What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

when you see a bear

Keeping your hiking retreats safe in bear country

Explaining to customers at my hiking retreats ‘what to do when you see a bear’ is one of my favorite de-briefs. For some it catches them a bit off-guard, especially if they didn’t know it was something they need to be aware of. For most, they’re pretty relieved.

Yet as the owner of an outdoor fitness camp located in Whistler, British Columbia, bears are part of our daily interaction and reality. We wouldn’t want it any other way! Our fitness retreat is one of the best known destination weight loss programs in North America, with an action packed adventure schedule for women of beginner fitness level. All day we’re hiking, biking, doing outside fitness classes and even a touch of kayaking.

In this article I’ll share the two types of action steps to take when face-to-face on the trails.

  • If the bear is in a predatory behavioral state
  • If it’s in a defensive behavorial state.

If you’re currently face-to-face with a bear googling WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU SEE A BEAR the nutshell is this; don’t run! Give it tons of space. At least 200 feet.

whistler hiking tours  - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

Whistler Fitness Vacations offers daily Whistler hiking tours for beginners.

10 quick facts about bears

Before heading out on the trails, your safety checklist should include packing bear spray and checking the trail or area website to see if there have been any precautionary wildlife sightings. And while hiking, look for various notices around on the trailhead about bear sightings.

Courtesy of the BC Parks website. 

  • Bears are really smart, and really curious.
  • Humans have similar vision to bears.
  • Bears’ sense of smell is legendary. They often stand up to catch a scent or get a better look.
  • They can move much faster than any human … over any terrain… uphill or down.
  • Bears are great swimmers.
  • Black bears climb trees better than grizzly bears, but many grizzlies are good climbers as well.
  • Mother bears, especially grizzlies, are famously protective of their offspring.
  • Bears have better hearing than humans.
  • The quest for food shapes every aspect of a bear’s life. They spend much of their time searching for food to support growth, sustain their offspring, and prepare for winter denning.
  • Bear behaviour is more predictable than most people think.


difference between bears - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

Courtesy BC Parks (click image for website).

Bear Smart Whistler

For the past 18 or so years I’ve shared my home with beautiful black and brown bears, leading Whistler hiking tours. Before all the construction of the Olympics, I’d see at least 5 or more bears every day. Bears are awesome, and they’re really important to our environment.

Whistler is highly populated and is also surrounded by provincial parks. We get more than 2 million annual visitors each year, and we’ve got a population of about 10,000 residents. We used to see bears on the tennis court (yep, even when playing), and have to close all our doors when cooking to avoid them coming into the kitchen. It’s calmed down a lot over the past ten years, with Whistler becoming an official Bear Smart community. 

I won’t touch on grizzly conflict, as you won’t see any of those on our Whistler hiking tours or on any scheduled activities at our women’s health retreat. (Famous last words, I know…)

Read: Grizzly bear sighting near Whistler gives hope for recovery of species in southwest B.C.

There are a few grizzlies in the surrounding area, but not in town – I’ve never seen a grizzly on the trails in Whistler! There’s about 50 tagged black bears though.

grizzly bear - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

Grizzly bear, photographed in Alberta.

It’s safer to hike with friends

Nobody likes to be surprised, especially bears. That’s why hiking in groups is safer than hiking alone – the chat creates enough noise that the bear knows you’re approaching. When you see a bear, give them space and they’ll usually continue doing what they were doing. Most of the time, they won’t even acknowledge you.

If you encounter a black bear, consider yourself very lucky. They are shy and timid animals.

Want to go hiking in Whistler but don’t have anyone to go with? Be bear safe and book a private guided hiking adventure with Whistler Fitness Vacations. Bears won’t become predatory when faced with 2-3 people.

bear cubs - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

What kinds of bears will I see on a hiking vacation in Canada?

In North America, there are three species of bear; black, brown and polar bear. You’ll only encounter the polar bear above the Arctic Circle, and grizzlies fall into the brown bear category.

