A Short Disclaimer: I'm not trying to discourage anyone from hiking in BC by the precautions outlined below. I have had the occasional E-Mail from someone I've managed to terrify. If your sensible, you can hike quite safely, with or without small children. The precautions below are mainly to emphasize that wild animals are to be treated with respect. Use some common sense and you likely have nothing to worry about. Chances are you won't encounter anything larger than a squirrel on most hiking trails. Bears are the main danger, and I have devoted most of this section to dealing with them. I have done a fair bit of research on bear behaviour. I have also had several encounters of my own with bears, especially when I was working full time in the bush in my younger days. I had several opportunities to observe the behaviour of bears at uncomfortably close quarters, and I have a healthy respect for them. I offer what information I have below, and I hope my advice is as accurate as possible. You will no doubt read all sorts of contradictory advice on how to deal with bears. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Just remember that any wild animal can be unpredictable.
Bears are, statistically, the most dangerous wild animals in Canada. Humans are not viewed as prey, and keeping this in mind, can help you prevent most problems with encounters. Bears can be unpredictable, but an understanding of Bear behaviour can help you avoid encounters and predict their behaviour 99% of the time. Bears can be found, even within a few Kilometres of the city. Bear encounters are quite common, considering the number of people in the woods, and there are usually one or two fatalities or maulings a year, usually the result of human stupidity. In fact, I can't recall a year when there has not been at least one fatality in BC or Alberta due to a bear. If you have ever seen a picture of a Bear mauling victim, it is not a pretty sight. BC, with a bear population of over 100,000, has the greatest concentration of bears in the world. They can be especially dangerous in the Spring/early Summer, shortly after coming out of hibernation, when they tend to be at lower elevations in search of food. A bear coming out of hibernation is hungry. If you hadn't eaten in 5 months, wouldn't you be? In years of high snow pack, they can be found more frequently at the lower elevations in search of berries. They can also be driven to lower elevations in search of food during long hot dry spells, and can be especially dangerous at these times. To put all this in perspective however, you have a far greater chance of being mauled by a stray dog, than you do a Bear. You also have to realize that the vast majority of Bears are Black Bear, which are far less dangerous than Grizzlies which are quite scarce, especially in the Southern, more populated part of the Province.
Bears in the National Parks can be especially dangerous, as they tend to be accustomed to humans, and consider them a source of handouts, due to foolish tourists feeding them. A Bear is not an animal you want to mess with. Unfortunately, cartoons and children's programs such as Yogi Bear, Whinny the Pooh, and Paddington Bear have given this animal a cuddly image and this has proved fatal to some. I have witnessed tourists encouraging children to approach bear cubs in National parks and feed or try to pet them. This is a good way to collect life insurance on your kids. Nothing looks more cuddly than a bear cub, and nothing is more dangerous than its mother. I can't emphasize enough how dangerous some Bears can be if you don't show them respect, I speak from experience of working in the bush. (I nearly lost my life to a Grizzly with cubs, 20 years ago, I only got into my truck with a split second to spare.) Contrast all this to the evil image of the wolf, which is not generally speaking, any danger to Humans.
Nearly all Bear attacks are due to straight stupidity or ignorance. There are 2 or 3 things you can do to try and avoid Bears. When hiking, make plenty of noise. Some outdoor stores carry small bells to attach to your boots for this purpose. Bears will generally avoid you and run away, if they encounter you. Never store food close to where you are sleeping, such as in a tent. Food is a magnet to a bear and they will attack you in your tent to get at it, if necessary. When hiking overnight, store food a good 20 meters away, or in a vehicle if you have one. Burn empty cans (don't set the forest on fire, doing this, dig a fire pit) to remove food traces and bury any scraps a good distance away from your camp. Avoid sleeping in the same clothing you may have worn while cooking. Bears have an acute sense of smell and can detect food odours embedded in clothing. Never approach a bear which has cubs. If you surprise a bear, back away slowly. If you have a pack or any other objects on you, drop them between yourself and the bear as you back away. This will very likely distract it, allowing time for you get away. Better to lose your knapsack, than your life. The last resort procedure for survival, if a bear does attack you, and you have no hope whatever of getting away, is to roll up into a ball, protect your head, and play dead. (This is only a last resort, though, and of extremely dubious value, although there are documented cases of this working with Black Bear) Climbing a tree does not help, any bear can do it better than you can. (Pepper spray has been shown to be effective in warding off a bear, but you can no longer buy this in BC, since criminals were using it on people.) The most sensitive areas of a Bears anatomy are its eyes & snout, so if you find yourself in a hand-to-paw combat situation, these are the body parts to go for. Having said all this, there are cases when the bear might be viewing you as prey, and you have to use a different strategy. I deal with this in the next section.
