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What NOT To Do In Bear Country USA This Winter



Feature | What NOT To Do In Bear Country USA This Winter | friendly grizzly bear

Bears are active all year round. Yes, you read that correctly….ALL YEAR ROUND! You may be saying to yourself “What about hibernation in the winter?” That is the number one misconception regarding wild bears. So, let’s discuss that first.

The Biggest Misconception About Bears – Do They Truly Hibernate?

True hibernation is when animals “sleep” through the winter. During this sleep, the animals will not wake up when they hear a loud noise or even if they are moved or touched.

It is a common misconception that bears hibernate during the winter. While bears tend to slow down during the winter months, they are not true hibernators. Black and brown bears do go into a deep sleep, known as torpor, during the winter months.

During a bear’s dormant state, or torpor, their heart rate is extremely low but their body temperature is relatively high, and they won’t eat or release bodily waste. While in torpor, the animal can wake up quickly and easily. And believe me, you won't find a friendly grizzly bear who just woke up. So you see, bear safety applies year round – even though, in the winter months, they aren’t as active.

Next, let’s talk about how to tell black and brown bears apart. Let's look at some black and brown bear facts. It is important to become familiar with this magnificent animal as they can look similar from a distance.


Bear Identification – Black Bears VS Brown Bears (Grizzlies)

Black bears

  • Black bears exhibit great variation in color, ranging from black to light blonde. Cinnamon colored black bears are quite common in the west. Many black bears have a light patch on the chest.
  • Black bear weight averages between 50-140 kg (110-300 lbs). Large male bears can top 180 kg (400 lbs) and may be larger than female grizzlies.
  • They are slightly smaller than brown bears at the shoulder, between 0.75 to .9 m (2.5  to 3 ft). When standing erect, they rise around 1.5 m (5 ft).
  • They lack the shoulder hump of the grizzly.
  • Black bears have a “Roman” profile, with a straight line running between the forehead and the tip of the nose. The ears of black bears are larger and more distinctly pointed.
  • Claws are much shorter than those of grizzly bears, usually around 4 cm (1.5 in). They are less visible from a distance and play a minor role in track records.

Brown Bears (Grizzlies)

  • Grizzlies vary from blonde to black in color. They are usually medium to dark brown. The long guard hairs often have a lighter tip, giving the bears their  ‘grizzled' appearance.
  • Brown bear weight averages 225 kg (500 lbs), with females averaging around 160 kg (350 lbs). Large brown bears may tip the scales at 360 kg (800 lbs).
  • They stand around 1 m (3.28 ft) at the shoulder and may stand 2 m (6.5 ft).
  • In profile, the grizzly bear has a distinct shoulder hump. This is due to the large muscles necessary for digging roots, tubers, and ground squirrels.
  • They have a dished-in profile, with a clear depression between the eyes and the end of the nose. Grizzlies also have short rounded ears.
  • The claws of a grizzly have a formidable reputation. Very long, between 5-10 cm (2-4 in), they are often clearly visible in the tracks. They may also be visible from a distance.

Similarities and Differences

What the brown and black bear have most in common is their sense of smell. Their sense of smell is so acute that they can detect animal carcasses upwind and from a distance of 20 miles away. This is why grizzly bear prey find very few places to hide in because of this incredible sense of smell.

Now that you know what the main physical differences are, let’s talk about safety – what you can do, or in this case what you should NOT do if you are in bear country.

But….before we go any further, I want to start off with one very important piece of advice. If you know you are going into bear country, if at all possible, do not go alone. There is something to be said about the saying, “There is always strength in numbers”. If you are in a group and encounter a bear, that alone could intimidate the bear enough for it to keep its distance. In most cases, the bear doesn’t want any trouble any more than you do.

Please read my previous article, Bear Encounters, on what to do if you encounter a bear in the wild.


What NOT To Do In Bear Country

I would like to start by stating that bear attacks are rare, especially in the winter months – but, they can occur.

For this scenario, I will reference camping, but these safety measures also hold true for day hiking or just passing through their territory. With these safety tips, you can be more confident while visiting bear country.

Do Not Cook Where You Sleep

Bear Country USA | friendly grizzly bear

If you are camping in bear country, there is one major concern…and rightfully so! The number one thing that attracts bears is food odor. Brown and black bear diet includes whatever you're eating as well. I always advise people that having a camp for sleep and a separate camp for cooking is probably the safest thing you can do while camping in bear country.

In my article, Outdoor Cooking Safety Tips, I go into great detail on having a separate camp just for cooking and other safety measures regarding proper food storage. Wolves and cougars are also of great concern when cooking outdoors – which I cover in the article as well.

