Mountain Biking in Bear Country

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Mountain Biking in Bear Country

When a mountain biker had been mauled and killed by a grizzly bear in Montana in 2016, journalists began sounding the alarm of frequent bear encounters by mountain bikers.  

National Geographic published the article Mountain Biker Killed by Bear in Montana, Outside Magazine published a story Why Do Mountain Bikers Keep Running into Bears on the Trail? And the New York Times published When Biking and Bears Don’t Mix

If you search for online videos under the term mountain biker chased by bear, you’ll see some pretty close encounters such as this bike-park video or this deep woods video.

I Speak Bear

Being an avid mountain biker myself, an expert at wilderness travel in bear country and having authored a book with an entire chapter dedicated to bears, I thought it was time I address mountain biking in bear country. 

Part of my obsession with bears stems from when my family and I were chased by a bear from it’s marked den around 1980.  I was only 6-years-old at the time and had many terrible nightmares as a result.  But the fear eventually turned to curiosity and that curiosity led to my personal study and obsession of bears. 

The only time I ever saw a bear while mountain biking was at Clear Creek State Park in northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Mountain bikes are nearly silent and this allowed me to come pretty close to the bear before I saw it and it actually never heard me.  In fact it didn’t even notice me as it was fully engrossed in eating grubs on the underside of a log it rolled over.  By the time it caught my scent and looked up, I had already been there for a full two minutes.  It went back to eating, finished up its meal and sauntered off into the brush. 

Everyone went home happy. These types of bear encounters are the most typical. 

I’ve encountered about twenty bears in my life.  Some were black bears and some were grizzly bears.  Most were pleasant encounters and two were most definitely unpleasant, but I’ve never been attacked. 

Still, I’m careful when I’m in bear country.

About Bears

Grizzly bears are typically larger and can be more aggressive than black bears, but this isn’t always true.  As an example, grizzly bears that live in the arctic weigh less than their coastal cousins and black bears in parts of Michigan and Pennsylvania can weigh over 800 pounds even rivaling the size of some grizzlies. 

Most bears are private and shy of people, but there are times when they may become aggressive.  Still, the most aggressive and dangerous bears are the ones with cubs, the ones that are sick or starving, the ones that are feeding or the ones that are suddenly surprised; this is true for both black bears and grizzly bears. 

 Some people think bears are big and loud and believe they’ll likely see the bear before the bear sees them.  The reality is bears are super-quiet.  They’re one of the most stealthy creatures in the forest.  They’ve also been known to circle around behind you as your moving through the woods to avoid your detection.  Because of this, most bear encounters come as a surprise.

Why Do Bears Sometimes Chase Mountain Bikers?

Most bears will not chase a mountain biker.  They’re more likely to run away.  But given the video evidence and stories, we know that some bears do chase mountain bikers. 

The most likely explanation is bears have a predatory chase instinct.  A mountain biker zipping by reminds them instinctually of a prey animal, maybe a deer or an elk, within close enough proximity that it may try to give chase for an easy meal.  Think of it as almost a reflex.  They see something zipping by and without thinking, they give chase.  Most of the videos showing a bear chasing a mountain biker end with the bear breaking off the chase and going away. 

Bears sometimes bluff charge.  If they feel threatened in some way, such as defending food or cubs, they may bolt toward a person that happens to be in close proximity.  In these cases, the bear’s body language communicates aggressive rage. 

The experience can be totally terrifying, but as long as the person doesn’t run, avoiding the predatory chase instinct, the bear is likely to break off the charge at the last second and run away into the woods.

Why Do Bears Sometimes Attack People?

Regardless if you’re on a beginner mountain biker or just walking through the woods, there are times when bears may attack.  However, a mountain biker typically moves through the forest at speeds over 10mph and with near silent stealth (especially when biking alone) which may increase the likelihood of the scenarios below.

 Mother bears are well known for aggressively defending their cubs.  They know a lot of animals, including other bears, try to kill their cubs.  Add this to their instilled fear of humans and you can see why a bear may attack a person in close proximity if they have cubs.  Mountain biking upon a bear with cubs could lead to an attack.

 Bears that are sick or starving are desperate and at the edge of survival.  This could be due to something as simple as a drought month which limits their food supply.  It could be due to an injury making it difficult to get to food.  It could also be due to a disease or infection such as encephalitis, bears can lose their fear or become aggressive. 

These conditions alter the bears behaviors and can make the bear much more aggressive.  Mountain biking upon a sick or starving bear could lead to an attack.

