I have decided to write a post about black bears. The reason for it is that there are a lot of posts on backpacking sites and forums. And there is much incorrect information out there.
For example, recently I read somewhere that 99% of black bears in Michigan reside in the Upper Peninsula!… So, out 17,000 Michigan bears, only 170 would live in the Lower Peninsula!… Really?!!!
Then, in another post, the writer claimed that bear have an excellent eye sight!? Much better, than humans!… Again, where is this coming from?!…
But let’s get back to the total population and more correct numbers. According to the Michigan DNR the total population of black bears is somewhere between 15,000 and 19,000 bears. Out of that, 10%, or 1,500 to 1,900 live in the Lower Peninsula. State issues quite large number of hunting permits, which reduces the population by somewhere from 2,000 to 5,000 each year.
According to Michigan DNR, most black bears in the state have black fur. The size depends on age, sex, diet and season. Adult females are generally smaller than males. In Michigan, female bears range from 100 – 250 pounds. The males – from 150 – 400 pounds. Most likely, similar weight would be encountered in other Great Lake states and a Canadian province of Ontario.
The bears are heavier than they appear. I, once talked with a ranger in Grand Teton National Park, about a small black bear that I saw earlier that day. He asked me about to estimate its weight. I said: Maybe 100 pounds. He replied: They are not that light, the small ones are about 300…
Adult black bear measures about three feet high. In the wild, the black bears live between about 20 to 30 years. Male range can cover as much as 100 square miles. Female’s is a lot smaller – about 10 – 20 square miles.
Black bears are omnivores and eat pretty much anything. They are opportunistic feeders. They will eat green vegetation, insects, like ants and bees, wild berries, acorns and nuts. But also human garbage, bird seeds and any human food.
In Michigan, black bears “hibernate” from late October till April or May.
According to the DNR, black bears are shy by nature. When you are in the woods, a bear, that either heard you or got a sent of you, would most likely run away before you even know it was there. “Bears have natural fear of humans.” However, bears that associate food with humans can be dangerous.
These are very general statements about bears’ behavior, and I don’t know if I can totally agree with. Not that I am a bear expert. However, over the years I watched many videos, and read many books about bears and also, rarely, encountered them. I, also, talked to many people who had encounters with black bears. There is some evidence out there suggesting that bears are not always afraid of humans. They are very curious animals. And sometimes that curiosity is stronger than any fear.
Few years ago, I watched a video of two guys hiking in the woods when they got approached by a black bear. While the bear, most likely, did not have any aggressive intentions, it approached them. It most likely wanted to sniff them, but they did not feel comfortable with the bear getting that close to them. So, they started yelling and throwing rocks. The bear ran away, but then again tried to approach them. The situation kept repeating itself, while they were backing away from the bear… (Here is the link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMHJ_h0MQgM&t=9s)
Additionally, there is this YouTube video of a hunter seating in a tree. All of a sudden a bear comes over, sniffs under a tree and gets a sent of a human up. Then in less than two seconds they bear is up there right by the hunter sniffing him all over for few long seconds. Then, as quickly as it got up there, it dropped down to the ground and wondered away. (Not exactly, the one that I saw, but similar. This just illustrates how common it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rb4UgTUMph0)
Personal Bear Experience in Pictured Rocks
So, do not always expect the bear to leave you alone. While in most cases, it will leave the area before you can see it, it is not always the case.
So, here comes a story from personal experience. Years ago, I was backpacking in Pictured Rocks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a big group of people. I think there were about 10 of us. At one point we come upon a steaming pile of fresh bear scat right on the trail. It was a cold spring day, so there was a literal steam evaporating from the scat, which meant it was fresh and still pretty warm. I looked around. The vegetation around wasn’t thick and you could see for a relatively good distance into the forest. However, I could not spot a bear. Yet, it must have been right there a minute ago…
Sometimes, the issue is that the breeze is coming towards you from the bear’s direction, and the bear cannot smell you. Because of vegetation between the bear and you, it cannot see you. So, if the bear cannot get a sent of you, if you don’t make noise, it doesn’t know you are there. This can lead to a surprise and attack.
Personal Bear Encounter in Grand Tetons
Let me once again refer to my encounter with a black bear, this time in Grand Teton National Park.
I was hiking down the mountain along trail that switched backed and forth through some dense vegetation. It was an early evening. Since, I was alone, I was whistling to make some noise.
At one point I heard a noise of breaking tree branch. I quickly realized, that it was not a noise of a little twig breaking, but one that fairly thick piece of wood would make. I remember thinking, that it was not a squirrel that broke it, but some big animal.
Then, I came around a turn of a trail and walked few steps down. All of a sudden, a small back bear come out from the side onto the trail. The bear was probably some 50 feet away from me. It did not see me. (So, here I would question experts’ claims that bears have very good vision. This bear, even though, it got really close to me, never saw me.)) It began running up the trail in my direction. I began backing up the trail towards the turn. The bear kept approaching, oblivious of my presence. When it was only about 10 – 15 feet away from myself, it turned sideways and left the trail disappearing in the bushes.
The bear never even saw me. It happened so fast, that I could not even think whether I should shout at it, or do anything else.
Had it kept going towards me, it would finally realize that I am there. That could lead to a confrontation. Obviously, my whistling wasn’t loud enough to let the bear know that I am in the area.
What they tell you to do when hiking in black bear country
So, when you are hiking alone, make sure you make enough noise that any bear that might be close, will hear you.