Do Not Leave Any Traces of Trash

Bears follow their noses to their next meal, so naturally, any trash (especially trash that contains any traces of food odor) is an invite. I recommend using airtight containers to store your trash…again, at a separate camp. Also, the clothes you wore while cooking should stay at the separate (cooking) camp as well. You wouldn't want to go to sleep smelling like yummy black bear prey.

Try Not To Fish In Their Territory

Most likely, you won’t do much (or any) fishing in December. This advice is good to have for later. Bears are mostly territorial when they have cubs with them in the spring and summer. Other times that they can be defensive is if they feel their food source is at risk from humans – humans within their sight and smell that is. Once they see you in their “dinner spot” it is a good idea to move to another location.

If you are in bear country and you want to fish, I suggest taking a good look around for bear activity and/or presence. This includes scat (bear poop), large flattened indentions in the ground (this would be their den), fish carcasses, and it wouldn’t hurt to look up in the trees as black bears are excellent climbers.

Do Not Play Music

It is okay to talk (not yell) while you’re in bear country – in fact, it is important that they are aware of you. If they hear you, they (most times) will keep their distance. It is important to know that they aren’t out there to hunt humans and actually make obvious attempts to respect humans ONLY IF they are respected first. Remember, you are in THEIR territory. Not the other way around.

Part of that respect is not making excessive, loud noises like playing music. Music on a camping trip makes for a great time but, in bear country, not so much. It will agitate not just bears but, can agitate and attract other predators as well.

Do Not Urinate Near Your Campsite

As I mentioned earlier, a bear’s sense of smell is so acute that they can smell certain things from a great distance. This includes urine. The scent of certain beverages and foods can transfer through our urine. Even if we can’t smell it, bears can, which will be enough to intrigue the bear to investigate.

Long Long Honeymoon presents a great video on bear safety:

The winter is an excellent season to camp, but not if you're irresponsible. There are no friendly grizzly bears in the wild, and these wild bear facts should be enough to convince you of such. Therefore, you should take all the necessary precautions to avoid crossing paths with these beasts to keep both you and them safe.

If you have had an encounter with a bear or have a safety tip of your own you would like to share, please tell us in the comment section below.

Bears | What NOT To Do In Bear Country USA This Winter | friendly grizzly bear

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  1. Anonymous

    January 11, 2018 at 7:31 AM

    Two years ago I had a brown bear raiding my bird feeders. As a note, he/ she destroyed two feeders. One of the feeders was on a post and the top of the feeder at 6′-3″ above the ground. When the bear stood-up the entire head was above the feeder. I guess I saw a larger than normal sized brown bear.
    TEM, Riegelsville, Pa.

    • Ron Simpkins

      January 11, 2018 at 1:22 PM

      Don’t turn your back on a bear and run, it will chase you like a cat chasing a pull toy. Face them and back away slowly without making eye contact. Always have bear repellent on your body at all times. Don’t chase a bear, it will circle around you and take you from behind. Don’t walk streams when the “fish are in”, your are challenging them and their food. You cannot outrun a bear, they can run twice as fast as you and maneuver much better.

      • Rennie

        January 11, 2018 at 1:35 PM

        I spend a lot of time in the back country. Not just for bear, but anything that could threaten, I carry my 40 cal Glock. With 15 round magazine.

        • Rennie

          January 11, 2018 at 1:37 PM

          Let me add that killing a bear would be an absolute last resort. I would do everything in my power to scare it of, unharmed, first.

          • John A. Yarbrough

            January 13, 2018 at 9:37 PM

            Your living in a fantasy world if you think you can stop a brown bear with a .40 Glock. Like the other guy said just use it on yourself !!

        • Tim

          January 11, 2018 at 11:05 PM

          If you’re going to shoot a bear with a .40 cal as a last resort it is probably a good thing. Because you’re just going to make it mad. Better just to use it on yourself to avoid the agony. No knowledgeable hunter would even think about trying to stop a charging bear without a high powered rifle round. 2nd, you better be a good shot under pressure, and take out a shoulder or leg. you will not get a 2nd shot under normal circumstances. A charging bear can cover 50-75 yrds in about 2-4 seconds. One swipe from a Grizzly can open your chest up like a surgeon for open heart surgery and it’s jaws can crack your skull like a zit. It would be better for you to hit the ground and play dead, than to send it into a blood rage from wounding it, or worse ricocheting a bullet off of the low sloped thick skull. You’d be bear scat before you were missed the next day from work. Even if you were lucky enough to get a heart or lung hit from a high powered rifle, an enraged and wounded bear can and will continue to charge and be upon you before it will drop from its injuries. You will be dead before it will. Please let me add that the seconds hesitation you choose to make sure killing it is a last resort will result in your not having to worry about it.

