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A traveller to a country with different customs is well advised to read up on the customs of the people of that country, and to learn how the residents expect polite people to behave. Everywhere, guests try not to offend their hosts.

Similarly, if a person is travelling in bear country, it makes sense for him/her to learn about the behaviour of the bears of the region and behave like a guest in their country.

Yet many of the bear questions on this site assume that bears are trespassing on the hiker or camper's turf, when arguably it is the person who is trespassing on ursus's turf.

Now to the question: What are the three to five most important do's and dont's -- in simple bullet form -- for a guest in black bear country?

(A previous question focused on protecting one's camp. This question goes beyond camp precautions.)

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    Possible duplicate of What precautions should I take to protect myself and my camp from bears? – user2766 Mar 10 '16 at 14:15
  • "if a bear starts acting aggressive toward people, the rangers shoot it." - What else do you do? Ask politely for the bear to stop? – Kyle Mar 10 '16 at 14:52
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    I liked that the old title was mentioning people's attitude as guests. – Erik vanDoren Mar 10 '16 at 16:16
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    @Mr.Derpinthoughton: When bears act aggressively toward people, it's because the bears have been getting used to people and habituated to food rewards. The solution is to prevent bears from getting food rewards. Then they have no reason to get used to people, and they won't act aggressively toward people. – Ben Crowell Mar 11 '16 at 5:02
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I'm assuming that you are not hunting as that would require behaving in different ways. I'm also not discussing camping/camp which is covered very well by this question: What precautions should I take to protect myself and my camp from bears?

In black bear territory, but prior to seeing a bear:

  • Make noise. The bear will generally move away from you. Just talking and not being stealthy is usually enough. I've seen information for and against the effectiveness of bear bells. They can't hurt but they may not provide anymore protection than just being generally loud.
  • Watch your back. Bears will tail people. I'm aware of multiple cases of people looking behind them only realizing there's a black bear that is following.
  • Don't drop food and don't wipe your hands on your clothes. Do what you can to avoid smelling like a meal.
  • Watch your surroundings. Bears are more likely to be encountered near streams. Also look for trees they have clawed as that means you're in their territory.
  • If you have a dog in black bear country keep it on a leash. There have been cases of dogs aggravating bears then running for their owner/protector... bringing the bear with them. Or my least favorite hiking encounter when a couple said as they passed "Bears ahead, our dog treed a cub..."

Face the fact that you are not a guest. It is entirely possible that, if hungry enough, even a black bear will decide you are food. If that is the case then no amount of being polite will help you. The vast majority of the time this will not be the case, but that will be of no comfort if you are attacked by a hungry bear.

If you do see a black bear:

Most times, if you run into a black bear it will just take off. There is really no "encounter."

Caveat what follows with the fact that I am not a bear expert (as in a biologist who studies and works with bears for living), and this is second hand advice:

If you actually encounter a bear checking you out, it is hard to say the correct behavior because that will depend on why the bear is checking you out. Unless you are a bear expert then it's unlikely that you will be able to tell the difference between curiosity, hunger, or other bear reactions/moods. Unfortunately they require different behavior on your part to avoid any unpleasantness.

For a 'go to' default: Back away slowly. If it persists and follows you then go with the make noise and look bigger approach (bang hiking sticks, yell, etc). If it charges, stand your ground as it can outrun you anyways and you don't want to look like prey. If it attacks then fight and pray. You'll probably lose, but once it attacks you are out of options.

