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 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
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.