Predator Safety Precautions

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Photo credit: US National Park Service

By Carley Fairbrother

I’ve written a few pieces on bear safety for Camping for Women, but I’ve never really covered how to avoid them when you are on the trail, or what to do when you come face to face with them.

Now before I get started, I want to attempt to alleviate any bear fears you may have. In 2017 Conservation officers in my home province of British Columbia killed 373 bears because of humans encroaching into its habitat. Hundreds more were killed by cars, trains, hunters, or people defending themselves or their property. In the same years, only two humans were killed by bears across all of North America. Humans kill bears much, much more often than they kill us. The thought of being in the presence of a large predator may get us antsy, but I want to encourage you not to spend your time on the trail fretting about predators. Bears and other large animals desperately want to avoid us. Attacks are the rare exception, not the norm.

 

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Problem bears are sometimes relocated, but they often have to be killed by game wardens or park rangers. Photo from US National Park Service.

 

I also thought I’d touch on a few other potentially dangerous animals in North America. I’ll get to them at the end.

Regardless of the animal you’d like to avoid, there are a few precautions you should take when hiking in these creatures’ habitat.

 

Avoidance and Being Prepared

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Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service

Make noise

Regardless of the animal you are trying to avoid, it’s always a good idea to make noise as you travel. If you surprise an animal, it’s going to have a fight or flight response. The closer you are and the bigger the animal, the more likely it is that it will be a fight response. Lots of warning will allow the creature to move out of the way. They generally want to avoid you more than you want to avoid them. If I’m not chatting with a friend, I periodically shout out “Hey Bear” or “Way-Oh.” Some people opt for wearing a bell or clapping, but human voice allows animals to identify you as human. Make extra noise when it’s windy, or if you are hiking near a stream or through dense underbrush. Hiking in groups is a great way to make noise, but as a person who loves solo hiking, I can’t really condemn hiking alone. If you hike alone, be extra vigilant and make sure that you are making lots of noise.

Be Aware

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Watch for tracks like this brown bear track

 

Always stay aware the you are hiking. Watch for tracks, scat (poop), and scratch marks on trees. Cougars and other cats usually bury their scat, but bears will often poop on the trail. Its appearance differs depending on what it’s been eating. If it’s berry season, it will have a lot of seeds in it and will often be purple or red. Anything with hair is going to belong a wild predator. Also, if you find a dead animal, leave the area immediately, especially in grizzly country. Grizzlies are extremely protective of their food.

 

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Photo credit: US National Park Service.

 

Predator safety also means putting the iPod away when you are hiking. Not only are the sounds of nature amazing, but you also want to be listening for any big animal that may be nearby.

 

Keep your Dog on a Leash

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Photo credit: US National Park Service. 

There are a number of reasons to keep your dog on a leash, and predator safety is certainly one of them. Imagine this scenario:

Your dog catches the scent of a bear and decides to investigate. Once it finds the bear and starts baking at it, it realizes it’s in over its head and runs back to the safety of its owner with the bear following close behind. Not a situation you want to be in.

If your dog doesn’t bring a bear chasing towards you, it could also get attacked and seriously hurt or killed.

 

Don’t leave garbage or food behind

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Photo credit: US National Park Service.

 

That includes that apple core that you think is just going to decompose. To a bear, that apple is food, which makes you, or another human, the food provider. When bears get used to human food, they start hanging around places like picnic sites and campgrounds and lose their fear of humans. These habituated bears often get killed by park rangers or game wardens. Also, many bears die or get very sick from eating food packaging. Leaving food and garbage behind not only endangers you, but the bears themselves, and everyone who visits the area in the future.

I have written about keeping your camp food and smell free here.

 

Keep children nearby and talk to them about bears and predator safety

A good practice is to have children come to you whenever they see a large animal, even if it’s just a deer. It’s a good habit to get into, so children don’t panic when they see something more threatening. Besides, deer can be dangerous if provoked.

 

Bring Bear Spray for predator safety

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Photo by Carley Fairbrother.

