Book Review: Backcountry Bear Basics
by Dave Smith

First posted in 2000

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park had its first recorded bear-related fatality recently. Though I was not physically born in the Smokies, I did much of my growing up in the region, and it's where I learned how to handle myself in the woods. I have a great many friends that live there, and there's been a lot of e-mail floating back and forth amongst us as of late discussing this recent fatality. Most folks I know found it absolutely shocking to think that a black bear, especially one so small, could inflict that much harm to a human. Additionally, most found it incomprehensible that a black bear from the Smokies could have done such a thing because it's "not like a black bear to attack a human like that."

While it is true that the bears of the Smokies, as a general rule, are used to sharing space with humans and are adept at avoiding encounters with humans altogether, it should never be assumed that they are unlike black bears elsewhere. Black bears in less populated regions of the United States and Canada have been known to occasionally stalk humans as prey, albeit rarely. I'm no bear expert, and I don't claim to be one, but my advice as a person who feels comfortable in bear country would be to respect bears, allow them space, and know how to recognize a bear's behavior to protect yourself in the event of an encounter.

I recently came across a very readable, succinct, affordable book about bear behavior by Dave Smith entitled Backcountry Bear Basics: the Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters. In less than 100 pages, Smith details the following:

  • Planning a trip into bear country

  • Bear evolution, behavior, and biology

  • Menstruation, sex, and bears

  • Cooking and food storage

  • Camping and travel tips

  • Bears and human reaction

  • Close encounters

  • Guns and pepper spray

Smith's book is a useful and informative book, detailing a great deal of the research that has been done into bear behavior. Smith addresses both brown and black bears, diagrams and photographs are provided to clarify information in the text, and his conversational, first-person manner of writing is easy to follow. If you're going to be traveling in bear country, and are uncertain of what to expect, this is an easy, quick read that will empower you a bit should you encounter a bear in your travels.