Forget exaggerated TV-shows or cliche rumors from your Alaskan uncle. Here’s the honest, scientific lowdown on these beautiful forest kings:
Do not get psyched up
If you thru-hike the PCT, you will very likely encounter at least one bear. If not, you should be a little disappointed, I think. So hope for it, don’t fear it.
Bears are shy and scared
Bears are shy animals and when you see them, you’ll likely see their ass, because they are running away from you, as if you were Godzilla. It’s an impressive sight to see a 700lbs clumsy-looking fluffy animal accelerate to 25 mph in 3 steps (40 kmh). Humans are very large animals in the forest so the bears escape in a straight line, kamikaze through the forest and bulldozing anything in their frenzy attempt to flee from the most dangerous and violent animal on planet Earth: you, a member of a notorious specie, the Homo Sapien.
Safety in numbers
A risk of an attack decreases exponentially with the size of your group. A lone hiker is more likely to get attacked than a group of three hikers, so bundle up if you’re scared. A bear attack has never been reported on a group of 6 or more. Got kids? Keep an adult on the front and possibly
Yes, the cliche about the mom protecting her cubs is true. So if you see cubs, try to spot the mom and do not get between them. Back away, facing the group and walk a detour around them. Much more likely, the bear-family will escape before this becomes relevant.
Do not surprise ’em
A surprised bear can be a dangerous bear, as it in a spur of panic might succumb to the ancient strategy: “best defense is an offense”. So don’t try to sneak up on a bear for a photo, keep your distance. If he has seen you and appear calm and unaffected, you can enjoy the encounter from afar, do not stalk him. Keep your backpack on, it makes you appear larger and hence more dangerous to the bear. Do not linger for too long and back away if he starts to act aggressively.
Is it aggressive?
These are signs of an aggressive bear: front paws scraping the ground, repetitive head-motion from side to side and growling. Back away slowly facing the bear while talking out loud to make it clear that you are a human. Hold your hands/trekking poles stretched out above your head and shake nearby branches to increase your visual size. A bear that stands on his rear-feet is normally only trying to get a better view of whats going on, don’t be scared yet.
And what if the bear actually attacks?
If a bear runs towards you, stand your ground, keep your backpack on, do not run away. Not even Usain Bolt could outrun a bear anyway, so do not try. 4 out of 5 bears running at you are “bluffing”, meaning that he intends to intimidate you and he will stop 10-15 feet in front of you as he likely doesn’t want the confrontation anymore than you do. As his “bluff charge” isn’t working, he will leave you, immediately afterward. If you run, he might likely bash you to the ground, which could leave you with very serious injuries. Granted, it takes a helluva Bad Ass attitude to remain calm and stand-your-ground when a 700lbs bear is charging at you with 25 mph, but this is what you desperately need to do, in order to stay safe. So mark my words: do not run.
In case the bear actually does attack you, throw yourself on the ground and cuddle into a fetus-position with your legs underneath your stomach, while protecting your neck with your hands. As always, keep your pack on, it serves as a turtle-shield. Lay still. The bear will likely bash you a bit to make sure you’re not dangerous and then leave you, as he won the competition of who is strongest. It is extremely unlikely that he will kill you.
The danger: habituated bears
A wild bear is likely a safe bear. As bears get accustomed to humans, they lose their fear and a confrontation is much more likely. So be careful around National Parks, camp grounds and wilderness parking lots where some bears could be habituated to humans and trashcans. Ask the rangers if there are any rouge bears around.
Very few thru-hikers want to carry a bear-spray because of weight reasons and possibly also some philosophical reasons. If you do want a mean of defense, bear-spray is extremely effective. Practice the use of the spray before you need it, so you know the range and the shape of the gas-cloud it sprays. Never ever spray if you are facing headwind. Leave the area immediately after you’ve sprayed to avoid being affected yourself. Understand that bear-spray is basically a pepper-spray on steroids and does not work preventive like mosquito-spray: spraying your camp or tent at night will only attract bears from afar as they will detect the smell and go investigate it to see if it’s food.
Bear-spray is easy to administer, complete pacifies the bear that will retreat while leaving no permanent damages to the animal. It will also decrease the risk that the bear will approach humans ever again. Therefore, it is the preferred mean of defense. A gun or riffle is statistically far less effective, mainly because most people are poor at operating a weapon and will not hit the bear. Furthermore, legal framework around carrying firearms in national parks, wilderness reserves, on private land, in resupply-towns, hunting permits and limited windows of hunting season makes it nearly impossibly to thru-hike with a firearm. Finally, the heavy weight of a firearm completely underlines the conclusion: it has no practical use as animal-defense on any hike.