Bear Awareness 101: What you need to know in bear country

Bear Awareness 101: What you need to know in bear country

Conservation Northwest / Jul 25, 2016 / Work Updates

A Park Service ranger conducting a bear spray demonstration. Photo: NPS/Diane Renkin
By Alaina Kowitz, Communications and Outreach Associate

Recreating in bear country should rarely create conflicts between humans and bruins when proper precautions are taken.  By knowing how to avoid conflicts and diffuse encounters with bears, you not only keep yourself safe but also teach bears to be wary of people.

“The most important tools for staying safe in grizzly bear country are knowledge and awareness. Understanding how bears perceive the world and our actions can help us anticipate where and when conflicts might arise, de-escalate them when they do, and develop a greater appreciation for the beauty of these complex creatures we share the world with.” -David Moskowitz, biologist and wildlife tracker

Here are some important things to keep in mind the next time you’re out adventuring in bear country:

  • Before you hit the trail, research trip reports or call a Forest Service or National district office for the most recent news on bear activity in the area.
  • Carry bear spray in an accessible spot, and know how to use it! Bear spray is proven to be more effective than firearms at stopping bear charges.
  • Avoid packing odorous foods or scented toiletries, and be sure to bring the proper storage equipment in order to hang your food—100 feet of rope, storage bags, and carabiners are recommended. Hang your food from a high branch at least 100 feet from your camp, and cook your food the same distance away from your tent.
  • If you can’t hang your food, buy or rent a bear-resistant container. National Park ranger stations often rent them, as do some Forest Service offices and outdoor gear stores. These containers have been bear-tested and are approved for use by the International Grizzly Bear Committee.
  • Whether you’re hiking, hunting, or fishing, do so in groups. Maintain some level of noise by talking or singing, especially in sight-restricted areas like dense timber or tight corners. Mountain guide Jenni Minier says, “The human voice is the most effective noise you can make. Bears don’t want to be surprised by a human any more than we want to be surprised by a bear.”
Black bear or grizzly?

Washington state is home to over 25,000 black bears and about 40-50 grizzly bears in the Selkirks, with some individual grizzlies in the North Cascades. It’s important to know the differences between the two bear species. Color is not a good indicator of species; black bear coloring ranges from black to brown to blonde. The best indicators between black and grizzly bears are:

  • Shoulder hump: Grizzlies have a large muscular hump between their shoulders.
  • Face and ears: Grizzlies have a dished snout and small, round ears, while black bears have straight noses and upright ears.
  • Claws: Grizzly bears have long claws (about 3-4 inches long), used for digging. Black bears have short, 1-2 inch-long claws.
Check out this handy bear identification card and Bear Smart poster for more information:


Full size poster here.

For more information on recreating safely in bear country, bear-resistant containers, and how to use bear spray, visit