Bear Safety

A Grizzly Bear
Grizzly bears are very rare residents in North Cascades.

North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Ross Lake National Recreation Area encompass some of the wildest areas in the contiguous United States. The rugged mountains provide wonderful habitat for black and grizzly bears.

Bears add an intimidating and exciting element to the North Cascades experience. They are animals to respect, but not fear. The steps necessary to travel safely in bear country begin before you arrive. Learning about bears before your visit can help you have a safer and more enjoyable experience. Your help and cooperation is necessary to protect the North Cascades experience, the bears, and everyone’s safety at this amazing place.

Black bears and grizzly bears have many things in common. They are intelligent, curious, and individualistic. They begin to hibernate in the fall and emerge from their dens in the spring. During hibernation, bears do not eat, drink, defecate, or urinate and may lose one quarter to one third of their body weight. To survive hibernation, bears must eat a year’s worth of food in six months or less and their diet is extremely varied. Each species can climb trees, although black bears are much more agile climbers compared to grizzlies. They have good eyesight and an excellent sense of smell. They are powerful, fast, and protective of their cubs.

These characteristics allow bears to make a living in numerous habitats. Bears use every habitat in the park. They are even occasionally seen on glaciers and barren mountain peaks. You could encounter a bear even on a short hike. Bears are individuals, each behaving differently in different circumstances. There are no precise rules about what to do if you encounter a bear, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of a stressful bear encounter.

A Black Bear
Black bears are commonly seen in North Cascades.

Avoid Close Encounters

Hike and Travel in Groups
Hiking and traveling in groups is typically the best way to increase your level of safety in bear country. Statistics on bear encounters and attacks show that groups of four or more people are much safer around bears than one or two people. Bears can smell and hear groups of people more easily than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size groups of people are also passively intimidating to bears. Children should remain with an adult at all times.

Be Alert
Bears in North Cascades are active at all hours. Never assume you are in a “bear free” area. Be on the lookout for signs of bears and be especially wary in areas where bears may have trouble detecting you such as thick brush, along noisy streams, and in windy conditions. Sometimes, you might see a bear before it is aware of you. In these situations, back away quietly the same way you came and give the bear space. Be watchful when traveling off trail. Bears rest and sleep in day beds where you may have difficulty seeing them. Be especially wary in places where there is food favored by bears; for example, berries or carcasses of large animals. Use extra care and caution in these areas.

Make Noise
In areas where visibility is limited make noise to warn bears of your approach. Bears, especially grizzly bears, can react defensively if they are surprised. The human voice is the best tool to warn bears of your approach. Bears may not associate other noise makers, such as bells, with people. Please remember that you are not making noise to scare bears away, only to warn them of your approach. Once a bear is aware of your presence it is usually not necessary to make extra noise.

Give Bears Space
Avoid interfering with bear movement or foraging activities. Do not approach bears. Bears will respond differently depending on the individual bear and the situation. A bear that is vocalizing is likely defensive and you should back away at an oblique angle. A bear that standing and facing you with its ears up may be curious or testing you. In this case, wave your arms and yell to dissuade the bear from approaching. Most bears want to leave you alone. As much as possible, give the bear time and space to access the resources it needs to survive. If a bear reacts to your presence you are too close.

areas where dogs are permitted, keep them leashed and under physical control at all times. Do not allow dogs to run free. Unleashed dogs disturb wildlife and may lead a bear back to you.

black bear walking and looking forward toward camera
A bear with upright ears and a direct stare may be curious about you or your campsite.


During a Bear Encounter

Your response during a bear encounter should depend on the bear’s behavior. Curious bears have different motivations than defensive bears. You can find more information on the motivations of a curious bear versus a defensive bear in the bear safety information for Yellowstone National Park. The information below has been gleaned from many sources including books, resource experts, and videos.

Assess the Bear’s Behavior

Bear encounters often happen very quickly, but the bear will likely show cues that communicate its intentions.

  • When you encounter a bear always stop, remain calm, and assess the situation.

  • Be Careful Not to Startle It: Shouting at a bear that is not aware of you may incite a charge. If the bear does not know you are there, back away quietly watching for any changes in its behavior.

  • Look and Listen for Signs of Stress: Vocalizations like woofing, huffing, and jaw popping are almost always indications of stress. If you hear a bear vocalizing then the bear is most likely warning you. The position of a bear’s ears also communicates information. Ears that are pointed forward usually indicate a sense of curiosity or dominance. Ears that are flattened back on a bear’s head is indicative of stress and/or defensiveness.

Remain Calm and Do Not Run
A bear may approach closely or stand on its hind legs to identify you. Let it know you are human by talking to the bear calmly. Back away slowly, at an oblique angle if you can. If you are traveling in a group, use the group’s size to your advantage and stay close to one another. Don't Run! Running may encourage a bear to chase you. Bears can run faster than 30 miles per hour (50 km/hr). You cannot outrun them. Generally, if you just stand your ground, the bear will soon leave. Wild bears rarely attack unless threatened or provoked. Talking in low, soothing tones may help keep you calm. Do not panic.

If You are Charged
A defensive bear may approach you or even charge. If a bear charges, it perceives you as threat. Most charges are bluffs, but you must take action to try to appear non-threatening by standing your ground and talking calmly to the bear. Don’t shout or throw anything. Once the bear has stopped its charge, try to move slowly away. If the bear charges again as you are moving away, stop moving and stand your ground again.

Use your bear spray if you think the bear will attack. Even though most charges are bluffs, there is no cue from the bear indicating that the charge is a bluff.