Black bears are usually 200-500 pounds in weight. They can be white, blond, chocolate, cinnamon or jet black. They’re mostly vegetarian.

Grizzlies are often smaller than black bears, but can also be bigger. They can weigh anywhere between 200 and 700 pounds, even getting up to a whopping 1000 pounds. They have a distinguishing large hump on their shoulders, and a very large head. Their coloring is similar in variety to black bears.

Brown bears have larger heads than black bears.

brown bear - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

When (and how) to use bear spray

If a bear approaches you or charges at you, that’s the time to use bear spray. Watch the below video to learn how to deploy it safely.

When on a trail, try to hike during daylight hours, as bears are most active at dawn and dusk. Talk loudly especially in areas of low visibility, such as streams. Keep aware – don’t zen out to music or podcasts on the trails when hiking – save that for the treadmill! It’s important to watch for bear scat, strange smells, and even wind direction (pay extra caution when the wind is facing you).

Dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears, so watch your dogs closely and keep them on a leash.

Give the bear a negative experience

Says Nicole Fitzgerald, Whistler coordinator for the Get Bear Smart Society;

If you’re in a safe position, use household items like pots, pans and spoons to make noise. Hit the pot and pan, make as much noise as possible, scream and yell at the bear. You can think of it like scolding a dog… bears are very intelligent animals. Their intelligence has been likened to that of the great apes. If they have a number of negative experiences from humans, they’ll think it’s not worth the risk of going into that public space again.

Ann Bryant, director of the Lake Tahoe–based BEAR League agrees. “In a heavily human place like Whistler, when you see a bear on your turf (deck, driveway, campground), it’s simple, says Bryant. Be inhospitable. Clap, stomp, pound the window, yell. It’ll flee. Squirt guns, beach balls, small stones (thrown at its butt) help scare it off, too.”

Health magazine wrote a great article here about what to do when you see a bear. “The number-one rule, according to Dan LeGrandeur of Alberta-­based Bear Scare: Stay calm (uh, okay). Don’t scream or turn your back. DO NOT RUN; it will chase you (bears can motor up to 35 mph). Give it space. Say hello, out loud, in your most soothing yoga teacher voice—­“Hi, bear. I’m human. Get the hell out of here, please,” while slooowly backing away in the direction from which you came.”

What to do when you see a bear

From a distance

1- On our Whistler hiking tours, we carry binoculars for guests to admire the bear close up, without getting too close.

2 – You know that you’re doing the right thing if the bear continues it’s behavior style in your presence. If you’re within 200 feet or so from the bear, you’re a bit close for comfort. This depends on species, but as a base rule, don’t intentionally move closer to a bear. Ever.

3 – Bears have really bad vision. So when there’s low visibility days on the trail, due to fog, smoke or low cloud, be sure to bring a bear bell or hike with a few others. This will reduce surprises to the bear.

4 – Stay on designated trails – don’t bush whack! Also stay with your group and don’t use excess noise or movement unless the bears in the predatory state. This state is super rare. And if it’s predatory, hopefully it’s not because you got too close. Don’t risk it.

5 – Baby bears are cute but there’s a very protective mother nearby, and will defend her cub to the full extent of her ability. Never get between a mom and her child.

6 – Dogs need to be on a leash on the hiking trails, especially if your dog is not from a town like Whistler. Local dogs usually learn quickly how to be responsible with bears, as their owners know how important it is. That’s why you see so many off-trail dogs in Whistler, but rest assured, their owner knows not to let their dog get close to a bear.

7 – Give the bear room to pass you. Sometimes you’ll have to wait for the bear to amble across your trail, slowly, when it’s ready. That’s better than passing in front of its trail first!

Too close

If the bear is just wandering around your home or camping spot, but not interested in you or acting defensively, there’s no need to use bear spray. Instead just shoo it off like a really really really big chicken… shout and make lots of noise until he goes away. Wave your arms, be big in size. Let them know that they’re not welcome in this area. Especially if theres food.