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    " If it attacks then fight and pray. You'll probably lose, but once it attacks you are out of options" - reading this while lubricating my S&W 500... and I'm still shitting myself :S – Kyle Mar 28 '16 at 21:01
  • @Mr.Derpinthoughton -- Many people like to portray nature as some sort of "life and let live" system. It's a nice thought but that's just not the way nature is. Nature is cold-hearted and bears are omnivores. If one is hungry enough... you're just a morsel. – Russell Steen Mar 28 '16 at 23:28
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    That's true, I understand some people think that nature is just a rebel teenager and it should be respected, but that's just not true, nature's law is cold and simple, "the stronger/smarter always wins, period.", We as humans had to kill so many beasts in order to SURVIVE, and nature never "let us live" because of mercy, so why should we? ( I'm referring to wild animals if they attack us, of course ) – Kyle Mar 29 '16 at 11:31
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  • Learn their behaviors: many encounters become accidents because they escalate to that level in a way or the other. Learn that not all the bears are the same, different kind will act differently. As general rule they don't want trouble as much as you don't. Knowing how they act, what they protect and fight for, where they tend to be/go would help maintaining an encounter as just such.

  • Learn avoidance: the absolute best way to avoid trouble is to avoid having an encounter with them. A bearbell, singing, general noise, just alerts them of your presence and gives them time to move away from you. A big group is better than a solo camper. Be aware of your surroundings. Use the camp in the proper way, don't leave garbage there, hang your food and toiletries in the prescribed manner (4 metres off ground and 2 metres away from the trunk usually) and proper containers, a lot of campsites in bear country have a cable set up just from that at a certain distance from camp, some have bearproof bins so use them. Your car is not a bearproof bin, dont give them reasons to try to get into it. If they have no reason to be curious about your camp they wont bug you. If you have a pet and don't have the absolute best control on it don't bring them with you. If guests before you left the campsite a mess it might have been visited already, theres the chance the animal will do a second round, maybe its best to opt for another campsite if possible. Don't do the whole feeding from the car thing (or worse: the baiting to get a stupid picture) that just teaches the animal to get close to humans, when you put us and them together we are the dangerous ones that they need to learn to avoid.

  • Be prepared: in case you end facing the animal and its getting too much of a close encounter you need to be prepared. Have a deterrent ready, bearspray its the main choice (Canada). Whatever deterrent you prefer be sure to know how to use it (found out that some people thought that they had to spray the pepper spray around camp to keep the animal away). If you can, have also something that can make noise like a foghorn, there are some that can be recharged with a simple hand pump. Stay calm, if you start revving up they will respond in the same manner as much as a dog does. Don't show aggressive behavior or they will mirror it. Don't underrate the animal, ever, and dont overrate yourself, when one takes risks because they got too confident or arrogant before or later things go wrong.

These are precautions, you always need to keep in mind that there is the abnormal rare case, unfortunately. More or less, these principles are also valid for a lot of the other animals you will find around, from coyotes to moose and others, each region has their own wildlife, predators or simply dangerous

Edit, concerning bearspray: I just finished a chat with some friends from CA and I mentioned to them Ben Cromwell comment about it since its their area. The opinions they gave me was mixed but was also raised the issue of legal/illegal including that a Park Superintendent could have the power to allow it. Not having any reliable source one way or the other I would like to suggest to keep the issue of legality in mind and check with park authorities about that. Here in Canada its legal only as bear deterrent (and suggested by park authorities).

