Black Bear Safety - Ontario


An excerpt from The Family Camping Guide a companion book to Day Hikes in Ontario Vol. I.

Really, bears aren't generally a concern to most campers or hikers. I don’t want to demonize them here. They don’t like human company, they tend to be skittish and aren’t usually aggressive. The number of people hurt by bears in Ontario (mostly Black Bears) is almost statistically insignificant, considering the number of people in the outdoors. Still, bears are attracted by the scent of food and if they’re hungry enough (or lazy enough) will wander into your campsite - usually at night - to see what they can snack on. Usually they’re only a nuisance if handled properly.

How to Avoid Bears While Camping

I lifted the following from an article on the website of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

  • When enjoying Ontario’s campsites, lakes, forests and hiking trails, it’s wise to remember that you’re in the natural habitat of black bears. Bears have a keen sense of smell, and are attracted by the odour of human food and garbage. To avoid conflicts with bears, prepare and be aware.

  • What campers can do – know before you go:

  • You are responsible for your own safety. Plan your trip with safety in mind. Before you go, learn about black bears; signs of bear activity (like tracks and scat), and how to prevent and handle encounters with bears

  • If you are bringing children, always keep an eye on them. When hiking, it is wise to keep children between adults, only a few steps apart

  • Before you go, discuss bears with children. Teach children simple things like making sure they can always see an adult; to never approach a bear or other animals; to never run from a bear and if they see a bear to stay calm and call for help

  • If you plan on bringing a dog, you should verify whether there are any rules that prohibit dogs or require them to be on a leash

  • All food odours can attract bears. Pack all food, including dog food, with special care. Double or triple bag food to reduce smells. Consider choosing meals that require minimal preparation

  • Think about how you will handle your garbage, and how you will keep your campsite clean and odour free. Your safety and that of other campers depends on your diligence to keep the area clean and free from all odours

  • Pack a couple of long ropes for hanging your food pack. Practice hanging a pack before you go. Hang the bag at least 12 feet up and tie off the rope to another tree

  • Think about bringing a whistle or air horn. Bears are usually scared off by loud noises.

  • Pepper spray. If you bring pepper spray, know how to use it. It can be very effective, but you need to be calm and stand your ground.*

  • The Ministry of Natural Resources or an Ontario Parks Office can provide general information about recent campsite or route closures due to bear problems. Keep in mind, however, that bear activity can not be predicted

  • Once in a while people will encounter black bears. Have a plan in mind if a bear enters your campsite

  • People are rarely attacked and/or killed by black bears. Nonetheless, it is important that you be prepared to handle an encounter or an attack

While there is little reason to irrationally fear black bears, one should remember that there is never any advantage to messing around with them. With an average weight of some 110kg and the ability to swim, climb trees and run at some 50kph they are a formidable force in nature. You will not out run or out swim them. Your best course of action is to avoid them. Give them plenty of “getting away” room. Don’t get near their young. If you come across a freshly killed animal carcass, assume it’s been killed by a bear and leave the area immediately. Bears will aggressively defend their young and the source of their next meal. When hiking, especially on winding trails, make enough noise so bears can hear you and leave the area. You don’t want to sneak up on a bear!

If you’re planning to go camping in Alberta or British Columbia, you may need to read up on the habits of Grizzly bears. Grizzly bears are larger, somewhat more aggressive cousins of the common Black bear we often find in Ontario. If you’re going up north, say, to Churchill, Manitoba, you might want to read up on the special cautions around Polar bears.

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* I’m not going to try to explain how to use bear spray here, as there are plenty of YouTube videos you can watch, but I will say it is very effective. When the bear approaches to about 3 meters, you spray a short blast directly into it’s face. Rest assured, it will not injure the bear, but will certainly give it a good reason to run away. When the bear leaves, replace the safety clip, put the canister away and leave the area quickly. You may want to report the incident to the park warden, when you get the first opportunity, as they might want to post a bear warning. Don’t get the pepper into your eyes. Wash hands as soon as possible. ALWAYS READ AND UNDERSTAND THE INSTRUCTIONS ON THE CANISTER BEFORE YOUR HIKE.

Pepper spray is illegal to sell, use or manufacture in Canada. The only exception seems to be for the purposes of animal repelling - usually bears or dogs. If you’re caught carrying around a can of pepper spray on the subway or on the city streets, you’re going to get charged with possession of a dangerous weapon. I’m no expert on the subject, so speak with your local police or law enforcement officers before buying any pepper spray.

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