Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country: Bear Safety Best Practices for Motorcyclists, is a Riders Blog series of articles adapted (with permission) from the author’s Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting presentation given in Yosemite CA. We hope you find the information helpful. Ride safe. Have fun. (And don't feed the bears.)
Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country: Bear Safety Best Practices for Motorcyclists, is a Riders Blog series of articles adapted (with permission) from the author’s Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting presentation given in Yosemite CA.
We hope you find the information helpful.
Ride safe. Have fun. (And don't feed the bears.)
Understanding Bears and Bear Behavior
First things first — if you’re going to be motorcycle camping in bear country, or even just passing through bear country, you’d better get to know bears and bear behavior. Intimately. And immediately.
To create an environment that is safe for both bears and the human beings visiting the bear’s neighborhood (remember, YOU are visiting THEIR house) we humans must learn to understand bear behavior in terms of what a bear fears about us, not what we fear about bears. We must learn to see things through the eyes of a bear.
Over the years a great deal of bear misinformation has been generated as a result of human fear and the bad habit of interpreting bear behavior through human eyes.
For example, when a bear stands on its hind legs… this is the bear preparing to attack, right? Actually, no. Only in Hollywood.
A bear standing on its hind legs is just trying to gather information. It rises up to improve its ability to see and smell so it can get a better understanding of what’s going on. It is not being aggressive. (Of course, if you scream and run when a bear stands up like this you may well trigger its predatory instincts and encourage it to chase you, or frighten it and encourage a defensive attack. So best not to do that. More on this later.)
To help clear up some of this bear misinformation let’s start off with a quick primer on North American bears and their common behaviors. For additional information we encourage you to also visit some of the links provided at the end of this article.
North American Bears
Black and Brown (and Polar)
In North America there are three kinds of bears: black, brown, and polar.
- Black Bears can be found most everywhere on the continent except the US southwest.
- Brown Bears (this includes Kodiak and Grizzly) live from the pacific northwest, to as far east as Montana, and all the way north in to Alaska and northwestern Canada.
- Polar Bears live in the arctic north.
For the sake of this article we’re going to assume most of us will not be moto-camping among polar bears. If you do plan on camping in the arctic among polar bears we bow down and salute your superior gonads, and suggest introducing yourself to #Bwokentoof (The Brokentooth Project).
This leaves only black bears and brown bears for us regular folk to get to know.
Appearance and Identification
It’s important to know if you are looking at a black bear or a brown bear because some of their behaviors differ. As such how you respond must also differ.
To get you good and confused right off the bat:
- Black bears can be black, brown, and sometimes white
- Brown bears (these include brown, grizzly, and kodiak) can be brown, almost black, and sometimes light brown or blonde.
While their color similarities might make bear identification sound challenging, the differing size and shape of the two species make them easier to tell apart:
- Brown bears have a sizable hump in their shoulder area.
- Black Bears do not have this same shoulder hump.
Notice too the very different shape of the snouts.
Brown Bears are generally larger than Black Bears however some black bears might actually be larger than some brown bears so size is not a definitive identifier. Size can vary depending on the time of year (pre-hibernation vs post-hibernation), sex (male or female), and age (cub, adolescent, or full grown adult).
Note that it is highly unlikely you will ever find yourself facing the two species side by side. So don’t expect to be able to whip out your field notes and do a clinical analysis. If you do see two bears together most likely it is a mother and cub of one species. (And that can be trouble. More on that later.)
Black bears and brown bears share many, but not all, of the same behavior traits. Here’s a quick overview of the traits they have in common.
Bears have an extremely acute sense of smell
If you learn one thing from this article learn this: Bears have an extraordinarily acute sense of smell.
I’ll say it one more time — If you learn one thing from this article learn this: Bears have an extraordinarily acute sense of smell.
A bear’s sense of smell (all bears) is considered by many animal biologists to be the most acute sense of smell in the entire animal kingdom — 7x more acute than a Bloodhound. So acute it can be measured in miles. And not just 1 or 2 miles, up to 20 miles downwind.
Thus the saying —
A pine needle fell in the forest.
The eagle saw it fall.
The deer heard it.
The bear smelled it.
We’ll go into greater detail about the need for odor control while in bear country in the next part of this series but for now do make note of how important this is and the role it plays in bear country safety.
Bear behavior is quite predictable, but…
Bears are smart and their behavior is quite predictable, but we must take care not to overgeneralize. Just like human beings (and this is an important point) there are outliers. Every bear must be assessed individually based on its own exhibited behavior.