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    Pepper spray seems more like what people would use in grizzly country. The question is about black bears. I've never heard of anyone bringing pepper spray or air horns in the Sierra (where there are black bears but not grizzlies), and I don't think it would make sense to do so. Hanging food is not really very effective. It would be better if the answer could discuss bear canisters, which are the gold standard for this purpose. – Ben Crowell Mar 10 '16 at 5:39
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    @BenCrowell, I'm in Canada, and right in black bear country, here they do come in your backyard. Bear spray and airhorns are the norm and parks Canada supports it, as deterrent it beats the heck out banging two pots together. Also hanging food is part of many parks rules concerning bear safety and unless you are way north or too much in the interior of big parks where campsites are not that maintained you will find that cables are fitted. Another reason for hanging is that sometimes the bear will roll your canister into the water after he tried to get into it, why they do that I dont know – Erik vanDoren Mar 10 '16 at 13:33
  • @BenCrowell, I'd like to discuss bear canisters and containers but I had the impression that the OP wanted a short answer and I was writing too much already so I limited myself to mention "proper containers". Here in Canada we use a lot the blue barrels, they are great for canoes but a bear can chew through them if they get at one. The real bearproof ones tend to be smaller and very expensive so you wont see them often but even those you cant leave them on the ground unless you are willing to chain them to a tree – Erik vanDoren Mar 10 '16 at 13:50
  • @Erik vanDoren I suggest you take out the paragraph about grizzles; I'd like to keep the Q focused on black bears. Perhaps I will write a similar Q about grizzles if the response to this Q warrants it. Your last bullet, be prepared -- the foghorn, spray is impractical for backpackers -- you might want to separate what backpackers should do from what a householder should do. – ab2 Mar 10 '16 at 14:26
  • @ab2 I took away the word grizzly and the sentence but please understand that the sentence meant to be on the line "win against <very dangerous animal> doing <something impossible> with a <ridiculous weapon>". Sorry I don't understand what you mean with impractical for backpackers, spray is extremely practical for backpackers. Are u referring to something in the answer? I didnt mention householders in the answer as u asked about "traveling" so I intended it as hiking and camping, and each town in that situation tends to have their own clear rules to prevent trouble. Maybe Im missing something? – Erik vanDoren Mar 10 '16 at 15:34
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The question asks:

What are the three to five most important do's and dont's -- in simple bullet form -- for a guest in black bear country?

But there is really only one item on the list:

  • Store your food properly.

That's it. Black bears can become dependent on human food and habituated to humans. This is a bad outcome for the bear, because it often leads to the bear being killed.

The definition of storing food properly can vary from place to place. Bears are smart, and bears in some areas know how to defeat certain methods of food storage. The gold standard is to use a bear box (permanent steel box that exists at some campsites) or a bear canister that you carry in your pack. Hanging your food up high may be OK in some areas, but there are a lot of areas where this is inadequate. Don't leave food in your car, because bears can smell it and will break windows, etc., to get it. If you're using a bear canister, put it far away from where you'll be sleeping, maybe 30 meters. That way if a bear fiddles with your canister in the middle of the night, you won't be kept awake.

You do not need pepper spray, an air horn, or a gun. These are all things that are not appropriate or useful gear unless you're in an area where there are grizzly or polar bears.

You do not need to be fearful about getting attacked or eaten by a black bear. They are not very aggressive with humans, and physical attacks that result in injury are extremely rare. Statistically, the risk of being attacked by a bear is negligible compared to other risks, such as the risk of getting killed in a car accident on the way to or from the trailhead. Proper food storage will further reduce this already very small risk.

  • Thanks for recognizing the bullet aspect of the Q, and for a good elaboration of the bullet. Would you be willing to write a second bullet? You are awakened by a slight clunk. A bear has overturned your canisters and is sitting maybe 20 feet away, looking at you. (Happened to us two years ago.) What do you do? Can you write a second bullet which is not necessarily specific to this example but is a guideline to your behavior in a range of situations? – ab2 Mar 25 '16 at 22:12
  • @ab2: Your question asks for general guides to behavior. Your comment asks about how to deal with a certain very specific situation, which doesn't seem to me to be something that relates to answering your question. However, the situation you describe is one where you put your canister too close to your sleeping site, so I'll edit the question to explain that. (Assuming I'd been sloppy and stored my canister that close to where I was sleeping, and a bear showed up, I think my reaction would probably be to pick up my pad and sleeping bag and move them farther away so I could sleep.) – Ben Crowell Mar 25 '16 at 23:34
  • I said "not necessarily specific to this example, but is a guideline to your behavior in a range of situations". I am fishing for something along the lines of "stay calm". There are times (not many) when you will find yourself closer to a bear than you really want to be. In this particular case, we talked quietly and calmly until the bear got bored and wandered off. – ab2 Mar 25 '16 at 23:40
  • Cool, sounds like a memorable experience! – Ben Crowell Mar 26 '16 at 4:52

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