I asked my friend Al how he would answer this question because I needed some backup. Al's a 62-year-old Montanan, through and through, and he has a lot more experience in the wilderness than I do. Al's spent 3/4 of his life in the wilderness. He's been teaching a hunter and bowhunter class for the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for the state of Montana, for 20 and 25 years respectively. Overall, Al has a great sense of what to do and not do in the wilderness. I trust what he has to say and want to impart his knowledge here. I think his responses provide a sense of sobering reality and relief.
AL: "I think a person only has to fear one animal at night in camp, and that is a bear...The other animals, not at all. Don't let movies that show otherwise ruin a great chance to get out and enjoy the outdoors....MOST animals fear humans."
I wholeheartedly agree that your fear shouldn't stop you from enjoying the wilderness, but there are some things you should definitely practice to be empowered to help yourself.
IT'S ALL ABOUT PREVENTION.
AL suggests some best practices to avoid making dumb human mistakes that draw animals into our camps.
- Plan your day to get to camp before dusk. "Most human/animal conflicts happen during the day, but can happen at night. Most happen when a human walks upon an animal while it's feeding, sleeping or has young. It goes into defense mode and bad things happen. At night, animals are not out looking to attack something, most of all, a human."
- Don't set up camp right next to a water source. (This is a Leave No Trace principle as well.) "If it's easy for you to get water, it's easy for animals also and they might come at night to get a drink."
- Don't cook and eat your meals in camps or in your tent. "The smell can last a very long time" and sometimes we might spill food. This is bad! In addition, "If you build a fire, NEVER throw food or its containers in the fire."
- "Never store food or anything [with a scent] anywhere close to camp." You should put food in a bear canister or bear hang and have it at least 200 feet away from camp.
- Carry bear spray and a light source with you at all times. There's a small chance you might encounter an animal when you walk away from camp to use the bathroom.
IF THEY DO ROAM INTO YOUR CAMP, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
- Don't assume the animal wants to attack you. It may just be walking through your camp.
- "NEVER run. Get your spray ready and turn on the flash light. Just seeing the animal will take away some of [your] fear." Al says it's probably not going to be the killer griz your mind might make up. It's likely a porcupine, raccoon or another little critter.
- Talk to the animal in a low voice. "Don't yell. Hopefully hearing your voice will cause it to turn away and leave."
- Keep the flashlight on it, and move it in small arcs.
- "Don't use the bear spray unless it attacks you. Using the spray to scare it away is just a waste of spray."
"We don't know why bears attack." But HERE'S WHAT TO DO IN CASE THEY DO
If a bear charges towards you, spray a one second burst using a sweeping motion (left to right or right to left).
- Spray it where the bear will be, on it's path towards you (versus aiming for the bear). Bears are really fast and you want to have a cloud of bear spray in it's path.
- Be ready to spray again, holding your can with two hands. Stand and wait to see what it does.
- Spray again if the bear keeps coming.
- If the bear halts, take a couple steps back, slowly.
If the bear actually attacks you, there are different responses to different bears (relevant to the lower 48 states. Alaska is a whole other playing field.)
- GRIZZLIES: Play dead. You'll get mauled; it will be painful, but play dead. Stay in fetal position. Protect your neck.
- BLACK: Fight back with everything you have.
ENCOUNTERING A BEAR AT DUSK
This one is a tough one to answer because it depends on what the bear is doing. Does it have cubs? Is it feeding on a dead animal? Is it moving away from you or moving towards you?
First of all, you need to have a plan you can enact. Al sums it up with: Observe. Decide. Act. This is what he would do in that situation.
- Know how to use your bear spray. Practice getting it out removing the clip, holding it out, and fake-spraying.
- Get your bear spray out, slow and easy. It should be easily accessible! Not in your pack, but attached to your hip or pack strap.
- Rapidly assess the situation. Are there cubs? A food source? Is it a sow (mama bear)? Where are the cubs? Is the bear being aggressive? Is it curious? Which direction is the wind blowing? What's behind you? Are you between the sow and cubs?
- Decide what you need to do. Stay calm and get yourself out of that situation without provoking the bear.
- Take a few steps away from the bear/cubs. Be ready with your bear spray and back up away from the bear. Keep slow and steady and get far away as possible.
- Set up camp somewhere safe.
Bears can be especially defensive if there are cubs involved or if they're feeding. Move away slowly. NEVER RUN. Even if you have to back track, stay out of that area. You're at risk of provoking the bear when it's most protective and defensive. You'll need to decide what direction you think the bear is headed and go the opposite way.
What about mountain lion? "If you see a mountain lion trailing you, you're probably lunch." (Al said that, not me! I don't want you or me to be anyone's lunch!) They attack people when they're moving around, not when you're settled in camp (necessarily). Make yourself as big as you can and make a ton of noise. Make it think it's going to take on godzilla! If they attack, fight with everything you have.
When you're out of danger, remember to take some deep breaths. Get your heart rate down. Give thanks that you're alive. Decide on a new campsite and get situated to hunker down for the night. Sleep. Rest. Relax as much as you're able. Take care of yourself.