Ask anyone who has spent any time in the wilderness about their greatest concern when heading into the wild, and chances are they will mention an encounter with a wild animal — especially bears. Fatal bear attacks are rare — only eight deaths have been reported since 2010 — but both black bears and brown, or grizzly, bears have been known to go after humans that enter their territory. Even a short encounter with a bear can leave a backpacker shaken. There’s nothing like coming nose-to-nose with a mama bear to make someone want to get out of the woods and find a good place to book a cheap flight back to civilization.
When you’re headed to a place like Banff, which has a larger-than-average population of bears, understanding exactly what to do when you encounter one of these powerful animals can mean the difference between an entertaining story to share back at camp and a tragic one told at a memorial service.
Why Bears Attack
The best way to avoid or survive an encounter with an angry bear is to understand why bears attack in the first place. The vast majority of bear attacks are defensive; in other words, they are defending something, usually their young or a food source, against an unwanted intrusion. Almost everyone knows not to get in between a mother bear and her young. Even an innocent hiker can become the victim of a vicious attack if he wanders between a female bear and her cubs. Bears will also attack if they believe that a human is getting in the way of their food supply. For example, in 2001 a hunter in Montana was killed by a bear as he was field dressing an elk he’d brought down. Game wardens believed that the hungry bear was simply removing a perceived obstacle to a food source.
Less common are predatory attacks on humans, which seem to be random. Grizzly bears are more likely to hunt human victims as food, but black bears have been known to attack as well. Some of the more vicious attacks on humans have fallen outside the scope of normal bear behaviour, and have been attributed to disease or other factors, but it’s not unheard of for a bear to attack for seemingly no reason.
Because bears generally only attack for one of these two reasons, your primary job when backpacking the trails of Banff is to pay attention. Heed the warning signs about bears in the area, and if you’re planning to stray beyond well-traveled areas, hire a guide who can help you identify areas where bears may be present and avoid places where bears are known to feed.
When Bears Attack
While avoiding bears is your best defense against an attack, if you do happen along a bear, you can prevent serious injuries.
First, stop. While you first instinct may be to turn around and run or climb a tree, you do not want the bear to see you as a threat — and besides, they can quickly overtake you and climb trees. Instead, back away slowly, making as much noise as possible. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources recommends carrying an air horn or whistle when you hike; the more noise you make, the more likely the bear will be frightened and leave you alone. As you back away, never take your eyes off of the bear, and watch for signs of an impending attack. In general, if a bear huffs, pops its jaw or stomps a paw on the ground, it simply wants you to back away and give it space.
If the bear makes a move toward you, though, you need to react. Again, do not run. Instead:
- Drop any food you’re carrying; toss it far away from you, as the bear may be more interested in that than you.
- Drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach with your legs apart, and cover your head and neck. In many cases, the bear will either leave, or spend a few moments sniffing you. Do not get up until you’re sure the bear is gone.
- If the bear makes contact, fight back. Spray pepper spray (always include some in your pack) and use sticks, rocks or other weapons to fight back.
If you encounter a bear, regardless of whether it attacks, report the sighting to the nearest ranger or information centre, noting exactly when and where you saw the animal. Doing so will help rangers keep track of the animals and warn other backpackers.
Again, the chances of a bear encounter are usually small, even in Banff, and the vast majority of people spend days in the wilderness without any sign of the creatures. But knowing what to do if you have an unexpected encounter will keep you out of harm’s way.