Most bears you may encounter, will be the Black Bear variety which are normally timid and will generally avoid people. Most attacks on people are, however, by Black Bears. This is simply a statistical fact due to the fact that Black Bears are the most common species, not because a Black bear is more dangerous than any other type. The chances of serious injury or death from a Black Bear attack, however, is much lower than that of a Grizzly. There have been some cases of supposedly unprovoked attacks on people by Black bears. Oddly enough, predatory behaviour by a Black Bear nearly always occurs when a male Black Bear, who is not accustomed to humans, is encountered. In such a case a human may be viewed as prey by the bear, and an attack by such a bear is often no fault of the human. Victims of these type of attacks are usually eaten by the bear, in contrast to the usual attack which just involves mauling. In such cases the bear will usually remove the victims clothing in the same way they will remove the hide from any other kill, before eating it. A bear that is viewing you as prey will likely display common predator behaviour, and it is important to recognize this if you wish to survive. The main tip-off is silent stalking, or the bear simply following you. The bear will not appear to be overly angry. In these cases the best defence, is to display aggressive behaviour towards the bear, by yelling at it, waving a stick at it, throwing rocks at it, etc. You have to demonstrate dominance over the bear. This may seem contradictory to what I have already said, and unfortunately it is difficult to determine what a particular bear's motivation is.
If you run into a Grizzly, you are likely in big trouble, but they are not common, except in the far north. They can be found in Banff and Jasper, the two main National Parks as well.. Most bear attacks involve food or surprise encounters. Random attacks such as the one that killed 2 people at Liard Hotsprings in 1997, are rare. The Environment Ministry receives about 8,000 Bear complaints a year and Conservation officers are forced to destroy about 1,000 troublesome Bears a year, even more in heat wave years like 1998 where food is scarce. Unfortunately, once a bear learns that humans are an easy source of food, they become a permanent threat.
If you want to see bears, this company does trips to observe them: Bear and Wildlife Watching - British Columbia, Canada. Its pricey, but its your best chance of guaranteed sightings.
Here are a few "Bear Facts":
1) The most dangerous Bears are those with cubs, those habituated to human food and those defending a fresh kill.
2) A bear can run about as fast as a horse (in other words, considerably faster than you can).
3) Bears have an acute sense of smell & hearing.
4) Bears are territorial and will defend their "space".
5) All female Bears will defend their cubs, even at risk to themselves. Black bears will nearly always shoo their cubs up a tree before dealing with you.
6) Bears are good tree-climbers, Black bears more so than Grizzlies, but a Grizzly is more liable to be able to push a tree over.
7) Dogs tend to antagonize Bears, Hiking with an unleashed dog can increase your chance of an attack.
8) Bears are an extremely strong animal. They can trash a car or cabin in short order.
For more information check out Get Bear Smart Society.
The following is the Provincial Government information sheet on Bear safety:
A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR (This means they become troublesome & have to be shot)
There are some simple precautions you must take to prevent the food conditioning of bears and avoid dangerous bear encounters.
SOME BEAR FACTS
Identifying bears is important if you are ever approached by one.
Black Bear (Ursus americanus Pallas)
Colour: Varies. Black, brown, cinnamon or blond, often with a white patch on the chest or at the throat.
Height: Approximately 90 cm at the shoulder.
Weight: 57 kg to >270 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.
Characteristics: straight face profile short, curved claws barely noticeable shoulder hump
Habitat: Prefers forested areas with low-growing plants and berry-producing shrubs (e.g. small forest openings, stream or lake edges, open forest).
Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis Ord)
Colour: Varies. Black (rare), brown or blond. Fur often white-tipped or "grizzled". Light-coloured patches may occur around neck, shoulders and on rear flanks.
Height: Slightly above 1 metre at shoulder; 1.8 to 2 m erect.
Weight: 200 kg to >450 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.
Characteristics: dished or concave face long, curved claws prominent shoulder hump
Habitat: Semi-open spaces preferred. High country in late summer and early fall; valley bottoms late fall and spring.
IF YOU SEE A BEAR
Grizzly Attacks From Surprise (defensive)
- Do nothing to threaten or further arouse the bear.
- Play dead. Assume the 'cannonball position' with hands clasped behind neck and face buried in knees.
- Do not move until the bear leaves the area. Such attacks seldom last beyond a few minutes.
Black Bear Attacks From Surprise (defensive)
- Playing dead is not appropriate. Try to retreat from the attack.
Grizzly or Black Bear Attacks Offensively (including stalking you or when you are sleeping)
- Do not play dead. Try to escape to a secure place (car or building) or climb a tree unless it is a black bear. If you have no other option, try to intimidate the bear with deterrents or weapons such as tree branches or rocks.