          • Capt Deano

            January 12, 2018 at 7:14 AM

            I live in black bear country and have had several encounters with them face to face 15 feet apart. This is a scary encounter but remember never to run. At each encounter the bear and I both back away from each other very slowly until there is some substantial distance between us and then the bear runs as fast as it can away from me. There has only been one encounter that the bear just stared at me and after 45 seconds it slowly walked off while keeping a watch on me until I disappeared from it’s sight. That was my most fearful encounter and was the largest bear I’ve ever seen up close. By the way playing dead doesn’t work on black bears. If you are attacked you had better start fighting for your life with anything you can get your hands on.

          • Rennie

            January 12, 2018 at 7:37 AM

            Uh… If it was a single shot maybe. Nothing is going to keep charging at 15 (15) rounds of 40 cal.

        • John C

          January 13, 2018 at 12:27 PM

          While a .40 caliber is better than no gun at all a much heavier weapon would be safer. The minimum hunting handgun in most states is a .357 Magnum and that is for deer and the like. The .40 caliber does not have the punch of a .357 Magnum. The 10 MM which is the elder sibling to the .40 Caliber is much more powerful than the .40 caliber and a bit more powerful than most .357 Magnum rounds, that is also a deer round as opposed to a Brown Bear/ Grizzly Bear round. Long guns and Shotguns work best against large game but I can understand not wanting to be burdened with them on a hike. You would be safer with a better handgun, .50 AE for an automatic or a .454 Casull,, .460 Rowland or .500 S&W Magnum in a revolver. Naturally it would be best to avoid the situation all together and take active steps to avoid an unwanted encounter.

          • Yvonne Sullivan

            January 15, 2018 at 12:09 PM

            I took a brown bear down on Kuiu Island in SE AK with a .40, one shot. It depends on where you shoot them, and whether or not you lose your cool when they come at you.

          • Willowa

            January 15, 2018 at 7:41 PM

            True. I didn’t know there were any Brown Bears on Kuiu (I used to live there and there were only Black Bears then, good to know.

          • Willowa

            June 5, 2018 at 8:43 PM

            All this I think is true, however (while not recommending it) a man killed a Griz with a 9mm 3-4 years ago, just, as it happened, before a girls cross-country race came by (just outside of Anchorage). There are a couple other examples of them being killed by 9 mms, not recommended, perhaps lucky, but…..

      • Cmac

        January 8, 2019 at 12:50 AM

        Some years back I read that one could outrun a griz going down hill but they could catch you faster going uphill than they could on the flat. The problem with that is you will likely run out of downhill before the bear runs out of chase.

    • Anonymous

      January 11, 2018 at 9:10 PM

      BBlack bears in PA only. Ursus americanus

      • Medic Joe

        September 16, 2019 at 6:35 PM

        Yes, Black bears only in PA, which have migrated to North West NJ, where I live. We now have them in the corn fields and the woods between the corn fields and the rural houses, and even in town. Would NOT want to kill one, (they’re beautiful animals, and we moved into THEIR territory). But important. Anyone remember “bear bangers”. Large firecrackers, more like M-80’s, M-60’s etc, you wired them around your campsite with “trip wires”. They fired from batteries.A bear would hit the tripwire, explode the firework, and hopefully be scared off, at least it woke up the campers.Use your 9mm or .40 cal that way. first 1-3 shots, at the ground, scare them off. THEN, the rest of that magazine, and maybe a 2nd magazine, are AT the bear. For those that LIVE in bear country. ALL meat scraps for trash pickup, DON’T put it in the trash. Sealed storage bags, then freeze it. In summer, put frozen bags in trash can in the morning. In winter, staying below freezing, it can go out at night when you put the garbage out the night before. Don’t attract them. Also, NEVER run from a bear. They are what is called cursorial. Which means like cats, dogs wolves etc. Even if they have NO intention of attacking, running from them “TRIGGERS” the chase instinct, and you’ll cause them to chase and attack. Carry your firearm, make noise. Black bears have even been known to retreat from people who open their back doors and scream at them to “get out of here” They turn and leave. Just NOT momma with cubs. Or the territorial male that may see you as a competitor for his territory in the fall, during mating season. And NO, you can’t outrun ANY bear by running down hill, they can hit 30mph, much faster than an Olympic sprinter. Stay safe, Respect the bear, and he’ll probably respect you.

