Surviving bears, in theory

20 November 2016

(written by Dave)

Yesterday was a nice spring day in Sydney.  We walked to North Sydney for a local produce market.  Even though the North Sydney rugby team’s mascot is a bear, we did not expect to see bears on our walk home.  But low and behold, we saw a bear – I nervously snapped the photo below to document the encounter.


At this point one might rightly ask why the North Sydney rugby team has a bear as their mascot.  There are no native bears in Australia – a koala is a marsupial and one should never call it a “koala bear” – something you learn in your 3rd or 4th hour after arriving in Australia, the first time you tell an Aussie that you can hardly wait to see a koala bear.

Anyway, all this talk of bears got me thinking that I should maybe do a wee bit of research on bear safety before we get to Alaska next year.  I think we can outrun a koala, but a grizzly, I’m not so sure about.  Nancy is still busy at work, so trip research is one of my many chores (when there is no cricket on the telly).

It is quite amazing how many “Bears and You”, “Bear Safety” and “Living with Bears” website there are out there.  Below is a summary of what I was able to learn.


Brown bear – better known as a Grizzly
Black bear – known simply as a black bear
White bear – AKA a polar bear

The map below shows that by starting in Fairbanks, we don’t have to worry about white bears – good news.  Unfortunately, it also shows that we are pretty much always in brown and black bear country – so this research is probably a good idea.


Many of the sites called a Grizzly bear a brown bear – at least to me, brown bear sounds so much more docile than Grizzly – I liked that.  And if the whole colour thing seems overly simplistic, it probably is.  Upon reading further, I learned that there are cinnamon black bears and black brown bears, and that you should really know the difference between the two.  The pictogram below is supposed to help you identify the difference – it’s actually quite humorous if you think about it.  If you are close enough to note the a difference in ear and/or claw profiles, then you’ve probably got more pressing things to worry about than deciding if is a black or brown bear.



1.     Never leave food out when not in use. Store food in your vehicle or a bear-proof locker.
Wow, great advice for bicycle tourists.  Our “vehicle” is not overly secure.  Guess we better buy one of those bear canisters or bear proof bags.

2.     Use bear-proof garbage cans or dumpster for your garbage.
We are still in discussion as to which bicycle will carry the special bear-proof garbage can.  Alaska is big and for sure we’ll free camp a few times – we’ll have to ride faster when loaded down with smelly garbage, at least until we find one of these special dumpsters.

3.     Keep your camp clean and odour free.
Clearly, the folks who wrote this rule have never ridden a bicycle all day and had to free camp.  Until the next campground and a shower, bicycle tourists will not be odour free.  Guess we’ll have to ride fast again until we can find the next shower.


1.     Choose your campsite carefully.  Do not camp near a trail, salmon stream, animal carcass, garbage, or any backcountry metal fire pit (others may have left food odors).  Do camp in a tent in an open quiet area where you can see and hear nearby wildlife and where they can see and hear you.

Noted.  I never liked camping near carcasses anyway.  And I’m sure that we’ll be the first people to have ever camped at wherever we pull over on the Al-Can highway – sure.

2.     Cook at least 100 feet away from camp, downwind.  Do not cook near your camp, cook smelly foods, sleep in clothes with food odors, or bring any food or lotions into your tent.  Store food, pots, lotions, clothes with food odors, and trash away from camp.  If there are trees, cache your food out of a bear’s reach.  If there are no trees, hang food off of a rock face or a bridge, or store it out of a bear’s sight off the trail and downwind of camp.

This probably means cooking dinner, then moving a mile or so down the road to set up the tent.  We’ve never done that before but we’ll give it a try.  It does beg the question about the clothes you wear while cooking and eating – won’t they smell a bit like, well, food?  Maybe that’s just me.  Hmm, naked cooking?

And learn how to pick good trees for hanging food.  Perhaps Nancy’s childhood spent watching steer-roping at the famous Pendleton Round Up will come in handy as we try to get a rope to hang the food bags on around a high branch on a tree.  Though even that seems relatively complicated – perhaps we need some practice sessions.


