Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Kids Outdoor Skills: It's Time to Start Thinking About Bear Safety for Kids

You know spring has sprung in the Canadian Rocky Mountains when the first bear is spotted. Last week No. 122, a 320 kg male grizzly, was spotted in Banff. That means it's time to start each of my kids hikes with a talk on bear safety.

A black bear beside the road to Burns Ridge
This isn't as straightforward as it might seem, though. I've seen grown adults almost come to fisticuffs over what to do if they see a bear. I only recently started carrying bear spray (I got tired of the strange looks people gave me when I told them I didn't carry it), while one guy I hike with carries bear spray, an obnoxious air horn, and bear bangers. If we experienced hikers can't agree on bear safety, what are we supposed to tell kids? And how do we tell them without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I know adults who are irrationally scared of bears to the point that they spend the entire time on the trail at DEFCON 2. A paralyzing fear of bears is the opposite of what I want the kids to go home with.

For a definitive resource on bear safety, I look to Parks Canada. Based on the bear safety section of its website, heres what I tell kids:

1. We probably won't see a bear today, but it's important we know what to do if we do see one.
2. Don't run ahead of the group. If there's a bear ahead you don't want to surprise him.
3. Make lots of noise so, in the unlikely event that there is a bear nearby, he'll know we're coming and get out of our way. Bears want to run into people even less than we want to run into them.
4. If you see fresh poop on the trail, stop and wait for the adults.
5. If you see a dead animal, don't go near it. Tell an adult what you saw.
6. If you see a bear and it doesn't see you, slowly back away until you reach an adult.
7. If you see a bear and it sees you:
  • Stay calm. If you freak out, so will the bear.
  • Don't yell. Yelling is aggressive, and aggression can trigger an attack.
  • Don't run. Although the bear doesn't want to eat you, running triggers its chase response.
  • Make yourself look big. This is directed at the parents of small kids. Picking them up will make both of you look bigger and it will calm the kid down and prevent him or her from running.
  • Look at the ground, not at the bear.
  • Talk to the bear in a firm, low voice. Tell him you're his friend and don't want to bug him. This will tell the bear that you're human and not an animal.
  • Back away slowly to an adult. Don't turn around. That could trigger the bear's chase response.
One thing I don't tell them is what to do if a bear attacks. Play dead if it's a grizzly, fight back if it's a black bear? I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the difference once my heart started pounding and it was all I could do to fight back the adrenaline-fueled urge to run.

Full Disclosure: I've spent a lot of time in the mountains, but I'm not an expert on bear safety. Use this blog as a starting point only. Take a bear safety course, read a bear safety book, and learn as much as you can about bears.


  1. Isn't this rather a lot for children to take in?

    1. It can be, but we're in grizzly country and grizzlies don't discriminate by age.


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