When it comes to the black bears common in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, it's not very likely that a hiker will encounter one on a trail. If there is an encounter it'll likely be brief and result in the bear running away.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife says most bear encounters with humans are driven by bears looking for food, and finding it in trash cans or at campsites where food has been improperly stored. To reduce your chances of having a bear invade your camp looking for food, your best bet is to keep your food, and your trash, in bear-proof containers, or double bagged and in the trunk of your car. Don’t bring food in your tent, either. A bear, following its nose, may barge right in looking for something to dine on. This would be a bad thing.
When on a trail, you’re not likely to see a bear since their acute sense of smell alerts them to your presence long before you get near them, allowing them to scamper away. You can further reduce the chances of encountering a bear by making noise as you hike, whether it is by talking with other hikers, or by having bells on your back pack. Bears will try to avoid people whenever possible.
There are also some signs to look for while on the trail to alert you that bears may be nearby. Look for scat (huge), paw prints (also huge) and shredded logs. If you see bear cubs, it’s extremely likely that the mother bear is nearby. This can be a dangerous situation and you need to leave the area right away.
In the event you surprise a bear on the trail don’t panic, and don’t run away. Instead, CPW says stay still and make yourself look big by raising your arms above your head while slowly backing away from the bear. The bear will need a few minutes to figure out what you are, and that you’re not a threat. If the bear is snorting or stomping its feet, it’s warning you that it needs more space. Heed that warning and always make sure the bear has an escape route.
On the remote chance that the bear doesn’t back off, or it approaches you, it’s time to make noise. Yell and shout, or better yet, blow a whistle. I carry one on each of my packs. If that doesn’t work and on the very remote chance that you’re attacked, fight back. Punch, smack and whatever else you need to do to get the bear off of you — DO NOT “play dead.”
With a little commonsense and situational awareness, your hike or camping trip will be an enjoyable one without a bad bear encounter. For more information, pick up a copy of CPW's "Camping and Hiking in Bear Country" brochure at any state park or CPW office, or read more online at the CPW website.
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org.