Bear Facts and Safety Tips

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Bears exist in and around a majority of our public lands across the United States and are native and natural members of the wildlife community. Seeing a bear can be an exciting experience, one that will form a lasting memory of your visit. By learning more about bears and their curious nature, you can better prepare for your visit to bear country and make it a positive and safe experience for both you and the bears.

Safety in bear country begins before you stay in the campground or hit the trail

About Bears

A close-up photo of a bear reclining in a field

Chugach National Forest (Curtis DeVore, Share the Experience)

Bears are curious and intelligent animals, capable of learning and modifying their behavior based on life experiences. Bears have an excellent sense of smell that can span miles and their eyesight is similar to a human’s. 

Three bear species live in North America – black bears, brown bears and polar bears, with polar bears living only in the Arctic. Black and brown bears can be identified by these characteristics:

What Bears Eat

A black bear carries a fish in its mouth

Tongass National Forest (Jack Cunningham, Share the Experience)

Did you know that grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area have been documented to consume over 260 species of plants and animals?

Black and brown bears are omnivorous, meaning they eat a variety of plants and animals. Bear diets consist mainly of grasses, roots, berries, insects, and fish and animals, including dead animals. Bear feeding increases in late summer and fall as they prepare for winter hibernation. Bears are opportunistic eaters and can easily develop a taste for human and pet foods. In addition, bears seeking food can be attracted to non-foods that have a smell, such as toothpaste, handy-wipes, soap, some medications, cooking utensils and grills, bird seed and garbage. Most human-bear conflicts occur when bears access and develop a taste for our food.

Safety when Camping in Bear Country

A green tent pitched in a mountainous backcountry

Grand Teton National Park (Robert Hitchcock, Share the Experience)

It is very important to never feed bears. Bears can quickly learn to associate people with food and easily become habituated to human food. Follow these simple guidelines when camping:

Safety for Hiking in Bear Country

A backpacker hikes through a field of tall pink fireweed

Katmai National Park and Preserve (Tom Fenske, Share the Experience)

While hiking, you should always watch ahead for bears or bear signs. In their natural habitats, bears prefer to avoid humans but will react aggressively when startled or protecting cubs. Human confrontations with bears are usually the result of a sudden encounter with a bear protecting its space, cubs or food caches.

Use these tips when hiking in bear inhabited areas:

  • Avoid surprising bears by making noise, as bears will avoid you if they can hear or smell you.
  • Always give a bear space. Never approach, crowd, pursue or displace a bear you see ahead on the trail.
  • Never get between a mother and her cub even if the cub appears to be alone or sick.
  • Leave pets at home or keep them leashed. Loose dogs can startle bears and cause them to chase the dogs back to their owners.

If You Encounter a Bear

A mother bear and three bear cubs appear to pose for a photo near a river

Katmai National Park and Preserve (Tom Fenske, Share the Experience)

Whether on the trail or in your campsite, do not run. Remain calm, group together and pick up small children. Continue to face the bear and back away slowly, talking calmly to identify yourself as a human and not another animal. If the bear continues to approach, try to scare it away by making yourself as large and imposing as possible and making loud noises. Carry and know how to use bear spray, which is available at many outdoor retailers and can be used to deter a charging bear.

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