Bear spray is a pepper spray that can be used for predator safety and sprayed at an approaching bear. They have extremely sensitive noses, so it is extremely effective at stopping an attack. I’ve written about my take on bear spray here. Bear spray can also be used on other aggressive animals. Make sure you look up how to use it before heading out on the trail.

 

If You See a Bear

Predator safety rule: Do not run!

A bear might see that as a sign that you are a prey animal. They are very fast runners, even downhill. Black bears are excellent climbers, and many grizzlies can climb as well. Instead, take a moment to assess the situation.

 

Identify its Species

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Photo credit: USDA Forest Service.

 

Knowing what type of bear is the first thing to consider when it comes to predator safety. Grizzly (or brown) bears behave a lot differently than black bears, so it’s important to know what you are dealing with.

A common mistake people make when identifying bears is to go just by colour. Black bears (Ursus americanus) can be brown, blonde, or even white. A grizzly (Ursus arctos) is usually brown with “grizzled experience,” but can be very dark brown or even black.

 

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This grizzly is dark brown, but its shoulder hump and dished face tells us that it is a grizzly. Photo by Carley Fairbrother

 

The first clue is the where you are. In the continental United States, the grizzly range is limited to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and northern Washington. They need large wilderness areas, so you are less likely to run into them near busy trails or campgrounds.

Black bears are smaller than grizzlies (130-315 lbs), with little or no hump on the shoulders. Their rumps will typically be either the same height or higher than its shoulders. Its face has a flat profile, and its ears tend to be taller and more pointed.

 

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A cinnamon coloured black bear. Note its straight facial profile and lack of shoulder hump.

 

 

Grizzly bears are much larger (200-700 lbs). They have a large shoulder hump that sets their shoulder higher than their rump. Their faces are dish-shaped and their ears shorter rounder ears. Their claws are longer and straighter than a black bear’s. They will also often have a ruff on hair on their throat.

 

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Photo credit: US National Park Service.

 

Black bears are more prone to getting habituated, meaning that they get used to humans and learn to associate them with food. They are less aggressive than a grizzly but are more likely to approach a human out of curiosity. They are excellent climbers so they will often tree their cubs rather than attack. When they do attack, it’s usually predatory. This, however, is quite rare.

 

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Black bears will usually send their cubs up a tree rather than fight. Photo Credit: US National Park Service.

 

Grizzly bears will attack to defend their young or their food cache. They will often attack until their subject is dead or not moving.

 

Assess what it’s doing

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Photo by Carley Fairbrother.

 

If it doesn’t see you, and it’s fairly far away, enjoy the moment, but keep your distance. Various national parks recommend giving a bear a distance of 200-300 feet. This is a good guideline to follow.

 

If it’s on the trail, consider rerouting or detouring around it. If it is close, or you can’t re-route, try backing away quietly and approaching again, this time making lots of noise. Carry any small children and have your bear spray ready just in case the bear doesn’t like this idea.

 

If it sees you, identify yourself as human by talking calmly and firmly to it. Pick up any small children and get your bear spray ready. Chances are it will run away before you even utter a word.

 

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Photo by Carley Fairbrother.

 

If it doesn’t run away, continue to talk to it and back away slowly. It may be habituated and has lost its fear of people. DO NOT RUN! Stay close to your group. Make sure the bear has an escape route. Turn around or detour around the bear if you can.

 

If it approaches, stay calm and assess it’s behaviour. There are three main reasons a bear will approach a human. It’s either curious, defensive, or predatory.

 

If it’s curious, it might sniff the air or stand up to get a better look at you. It’s probably trying to decide whether you are food or a threat. Use a calm, firm voice to talk to it and slowly back away. It might want to use the trail you are on, so try moving away from it.

 

A bear standing up is not a sign of aggression. It is usually just trying to get a better view. Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service.

