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Practising safety around bears in Canada is important for anyone who wants to leave the cities and explore the wilderness.
When you have so many beautiful landscapes, who wouldn’t want to check out the Rockies, the forests or the good-old Canadian backcountry?
Bears are found in every province and territory across Canada except for Prince Edward Island. This means, that you *could* bump into one in any part of the country outside of a major city.
If you are visiting British Columbia or Alberta, you have a higher chance of a bear encounter due to the high number of bears estimated to be living out west.
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Differences between nations
A Canadian I know told me that when he was growing up he was taught about basic bear safety in Canada at school. That just blows my mind because we would never need to be taught stuff like that in England!
Growing up in the UK I never had to think twice about the dangers of wildlife. To this day I think the most dangerous wild animal we have is maybe a badger. Or perhaps foxes?
Either way, neither of these animals is too much of a concern to people – even if you are out and about on your own.
My first experiences with bear safety
When I moved to Canada I headed straight for the beautiful rainforest-covered west coast. I did a few hikes that were easily accessible from the city and only came across bear signs twice around Whistler.
Apparently, a nuisance bear had been raiding the bins in the neighbourhood. Even though it had been safely relocated 3 times, it kept coming back and rangers were getting concerned for people’s safety.
This is pretty much a regular occurrence in some towns as I saw these similar signs recently in Canmore too!
It was on another trip through the Rocky Mountains years ago (hello Banff & Jasper) when we encountered bear signs near our campsite. My not knowing how to “be bear aware” in Canada back then, could have got my travel partner and me killed by accidentally leaving food outside our tent.
Thank god we didn’t see one. Phew.
Types of Bear
Found in: Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia & Western Alberta.
Identity: Usually have brown fur & a large hump made of muscle in their back. Also known as a Grizzly bear.
Avg Height: 6-7ft tall
Photo by Becca
Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador. Always in the northern parts of provinces.
Identity: White fur & the largest of the bears
Avg Height: 8-9ft tall
Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager
Found in: Every Canadian province in the forest except for Prince Edward Island.
Identity: Generally smaller in size than a Brown bear. Can be almost any colour from light brown to black.
Avg Height: 6ft tall
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten
So with everything I have experienced and learned during my time in the Rockies from locals and the people who know the region best, here are some tips on keeping safe while alone in bear country.
Go out with others
First things first for staying safe near bears in Canada, avoid hiking or being out in bear country alone. There’s safety in numbers and it’s easier to keep bears at a distance if they can hear a group of people together rather than just one pair of footsteps.
By being in a group, there are more of you to help in any kind of emergency and multiple people can be seen as intimidating to a lone bear.
If you absolutely have to hike alone, always tell at least one other person where you are going. This could be a friend who is too tired to come hiking with you who stays at the hotel or even the receptionist at the accommodation you’re staying in.
This way, if you’re not back within a reasonable – or planned – time frame, somebody knows you are missing. This can save hours of search time if you disappear.
Nothing is sadder than hearing about someone being gone for 3 or 4 days before people realise they’re missing. Don’t let that happen to you.
Go out during daylight hours
Another massively important tip for safety in Canada is to try to avoid going into the wilderness in the dark when bears are most active. They spend most of their hours awake during dusk and dawn, so you should stick with only going out during the day.
The last thing you want to do is disturb a bear in the dark. You won’t be able to see it before it sees you. I met a local guy who was hiking down the East End of Rundle trail when I was heading up and he started before the sun came up. That man has no fear. Don’t be like him!
Satellite safety phone
Consider getting a satellite phone for safety. This is something that many avid hikers swear by as most of the dense forests they hike in, don’t have phone service.
By having one of these devices, you are usually able to alert emergency services to your SOS signal as well as give your location via GPS. This could literally save your life if you have an emergency but your phone doesn’t work.
Make a lot of noise. This is easy if there is a group of you as multiple voices are louder than one. If you are on your own, you could play music really loudly. I actually prefer hiking with music as it makes it more enjoyable.
If you don’t have a good playlist then simply talk out loud to yourself. Yes, back home you would be given a few weird looks for doing this on the high street. But here, everyone does it! It’s fun and quirky, but most of all it keeps you safe.
By making noise as you walk through the region, you are alerting the bears to your presence before you can accidentally startle them. This is key to keeping yourself safe from bears in Canada. Scaring a bear is asking for trouble.