If a Defensive Bear Attacks

Play dead and leave your pack on as it may offer some protection. Fall to the ground face down on your stomach with your legs apart. Lock your hands behind your neck to protect your neck and face. If you do get rolled over, keep rolling until you're face down again. Don’t shout or cry out. Stay quietly in this position until the bear has left the area. Once a defensive bear no longer perceives you as a threat, it will stop attacking. If the attack continues long after you have assumed the protective position, fight back vigorously.

If a Non-Defensive Bear Approaches

A non-defensive bear may approach you for a variety of reasons — it may be conditioned to human food, curious, or want to test its dominance. Non-defensive bears usually don’t show any signs of stress, so you should act assertively. You are trying to dissuade the bear from approaching. As with a defensive bear, stay calm and speak to the bear. Try moving out of its way. If the bear continues to approach, you then want to assert your dominance over the animal — shout, make yourself look large and threatening, throw a rock towards the bear, and prepare to use your bear spray.

If a Non-Defensive Bear Attacks

Bear attacks, whether defensive or predatory, are very rare. Grizzly bear attacks are almost always defensive, while black bear attacks tend to be more predatory. If a non-defensive bear attacks, fight back! Non-defensive bears may consider you prey.

In All Cases

The best defense is knowledge, preparation, and prevention. Arm yourself with a knowledge of bear biology, ecology, and behavior. Prepare yourself mentally for bear encounters before you visit, and take action when you are visiting the North Cascades to prevent stressful encounters with bears.

Have you seen a bear in the North Cascades? Fill out the Bear Sighting Form.


Camping with Bears

Bears do not naturally associate people with food, but they are opportunistic and can quickly learn this behavior. A bear drawn to a campsite by the smell of garbage in a fire pit may discover containers of food on a picnic table and learn that campgrounds and campsites provide easy meals. The bear will remember this lesson for the rest of its life and pass the knowledge on to its cubs. A bear may seek food at camps aggressively and repeatedly over a long period. Bears who demonstrate this behavior have to be killed.

By following basic precautions of proper food storage and camp cleanliness, campers can minimize encounters with bears as well as damage caused by rodents and other animals who can learn to associate people with food. No matter where or how you camp, be sure to secure your food so it is inaccessible to wildlife and keep all food and odorous items out of your tent.


Camping with a Car, Recreational Vehicle, or Bicycle
Bears sometimes enter campgrounds, even during daylight hours. At your campsite, be sure to reduce or eliminate odors that attract bears. When you go to bed or anytime you are not at your campsite store all your food, toiletries, cooking gear, coolers, trash, and stoves in food storage lockers or in your vehicle. If you use your vehicle, keep the windows up and doors locked. Remember to secure portable barbecue grills too. Your car trunk is best place to store these things. Unless your pickup has a hard shell, store items in the cab.

The Lower and Upper Goodell Creek group campgrounds and most campsites at Colonial Creek Campground are equipped with food storage lockers. Only the walk-in sites at Newhalem Campground have food storage lockers. No lockers are available at Gorge Lake or Goodell Creek Campgrounds.

Thoroughly clean your cooking and eating areas right after eating. Campgrounds currently do not have designated sinks for wash water disposal. Strain food particles out of the water and deposit wash water in campground toilets. Pour grease into a container you will be throwing away and put it in the trash cans or dumpsters. Do not pour wash water or grease on the ground.

Open food storage locker with cooler inside
Food storage lockers at many campsites offer ample room to secure food, trash, and any other items that can attract bears.

NPS/A. Braaten

Boat Camping
Food storage lockers are provided at boat-in in campsites on Lake Chelan, Ross Lake, and Diablo Lake. Do not store any food or trash in your boat. The lockers are communal, so plan to share them with other campers. Most food storage lockers offer approximately 24 feet cubic feet of storage space. All coolers that contain food and trash, except for those considered bear resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, must be secured inside the food storage lockers.

Backcountry Camping with Pack Animals
If you are using pack animals, their food and any panniers that carried it must be stored it in the same manner as human food following the backcountry food storage policy for North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Do not keep panniers that have contained food or cooking equipment near where you are sleeping and consider using the IGBC-certified bear resistant panniers.

Backcountry Camping
In the backcountry, make an extra effort to keep your camp clean to reduce the chance bears and other animals will be attracted to your campsite. Mice and other rodents will chew holes in tents and bags to get at your food. Don’t give them any motivation to do so. Follow the backcountry food storage policy for North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Try to cook at least 100 feet (30 meters) downwind of your tent to reduce food odors near your sleeping area. Cook no more food than you can eat and pack out what you don’t eat.

If A Bear Visits Your Campsite
If a bear comes into your campsite, contact a ranger. If you are at a backcountry site and no ranger is nearby, do not approach the bear but try to make it leave by shouting, shaking branches, or banging pots and pans. A bear accustomed to campground food may not be easily discouraged. If a bear persistently returns to the camp, move to another campground and notify a park ranger.

A Black Bear

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Additional Reading

Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Stephen Herrero, Nick Lyons Books.

Field Guide to the Grizzly Bear, Lance Olsen, Sasquatch Books.

Track of the Grizzly, Frank C. Craighead, Jr., Sierra Club Books.

Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, Doug Peacock, Henry Holt and Company.

The Grizzly Bear, Thomas McNamee, Penguin Books.

No Room For Bears, Frank Dufresne, Alaska Northwest Books.

The Great Bear, John A. Murray, ed., Alaska Northwest Books.

Disclaimer: These books are listed as examples of titles available on this subject. Their listing does not indicate endorsement by the National Park Service.

Last updated: April 19, 2021

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