  2. Anonymous

    January 11, 2018 at 9:06 AM

    It may have been a brown color but true brown bears or Kodiak bears are in Alaska not PA. You had either a grizzly bear or large black bear.

    • Rennie

      January 11, 2018 at 9:17 AM

      Uh. No! They had a Black Bear in PA. No Grizzly bears in PA. SMH

    • alan

      January 11, 2018 at 9:33 AM

      Sorry, but the Grizzly was reclassified as Brown some years ago, no more Ursus Horribilis as a separate species

      • John C

        January 13, 2018 at 4:55 PM

        The “Grizzly Bear” is a subspecies of the Brown Bear it is “Ursus Arctos Horribilis”.

  3. Betty Hyatt

    January 11, 2018 at 9:35 AM

    I live in north central Minnesota, my 46+ acres surrounded by farmland and wooded areas. I know I have a male black staying in the neighbor’s 20+ acres of woods north of my house (now at about 14 years old he’s cinnamon color), and my son 1/2 mile south of me has spotted a sow and two cubs crossing from his place over to mine. I first saw the boar as what appeared to be a skinny yearling in July, 2005, hugging the corner of my house coming to raid my little bird feeder AGAIN, after I had just minutes before come in from reassembling it. A couple of years ago, my large hanging bird feeder (6′ above the ground) was raided two or three times, not without damage. I solved the problem of repeated visits by bringing in the bird feeders about 6 PM and putting them back out in early morning. After about a week of that, no more raids and the feeders stay out. All the bee keepers in the area are fencing their hives with solar powered fences. Now I just fence the 40+ turkeys out with snow fence to confine their feasting to corn and not the expensive sunflower seed inside the snow fence during the winter.

    • Paul Hood

      January 11, 2018 at 11:32 AM

      I have always used a minimum height above ground of 14ft for hanging food. Bears that I have seen are 8′ tall standing up (Alaska) and can reach up to 12ft.

  4. annomous

    January 11, 2018 at 10:16 AM

    I read in a Field & Stream magazine years ago that spreading “Moth Crystals” around your campsite will prevent any type animal that has a sensitive smell, bears, foxes, wolves, cougars, etc. They simply cannot tolerate the strong odor of ‘Moth Crystals” not moth balls. The man that wrote the article worked for the Wildlife Service in the western states. He said he had had grizzlies charging at him full speed, he would toss out a handful of moth crystals said the bear would literally slide to a stop and turn and run away from the strong smell.

    • Willowa

      January 15, 2018 at 7:34 PM

      a little Clorox poured around the edge of camp helps repel too, just pour on wood (Log, stump), on something that will hold the odor, not just on the ground.

  5. Anonymous

    January 11, 2018 at 10:23 AM

    I lived in Northern BC Canada for many years, we camper 50-70 miles from town and had encounters with Grizzleys many times, we fount that women I
    On there menstral cycle was the most prevalent cause of attracting all bears

  6. Harold Perantie

    January 11, 2018 at 10:44 AM

    I live and own the Tsiu River Outfitters which is a fishing lodge in a remote place here in Alaska which has a very high population of both Brown and Black bears and I have for years either had a radio or my ipod playing music 24 hours a day and it keeps the Bears out of camp, I have several times either lost the radio signal or the charger on both devises and every time this would happen I had Bears come into camp and tear things up, so music does keep Bears away and it works very good.

  7. paul

    January 11, 2018 at 12:13 PM

    I agree with Harold Perantie bears don’t like loud noises .so banging pots together will most likely scare them away .A mother bear with a cub will not put her cub in danger so it will just leave .but don’t get between her and her cub . She will risk her live for her cub.

  8. Professor Pianoman

    January 11, 2018 at 1:05 PM

    Dirty socks and perfume and other sented personal hygiene products will also attract bears. Also do not place fresher cooked food in your trunk as a bear cane damage a car severely looking for that small.

  9. John Joerg

    January 11, 2018 at 2:35 PM

    I carry packs of firecrackers as a just in case, I have never had to use them because as stated above taking reasonable precautions and respecting the bear, is your best bet. but setting off a pack of firecrackers will certainly have everything withing a couple of hundred yards of you running away. I figure if it doesn’t work I’m toast anyway 🙂

  10. Anonymous

    January 11, 2018 at 3:35 PM

    Does anyone here know how to spell correctly?

    • Anonymous

      January 13, 2018 at 11:36 AM


    • Alllens

      January 13, 2018 at 12:22 PM

      Usually. Why, do you need some help with something?