 

If it’s defensive, it’ll be pretty darn scary. A defensive bear will make a lot of noise, woofing, huffing, and snapping its jaws. It will also salivate and put its ears back. It may bluff charge, and turn away at the last minute. If the bear charges, spray you bear spray at around 50 feet (about the length of a bus). The spray will only reach 20 feet, but it will force the bear to run through a cloud to reach you. If the charge starts closer than that, spray it whenever you can. Most defensive attacks are from grizzlies defending cubs or food. If a bear starts to eat you, it has become a predatory attack. Fight with everything you have.

 

Close wild big brown bear in winter forest

 

If a defensive bear attacks, play dead. Lay on your stomach with your hands protecting your neck. Spread your legs out so the bear can’t turn you over. Continue to play dead until the bear has left the area.

 

If it’s predatory, it will continue to move closer, with its attention focused on you. It’s time to stand up for yourself. Make yourself look big, yell, wave your hiking poles, and throw things at it. You can drop a sweater or something to distract it, but do not give it food. Keep your pack on; it can protect your back if the bear attacks. If it gets to within 15 feet and is moving slowly, spray it in the face with bear spray. If it charges from any distance smaller than 50 ft, spray a cloud for it to run through. Predatory bears are almost always black bears. Thankfully, it is also a very rare occurrence.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan.

 

If a predatory bear attacks, fight back with everything you have. Use rocks, sticks, or whatever you can get a hold of and aim for the bear’s muzzle. If you have bear spray and you haven’t used it yet, definitely use it now. Don’t worry about spraying yourself by accident. It’s worth the risk.

If a bear attacks from behind, it has almost definitely predatory. Fight!

 

Some Notes on Other Animals

Cougars

Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service. 

 

Where it comes to predator safety, remember that cougars are solitary hunters. They are excellent stalkers. If you have hiked in cougar country, you have probably been spotted by at least one. While they are skilled hunters they are also very keen to avoid humans. In fact, there have been only two known fatal cougar attacks on humans this millennia. Assume an approaching cougar is predatory. Look big, throw ricks, shout, and use your bear spray. If it attacks fight like crazy.

 

Wolves

Grey wolf, Canis lupus, two beautiful wolves standing in a snowy winter forest. Also known as timber wolf or timberwolf.

 

Deadly wolf attacks are very rare, but when they do they are often predatory. Treat it like you would a predatory bear encounter, or a cougar encounter. Be aggressive and fight back if they attack. Use your bear spray if you have it.

 

Moose (and other ungulates)

Photo by Carley Fairbrother.

 

Yes, moose. Believe it or not, where it comes to predator safety, they scare me more than bears. Twice I have encountered one on a run and had to reroute because it wouldn’t get off the trail. A moose attack will always be defensive. Moose can attack at any time of year, but there are a few times of year to be extra vigilant. Males will defend their territory during the fall rut and females will attack to protect their calves in spring and fall. If a moose approaches you, it is probably trying to warn you that you are too close, especially if its head is down and its ears are back. If a moose charges, it’s okay to run. They will not mistake you for food. Get behind something solid like a tree as fast as you can. If you can’t make it curl up into a ball and cover your neck. Don’t move until the moose is gone.

Bighorn sheep, deer, elk, bison, and mountain goats have all attacked humans. Treat them the same as a moose. It should go without saying, but the bigger the animal, the more wary you should be.

 

Predator Safety: Can you Remember all that?

Okay, this is a lot to remember, and you probably aren’t going to break out a flow chart when you find yourself face to face with a bear. So here are a few bare bones (or bear bones, rather) tips:

  • Make noise when you hike
  • Never, ever, ever run from a bear or other predator.
  • If you come across one on the trail talk to it calmly yet firmly and slowly back away. Get your bear spray out and be ready.
  • If it is a grizzly, it will probably act defensively. Do everything to make yourself non threatening. Speak calmly to it and back away.
  • If it’s black bear, and it’s approaching or following you, assume it is predatory. Be aggressive and fight back if it attacks.