Read the signs
Check signs at the trailhead. In many cases, when a bear has been spotted in or close to a specific trail, rangers will put up notices to warn people.
In some instances, they close the trail altogether and won’t reopen it until the bear is gone. This could be deemed as a nuisance if you only have 2 days to fit in 3 hikes, but you’ll soon be grateful not to be bear food.
Have you been on an extended trip yet? Here are some reasons why you should take one
Look at the ground
Another way to practice safety near bears in Canada is to “be aware” of fresh tracks or footprints in the area. If you notice bear scat (another name for poop) or anything that looks like a bear may have been there recently. There’s a chance they are still close by. This means you do not want to stay in the area for very long.
Be alert. Yes, you can play your music and use your trail maps, but try not to stare at your phone the whole time. This keeps you alert and aware of your surroundings, including if a bear is nearby. Trust me, you’ll want to be prepared.
Carry Bear Spray
If you want to succeed with bear safety in Canada, you should also make sure to carry bear spray with you. I honestly thought people were joking with me when they first told me about bear spray (I can be quite gullible at times). But it’s something many locals always have with them.
It’s basically a highly concentrated version of pepper spray but the canister it comes in can spray really far. The best distance to use the spray is when the bear is between 30-40ft away from you. You can usually buy a bear spray can for an average of $50 per can, or you can rent it from your accommodation for much cheaper as I did!
Make Bear Spray accessible
So you now know you should carry bear spray. But just keeping it in your backpack is not the smartest move. If you get surprised by a bear at a moment’s notice, you may not have time to go searching in your bag for it.
Many locals recommend keeping it accessible in either an outer leg pocket (think cargo-style trousers), or in a holster. This way, you can grab the spray without any notice and can keep yourself safer – quicker.
Don’t overdo it
Don’t push your limits. Ok, so you want to reach that amazing summit viewpoint for that perfect Instagram picture, or you want to complete a difficult trail faster than your competitive friend.
But is it always worth it? By overdoing it, you run the risk of injury or tiring yourself out too quickly. Then let’s face it, if you then came face to face with a grizzly, you’ll be too tired to think clearly to get yourself out of the situation.
Don’t wander off
When hiking, stay on the official trails outlined by the Province or State. By not straying away from the marked paths you’re staying out of the bear’s way to some extent.
With heavily trafficked trails the bears get familiar with hearing the sounds of people so tend to keep their distance. When you stray or wander into unknown areas you could come across a bear at any moment.
Plus the official trails normally have a sign along them saying to report any bear sightings so it’s easier and quicker for park rangers to close a trail to keep people safe if they know exactly where they’ve been spotted.
Don’t take food
Don’t take snacks. Ok, this was a hard one for me because if I’m hiking or walking a lot I need a little boost of food energy to keep me going.
Not in bear country! If you have even one chocolate bar on you, you run the risk of bears sniffing you out from a mile away in Canada. Bears have been known to damage cars trying to get the food they can smell out, so you can imagine what they would do to your tiny backpack.
Near many car parks, campgrounds or trailheads there are bear-safe bins for people to throw away any rubbish or food they might have. The bins must hide the smell of the food which means the bears are much less likely to follow the smell.
Avoid strong fragrances
Don’t bring anything smelly with you. No, I don’t mean yesterday’s dirty socks. What I mean is you should also not take anything fragrant on your hike either.
Perfumes, toothpaste, mints or anything else that has a strong scent because guess what? A bear will want to know what it is.
They have such a strong sense of smell that they will follow the smell and could end up harming you if you get in their way of finding it.
Avoid the dead
Steer clear of dead birds or rodents on the ground. This includes if you see birds circling above you.
These are oftentimes signs of bear food so you don’t want to be in the area if you see or smell these on your trail. If you can smell it, a bear can too and you don’t want to be crowding his dinner table when he’s hungry.
Stay with your bag
Never leave your bag unattended. If there is something that smells appealing inside and you are not nearby making all the usual expected noise, a bear’s curiosity may make him check it out. Good luck getting your bag back from a curious bear.
The difference with Polar Bear country
Most of the tips above are relevant for exploring Canada and avoiding Brown or Black bears. If you happen to be in the northern regions of Canada and are in ‘polar bear country’ there are a few added tips to be followed.
Since most polar bears spend time in areas with minimal cover (unlike black and brown bears who like the treelines in the backcountry of Canada) it can be hard to hide if you see a polar bear in the distance.