  11. Anonymous

    January 11, 2018 at 3:55 PM


  12. Diane

    January 11, 2018 at 10:00 PM

    I have had bear encounters. I was in Yosemite and one gal and I decided to go to the camp truck from May Lake. As we got near the camp, we startled a black bear that had gotten in the back of an El Camino truck. He dashed across the trail and then watched us as we watched him/her. We had to walk by that bear to get to the truck. We did very slowly and carefully. The bear was more interested in what was in the back of that El Camino.

    I remember seeing bears when we would go to Yellowstone. They used to be rather prolific, but you don’t see them very often now unless you are in the back country. Once when there, we had a bear get its claws caught in the window when my dad closed it. Talk about shake the car! We called a group of cars on the road a “bear jam.” Everybody wanting to see the bears.

    I live in the foothills of the Sierras and we get bears around here from time to time. Also the occasional cougar.

  13. Timothy M Langille

    January 12, 2018 at 1:16 PM

    When Deer hunting or while hiking in the woods, I always carry my .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda. If I can’t get to my 30.06 remington I always have the .44 Mag. as a backup. In Pennsylvania, where I hunt, is loaded with Black Bears and have had many encounters with them. Fortunately I’ve never had to shoot any. I’ve learned what to do and not to do when meeting up with Black Bears. They are beautiful animals and I have seen some tipping the scales at about 500 to 600 pounds. I don’t hunt Black Bears, however, I’ve had one steal my deer after gutting it while I was off getting a drag rope or help to drag it out of thick areas. When I came back to my deer, I was NOT a welcome visitor to say the least. I was able to back away and leave without the bear charging me. He sure did raise a fuss though. Shaking it’s head and making some awful grunts. Anyway, Heed the warnings in this article, just may same you some nasty encounter you probably won’t survive.

  14. Willowa

    January 14, 2018 at 3:58 PM

    My main bear story probably no one would believe anyway. So, re: shooting bears with: .40, et al. While not the caliber of choice, several bears (grizzes) have been killed, frankly much to my surprise, with a 9mm. This includes one incident a few years ago when a man was walking on a trail in a wooded part of Elmendorf AF base outside Anchorage Ak. He was charged by a grizz and killed it with several shots from his 9mm. Just a few minutes later a large group of girls running in a high school cross country race came by. The base officials were going to charge the guy (he apparently was not supposed to be carrying on base property), but there was such an outcry of appreciation, especially from many of the girls parents (since it is quite possible that the bear would have charged the group of girls had he not shot it), that the base officials dropped the whole thing. Yeah I know, should the girls have been out there running, etc, well in Alaska that’s the chance you take, it’s just a good thing this guy was out there ahead of them…

  15. Sharon Dequer

    January 16, 2018 at 10:12 PM

    If you want to get a laugh out of all this, when I was a Ranger in Yosemite we would tell visitors how to know the difference between a Black Bear and a Grizzly [which don’t live in the Sierras anyway, the last one in California having been killed in about 1935]. Black Bears have much shorter claws, good for climbing trees and ripping apart fallen logs to look for ants or termites. Grizzlies have long, strong claws which are too long to use for climbing. So here is what you do when encountering a bear: Run up behind it and kick it in the rear, then quickly climb a good tall tree. If the bear chases you and comes up the trunk to tear you apart, it is a Black Bear. If the bear chases you and you climb that tree, then tears the tree down before tearing into you, it is a Grizzly. 🙂

    • Rennie

      January 17, 2018 at 8:57 AM

      I always heard that you should wear bells on your shoes to alert bears and to carry pepper spray. Now the way to tell Black bear scats from Grizzly scats is, Black bear scats will have signs of berrys such as seeds Grasses insect shells, fish bones etc. Grizzly bear scat smells like pepper and has bells in it! 😉

    • richard1941

      January 7, 2019 at 10:52 PM

      small caliber pistol: if a bear attacks, shoot your companion in the knee and run away. This works well when your companion is well insured and you are considering divorce.

  16. Bill Hudson

    January 20, 2018 at 7:50 AM

    I carry a large caliber hand gun when in the back country. Big boom will scare most critters off and if I am going down the last few should leave a blood trail. bears are bad, moose are mean, and a rabid coyote or fox has no fear or sense. Best to be alert and keep your head up and eyes open in all situations.
    I don’t pack in the urban jungle to many 2 legged critters packing that big boom wont make them turn and run. I think this is a smarter than facing a trial. Humans kill more humans than any other species.

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