Bears in the Mountain National Parks

Safe travel in bear country

The Canadian Rocky Mountains are home to both grizzly and black bears. You can run into a bear anywhere here, be it on a busy trail close to town or in the remote backcountry. Bears generally prefer to avoid people. However, encounters between bears and people do occur.

Knowing how to avoid an encounter with a bear is the best way to enjoy the parks, safely. In the event you do come across a bear, it is important to know a bit about bear behaviour. How we respond in an encounter with a bear really depends on the type of interaction that is taking place.

Avoid an encounter | Bear spray | If you see a bear
If the bear approaches | Handling an attack

Cyclists and trail runners |Backcountry camping
If you see a bear by the side of the road

What happens to a bear when it encounters people? | How you can help protect bears

AVOID an encounter: the best approach

Bears are extremely sensitive to the stress of human activity. You can help protect these animals by avoiding encounters with them.

  • Make noise! Let bears know you're there. Call out, clap, sing or talk loudly especially near streams, dense vegetation and berry patches, on windy days, and in areas of low visibility. Bear bells are not enough.
  • Watch for fresh bear sign. Tracks, droppings, diggings, torn-up logs and turned-over rocks are all signs that a bear has been in the area. Leave the area if the signs are fresh.
  • Keep your dog on a leash at all times or leave it at home. Dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears.
  • Larger size groups are less likely to have a serious bear encounter. We recommend hiking in a tight group of four or more. Never let children wander.
  • Use officially marked paths and trails and travel during daylight hours.
  • If you come across a large dead animal, leave the area immediately and report it to park staff.
  • Dispose of fish offal in fast moving streams or the deep part of a lake, never along stream sides or lake shores.

Bear Spray

Carry bear spray with you at all times on the trail, and know how to use it.

Bear spray can be effective with some bears when used properly. Be aware that wind, spray distance, rain, freezing temperatures and product shelf life can all influence its effectiveness.

Familiarize yourself with the proper use of bear spray (including the manufacturer’s specific instructions) and keep it readily accessible.

If you SEE a bear

Stop and remain calm. Get ready to use your bear spray. Do not run away. OBSERVE:

Is the bear UNAWARE of your presence?

Move away quietly without getting its attention.

Is the bear AWARE of your presence?

Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, growling, snapping their jaws and laying their ears back.

Female grizzly bear with her offspring © Terry Willis
  • Stay calm. Your calm behaviour can reassure the bear. Screams or sudden movements may trigger an attack.
  • Speak to the bear. Talk calmly and firmly. This lets the bear know you are human and not a prey animal. If a bear rears on its hind legs and waves its nose about, it is trying to identify you.
  • Back away slowly. Never run! Running may trigger a pursuit.
  • Make yourself appear BIG. Pick up small children and stay in a group.
  • Do not drop your pack. It can provide protection.

If you must proceed, make a wide detour around a bear or wait at a safe distance for it to move on.

If the bear APPROACHES

Stop and remain calm. Get ready to use your bear spray. Do not run away. Assess the bear’s behaviour and determine why it is approaching.

Is it DEFENSIVE?

The bear is feeding, protecting its young and/or surprised by your presence. It sees you as a threat. The bear will appear stressed or agitated and may vocalize.

  • Try to appear non-threatening.
  • Talk in a calm voice.
  • When the bear stops advancing, start slowly moving away.
  • If it keeps coming closer, stand your ground, keep talking, and use your bear spray.
  • If the bear makes contact, fall on the ground and play dead. Lie still and wait for the bear to leave.

Is it NON-DEFENSIVE?

A bear may be curious, after your food, or testing its dominance. In the rarest case, it might be predatory–seeing you as potential prey. All of these non-defensive behaviours can appear similar and should not be confused with defensive behaviours.

The bear will be intent on you with head and ears up.

  • Talk in a firm voice.
  • Move out of the bear’s path.
  • If it follows you, stop and stand your ground.
  • Shout and act aggressively.
  • Try to intimidate the bear.
  • If it approaches closely, use your bear spray.

Handling an ATTACK

Most encounters with bears end without injury. If a bear actually makes contact, you may increase your chances of survival by following these guidelines. In general, there are 2 kinds of attack:

Defensive

This is the most COMMON type of attack.

  • Use your bear spray.
  • If the bear makes contact with you: PLAY DEAD!

PLAY DEAD! Lie on your stomach with legs apart and position your arms so that your hands are crossed behind your neck. This position makes you less vulnerable to being flipped over and protects your face, the back of your head and neck. Remain still until you are sure the bear has left the area.

