Coming face-to-face with a bear may be the last thing on your mind when you walk out the door, but people often wind up too close to these intimidating animals. In fact, there are an estimated 43,237 encounters between people and black bears each year in North America. In the Greater Yellowstone area alone, researchers recorded 995 conflicts between people and grizzly bears between 1992 and 2000 [sources: Spencer, Gunther]. Bears have approached and even attacked cars and campers and entered campsites or garbage cans looking for food. They're also sometimes attracted to commercial beehives, livestock and other property. On very rare occasions, a bear may even try to prey on a human [source: Herrero].
Even though the majority of person-bear encounters end with no injuries, most people would rather avoid getting too close to these powerful predators in the first place. However, as people visit wildlife areas in larger numbers and build more homes in bear habitats, it becomes increasingly difficult for the two species to avoid each other. Some people use firearms as a defense against bear attacks, but guns hurt more people than bears in these situations and are generally not allowed in most national parks [sources: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Park Service]. Wildlife experts and engineers have created another option by inventing gear designed to help keep bears away -- and to help you escape safely if you end up too close to a bear.
There are many types of bear protection gear to choose from, ranging from products such as bear-resistant containers, which as act as a deterrent, to bear sprays, which you can use as a form of self-defense in a bear confrontation. Each item serves a specific purpose, and the key to getting any of them to work for you is in understanding when and how to use it.
Read on to find out how bear-resistant containers can keep your food from becoming bear bait.
When people do not store their food properly, bears can become used to looking for food near inhabited areas. Using bear-resistant containers that meet the standards of the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group or the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is one of the best ways for people in bear country to protect their belongings and to lower the chances of contact between bears and people [sources: National Park Service, The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group].
Bear-resistant containers come in many sizes and shapes. Small, lightweight food canisters made of high-strength polymers can hold a few days' worth of food for a camper and are made to withstand the force of a bear. Bear-resistant steel barrels have locking lids that keep bears from opening them. Cooler-sized food containers made of heavy-gauge aluminum have lids with internal hinges that bears cannot break, and they're insulated to block some of the smells of the contents. You can also find large, walk-in bear-resistant containers designed for bulk storage of food or other things that may attract bears. There are even special bear-resistant dumpsters, since bears can easily learn to open the latches on regular dumpsters.
Bear-resistant containers often work better than other ways of trying to keep food away from bears, since both black bears and grizzlies are very clever and determined when it comes to getting your food. In the past, bears have broken the windows out of cars and popped the tops off of campers in pursuit of a meal. When campers have tried suspending their food from tree branches, bears have bitten through branches and even climbed up in the tree and "dive-bombed" onto the package of food. Some rock climbers reported that a bear got the food they had suspended from a cliff by pulling the package up by the rope. At least one smart black bear learned to swim out to rafts where campers had stashed their food on a pond [source: The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group].
Bear-resistant containers trump all of these tricks since only human hands can open them, and since they can withstand a bear's brute force. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approves containers as grizzly-resistant only if the weakest part of the container can withstand the force of a 100-pound (45-kilogram) weight dropped from a height of 2 feet (0.609 meters), and if the container can withstand 135 pounds (61 kilograms) of force made with a pointed metal rod on areas where a bear could bite [source: Windell]. Make sure to close your bear-proof containers, and put them in a safe place at least 100 feet (30.5 meters) from your campsite, away from any cliffs or bodies of water. Bears can sometimes still smell food inside of bear-resistant containers, and you don't want a curious bear to come into your campsite or knock your food over a cliff or into a lake [source: National Park Service].
Bear-resistant containers are a great way to keep bears out of your food, but what can you do if you think a bear is about to attack you? Read on to learn about bear deterrent spray.
Bear Deterrent Sprays
We are all familiar with pepper spray as a self-defense tool against human attackers, but you can use it to defend yourself against a bear attack, too. Many people who are hiking, camping, rafting or working in areas where bears live carry a canister of bear spray just in case of a dangerous encounter with a bear.
Bear sprays use the same active ingredients as pepper spray: 2 percent hot pepper extracts such as capsaicin and oleoresin capsicum. The big difference between regular pepper spray and bear spray is the reach of the spray; one popular bear spray promises a spraying distance of 30 to 35 feet (9.1 to 10.7 meters), while conventional pepper spray canisters have a reach less than half that long [sources: UDAP, Self Defense Products]. The longer reach of bear sprays allows people to use the spray against a charging bear from a safer distance.
While bear experts recommend doing things to avoid a close encounter with a bear, such as storing food and garbage the right way and making noise to keep from surprising a bear, sometimes a person will still come in close contact with a bear in the wild. If this happens to you, experts have advice on how to handle yourself in order to avoid an attack.
If you see a bear in the wild, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends that you give the bear plenty of space, and avoid getting between a sow and her cubs. If the bear gets close to you, speak in a calm voice and wave your arms to let the bear know that you are human. Back away slowly and diagonally. If the bear stands on its hind legs, it is probably just trying to see and smell you better. Never run from a bear: Bears can run up to 35 mph (56 kph), and they have a predator's instinct to chase anything that runs from them. If you back away from a bear and it follows you, stop and stand your ground. If the bear gets too close to you, you should wave your arms, shout, and bang pans or make other loud noises. This will usually frighten the bear away [source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game].
If these behaviors do not work and you need to protect yourself, bear spray is a good choice. Researchers in Minnesota and Michigan found that most black bears will run away if a person uses bear spray on them, although one large, aggressive male returned and had to be sprayed three more times [source: Rogers]. Researchers in Alaska found that, among people who reported using bear spray to protect themselves, the bears stopped the unwanted behavior 90 percent of the time with black bears, 100 percent of the time with polar bears and 92 percent of the time with grizzlies [source: Smith]. While bear behavior is unpredictable, bear spray seems to be a reliable tool for defending yourself.