Grizzly or Black Bear Attacking For Your Food
- Abandon the food. Leave the area.
- Do not deal with a problem bear unless it is an emergency
In case you don't know what this is, it is a large cat that resembles a female African lion, and can be just as dangerous if you encounter one. They are quite common in BC, especially on Vancouver Island, and in the Southern Interior around Princeton. They even had one in the parking garage of the Empress Hotel in Victoria a couple of years back. In August 98, one was found wandering around Burnaby, a densely populated Vancouver suburb. Probably on the lookout for a tasty toy poodle. In the wild, they are rarely encountered by people, they tend to be quite reclusive. I have hiked in BC for over 20 years and have never seen one. Having said that, there has been an average of 6 cougar attacks a year in BC, resulting in 9 fatalities over the last 10 years. Cougar attacks have been on the rise over the last few years, especially on Vancouver Island, which has the highest population density of the cats. Here are a few examples: In 1992, a boy was attacked & killed while playing in a schoolyard. In 1997 a woman and her son were attacked while on horseback near Princeton. The woman was killed, trying to save her son. In mid April, 1999, a cougar attacked an 8 year old girl in a campsite near Hope, 150 km from Vancouver. A woman nearby, grabbed a tree branch and eventually beat the cat off. The little girl lived but suffered severe facial lacerations, eye damage and puncture wounds to the chest. On New Years Day, 2001, a female cross country skier (alone) was attacked and killed in Banff. In February 2001, a cyclist riding along a highway on northern Vancouver Island was attacked. A passing motorist stopped and managed to chase off the cat with some difficulty. The cyclist was badly mauled, but survived. In June 2002, an 8 year old girl from Reno, Nevada was grabbed from a campsite on Vancouver Island by a large male cougar. The father & others managed to beat the cougar off. The campers were part of a wilderness kayaking tour group. The girl was lucky, the cat had her by the neck, and its a miracle she survived. She was able to go home after a couple of days in the hospital. The owner of a nearby resort, hunted down the cougar & shot it. When the body was examined, it was determined the cat had probably not eaten in several days. In August 2002, a hiker on Vancouver island killed a large male cougar that attacked him with his pocketknife. These incidents illustrate the pattern of Cougar attacks. A Cougar will usually go for the weakest, which means a young child, or solitary individuals. If you do encounter a Cougar, never turn your back and run. Try to look as large and as threatening as possible and put yourself between it and any small children with you. If you are wearing a coat, open it up wide and make yourself appear as large as possible. Do not make direct eye contact, as most Cougars see that as a threat. If possible pick up a large stick. Shout and wave your arms, bang the stick on the ground, etc., if the Cougar starts to approach you. If the cat still attacks you, there is little you can do, except pray. Mountain Lions prefer to attack from above and will usually go for the throat or the back of neck.
Another large cat, rarer than Cougars, but the same precautions apply.
This animal (pronounced ky-oh-tea) resembles a cross between a Wolf & a German Shepard, but is actually a separate species. They can, however, cross-breed with large dogs and have done so on occasion. These animals are becoming highly urbanized in the Vancouver Area and are common in Parks, especially in Burnaby, New Westminster & Surrey. They are not a danger to humans, although small children can be at risk, especially since some irresponsible people have been feeding these predators and many of them now associate humans with food. They are mainly a danger to small dogs & cats, especially cats. Anyone in Vancouver who lets their cat out out night will not likely have it for long. I found a cat paw in my own driveway last year. You can often hear these animals baying at the moon.
If hiking in the dry southern interior, carry a snakebite kit. Rattlesnakes are common in some areas of the Okanagan and Thompson regions.
I have never seen one, but apparently they exist in the desert area around Ossoyoos.
Wolves are common in BC, especially in the north. I have yet to hear of an attack on people, and this animal is much maligned. They perform a very necessary function in keeping the deer population at a healthy level. They live and hunt in packs. BC wolves have lately been relocated into Yellowstone National Park in the US to try and re-establish the decimated population there, much to the chagrin of the local ranchers. Some people, especially in the north, have domesticated, or cross bred them with dogs as pets.
This is supposed to be the most vicious animal in Canada, but it must be very reclusive. I have never heard of anyone coming up against one. This website describes an encounter with one: http://www.niho.com/tipsntales/wolverines.asp
If you are really paranoid, I have heard that pepper spray is effective against Bears, I don't know if it would stop a Cougar, but I guess as a last resort, it would be worth a try.
The "Vancouver Island Abound" website also has a section on Bear & Cougar safety at Bear, Cougar Encounter Precautions.
The MOST Dangerous Animal in British Columbia: My wife's cat, and I have the scars to prove it.