These defensive attacks are generally less than two minutes in duration. If the attack continues, it may mean it has shifted from defensive to predatory—FIGHT BACK!

Predatory

The bear is stalking (hunting) you along a trail and then attacks. Or, the bear attacks you at night. This type of attack is very RARE.

  • Try to escape into a building, car or up a tree.
  • If you cannot escape, do not play dead.
  • Use your bear spray and FIGHT BACK.

FIGHT BACK! Intimidate that bear: shout; hit it with a branch or rock, do whatever it takes to let the bear know you are not easy prey. This kind of attack is very rare, but it is serious because it usually means the bear is looking for food and preying on you.

It is very difficult to predict the best strategy to use in the event of a bear attack. That is why it is so important to put thought and energy into avoiding an encounter in the first place.

Cyclist taking notice of buffaloberries along a trail  
Cyclist and a buffaloberry bush
W. Karhoffer

Cyclists and trail runners

Your speed and quietness put you at risk for sudden bear encounters.

  • Slow down through shrubby areas and when approaching blind corners.
  • Make noise, travel in groups, be alert and always watch ahead.

Backcountry camping

To stay safe and protect wilderness, travel with two goals in mind: limiting your impact by avoiding encounters and managing your food, food smells and garbage.

 A graphic showing a campsite set up with cooking, eating and food storage areas at least 100 metres from your tent
Backcountry campground set-up
  • Camp in designated areas where provided.
  • If random camping, set up cooking, eating, and food storage areas at least 50 metres downwind from your tent. Ensure good visibility so animals cannot approach unseen. Avoid camping, cooking or eating near running water, thick brush, animal trails or berry patches.
  • Keep yourself and campsite odour-free. Keep sleeping bags, tents, and sleeping clothes free of food, food odours or beverages.
  • Leave smelly cosmetics at home. Store toiletries and personal items with food.
  • Store your food, pet food, livestock feed and garbage away from your tent. Use storage facilities in designated backcountry campgrounds. In random camping areas, hang it between two trees at least 4 metres above the ground and 1.3 metres from top and side supports or use bear resistant canisters instead.
  • Wash and store all dishes and food utensils immediately after use. Strain food particles from dishwater and store with garbage. Dump dishwater in designated areas or at least 50 metres from your sleeping area.
  • Pack out garbage—do not burn or bury it and do not dispose of it in pit privies.

If you see a bear by the road

Slow down—consider not stopping. Bears need to forage undisturbed in order to gain enough fat to survive the winter. Your decision to drive on by gives bears the space they need to make a living in this challenging landscape.

Grizzly bear family at dusk © Parks Canada / A. Taylor 

At all times . . .

  • Observe and photograph bears from the safety of your car.
  • Remain a respectful distance from the bear.
  • Never feed a bear.

If you stop . . .

  • Be aware of the traffic around you.
  • Pull over where it is safe to do so.
  • Use your hazard lights to alert other drivers.
  • Watch for a few moments, take a quick photo, and then move on!
  • If a traffic jam develops, move on. It is unsafe for people and bears.

What happens to a bear when it encounters people?

  1. It can alter its path of travel or abandon an area, displacing it from important habitat.
  2. It can react aggressively: this usually only happens when the bear is surprised at close range and feels threatened. Serious human-bear encounters may result in the bear's destruction and loss from the ecosystem.
  3. It becomes habituated: with frequent, repeated exposure to people, a bear loses its natural wary behaviour and becomes increasingly bolder. It is more likely to enter a campground or townsite where food or garbage may be improperly stored.

How you can help protect bears

The best thing you can do for bears is to limit their exposure to you.

  • Consider not stopping when you see a roadside bear.
  • Put all garbage in bear-proof garbage bins.
  • Keep your picnic or camping site attractant-free. Move the food, cooler, dirty dishes, recyclables, BBQ, lotions and pet food into your vehicle, trailer or storage locker (tents are not bear-proof).
  • Use official trails only and leave the wild trails to wildlife.
  • Respect closures and group access requirements—they are in place for your safety and to give bears a chance to use critical habitat undisturbed.
  • Pay attention to warnings—follow recommendations. Be careful when travelling through these areas, or choose a different route.

Conservation is not just about bears; it is about protecting the whole ecosystem. Parks Canada has a responsibility to protect wildlife and their habitats. As a national park visitor, you can help protect bears and reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant bear encounter by learning more about bear behaviour.

For more information talk to Parks Canada Visitor Centre staff or check out the selection of books on bears and other wildlife at Friends retail outlets in the parks

BOTTOM LINE?

Give bears the space they need to make a living!