 

Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service

 

Other Predator Safety/Animal Attack Facts

  • Mosquitos are the deadliest animals in the world, killing 725,000 people per year through mosquito borne diseases such as malaria.
  • Humans take second place, killing 475,000 other humans each year.
  • In 2013 a man in Belarus died from a beaver attack after he got to close trying to take a photo. The beaver bit him and severed a major artery, causing him to bleed to death.

 

Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service.

 

Please note, all photos taken by me were taken with a lot of camera zoom from a guarded grizzly viewing platform in Hyder, Alaska.

In the interests of predator safety, please never attempt to get close to bear or other wildlife to get a photo. It’s not worth the risk.

 

Carley Fairbrother is the creator and host of the YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods, geared at getting adults outside and connecting with nature.

After a seven year career as a backcountry park ranger, she returned to school to get her Bachelor of Education and dedicate her life to helping kids get outside.

She loves to travel, but is most at home in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

She enjoys hiking, climbing, canoeing, building forts, and eating bugs.

51 thoughts on “Predator Safety Precautions

  • May 31, 2018 at 11:34 am
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    Oh my gosh, what a great post!!! I was just looking up info on all of this the other day and this post really just lays it all out. When I take off in August to camp across America, I will feel a bit more prepared!! Hope you have an awesome day!

    Reply
    • June 1, 2018 at 5:34 am
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      I’m happy that you found this post useful. I hope you have a great trip!

      Reply
  • May 22, 2018 at 4:01 am
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    I’ve been to different camping sites but I haven’t experienced any encounter with animals. This is very informative. Now I know what to do if ever I meet a predator.

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  • May 22, 2018 at 12:56 am
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    Thank you for these tips! Thankfully we don’t have such kinds of predators where I live. But when we travel, it really pays to be informed of such natural dangers. They can be beautiful from afar but dangerous up close.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm
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    You cannot believe that cute bears depicted in stuffed animals and animation can actually attack people in real life, right? They do pose real danger considering their built and their strength. Would-be hikers ought to remember these tips you mentioned. These might just be able to save their lives come actual hiking time!

    Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 9:02 am
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    This is one of my biggest fears when I go hiking in places that I don’t know. Back home in the UK we don’t have bears so there is no risk of bumping into one on a trail. But when I was living in Romania we did hear about once or twice a year about people who have been killed by bears coming too close to the towns in search for food.

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    • May 21, 2018 at 6:09 pm
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      I hope this helps you fell a little more prepared for hiking in new places.

      Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 8:44 am
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    And we thought bears killed humans more than humans killed bears, but the reality is the opposite. Hiking and camping in the amazing natural environment is an epic experience. The tips are great and I think are meant to protect both humans and the animals.

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  • May 21, 2018 at 7:12 am
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    This post was really interesting for me! You have hit the nail on the head with some really great information that I am going to take with me. Looks like you have had some experience camping. You have to be careful out there after all we are in their territory. This was a great post thumbs up.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 4:46 am
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    It’s really a big misconception that only big animals are really dangerous. Mosquitoes are really rampant in countries near the equator. Here in the Philippines, we really have a hard time solving our dengue problem. It doesn’t help that we have a poor healthcare system in PH.

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    • May 21, 2018 at 10:53 pm
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      You are very right. That’s why I added the bit about mosquitos at the end. I even though of adding a section on mosquitos and ticks, but it didn’t seem to fit. I’m very thankful I live in a place where mosquitos are just an annoyance and not a danger.

      Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 12:11 am
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    Whoa! That’s perhaps the most detailed bear post I’ve ever read. The identification of the spices and learning their behavior is the key in protecting ourselves from it.

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  • May 20, 2018 at 7:16 pm
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    This is really informative and absolutely helpful when this kind of wildlife encounter arises. I have never tried exploring wild places yet or encountered any huge predators like bears or wolves and I know the fact that I am not physically prepared and fit for such unexpected encounters and possible attacks but this information is truly helpful and gave me the idea of what to do and what to expect in case I find myself in such a critical situation.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this.

    Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm
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    This is so much information. Specially the thing that you should not run when you see a bear. Very helpful article and I will share it with friends and family!