Don’t do this on the trails – on the trails it’s for you to back up and go a different way, let them be. It’s not our place to tell a bear that they can’t be in their natural habitat! I mean, unless you’ve pitched a tent etc.

If the bear is focusing in on you, looking at you in the eyes… then you’re in danger. Keep reading below.

bear in the grass - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

Whatever you do, don’t run!

No matter how scary it might be to have a bear encounter, hold your composition and don’t run. It will chase you, and bears can run faster than Olympic sprinters – up to 35 mph.

Give it space, then tell it in a quiet, soothing voice to get the hell out. Then slowly backup… most of the time, the bear will leave.

You might see the bear climbing a tree if it’s a cub – this is a defence. You’ll know that the bear is feeling defensive if it’s huffing and has it’s ears back. What you should do in this situation is walk backwards slowly, and don’t look at them in the eye. You want to be unthreatening… eye contact can be triggering for them.

teddy bear - What to do when you see a bear (on a hiking vacation, or your backyard!)

Bears are only ‘cute’ as plush toys…

How to know if you’re in danger

If the bear moves into the predatory behaviour, thats when you should get your big girl panties on. You’re in the danger zone!

The bear will have its ears forward and will be staring at you, quietly. The head will be held higher and it almost feels like it’s stalking you in a weird, calm way. That’s the scariest time. What you should do is lock in your eye contact and be big… have a stick over your head, throw stuff, be the boss.

Usually it’ll go away but remember, whatever you do, don’t run away from it.

Use your nervous energy and adrenaline to make noise, then dig into your deepest zen abilities to walk backwards into your safety zone.

Want to come hiking with me? Let’s do it!

Not only have I been guiding hikes around Whistler since 2001, I’m also licensed, certified and insured to do so. I’ve got my Bear Safety certificate in addition from Work Safe BC, and my Wilderness First Aid all in check among other qualifications.

READ: Beginner Hiking Tours & Custom Fitness Camps For Women

Below is an excerpt from our catalog:

Come experience Whistler’s best hiking – forest valley trails, cascading rivers, glacial landscapes and incredible mountain views – hand-picked for your walking ability. These tours are convenient, safe, informative, physical and fun!

Tours are led by Whistler Fitness Vacations owner, Cat Smiley. With almost 20 years guiding hikes with her clients in the region, Cat is a certified personal trainer and wilderness guide. If you’ve had no experience at all with outdoor walking – this is truly your best start!

You’ll be amazed by the incredible landscape, while elevating your perception of what you can achieve. Empowered guiding, supportive leadership, and good company that keeps you both safe and motivated – all in the most instagrammable places!

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Why our hiking retreats (and Whistler hiking tours) are unique

Whistler Fitness Vacations has a really awesome program where you can book my team and I one-to-one for beginner Whistler hiking tours, from just $249/day. And, for a hiking vacation in Canada, our town is definitely a great place.

Distinguished by impressive twin mountains, Whistler is surrounded by forested valleys, rivers and lakes – the perfect place to join a hiking tour. Led by a certified fitness trainer and hiking guide, your experience will be designed for your fitness level and comfort zone.

These plus size hiking tours are an integral part of Whistler Fitness Vacations luxury wellness retreats and custom fitness camps. These run daily, weekly and monthly from May to September. Exclusively offered to women of beginner and intermediate fitness levels, our wellness retreat lineup of programs is a great introduction to hiking.

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Fall in love with an adventure that you can continue – for the rest of your life.

Your day will include convenient pickup at your hotel, courtesy return transfers to the hiking trail, guided cardio hiking adventure exploring the renowned treasures of Whistler’s valley.

Come discover the ultimate experience that Whistler is famous for – the forest nature trails. This Whistler hiking tour is dog friendly, and suitable for anyone who can walk 20 minutes comfortably.

The pace matches the slowest person in the group.

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Hey, I’m Cat Smiley. I’m a fitness, nutrition, weight loss and life coach. Hire me if you want results! Click here to learn more about my 1-to-1 phone coaching services, upcoming weight loss retreats, and personal workshops.

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