Bear safety on the trail

Bears in New Mexico are the American Black Bear. Contrary to their name, these bears come in all ranges of colors from black to brown to reddish cinnamon to blonde. These bears are relatively small compared to their grizzly and polar counterparts. Bears can live for over 30 years, and spend most of their lives in the forests and mountainous wild lands of western USA, Rocky Mountains, Appalachia, and a few other areas including Florida, Louisiana, and most of Canada. 

Many areas have both black and grizzly bears. There are a few major differences that can be seen at a glance:

So, what do you do if you are hiking, running, or camping in bear country?

The best approach to avoid an unwanted bear encounter is to prevent them. This means hiking in groups, talking or keeping conversation with occasional louder shouts or songs to let wildlife become aware of your presence. 

If we do encounter a bear, stay calm. Speak loudly, stop your approach, and ready your bear spray. Keep speaking in an even, low-pitch voice, let the bear be very aware of your presence. Most black bears are not out to get you, and are likely as startled by your presence as you are by it!

If you are hiking with small children, pick them up immediately. Stay in your group.

Try to make yourself as large as you can: hold your hands above your head, moving slowly, raise your arms above your head. If you have a jacket or trekking poles, keep them in your hands to appear larger. Try to assess whether it is a lone bear, or if it is a mother with cubs. 

If the bear stands ground, slowly move laterally and  the bear by moving laterally off the trail to move away from the bear. Do not run!  Be sure that you allow the bear a route to escape, so it does not feel trapped.

If a black bear does move aggressively, try to fight back. Using any object at hand (trekking poles, sticks), try to concentrate your blows on the bears’ face and muzzle (nose).

In the case of a grizzly bear, play dead. Leave your pack on, clasp your hands around your neck to protect it, and lay down on your stomach. Spread your legs and keep them rigid to make it harder for the bear to turn you over. The bear may leave the area, remain still until it does so. If the attack continues, fight back aggressively. Again, focus your blows on the face and muzzle of the bear. 

Bear spray is a real deterrent for bears, however it does require understanding exactly how to use it, and what the limitations of the spray are. Ideally, you should practice with deploying bear spray prior to carrying it hiking. To be useful, bear spray must be accessible: don’t toss the can deep into your pack, it must be carried so it is easy to hand. 

Bear sitings can be exhilarating and exciting, and can offer wonderful and unique opportunities for seeing wildlife in action. With a little awareness and preparation you can enjoy yourself confidently in bear country!