The more you learn about common bear behavior now, before you go camping, the less likely you will be to misinterpret a bears intentions and have a negative encounter in the wild, and the better able you will be to recognize abnormal behavior.
Bears are smart, adaptable, and have excellent memory
Bears are extremely smart animals. They are curious, resourceful, intelligent and they learn and adapt quickly. They also have an excellent memory. Bears will remember a food source for life.
Bears are shy, nervous
Contrary to their misleading reputation for being ferocious man-eaters, black bears and brown bears are not mean, bad tempered, malicious, or habitually dangerous by nature. Bears are actually quite nervous, shy, easily frightened, and have little desire to interact with human beings (a very wise choice considering in some areas humans have hunted them to near extinction).
Unless a bear is forced to be around human beings either by accident or to access a food source, there’s a very good chance you will never see a bear in the wild.
Bears want their space
Just like human beings bears want their space. Get too close, crowd them, encroach on their space, make them feel threatened or ill at ease, and you will force them to act — fight or flight. Just like human beings, a bear will either run away to safety or assert themselves in an aggressive way.
How much space is enough space? 100 yards is a good minimum distance (minimum!) but just like people, every bear is different. What one particular bear might consider a comfortable distance may be too close for another. You need to pay attention and be “socially aware”. Use your common sense to size up each bear and each circumstance on an individual basis. If a bear is scared or feels threatened it will let you know.
Bears are very curious
Bears are very curious animals who react to new things in their environment. They are driven to inspect odors, noises, and objects to determine if they are dangerous or a threat, or if they are a food source or something else life-supporting. Or it could be they just find it interesting.
Bears get frightened
Unexpectedly coming face to face with a human being scares the you know what out of a bear just as much as it does a human. The difference is that while a human being might spontaneously scream when startled or scared, a bear might spontaneously growl, snarl, or pop its jaw. It’s the same basic fear response, just expressed in two different languages. What humans often misinterpret as ferocious or aggressive behavior is often times nothing more than the bear having its own “oh shit” moment.
Following their initial fright a bear’s natural curiosity often returns and they might want to investigate what it was that alarmed them. This investigation often involves the bear standing on its hind legs to get more information from its senses of smell, sight, and hearing.
The most notable behavioral difference between black and brown bears is the way they respond to perceived threats. Each species has evolved their own different strategies.
Black bears often live near human settlements (because it’s an easy food source) so they are generally less aggressive and more tolerant of people.
Brown bears on the other hand prefer to stay away from human settlements and human beings altogether and will more readily defend themselves in an encounter. (This perhaps is an evolutionary response to having for generations been so enthusiastically hunted by humans).
Fight or flight
Similar to human beings and many other species, a bear’s response to anything it perceives as a threat is fight or flight. Attack or run away. This is where black bears and brown bears can differ.
A black bear’s first line of defense is very often flight, while a brown bear’s is very often fight.
Black bears being excellent tree climbers will often run and climb up a tree when threatened. Brown bears are not such good tree climbers so will more likely mount their defense on the ground.
Momma Bear and Baby Bear
If a momma bear of either species feels her cubs are in danger you can expect a very vigorous defense on the ground. Baby bears may be cute and cuddly but whether you see her or not momma bear is ALWAYS near by. DO NOT get in-between a momma bear and her babies. Ever.
the bear minimum
This wraps up our Introduction to North American Bears and Common Bear Behavior. This is by no means all there is to know, but it does cover the… bear minimum. (Ya I know, ouch. Sorry.)
In any case, I hope you learned something new and feel a bit more well informed now than you did when you started reading.
With a good understanding of bears and common bear behavior, together with the bear country best-practices we will be covering in the rest of this series, you’ll be better equipped to more safely enjoy the beauty of our most wild and remote places while camping from your motorcycle.
Ride safe. Have fun.
Next in the Series…
Next up in the series we begin preparation for our moto-camping trip to bear country — Motorcycle Camping In Bear Country, Part 3: Preparing for a Motorcycle Camping Trip to Bear Country
- Understanding Bears And Bear Behavior
- Preparing For A Motorcycle Camping Trip To Bear Country
- Essential Gear for Motorcycle Camping In Bear Country
- How To Pack Your Motorcycle For Camping In Bear Country
- How To Set Up A Bear-Safe Campsite
- Best Practices To Avoid A Bear Encounter
- What To Do In The Event Of A Bear Encounter
The American Bear Organization
Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC)
The North American Bear Center
Need to Know Bear Facts and Safety Tips (Recreation.gov)
National Park Service – Staying Safe Around Bears
Bureau of Land Management – Know Before You Go – Bear Safety