When people encounter a bear feeding on an animal carcass, it’s a very dangerous situation. One moment they’re chewing on steak and the next they’re in a rage chasing away an animal that’s trying to steal their food.  So if a person approaches a bear feeding on a carcass, the bear will likely aggressively defend it.   

Mountain biking upon a bear feeding on a carcass could lead to an attack. 

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Bears don’t like to be suddenly surprised.  Just like in people, bears have a natural fight or flight response.  Black bears are a bit more likely to run away while grizzly bears are more likely to fight when surprised.  However, a grizzly bear can go into a prolonged frenzied rage which makes them exceptionally more dangerous if surprised.  Mountain bikers can elicit an attack if surprising a bear. 

Risk of Collision

Cyclist Collides with Bear

The video of the cyclist above as with the mountain biker killed in Montana in 2016 actually collided with the bears at high speed.  In both cases, the riders sustained injuries just from the impact.  

The mountain biker’s injuries were bad enough to prevent him from adequately protecting himself.  Not only does this cause a highly reactive surprise for the bear, but it also means the bear likely feels as if it’s being painfully attacked by a human and needs to defend itself. 

The black bear, in this case, ran away.  However, the grizzly bear countered the attacking mountain biker with rage ultimately killing him.

Bear Country Facts

The following states have the highest population of bears: Maine, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. 

The following States have a grizzly bear population: Alaska, extreme northern Washington, limited parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The States with the most fatal bear attacks: Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and West Virginia.

Be Prepared for Mountain Biking in Bear Country

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There are some things mountain bikers can do to protect themselves in bear country.  These strategies and products can help to decrease the chance of encountering a bear, decrease the likelihood of an attack as well as decrease the likelihood of serious injury. 

None of these interventions are guaranteed because some behavior from bears can be unpredictable.  However, if choosing to implement these strategies, mountain bikers can be a little less concerned about having an unpleasant encounter.

Mountain bikers should research the trail network to answer a few questions:

  • Have there been recent bear sightings?  
  • If so, were cubs present?  
  • Have there been recent close encounters or complaints of bears in that area? 
  • Is there currently drought conditions or a low food source which could increase a bear’s stress and aggression? 

In general, answers to these questions will help to assess the risk, but keep in mind that bears can show up at any time.

As they say, timing is everything.  Avoid early morning and evening hours as these are prime times to see a bear. The season for a new local food source could increase bear activity such as a salmon run along a stream-side trail, blueberry bushes fruiting or the season for calving deer. 

Bear Behaviors to Know

Take some time to learn the signs of bear activity in the woods.   

Know how to identify bear scat and to estimate how fresh it is.  If you’re mountain biking on a trail and see super-fresh bear scat, it’s likely one is in the immediate area. 

Know how to identify paw prints.  Is this a black bear track or a grizzly bear track?  This isn’t just for noticing the shape of the palm and toes in mud, but also the pattern of dimples a bear makes from its walking gate through moss and fields. 

Know how to identify bear tunnels.  These are the flatted out tunnels a bear makes through low brush and thickets as they walk through those areas.  Trees marked by vertical claw marks are a warning that you’re within a bear’s marked territory.  Obviously the higher the bear is able to claw, the larger the bear is that made the markings. 

Lastly, avoid being in an area where you see or smell an animal carcass. 

When encountering a bear while mountain biking, it’s good to know what the bear is communicating as it sees you.  If the bear runs away, is ignoring you or standing on its hind legs to see you better, that’s typically a good thing.  If the bear is swaying its head, clacking its teeth or pounding its front paws on the ground, that’s a bad thing as the bear is communicating aggravation. 

If the bear charges at you in  a blitz of rage, under most circumstances if you stand your ground, these are bluff charges and the bear will break it off at the last second and run away into the woods.  On the rare occasion this isn’t a bluff charge, the bear will attack.

Know How to Communicate

The biggest problem in the workplace and relationships is with miscommunication.  The same is true with bear encounters because people inadvertently communicate aggression to a bear which escalates its aggression.  So it’s very important for mountain bikers in bear country to know how a bear is responding to our actions.

As a human, you’re either scared and want to lock eyes with the animal to help read its intentions or you’re taking in the moment of seeing a bear.  But to a bear, you’re acting very aggressively.  Staring at a bear is very provocative and can spark their fight or flight response. 

So do not stare at a bear!

