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I was just reading through a couple of posts here on outdoors.SE and saw some advice which was a lot more strict than I am used to. For example, in the country where I hike (central europe, brown bears, but that's it) you wouldn't worry about the tent or shirt you sleep in smelling after food from 6 months ago (something I saw in a couple of answers here). And there are tens of other answers that also contain far stricter advice than I grew up with (no toothpaste in tents, bear bells, food canisters, etc.).

So what my main question is is:

  • Are those things related to bears in the US actually acting differently or is this just a difference in mentality?
  • And if this is an actual difference in behaviour, are there parts of Europe where bears act similarly to the US?
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    Are there many bear caused deaths in Europe? Because there certainly enough bear attacks where I'm from for people to be justifiably cautious while in the woods. – ShemSeger Aug 6 '15 at 6:28
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    Which country are you speaking of? – anderas Aug 6 '15 at 6:35
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    @ShemSeger Sorry for the late reply, wrote this right before going to bed. But either way, the US has had 10 brown bear fatalaties in the last 5 years, so compared to no brown bear fatalities in for example Slovakia in the last 100 years that indeed seems to be quite different, however normalizing for area of both countries it actually works out to be a similar rate. – David Mulder Aug 6 '15 at 13:06
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    They don't have Grizzly or Kodiak bears in Europe. In North America nobody is really concerned about "Brown Bears" as much as they are with the seemingly more aggressive sub species. – ShemSeger Aug 6 '15 at 15:33
  • This just happened in my area, a Grizzly broke into someones home yesterday and started going through their cupboards: globalnews.ca/news/2155638/… – ShemSeger Aug 10 '15 at 13:39
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Some of the things you've listed as precautions used in the US are not real or not reasonable.

worry about the tent or shirt you sleep in smelling after food from 6 months ago

This is silly.

bear bells

This is a joke.

Using a bear canister, on the other hand, is reasonable and in fact legally required in some national parks in the US. But what you're seeing is probably not so much a difference between central Europe and the US as a difference between areas that have a lot of problem bears and areas that don't. Certain specific places in the US, such as Yosemite Valley, are highly concentrated hot spots of bears that are habituated to humans and human food. Although the legal rules about bear canisters may apply to wider areas such as all of Yosemite National Park, in reality if you go 10 miles away from the hot spot in a random direction you will probably be in a backcountry area that doesn't have a significant problem with human-bear interactions.

(No toothpaste in tents is just common sense. A bear will perceive the smell of toothpaste as the smell of food.)

  • Regarding the toothpaste: My teeth and toothbrush smell a lot more after brushing them than a toothpaste tube ever does. As in seriously, try smelling your toothpaste tube, you won't get any smell from it. And I didn't see anyone yet advising not to brush teeth or something like that~ So that's why it seemed a bit... strict. Either way, what you're saying seems to make a lot of sense, though the only thing that confuses me is that there do not seem to have been any bear related fatalities in the yosemite park according to goo.gl/ZcyrIj – David Mulder Aug 6 '15 at 13:17
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    @DavidMulder: Fatalities are not the issue. Yosemite has only black bears. Black bears are not particularly dangerous. They are often no bigger than a German shepherd, and they almost never get aggressive with humans. The issue with black bears is that they're nuisance animals that try to get people's food. The purpose of all the precautions is to keep the bears from getting your food, which is good for you and also breaks the cycle of bears getting dependent on human food. – Ben Crowell Aug 6 '15 at 17:34
  • Ah, that makes a lot of sense! Thanks for the additional explanation :D – David Mulder Aug 6 '15 at 17:44
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    The only black bears no bigger than a German Shepherd are cubs, at least in the eastern US. (Eastern black bears are larger than western.) – Carey Gregory Aug 11 '15 at 23:45
  • Adult black bears are much bigger than a German shepherd, even young ones would be bigger. People tend to see smaller sized ones more often because the adults approach humans less, youngsters and cubs are more curious and less careful. Regarding the bells they work, or anything noisy, you can surprise a bear and they dont react well. For the shirt smelling of food one should be careful but from 6 months before is a bit exaggerated (and one would think the shirt gets washed plenty of times in 6 months) – Erik vanDoren Sep 7 '17 at 12:43
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Bears behave differently in places where they are used to a lot of human activity vs places where they are generally left alone. They learn and adapt. For example, in the Adirondacks in NY, bears have become adept at recognizing and grabbing human food from "bear bags" (food hung from a tree, theoretically out of reach on a limb that won't support the bear's weight) so that they have gradually had to adjust the rules for food storage to keep ahead of the bears, which can be pretty clever and tenacious. The bears there have learned to open some types of bear canisters, so a bear can that is permitted in some parks might not be acceptable in others.