It’s safer to keep using binoculars to check the area than to be surprised by a polar bear at close range. By the time a polar bear spots you, it’s already much too late to do anything about it.
Try to avoid the coast
Seals are a main source of food for polar bears. They spend a lot of their time at the coast. This means you really do not want to be there for long if at all. You don’t want to get in the way of a hungry polar bear. Also during the summer when most of the sea ice has melted, they will be forced ashore and will stay close to the water’s edge.
This means you should avoid the beaches in the north of the country. It’ll be too cold anyway!
Avoid polar bear dens
So, unlike other bear species that tend to hibernate during the winter, the same is not true for the polar bear. They tend to keep ‘working’ throughout the whole year so no season is particularly safer than another.
Bear Attack Stats
Bear attacks are rare. Really rare. When they happen, it’s usually when a bear has been startled or a person has not made their presence known prior to being spotted. This can put the bear into protection and panic mode.
Of all the bear encounters across Canada, unfortunately, there have been 17 attacks that ended in a human fatality. These are always tragic stories to read in the news and nobody wants to fall victim to wildlife which is why bear safety in Canada (and the world) is so important.
We want to try and keep these statistics as low as possible for both humans and animals alike.
|Year||Province||Bear Species||# of Fatalities|
|2015||British Columbia||Black Bear||1|
|2011||British Columbia||Black Bear||1|
If you do see a bear
Following these tips will definitely give you a great chance of keeping safe and avoiding bears during your solo hikes. However, if you do come across one on your trail, do not run away.
I’ll say it again.
DO NOT START RUNNING
This is literally the worst thing you can do as it will kick the bear straight into its predatory mode and he will start chasing after you. You would need to fight every urge in your body not to turn and start running because trust me you will never be able to outrun a bear and you may as well kiss goodbye now.
What you should do instead is assess whether the bear has spotted you. If it hasn’t noticed you there, then great. Simply leave the area as quietly as you can whilst staying calm. What the bear doesn’t know won’t harm him.
Never try to get closer to the bear. (This includes selfies for the ‘gram). This will not end well.
Has the bear noticed you?
If the bear HAS spotted you, you need to make it clear you are a human, not his prey and you mean no harm. You can do this by talking calmly to the bear, backing away slowly and reaching for your bear spray without any sudden movements.
Make sure to NEVER make eye contact because this will be seen as a challenge and again they will want to attack.
In many situations, bears in areas with heavy foot traffic are more than likely familiar with humans and on a good day will leave you be.
Is the bear mad?
If you happen to make it mad in some way (maybe you are standing in between a mum and her cubs or their food source) then be aware of the following actions it might make.
- snapping its jaw as if it’s ready to bite
- starts charging towards you
Or if the bears are showing any other signs of aggressive behaviour that doesn’t seem friendly to you. If any of these things happen, as scary as it might be, you would need to stand tall, and make yourself seem bigger than you are (use your arms or walking sticks for example). But remember not to run and to stay calm.
If the bear stops showing aggressive tendencies then fantastic. It has realised you are a human of no threat and it’s time for you to slowly get out of the area.
If the bear still decides to fight you, then your only options at this point are to spray it with the bear spray, or (if you can’t get to your bear spray in time) lay face-down and play dead.
Only 1 thing left to do
Make sure to cover/protect your neck, head, and stomach, and obviously, if you’re playing dead, don’t move. In the best-case scenario, the bear realises that you are now no longer a challenge or a threat and will grow tired and leave you alone.
Because bears are curious creatures, they might even come and roll you over. If this happens, continue playing dead. If you move at this point you’re toast.
Once the bear is sure you’re “dead” he will leave. Only move once you are 100% sure the bear is completely out of the area.
Bear safety gets more important the further we expand our cities and the more we venture into the forests. As we humans are entering our homes, it’s very important that you never try to put yourself into dangerous situations for the sole purpose of seeing a bear because if it gets too close one of you will be injured:
- you by its claws
- or the bear by your bear spray
Bears deserve respect in every province of Canada and if you are breaking and entering their forest (or icefield) home they have a right to defend themselves.
That’s why following the steps above is so important. They can help you take a preventative approach instead and reduce your chances significantly of coming face to face with one.
With that said. Enjoy your hikes. Make the most of the beautiful natural surroundings that just so happen to also be bear habitats. Just make sure to always be alert and practice and safely avoid bears in Canada!