Instead, turn your side to the bear, look away at an angle and watch the bear from your side vision.  Further communicate disinterest and passivity to a bear by slowly raising your hands in the “I mean you no harm fashion” and slowly wave them. 

Even if the bear is communicating aggression, you want to slowly walk away.  Do this with your back turned or partially turned away from the bear.  This action can immediately deescalate the bear back to a calm demeanor because it instantly knows you don’t want to fight or attack. 

Never run, scream or shriek as these actions can lead to an attack. 

Sound Deterrents

Even if choosing to ride in higher risk areas, riding in groups of three or more is the number one thing you can do to protect yourself.  Group rides are loud. 

In bear country, this is a good thing. 

More bikes make more noise. All of this means bears are given more warning that people are approaching and it gives them time to choose to walk away or hide.  This prevents surprises and if a bear is feeding on an animal carcass, it has time to take cover or drag the carcass away from the trail.

For those solo mountain bikers out there still choosing to ride in higher risk areas, there’s actually an app for that.  Ultrasonic Bear Bell is currently only available for Android devices, but an iOS version is currently going through the application process. 

Here’s how it works for mountain biking.  You’ll need to download the app and also buy a portable bluetooth bicycle speaker that’s at least 12 watts in power.  Attach the speaker to your bike.  Use the app and have the speaker turned up full blast. 

Humans won’t hear anything, but bears will hear the unpleasant sound from a 12 watt speaker at a great distance. 

If mountain biking at 20 MPH, this gives the bear at least three seconds of warning (likely much more), which is enough time for it to bolt away.  If you’re skeptical about its effectiveness, you can read some related research.

Why not ride with an actual bear bell?  The type of sound matters for bears.  The ultrasonic sound mentioned above is scientifically proven to be unpleasant to a bear.  It turns out the sound from a bell is not unpleasant and some bears aren’t deterred by bells.  Because of this, I can’t recommend using bear bells.

Slow Down

By slowing your ride speeds in bear country, you’re giving the bear more time to react to your presence.  You become less of a surprise and more of something the bear can manage by removing itself. 

Keep in mind that a slower moving mountain bike makes less sound, so it’s very important that efforts are made by either playing the ultrasonic sounds or by making your own noises.

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Bear Pepper Spray

 As mentioned above, if a bear charges, do not run away, scream or shriek.  Stand your ground and turn slightly away from the bear.  This is also the perfect time to blast a cloud of bear spray between you and the charging bear. 

Scientific research shows that using bear spray greatly reduces the chance of getting attacked. 

This is because a bear’s nose is 100 times more sensitive than our own.  So the bear feels a great deal of pain and discomfort from inhaling bear pepper spray.  In most cases, this will immediately break off the charge and end the encounter. 

Also, using bear spray requires almost no technical skill, unlike tasers or firearms.  If the bear does manage to attack after getting blasted by spray, it’ll likely end the attack quickly once it begins to cough and gag from inhaling the spray. 

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Of all of the deterrents used to fend off an attack, I advocate the most for bear spray.  In fact, I’ve been mountain biking with bear spray for years.  But keep in mind that the spray must be easily accessible for super quick use. 

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If you’re carrying the spray in a zipped pocket or in your backpack, you’ll never have the time to use it before the bear pounces on you.  I suggest using a holster and carrying it on a hip belt or connecting it to a chest strap on your backpack. 

Do not attach it to your mountain bike because if you crash while encountering a bear, you’ve likely separated yourself from your source of protection. 

High Powered Tasers

High powered tasers have been used by wildlife officers to successfully deter aggressive bears, moose and elk.  However, it’s extremely difficult to get your hands on these professional grade devices. 

The cream of the crop is the wildlife version made by TASER called the X3W.  But civilians are likely unable to find one.  The best option for civilians is the TASER 7 CQ which offers two shots.  Tasers have been known to instantly drop grizzly bears with 20,000 volts causing them to bolt away in fear. 

I don’t recommend these as the first round of deployment, but if bear spray is ineffective, a high powered taser should do the trick.  Unlike spray, tasers require specialized training and technical skill for firing an accurate shot.  There’s risk for missing the bear or having its thick fur deflect the electrode. 

These are also the most expensive deterrent.  The civilian version is already $1800 and expect to pay more for the professional grade devices.  That said, if spray is ineffective, it’s the most effective non-lethal deterrent available.

As with any effective deterrent, quick access must be guaranteed for it to be effective.  If choosing to use a taser device, secure it in a specified holster and carry it on a hip belt or on a chest strap.