In parks like Yosemite and Sequoia National Park in California, there is enough human activity that bears have learned how to get food from the sealed trunk of cars (through the window, through the back seat). They have a good sense of smell and they will be able to detect where the food is being stored. My guess is that if you have a small tube of toothpaste in the tent but a large amount of food in the bear can they would be more attracted to the stronger smell, but considering that you are supposed to keep the bear can away from your tent, the lighter smell might be enough to attract them.

It's better to be safe than sorry, not just for yourself but for the next person who comes to that area and also for the bear. If a bear becomes aggressive and attacks humans due to that human's carelessness, that bear is likely to start looking in more tents and packs for easy food, so in the US the wildlife services hunt down and destroy bears that attack people, even though it is almost always that person's fault and not the bear's. (And if you break food rules in a US national park and cause a problem with the wildlife, you will be fined heavily in addition to whatever property damage you have to deal with.)

It isn't always about fatalities that have occurred -- it is about preventing problems. In the US, many national parks (Yosemite, Yellowstone) used to have big garbage dumps that attracted the bears and became an attraction for people to come and watch the bears. This was bad for the bears and encouraged them to look for humans to provide their food source, which caused more aggression and other problems. In Yosemite, of course they want to avoid fatalities, but not just for people, also for the bears. (Here's a good discussion of this from Yellowstone.)

Regarding bear bells, it is true that most bears will not generally approach humans. The point of the bear bell is not to frighten the bear away, but alert it that something that isn't prey is coming down the trail. Making a lot of noise as you walk (talking, walking heavily, etc) will have essentially the same effect, so a bear bell probably isn't necessary unless you are hiking alone and/or otherwise being very quiet.

  • Ah wow, 8 decades of human fed bears: I can see how that is a recipe for disaster. Either way, makes a lot of sense what you're saying. What you have any idea whether there are any areas outside the US where such habituation of bears has occurred? – David Mulder Aug 6 '15 at 17:51
  • I'm afraid all my backpacking has been in the US, so I am not sure. :-( My guess is that any place where there is a high human population has that potential. – NadjaCS Aug 6 '15 at 18:10
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After taking a look into it, it appears that the grizzly bears in North America are actually a sub species (ssp.) of European brown bear.

  • Brown Bear = Ursus arctos

    • Grizzly Bear = Ursus arctos ssp.

      • U. a. californicus (Recently extinct California Grizzly)
      • U. a. gyas (Peninsular Grizzly)
      • U. a. horribilis (Mainland Grizzly)
      • U. a. middendorffi (Kodiak bear)
      • U. a. nelsoni (Mexican Grizzly)

The most common Grizzly, and the one I'm familiar with, appears to be the mainland grizzly, or Ursus arctos horribilis. I think the sub species name alone should shed some light as to why people are a bit more wary of the mainland grizzly vs. the eastern brown bears, I imagine they were awarded the designation of horribilis (horrible, dreadful, fearful) to reflect their nature compared to other brown bears.

So the answer appears to be that North American Brown Bears (Grizzlies and Kodiaks) behave different, and are more dangerous than the rest of the brown bears in the world, hence the meticulaous precautions when venturing in their territory.

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I have extensive trekking experience in northern Europe (Sweden, Norway), some in Central Europe (Switzerland, France) and some in the Canadian Rockies.

What I can say about Scandinavia, which has a comparably strong bear population, is that most people do not worry over bear attacks at all.

For example: I have personally spent weeks in the Scandinavian outback, I read many books and talked to a lot of fellow hikers: none out of them consider bears to be a real danger. In the vast wilderness meeting a bear is so very unlikely even the most enthousiastic hikers go their entire lives without ever seeing a bear from afar, let alone getting into a close encounter with it.

I've hiked on long and very popular routes that lead through bear country without ever hearing about bear hangs, bear canisters, bear sprays or any other anti-bear measure.

  • Oh wow, I mean, it's similar in central Europe that you can live there all your life and - like me as well - never see a brown bear (though ironically a friend I brought over for a one week hike from western Europe saw one within the first 3 hours in the country xD ), however people do take it somewhat seriously as you for example would store your food away from your camp and stuff (though I think most people don't hang their food, but then again, camping out in the open is forbidden). – David Mulder Aug 10 '15 at 17:41

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