I’ve been backpacking in Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas for over 30 years and have never seen a bear. But, I talked to many people, that have.
Many, especially official, websites encourage you to hang your food, and keep your tent and the tent site clear and free of any food traces. They state, that by doing this, you will prevent any bear incidents. While, I agree with keeping the site clean and hanging your food, I do not agree with the statement that it will keep you completely safe from bears. You do not know, who camped there a night before. Maybe, the people camping there, spilled food all over the campsite. You will not be able to smell it, but a bear will.
Often, when somebody gets attacked or killed by a bear, the human is considered to cause the attack. Like the guy, who had candy wrapper in his pocket. But really was it the candy wrapper that the bear smelled? Or was it other food traces left in the campsite by somebody else?… Or was it just overly curious bear?…
The officials usually tend to blame the person, trying this way to calm the potential tourist’s mind, that if he/she keeps it clean, he/she will be fine and safe. However, the truth is not that simple, and if you decide to hike, camp, or do any other activity in bear country, you have to assume that there is a risk. It might be very small, but it is there. And you can prepare to mitigate it to some degree.
What to do when hiking in bear country to avoid trouble
So, what can you do to minimize a bear encounter?… What can you do when it happens anyway?…
- Hike, travel in bear country in a group, if possible. I, recently, read an article about the size of a group where you are safe from bear attacks. In Banff National Park, by analyzing statistical data they determined that a group of four or more people has never been attacked by a bear.
I have read long time ago about and encounter of a big group of hikers with a grizzly mother and cubs. They walked right in between the mother and her offsprings. The female bear began to charge. People began to yell and wave their arms in the air. The bear got scared and ran away abandoning her cubs… This is probably an extreme case, and I would not ever try to chase a mother bear away from her cubs. However, it is a good example of how unpredictable bears are.
- Make a noise, especially if you are there alone. Make enough noise that any bear in the immediate area can hear you and is not surprised by you, or even worse, gets cornered in a spot without an exit.
There are bear bells out there, especially out west, in the grizzly country, that supposed to do the trick. However, those that I have seen, do not make enough noise to alert the bear of your presence.
This is all good, during the day, when you are hiking, but what to do at night while camping in bear country.
- Hang your food, far away, that if the bear smells it, it will not come to your camping area.
I have backpacked in many areas that have bears (both black and grizzly), and at night I always hang my food bag. And I had never a bear visit in the campground, at night.
- Never prepare or cook food in your tent. Do it away from your camping area.
- If you spill food on your clothes, wash them, or pack them away in your food bag that you hang.
When you cannot avoid the encounter
Sometimes, just because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you cannot avoid the bear encounter. Therefore, when you are hiking and camping in a bear country, you should carry bear spray with you.
Now, just because the bear approaches you, it doesn’t mean it wants to attack you. It might be just curious… Remember the video of the bear checking out the hunter in the tree stand.
So, when a bear approaches, it comes to the level of comfort that you have with a potentially dangerous animal that is close to you.
I know that a lot of people nowadays carry a handgun with them when hiking or backpacking. Expert claim that bear spray is a lot more effective weapon against bears than guns. One thing is that you do not have to aim the spray exactly at the bear. The spray stream spreads at it travels the distance, not like a single bullet. Second, with guns, you have to be careful what is behind the bear when you are shooting, or you might hit some unintended target, if you miss. And the chances that you miss, are great. The black bear can move awfully fast – up to 30 miles per hour… Just check some YouTube videos.
Let’s say, you are camping with a group of friends. Everybody is in their one person tent in a relatively small area. At night, you get awaken by a bear trying to get into your tent. You panic, you grab your handgun to shoot at the bear, but then your buddy’s tent might be just behind the bear… What happens if you miss?!…
Of course, you could claim that bear spray would be completely useless when you are inside the tent… This is true… In such a case, it might be important for you to get out of your tent as quickly as possible..
Therefore, it might be a good idea to go to sleep in a tent with a knife. Not to fight the bear!… If a bear decides to pull your tent or knock it down, it might be difficult to find the zipper and unzip the door to get out. Instead, with a quick slash of a knife you can create an opening in the wall of the tent to quickly get out of it.
As far as using the bear spray, there are a lot of conflicting advise out there. Some official instructions tell you to use it when a bear is 20 feet away. Some experts claim that since the bear can run as fast as 30 miles per hour (about 40 feet per second), you should start spraying when the bear is 60 feet away.
Now, I have never used the bear spray against a bear (even though I always carry it), so I have no personal experience. But watching the videos where bears chase people on foot, or even on bikes, I have never seen a bear running at the maximum speed. So, most likely, the charging bear will not approach you at 40 feet per second. So, I would probably stick with the distance of 20 to 30 feet. Spray for two, three seconds and stop. You might have to use the spray again later, so you do not want to use it all at once.
Of course, a lot of the above talks of the worst case scenarios, when the bear attacks… Most of us, have been hiking and backpacking in bear country for years, and never had a problem. However, it still is a good idea to be prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best!…
The bottom line is that bears are to some degree unpredictable. Some are timid, some aggressive and some overly curious. While at many times they will behave as described in literature, sometimes you have to be prepared for the unexpected… This why I always carry a bear spray, even though, I never had to use it.
When camping in the area inhabited by black bears, it’s a good idea to always check well the entire campsite for traces of trash and food leftovers from previous campers. If you find anything, move to another campsite, if possible, or camp away from the campground, if dispersed camping is allowed.