Black bear safety is sometimes taken lightly, because black bears are, in general, easygoing sorts of creatures. If Yogi Bear were real, he’d be a black bear. Although grizzlies were once common in this area, the only bears that live in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park now are black bears.
Black bears are every bit as dangerous as larger bears, however, and the fact that people tend to discount the danger makes them all the more so. They are especially dangerous when they’ve become accustomed to human food and garbage.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, a man was killed in the early 70s while sleeping in his tent. More recently, in 2003, two men were attacked while in their tent. Fortunately they survived with minor injuries.
Am I trying to scare you? Nope. I just want you to be aware of black bear safety precautions.
“A fed bear is a dead bear.”
The most important thing you can do is to store your food properly. Never leave food unattended on a picnic table or in the car. Remember that to a bear, “food” is anything that smells interesting, and might include toothpaste, deodorant, candy wrappers, lip balm, garbage, etc.
Store your food in airtight containers, and always put it away when not in use. Use bearproof lockers if they are provided, or put items in the trunk of your car. Bears are adept at smashing car windows to get to coolers full of food. Keep it out of sight. Also, use bear proof trash cans if they are provided.
If camping, don’t even bring food into the tent, and cook as far away as possible from where you will be sleeping (at least 100 yards for backcountry campers). Many people suggest that you do not wear the clothes that you cook in for sleeping. Backcountry campers should consider bringing a bear proof storage canister, or you should secure food in a bear bag (at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the trunk of a tree).
By the way, following these black bear safety precautions is not only good for the bears, it’s good for you too — rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park have been known to issue citations to careless campers.
Bear bells and pepper spray might be advisable in grizzly country, but they are not a necessity in Estes Park or Rocky Mountain National Park. The likelihood of a black bear attacking a hiker is very rare. It’s more likely that a black bear would attack someone at night, in an interesting smelling tent, far away from civilization.
That said, however, it’s always a good idea to hike in groups, if possible, and to make a little bit of noise while doing so (but not so much that you annoy all living creatures nearby, including fellow hikers!) A regular old conversation will do just fine. If you have children with you, make sure they stay with you and do not run ahead or fall behind.
If You Meet a Bear
In the event that you see a bear (I have seen exactly one while hiking, and eight bears total in twenty plus years) just let it be. Stop, give the bear space, and chances are he will hightail it out of the area as soon as he sees you. Chances are he will have already hightailed it out of there before you see him!
If the bear approaches, get noisy. Wave your arms, yell, and tell the bear firmly to go away. Pick up small children.
If the bear attacks, fight back!
Now you are “bear aware.” Remember these black bear safety tips to keep both you and the bears safe.