Bear spray can help during a conflict with a bear, but what can you use to avoid the conflict in the first place? Read on to learn about bear bells and bear electric fences.
Bears don't like surprises. That's why most bear attacks happen when people have accidentally surprised a bear [source: Smith]. One way to keep this from happening is to make noise, and some hikers use bear bells to do that.
Bear bells are small metal bells like sleigh bells. Hikers tie single bear bells or clusters of bells to their boots, backpacks or walking sticks. The idea is that -- since the bells don't sound like any natural forest noise, and since bears almost always want to avoid people -- the bear bells will keep the bears away.
Many hikers swear by bear bells as a good way to keep from accidentally running into bears. However, research on bear bells is not conclusive. A study in Alaska found that hikers who used bear bells lowered their risk of grizzly bear charges [source: Jope]. Scientist Tom Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center noticed that grizzly bears turned around and looked when he snapped a pencil to imitate twigs breaking or made a huffing noise similar to what bears make, but they did not react at all to the sound of bear bells [source: Manning]. Noted bear expert Stephen Herrero thinks it's possible that curious bears may actually be attracted to bear bells, and people have reported that loud, abrupt noises like the sounds of boat horns or small gas canister horns seem to work better for keeping bears away [source: Herrero].
The bottom line that everyone can agree on is that it's a good idea to make noise to avoid surprising a bear, especially when visibility is bad. Some people wear bear bells, while others blow horns or whistles, clap, shout "hey bear," or make other loud noises at regular intervals. Herrero prefers to yodel.
What about when you're at your campsite, minding your own business? There are ways to deter bears from approaching you there, too. Keep reading to learn about electric bear fences.
Electric Bear Fences
Under the right conditions, electric bear fences can be a great tool for campers, backpackers, kayakers or hunters. They are also good for keeping bears away from bee hives, food caches, smoke houses and field camps. Wildlife biologist Tim Peltier was grateful for his fence the day he heard a "pop" while he was cooking dinner at his campsite and turned around to see a bear running away. He hadn't heard the bear sneaking into the campsite from behind him, attracted by the food smells [source: Woodford].
Engineers first developed electric bear fences in the 1930s. The first bear fences were cumbersome to move, but modern versions are much more portable; some handy models fit easily into a backpack. One larger electric bear fence is powered by a 12-volt car battery and a solar charger, while some smaller fences weigh only a few pounds and use 2 D-cell batteries [source: Woodford].
Bear fences come with an energizer, fence poles, a grounding rod and connectors, fencing line, a volt meter and an alarm. They work by giving the bear a short, intense shock when it touches the fence [source: National Park Service]. The shock is not strong enough to hurt the bear, but bears, like people, don't like to be shocked. Researcher John Gookin says that, when a bear touches an electric bear fence, it "cries like a baby and runs away," and will stay away from the fence after that [source: Woodford]. A properly used electric bear fence is a good way to teach curious bears to stay away from your campsite.
To use a bear fence the right way, you need to set it up well. Clear all vegetation away from the bottom wire, and make sure the fence has a good ground -- you can check with the voltage meter to make sure. Remember to turn the fence on and shut the gate, and handle the equipment carefully to make sure you don't break any of the more delicate parts [source: National Park Service].
Conditions can affect how well an electric bear fence works. The ground wires work best in damp ground, and don't work well in sand or gravel. Rain and damp snow can interfere with the fence's effectiveness, and the fence works only as long as its batteries do [source: Woodford].
The National Park Service warns that electric bear fences are not foolproof. A bear that is being chased by another bear can easily break through the fence. They also warn that the fence is never a replacement for clean campsite maintenance and proper food handling, since a bear that is hungry enough might ignore the shock if the temptation is strong [source: National Park Service]. But using an electric bear fence along with good bear country etiquette is a great way to keep large, furry uninvited guests away from your campsite.
For more information on bear protection and other wilderness survival tips, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "The essentials for traveling in bear country." Division of Wildlife Conservation. Web. 9 Dec 2009. http://www.wc.adfg.state.ak.us/index.cfm?adfg=bears.bearfax
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- Herrero, Stephen. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. 2002. Print.
- Jope, Katherine, and Bo Shelby. "Hiker behavior and the outcome of interactions with grizzly bears." Leisure Sciences 6.3 (1984): 257-70. Web. 8 Dec 2009. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content=a913128883&db=all
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- National Park Service. "Firearms for personal protection." Alaska Public Lands Information Centers. Web. 15 Dec 2009. http://www.nps.gov/aplic/firearms.pdf
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- Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. "Clever tricks black bears will perform to get your food." Food storage. http://www.sierrawildbear.gov/foodstorage/index.htm
- Smith, Tom, and Stephen Herrero. "A century of bear-human conflict in Alaska: analyses and implications." Brown and black bear projects. 31 May 2007. Alaska Science Center - Biological Science Office, Web. 10 Dec 2009. http://www.absc.usgs.gov/research/brownbears/attacks/bear-human_conflicts.htm
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- UDAP. "Bear spray specifications." Pepper Power Bear Spray. 23 Nov 1999. Web. 8 Dec 2009. http://www.udap.com/Bearspecifications.htm
- Windell, Keith. "Bear-resistant containers for rafters." USDA Forest Service. Aug 2006. Web. 8 Dec 2009. http://www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/htmlpubs/htm06232307/index.htm>
- Woodford, Riley. "Shocking bears: electric fences for bear country campers." Alaska Fish and WildlifeNews. Alaska Division of Fish and Game. Web. 2 Dec 2009. http://www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlife_news.view_article&articles_id=174