Food hanging theory


Food hanging reality

3.     Pack out all trash.  Do not bury garbage, bears have very keen noses and can find buried garbage.  Use a tent.  Do not sleep in the open.

Yup – we got the trash thing.  We’ve now decided that Nancy will have that special garbage can on her bike – problem solved.  [Editor’s note – no, I don’t think so….]   And, I’m sure that the mossies will provide enough reason for us to be sleeping in the tent.


If you encounter a bear, it seems that you should do the following:

Far-away bear  – Turn around and go back to where you came from.  Do not try getting closer for a photo or to identify if it is black or brown – I still haven’t figured out why one should know if the bear was black or brown – now is not the time to discover this.

Close-by bear  – If you see a bear that is close

1.     STAY CALM.  They say that attacks are rare.  Bears may approach or stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you. These are curious, not aggressive, bears.  But, hungry bears don’t wear bibs like you see in the cartoons – so hungry or curious, you can’t really tell the difference (until perhaps it is too late).

2.     BE HUMAN. Stand tall, wave your arms, and speak in a loud and low voice.  I’m especially enjoying watching Nancy walk around the house, with her arms up, using a deep voice to say “HI BEAR, GO AWAY BEAR” – practice makes perfect I guess.

3.     DO NOT RUN! Stand your ground or back away slowly and diagonally. If the bear follows, STOP.

Bear charging you – They say almost all charges are a bluff – if you run, then to the bear, its game on.  Bears can run faster than Usain Bolt.  You don’t want to be the slowest runner in your group running away from a bear – stand your ground even if you are faster than your co-travellers.  Most charging bears veer off at the last second.  If you are still “just standing there”, you’ll probably live, but perhaps need a change of underwear.  Throwing rocks and banging pots and pans were noted as ways of inducing a bear to veer.  If you have the wherewithal to grab your pots and pans at this point, good luck.

One site noted that “climbing a tree” was not a great idea, which seemed obvious to me.  They caveat this with “if you can get 30 feet off the ground, then climb away”.  Bears must fear heights I guess – who knew?

If a bear “gets you”, and it’s a brown bear, play dead – curl up in a ball with your hands laced behind your neck. The fetal position protects your vital organs. Lie still and be silent.  They say that brown bears usually stop attacking once you are no longer a threat (i.e. “dead”).  All of the sites said that at some point, if the “attack” continues, you should fight back – you just have to remember this part before the brown bear kills you – timing is everything.  If the bear is a black bear, or you’ve reached the danger point with a brown bear, fight with anything can get your hands on – a stick, rocks or your bear spray – and your pots and pans of course.  Hit the bear on the nose.  And remember, pay attention to the ears so that you can later identify what type of bear it was when you are recounting the story to your family.


I read somewhere that most people who hike in Alaska’s wilderness don’t carry a weapon. This seems odd, given the reputation that Alaska has for being rightward leaning and gun friendly.  At any rate, we’re not really gun people, so we’ll go without.  Besides, any bear shot in self defence is required to be “salvaged” and turned over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – Nancy won’t have room on her bicycle for that special garbage can and a salvaged bear carcass.

We’ll probably pick up some of the bear pepper spray once we reach Fairbanks.  We’ll get two cans, one for practising to make sure that we know how to use it.  They say that it works if you get the bear “on the nose” and don’t accidently spray it in your own face.  Never spray into the wind – you’ll have trouble identifying the type of bear that is mauling you with pepper spray in your eyes.



1.     Make noise so you don’t surprise a bear. Stay alert and look for signs of bears.
2.     Never approach or crowd bears; respect their “personal space.”
3.     Keep food, garbage and other attractants out of reach of bears.
4.     Cook away from camp.
5.     Stay calm during a bear encounter, talk and wave your arms. Don’t run!
6.     Keep your pots and pans handy.

After 3-4 months, we’ll exit bear country – somewhere near Vancouver, Canada.  Here’s hoping that we’ve got most of this right and arrive there bear safe.

