9 Bear Safety Tips From a Bear Biologist

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Learn how to stay safe in bear country from myth-busting scientist Tom Smith.

In 21 years of studying human/bear encounters, Tom Smith estimates he’s seen hundreds of bruins of each species in the field. The former National Park Serviceresearch biologist in Alaska and current associate professor at Brigham Young University has published groundbreaking academic papers, like last year’s report comparing bear spray to guns (more on that below). His studies have helped biologists—and backpackers—better understand bears. Here’s his advice for hikers, straight from the source:

1. Ignore conventional wisdom. 

Most of it is not based on good science. As a novice to bear conservation 20 years ago, I assumed all of these [experienced] guys knew what they were talking about. I started hearing things, like “Don’t stare a bear in the eye.” They used to say you’re supposed to wave your arms overhead. Ten years later, I was like, “Why am I doing that? This is stupid. Am I a deer with antlers? Do you think a bear can tell if you’re staring at it in the eye?” This is not only baseless but dangerous—since really what you should be doing is paying attention to your surroundings [see below] and always carrying a deterrent in bear country.

2. Keep it simple. 

Predators don’t run through a checklist of potential responses; you shouldn’t either. A bear won’t wonder, “Gee, do I attack, do I run?” It just acts. My minimalist approach is this: Don’t go into bear country without a deterrent. I mean all bear country, density be damned. You can’t outrun them, you can’t outwit them, you can’t out-anything them. You need a way to say to the bear “this far; no farther.”

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