.

Make noise

When hiking, keep talking to your partner or sing to alert bears to your presence, especially when walking through dense vegetation/blind spots, traveling upwind, near loud streams, or on windy days. Avoid thick brush whenever possible. Wear a bear bell to make bears aware of your presence.

Avoid carcasses

Bears will guard and defend carcasses against other scavengers or humans. Dead ungulates will attract and hold many bears near the carcass site. It is risky to approach a carcass; many bears may be bedded nearby just out of sight. If you find a fresh carcass, leave the area immediately by the same route you approached. Report all carcasses to the nearest ranger station or visitor center.

Stay with your stuff

Do not leave packs or bags containing food unattended, even for a few minutes. Bears learn new food sources quickly. Allowing bears to obtain human food even once often leads to them becoming aggressive toward people when they come back looking for more. Aggressive bears threaten human safety and eventually must be removed from the park or killed.

Surprise Encounters

If the bear clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that you are too close and are making it nervous. Heed this warning and slowly back away. Do not drop to the ground and “play dead.” Do not run, shout, or make sudden movements: you don’t want to startle the bear. Running may trigger a chase response in the bear and you can’t outrun a bear. Bears in Yellowstone chase down elk calves all the time. You do not want to look like a slow elk calf.

Slowly putting distance between yourself and the bear may defuse the situation. Draw your bear spray from the holster, remove the safety tab, and prepare to use it if the bear charges.

In most cases, climbing a tree is a poor decision. Bears can climb trees (especially if there is something up the tree that the bear wants). Running to a tree or frantically climbing a tree may provoke a bear to chase you. People have been pulled from trees before they can get high enough to get away. Also, when was the last time you climbed a tree? It’s probably harder than you remember.

Bear Spray

Bear spray is proven to be highly successful at stopping aggressive behavior in bears. Take an active role in protecting yourself and the bears people come to Yellowstone to see: carry bear spray and learn how to use it!

Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. Its use can reduce human injuries caused by bears and the number of bears killed by people in self-defense. Bear spray uses a fine cloud of Capsicum derivatives to temporarily reduce a bear’s ability to breathe, see, and smell, giving you time to leave the area.

Tips for Use

  • Keep bear spray readily accessible in a quick draw holster, not stored in your pack.
  • You don’t have to be a good shot with bear spray. Just put up a cloud of spray between you and the charging bear.
  • Practice! Use an inert can of bear spray to practice removing it from your holster, removing the safety tab with your thumb, and firing. Practice firing inert bear spray with the wind at your back, into a headwind, and with a crosswind so that you understand how bear spray is affected by the wind.
  • Do not use bear spray like insect repellent. It does not work as a deterrent when applied to people or equipment.
  • No bear deterrent is 100% effective: learn how to reduce your risk while hiking in bear country.
  • Make sure your bear spray is EPA-approved: don’t depend on personal defense products to stop a charging bear.
  • Bear spray can explode if it reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t store it in the passenger compartment of vehicles or near any heat sources.
  • Make sure your bear spray hasn’t expired.

If a Bear Charges You

  • Remove the safety clip
  • Aim slightly down and adjust for crosswind
  • Begin spraying when the charging bear is 30-60 feet (10-20 yards) away
  • Spray at the charging bear so that the bear must pass through a cloud of spray
  • Keep spraying until the bear changes direction
  • If the bear continues to charge, spray into its face
  • Leave the area promptly

Bear spray is sold at gift shops, outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores inside the park, as well as in local communities. Always select an EPA-approved product that is specifically designed to stop bears. Personal defense, jogger defense, law enforcement or military defense sprays may not contain the correct ingredients or have the proper delivery system, to stop a charging bear.


Having the opportunity to explore bear country is a wonderful thing. It’s a great experience to watch bears do bear things in their natural habitat. But be bear-aware and know what to do in case you happen to get too close to a bear in the wild.

What interesting places can you recommend? We’re always looking for neat out-of-the-way experiences to add to our list of places to visit. Thank you for reading our article. If you have any comments or questions we’d love to hear from you below.

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