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    • May 21, 2018 at 10:50 pm
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      I’m very happy that you found it helpful.

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 4:06 pm
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    This is an excellent and comprehensive post on wilderness safety when hiking solo. A lot of this information I have seen scattered in a lot of different places, but I like how you have consolidated it all here, in addition to mentioning other predators. I have done a lot of hiking here in the Northeast, but because I am so terrified of being ripped apart by a bear, I have always chosen to hike in a large group for safety. Although I’d love to hike solo because then I can go at my own pace and take as many photos and breaks as I’d like, I just feel much safer in a large group.

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    • May 21, 2018 at 9:01 pm
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      I love to solo hike. I just remember to shout periodically and make sure I have my bear spray somewhere I can grab it. Between those two things, I think solo travel is pretty safe. If you hike out of cell phone range, you could consider getting a SPOT device. It allows you to send an emergency satellite signal out if you get in trouble (and OK message, and a help message). It’s not exactly cheap though.

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 2:44 pm
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    Wow you’ve got a lot of wildlife there! I love bears, but seeing them in person is just scary! I won’t be going into the wild there anytime soon, but I hope I’ll be able to remember all your tips when the time comes. There aren’t any bears in my country, just a bunch of snakes and hares. You’ve been through quite the experience!

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 8:55 pm
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      Thanks, I considered adding snakes to this, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them. I decided to stick to the big animals.

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 10:25 am
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    This is an informative article. I learned many new things by reading it. For example, I didn’t know that it’s good to make noise. I thought it should be the other way around. Secondly, the reason for keeping dogs on a leash, which makes sense.

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    • May 21, 2018 at 8:54 pm
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      I’m glad you learned something. Making noise is very important if you don’t want to run into any dangerous creatures (it does, unfortunately, scare off the ones that you might want to see as well, but I think it’s a fair trade-off).

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 8:26 am
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    That was such an informative post. All people who love camping, glamping, and the other outdoor activities should be very happy to read about this. I never knew that beavers can be deadly. I thought that they would never become a predator at some point.

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 8:52 pm
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      I wouldn’t say they are predators Many animals will attack if they are threatened and don’t have an escape route. Trying to get close to an animal that has teeth that can cut down trees seems like a bad idea to me.

      Reply
  • May 20, 2018 at 3:17 am
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    This is very useful information. I do hikes but not in places like that. Only in places where there are a whole lot of people too. I will share this post with my two sons. They love adventure, but I always remind them to stay safe.

    Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 9:01 pm
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    Thank you so much for this article. So much information and such good advice. This is knowledge is worth keeping for future reference.

    Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 6:47 pm
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    This is quite an informative post. The other day I was reading about attacks by bears. As you have rightly pointed out it is important to remain calm in such situations. I had never heard about bear spray though. Also had never known beavers to attack humans.

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 8:50 pm
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      I think just about any animal will attack is it doesn’t have an escape route. Luckily, I think most people are smart enough to try not to get close to any wildlife, especially ones with teeth sharp enough to cut down trees.

      Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 3:56 pm
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    It makes me sad actually after knowing that there were quite a few bears that have been killed, because there were bears that also killed people, which I find it not fair at all. I think with your useful tips, people will surely get to fully aware of how being extra careful while on the trail to avoid close encounters with wild animals and have worst scenario. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 2:56 pm
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    First of all, let me say how impressed I am with your detailed knowledge about all these animals! I agree that most of the time we don’t have a reason to be scared if we act responsibly and that we are more dangerous to bears than they are to us. However, it is so helpful to have all these tips, just in case. I did not even know that there is such a thing as bear spray! So I will definitely remember your blogpost and also show it to my partner in order to be aware of all this when going hiking. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 8:05 pm
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      I’m glad that you learned lots from reading. Bear spray is wonderful protection.

      Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 12:35 pm
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    This post is full of information. I really like the idea of giving lots of warning for animals to move them out of the way. Well, the thought of hiking alone seems very dangerous and should be avoided. Keeping the dog on a leash makes so much sense. Thanks a lot for sharing such useful tips and warnings with us. This post is for a keepsake.

    Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 6:10 am
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    This is an information packed blog. I find it unfair that the bears are culled because humans intrude in their area. The tips you shared are very useful. I did not know that grizzly bear and black bear behave differently.

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 8:16 pm
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      It is unfair. People don’t realize the impact that their trash really causes.

      Reply
  • May 19, 2018 at 3:29 am
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    It’s really unique and great kind of post. But I was scared while reading it. I can not imagine myself face to face with a bear ? it’s too bit-my-tongue kind of a situation if I had to imagine it. But I agree with every point you’ve made. The safety of all these species are of utmost important to our environment as it is for us.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:38 am
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      Well I hope it didn’t scare you away from exploring the woods. As long as you make noise when you hike and remember not to run, you are eliminating two of the most dangerous situations.

      Reply
  • May 18, 2018 at 11:06 pm
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    Some great and awesome safety tips! Unfortunately there are not a lot of places to hike here in England and it is usually freezing when you find a suitable place.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:21 am
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      On the bright side, you don’t have many predators. I watch a few YouTube channels of British hikers. It’s a beautiful country, but it always seems to be raining.

      Reply
  • May 18, 2018 at 8:42 pm
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    Very informative post. I don’t live in the area where they have a lot of bears but cougars and coyotes.

    Reply
  • May 18, 2018 at 1:39 pm
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    What a great post ! We were road tripin in the USA and as an European we were dead scared of the bears at a certain part of the country! We are going back there and I will pin the post for our next visit to the USA. But I must say, I am not sure if I could do any of this because I am sure I would be so scared that I would cry and run by fear! I hope the bear spray is very efficient!

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:35 am
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      In my one scary bear encounter, I found my instincts told me what to do. I used to work in the bush and have had many bear encounters, and only one was really scary. If you can only remember two things, remember to make noise and not run. If you haven’t already gotten some, find some bear spray at any outdoor store. Walmart probably sells them too. I hope you enjoy your road trip.

      Reply
  • May 18, 2018 at 7:21 am
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    Wow. Thanks for sharing. Never thought I’d come across these dangers. It’s great, really detailed and very helpful. With kids it’s more difficult so thanks for covering this aspect as well.

    Reply
    • May 21, 2018 at 6:06 pm
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      I’m glad you found it helpful.

      Reply
  • May 18, 2018 at 2:06 am
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    I spent about 20 years in ski towns and the summers were definately bear season. The bear encounter I will always remember was hiking in Glacier with my ex-husband to Iceberg Lake. A bear family took up residence on the trail and we were up trail from them with about 1/2 dozen other hikers. We watched from a distance for about 45 minutes until they had their fill of berries and the moved on. No big deal, but we were all aware of them. I always hiked with bear spray but never had to use it. I also absolutely agree that moose are more dangerous than bear.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:30 am
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      I haven’t had to use my bear spray yet either, thank goodness. I came close once, but most of my bear encounters have been positive experiences.

      Reply
  • May 17, 2018 at 10:47 pm
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    This is very helpful – especially for those who love to go camping and bushwalking. There’s not much news about bears in bush areas here in Sydney but its good to know about these animals. I didn’t even know what’s the difference between a grizzly and a black bear. Thank you for putting this together.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:26 am
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      I did a few backpacking trips in Australia. It was weird to have to shift my mind away from predators and be more weary if the small critters. You have some amazing and deadly animals over there.

      Reply
  • May 17, 2018 at 10:39 pm
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    I am a travel blogger and go on hikes all over the world. Thanks so much for these tips!

    Reply
  • May 17, 2018 at 9:59 pm
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    Enjoyed that read. Canoed by a moose, in Algonquin Park, at a distance of no more than 5 or so feet. Not on purpose. Luckily it was in a deep bog so running wasn’t an option for it.

    Reply
    • May 19, 2018 at 5:18 am
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      Once all parties escaped with life and limb intact that must have been a pretty neat experience.

      Reply

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