Bears and cougars are the biggest wildlife threat in British Columbia. Sightings are fairly rare, and attacks are extremely rare, but they can happen. Below are safety guidelines and tips for preventing incidents and dealing with attacks.
Like most wildlife, bears are naturally afraid of humans. Attacks are most common in situations where:
- They are protecting young or food
- They are startled or feel threatened
- They follow food odor to your campsite
- Your dog provokes the bear
General guidelines and precautions when in bear country:
- Check for bear activity before you start your trip (signs at trail head, park rangers, etc)
- Make noise to avoid startling the bear (talk loudly, or carry a bell)
- Stay alert & look for signs of bear (droppings, up-turned rocks, etc)
- Bring (readily accessible) bear spray or other deterrent, and bear proof food containers
- Never approach a bear (duh!)
- Hang your food in a tree if camping (at least 4m off the ground)
- Never have food or food odors in your tent (or even near your campsite)
- Travel in groups (never hike alone!)
- Keep your dog on a leash (they can provoke the bear)
If you spot a bear, remain calm and do not run or scream. Remain facing the bear, and slowly back away while calmly talking to it, letting it know you are a human and not prey. Also, try to avoid direct eye contact, as this may be taken as a threat. The bear may growl or charge before stopping and turning away, but never run away or scream as this may only trigger an attack. Even if you are Donovan Bailey and the year is 1996, you will never outrun a bear (bears can run 66% faster the the world’s best sprinters). It is also a good idea to keep your pack on as this can act as protection in case of an attack.
You also need to determine whether it is a black bear, or grizzly, and whether an impending attack is defensive or predatory. Identifying the type of bear should be fairly easy. Black bears are smaller, and, well…black (grizzlies are light to dark brown), but telling them apart by colour isn’t always that easy. Click here for key identifiers between black and grizzly bears. Most of southwestern B.C. is home to black bears. Grizzly bears will typically not be seen any further south than Whistler. You need to be able to tell the difference between them in case of an attack.
In the case of an attack from a bear you should try to determine whether the attack is defensive or predatory. A defensive attack will be triggered if you are too close to the bear’s young, its food source, or you startled it. A predatory attack happens when the bear is looking for dinner, and those attacks are very rare.
1) If it is a black bear: Discharge your bear spray once it is within a minimum distance of 25 feet of you, and sooner if possible. Bears have extremely sensitive noses, making bear spray effective. If the bear continues to attack (or you don’t have bear spray), popular wisdom is to fight back against a black bear. Use rocks, sticks, fists, and all the adrenaline you can muster and fight back. Some advise only to fight a black bear if the attack is predatory, and to curl into a protective ball if the attack is defensive. If you choose to curl, drop to the ground, cover your neck, and get into a tight ball, staying as still as possible and not screaming.
2) If it is a grizzly bear: Similar to a black bear attacks, use bear spray if you have it. If the attack is defensive, experts agree to drop to the ground and curl into a ball, protecting your head and neck. Stay calm and don’t move, even if the bear begins to gnaw on you a little. You are very unlikely to win a battle with a grizzly so this strategy is your best bet, unless the attack is predatory. In that case your only option is to fight.
Again, predatory attacks are rare from both black and grizzly bears, but if such attack occurs, you need to fight back.
Other bear safety resources
– A great book on bear safety is Bear Attacks: Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero.
– Bears Without Fear by Kevin Van Tighem
– Bear Aware – Wild Safe B.C.
– BC Parks’ Bear Safety
– Get Bear Smart Society
As nocturnal and stealthy animals, it is extremely rare to see cougars, but it is not unheard of. Children and pets are the most likely to be the victim of a cougar attack. To minimize the chance of attack, follow the same guidelines for bears, such as never traveling alone and making lots of noise. If you encounter a cougar you should slowly back away. Never turn and run. If the cougar advances on you, make yourself look as big as possible, pick up any children you are with, and scream loudly to try and scare it away. Try to intimidate the cougar as much as possible. If the cougar continues to approach, you should even throw sticks and rocks at it. Let it know you are not easy prey, and if it attacks, fight back with all you have.
Other cougar safety resources
Bears and cougars aren’t the only wildlife you have to worry about. Ticks can also pose a problem. If they burrow into your skin, there is a chance of contracting a disease such as Lyme disease. In British Columbia, there are 20 species of ticks, but only three that typically bite humans.
Ticks like to hang out in grassy areas and jump onto your skin or clothing as you pass by, making contact. They will then typically roam around, sometimes for hours, before finding a good spot on your skin to burrow in. Covering up your skin is the best thing you can do to prevent a bite. This means wearing pants, even if it’s hot out, and a long sleeve shirt.
It is also a good idea to stay on the main trail. Straying from the trail to walk through a meadow, for example, only invites the opportunity to meet some ticks. If you do have to walk through an area where ticks might live, it’s a good idea to tuck your pants into your socks, and your shirt into your pants.
You will also want to do a tick check every few hours if you are in an area where you think ticks may be living. Wearing light colored clothing will make this easier. Look your hiking partner over for ticks, and have them do the same for you. Ticks tend to like the scalp, waist, backs of knees, under the arms and around the ears.
When you get home, check your gear and clothing for ticks and have a shower to rinse off any that may be on you. Ticks can survive a cycle in the washing machine, but not the heat of a full cycle in a drying machine.
If you have a tick that burrows into your skin, don’t worry. They are usually easy to remove, and the chance of contracting any disease is very low. However, you will want to calmly remove the tick as soon as you can.
To do so, use an alcohol wipe to clean the area. Then, grab the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as you can. Pull it out steadily and straight. Do not twist as you are pulling, as you do not want to twist the head off, leaving it in the skin.
Once removed, clean the area with an alcohol wipe again. If you’d like, you can place the tick in a Ziploc bag, where it can be brought to a lab for possible testing.
Finally, monitor how you feel for the following days and weeks and look out for any signs of illness or rash. If you do begin to feel sick at all, see a doctor.
Other tick safety resources
- Lyme Disease – Health Canada information on Lyme