21 thoughts on “Surviving bears, in theory

  1. This book is a good read
    Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance
    by Stephen Herrero

    On our sea kayak trips in bear country we used ursacks ( and we would hang the ursacks.

    I was told once that black bears are “scaredy bears”, so no need to worry about those.😉

      • No bears tried to get at our food. Most of places we travelled very few people travel , so the Bears did not associate people with food. Once I left a bar in my PFD pocket, left if unattended for a while and mouse at chewed through the pocket and eaten a little of the bar.

    • Thanks John – that’s very helpful. I mean who wouldn’t take advice from two Brit/Aussies, living in France (where there are no bears whatsoever!)
      We’ll probably get a second opinion on the up/down wind thing before we depart, just to be sure – no offence. 🙂
      Nancy says hi and wants to know what you guys are up to. How about a blog update?

  2. Hey Dave and Nancy,

    We met a young woman who had been walking the Continental Divide by herself. When we asked about bears and wolves she replied that she hadn’t seen any for four months. Indeed when we were in Alaska we saw one that was so far away it was the size of a dime.

    We worried about bears too. While we were riding in Wyoming, there were bear sightings along the road where we were going. I found this article while we were waiting for some maps and it almost put me off, so I stopped reading it. In the end we never saw any bears, wolves or other animals that would be a threat.

    Good riding.

    Rose and Gary

  3. At Yosemite where bears are used to humans I heard that they recognize coolers in cars and will rip the locked doors open to get at them. I also heard that if a bear is charging you don’t wait until they get close enough where you can spray their nose. Spray in front of them where it will create a cloud effect and they will stop because they do not want to run through the cloud.

    • Thanks for the notes and tip. We’ll both have our own cans of spray and we’ll both test one before we depart. We hope to go through Yosemite on the way south so perhaps bear territory doesn’t really end at Vancouver. Domesticated bears don’t sound like much fun.

  4. I agree on writing that book! I’ve had actual run-ins with bears. Both times it was in Yosemite. The first time the bear climbed the tree where our food pack was hanging (while my dad was throwing rocks at it) ripped the bottom of pack with claws, food fell to the ground, bear feasted and then left us mostly food-less. Backpacking trip was shortened by a few days. Bear left us alone just wanted our food. The next year we hung food pack in a tall thin tree that bear couldn’t climb up. Bear shook tree until pack fell to the ground again while my dad yelled and threw rocks at it. Again backpack trip was shortened a few days. Dad wasn’t hurt but bear did take a few steps at him. After those two encounters I’ve been less fearful of bears but more worried about food being taken…

      • Peter just explained to me that I will be the slowest rider so of course you want me to join you…the bear will get to me first! I’ll have to think about that…

  5. I am actually worried about you guys. I am sure there is tons of expert advice in the local area for campers. Just call me Mother Hen…

    • Don’t worry, we will take this very serious. We plan on spending a few days in Fairbanks getting all the info we can. We’ll spend some time at REI, the visitor centres and consult with The Milepost. I’m sure if we do everything right, we’ll be perfectly fine. Thanks for the worries all the same

  6. OK Dave! Enough about the kinds of bears you might encounter! Just get the bear spray & cook at a place away from where the tent will be. Do you have room to carry one of those air horns? How many days will you be in “bear country”? Love, Jan

  7. While sleeping under the stars in Yosemite 2 years ago, a 500+ lbs black bear walked through our camp less than 10 feet from my head after playing with our bear cans. Ever since then I don’t backpack without bear cans even when I’m outside of Yosemite. It’s so much easier to wrap up for the night, especially when you don’t have Boy Scouts to do the heavy lifting and rope throwing. And if I can fit 7-8 days worth of food per person per bear can, the extra 2-3 lbs on my back has been worth the convenience. Finding the right way to pack the bulk is the only part that took getting used to.

    • I should also mention that the bear can provides a nice seat to sit on when the campsite offers none.

      Also, the cans do a good job of trapping the smell quite tightly. Bags hung in the wind will do nicely for letting the bear know people are near. And wild bears might think a stinky cyclist is a tasty salt lick

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