Firearms

Firearms are only as effective as the technical skill of the user.  This is why bear spray is ultimately more effective at deterring an attacking bear. 

Only the highest skilled users are quick and accurate enough to get an effective kill shot off before the bear incapacitates them.  Many armed hikers and hunters have been attacked without the opportunity to fire even a single shot.  So for this reason, I can only recommend firearms as a deterrent for those already a highly skilled operator. 

The other problem firearms pose is accidental shooting. 

Even with a safety engaged to prevent accidental shots, there’s risk in discharging the weapon accidentally during a bike crash.  The safety of carrying the weapon increases the more protected it is, such as in a foam case stored in a backpack.  But the safest storage also means the slowest response time. 

So it’s altogether possible to be highly trained in use of the firearm and not having enough time to prepare its use prior to the bear pouncing.

What to Do If Attacked

Actual physical attacks by bears are extremely rare, even within areas of dense grizzly bear populations.   But if you find yourself on the receiving end of a bear attack and you’re alone, there are some things you can do to improve your survival, especially if a deterrent failed or you’ve been mountain biking without a deterrent. 

Attack from Black Bears

Black bears are different than grizzly bears in that they prefer to eat fresh meat.  Because of this, they typically do not break off an attack if they think you’re dead. 

Whatever you do, DO NOT PLAY DEAD if attacked by a black bear.  Instead, it’s advised to fight back by striking it repeatedly on the end of its nose.  In this scenario, you’re trying to outlast the bear by showing it that the fight isn’t worth it.

Attack from Grizzly Bears

If attacked by a grizzly bear, because they prefer to eat rotted animal carcasses, playing dead can be an effective way to break off an attack.  But do not play dead unless actually physically attacked.  People that roll into a ball while the bear is still charging suddenly finds themselves at the curious end of a grizzly bear.    

Grizzlies have been known to roll around and play with a person that played dead too soon.  It could also encourage an attack as the bear knows you’re not actually dead. 

In either case, it’s extremely important to use all of your will power to not scream or shriek as this intensifies the attack. 

After a Bear Encounter

Seek medical attention if physically attacked.  Report any aggressive encounters to law enforcement and/or wildlife officers.  Extremely aggressive bears may have to be exterminated to prevent further attacks.  So reporting any aggression to authorities could save a life down the road.

Also, keep in mind after bear pepper spray has time to lose its punch, the residue smell has been known to attract bears.  It’s very important to report the use of bear pepper spray to authorities as they may need to close an area to prevent further bear encounters. 

After bear pepper spray has time to lose its punch, the residue smell has been known to attract bears.

FAQ Mountain Biking in Bear Country

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Are there any locations where it’s too dangerous to mountain bike because of dangerous bears?

Any areas closed due to bear activity are too dangerous to use for mountain biking.  Heed the warning and stay away.

How likely is it that I could encounter a bear while mountain biking?

The chances of encountering a bear while mountain biking may be just a little higher than encountering a bear while hiking, but since mountain biking is done at greater speeds, there’s a greater chance of uncomfortably close encounters with bears while mountain biking.

How likely is it that I could be attacked by a bear while mountain biking?

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be attacked by a bear while mountain biking, but given the speeds of mountain biking, surprising a bear or eliciting a chase response increases the likelihood of un unpleasant encounter.

Is bear pepper spray legal to use everywhere?

Although bear pepper spray is permitted in all 50 US states, Bear Pepper Spray is illegal to use against humans and may be prohibited in some parks.  Because of this, it’s up to the user to check the laws pertaining to specific parks and trail networks for use.

Are tasers legal to use everywhere?

No.  

States prohibiting tasers include Washington DC, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.  States limiting use include Connecticut, Deleware, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina.  Because of this, it’s up to the user to check the laws pertaining to specific parks and trail networks for use.

Are firearms legal to use everywhere?

No. 

Firearms are regulated in different ways in each state.  In some cases, transporting firearms across State lines is prohibited.  It’s illegal to carry a firearm in a federal building.  Some National Parks may permit firearms.  Because of this, it’s up to the user to check the laws pertaining to specific parks and trail networks for use.

Can I spray myself with something to keep bears away?

No.  

Do not attempt to spray yourself with anything to deter bears.  Absolutely do not spray yourself with bear pepper spray. 

Bear pepper spray is a tear gas and not designed as a mosquito type repellent.  It’s also a strong irritant.  After bear pepper spray has time to lose its punch, the residue smell has been known to attract bears.

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