To see bears in their natural environment is a powerful and moving experience. There are a number of very well run bear watching tours, trips and experiences and we’ve included links to some of these at the bottom of this page. Please note that we are not recommending particular trips nor are we suggesting that bear watching experiences not listed here should be avoided; far from it. If you have been on a bear watching trip and would like to tell us about your experience we’d love to hear from you. Please note that we do not accept payment for providing these listings.
As well as viewing bears on organised trips, you may well encounter them unexpectedly or when on some other form of vacation or excursion; for example kayaking, fishing or hiking. Usually such encounters are safe and exciting for all the right reasons; however please remember that all bears are large, powerful wild animals and in order to remain safe when you encounter them there are a number of simple rules you should to follow. The way you behave during an encouner is, to some extent, governed by the species of bear that you are inter-acting with.
It’s important for your own safety that you don’t surprise a bear; when moving through bear country keep making a noise to let bears know that you are there. Evidence suggests that talking loudly is the best way of doing this; bear bells may work but it seems likely that they are by no means always effective. Keep dogs on leads; if a dog encounters a bear it is likely to run back to you with the bear in close pursuit! Never approach a bear, this could be viewed as a threat; instead invest in a good zoom lens for your camera.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR
First off, it’s worth noting that you’re more likely to be bitten by a dog than attacked by a bear and more likely to die from a bee-sting than from a bear attack. When it comes to putting risk into perspective, in 2010 in the USA 32,885 people died in traffic accidents; one person died from an attack by a wild bear. In 2011 the figures were 32,367 and two, respectively.
Do not be put off by horror stories of marauding bears; if you follow a few simple rules you can relax and enjoy being in bear country. Learning to recognize bear signs can enrich your experience; tracks, droppings (“scat”), claw-marked trees, turned-over rocks, ripped open anthills, torn-up tree stumps and broken limbs of fruiting trees are all signs that a bear has been in the area.
In the summer bears are often most active during the cooler hours around dawn and dusk and also during the night. However, whilst if you’re observant you have a good chance of seeing bear-signs in bear-country, you probably won’t see any actual bears as they are generally fearful of humans and will avoid contact if possible. For that reason speaking loudly and often (many people repeat “hey bear” in a deep and loud voice) is a good way of ensuring that you don’t surprise a bear and possibly provoke a charge or attack.
If you do have an encounter and follow the simple rules below, it should be a life-enriching experience that you can enjoy and treasure.
In the rare circumstance that you encounter a bear that does not turn and leave follow these ten steps (or as many of them as you need to before the encounter ends):
1. Stay calm and remain still to assess the situation
2. If the bear hasn’t noticed you try to keep out of sight and make a detour downwind of the bear
3. If the bear is aware of you speak in a calm, firm voice to let the bear know that you are human. Stand tall and make yourself or your group seem as large as possible
4. Back away slowly and NEVER run or try to climb a tree*. Avoid eye-contact which may be perceived as a threat
5. If you have bear spray with you have it ready and use it if necessary (when the bear is 12 metres or 40 feet away, but no further)
6. If the bear charges STAND YOUR GROUND. Most often this will be what is known as a bluff charge and the bear will veer off at the last second or stop some distance away
7. Timing is important as bears can come within inches and still veer off and not attack
8. If attacked the general rule is to fight a black bear (who may regard you as prey) but play dead with a grizzly (which won’t)
9. To play dead drop to the ground and if you have a pack keep it on your back to provide protection. Lie face down, clasp your hands over your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still AND SILENT
10. Wait several minutes after the bear has left then get up and cautiously move away – WALK DON’T RUN.
If you’re heading into North American bear country or European brown bear country we strongly recommend that you take thirty minutes to watch the following video “Safety in Bear Country”. It is a major educational tool for anyone living, traveling, or working in black and grizzly bear country in North America. It includes the consensus opinion of leading experts on bear behavior and its relevance to humans. While over twenty years old, it is still the best source of detailed advice available.
Predatory attacks are very, very rare. They are not usually preceded by warning signals, such as jaw-popping, huffing or ground-slapping. Combat a predatory attack with anything and everything at your disposal (spray, rocks, fists, sticks, etc.).
Bears have a natural fear of humans and it is best if that fear remains intact. Please don’t leave foods accessible to bears, they may overcome their fear of humans in order to take advantage of it. Bears that learn to associate food with humans can be dangerous.
* Climbing a tree to escape a bear is not a good idea except as a very last resort. Black bears are expert climbers and, contrary to popular belief, some brown bears can climb trees.
BEAR WATCHING TOURS & TRIPS
Bear Photo is a wildlife travel and photographic tour company specialising in bear photography, with a particular focus on Northern European regions. They work in exclusive partnership with a leading Finnish bear observation company and pride themselves on providing participants with an exceptionally high standard of trips, whilst maintaining excellent value for money. They travel to some of the most untouched environments on Earth in pursuit of these apex predators.
Alaska: For a guide to what’s available take a look at Alaska.org
(Please note that Bear Conservation has no links with any of the above companies providing bear watching trips and tours, neither do we recommend them above any other company or operator. The above links are provided as examples of what is on offer.)
Page updated 20 March 2021