Bears are deeply misunderstood creatures. Shy, curious, and rather predictable, they are not the ferocious beasts they are often portrayed to be.
It should come as no surprise to learn that bear encounters occur often in many of our national parks. Despite the fact that bear attacks are actually pretty rare―statistically speaking, your chances of being injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.1 million―it's always wise to prep yourself on what to do in the event of an unexpected encounter. By understanding bear behavior and distinguishing between different types of bears, you will not only keep yourself safe, but avoid disrupting the natural environment that they live in.
More often than not, bears wander into towns and campsites in search of food, typically when their usual food source has been depleted or if they have grown accustomed to having access to human food. To prevent unwanted visitors on your next camping trip, it is extremely important that all of your food is properly stored in bear-resistant containers or storage boxes. Keep in mind that this also includes securing garbage bags and locking up scented items, such as toothpaste or scented soap. Never leave these items in your car―bears are attracted to anything with an odor and will have no problem breaking into your vehicle if they think there's food inside! By keeping a clean camp and following the food storage regulations provided by the National Park Service, you will be doing your part to maintain a safe and comfortable atmosphere for everyone.
Prevention is a major key to bear safety, however, you may find yourself in a situation where it's too late for "should have"s. To avoid surprising a bear by catching it off guard, make your presence known by speaking loudly and waving your arms. (Not too frantically―you want the bear to notice you, not view you as a threat.) If the bear still has not caught on to your presence, you may find it helpful to create noise by breaking sticks. It is common for bears to stand up on their hind legs to get a better glimpse of their surroundings; do not mistake this characteristic body language as aggressive. Remain calm, and the bear will likely retreat. Whatever you do, never ever run away or attempt to escape by climbing a tree! Bears, particularly black bears, have evolved to be excellent climbers. While they will usually avoid human interaction, you don't want to test them. Some people choose to carry bear pepper spray as an emergency deterrent; a product that has been proven to be the safest and most effective means of repelling a potential attack.
Overall, being bear aware comes down to two things: having an understanding of bear behavior and having common sense. Come prepared, be smart about your decisions, and treat the animals you meet with respect. The more educated you are on the subject, the safer you will feel the next time you see a bear in the wild.