Gallery of Bear Signs

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Official Bear Warning Signs

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Most bear sightings trigger some excitement, but not necessarily a report to area rangers. If you see a color-coded warning sign like this, odds are good that something unusual has taken place -- a bluff charge, an aggressive sow with cubs, a bear kill off the trail, and so on.

The color-coding scheme is pretty common: A green sign for relatively benign but noteworthy encounters (like a bear lingering in the area), orange if more caution is advised, and red for the most serious of dangers.

Bears move around quite a bit, so the lack of a warning sign don't guarantee the absence of bears (dangerous or otherwise). It's always a good idea to practice basic bear safety any time you're traveling in bear country.

Even without an actual sign, there are plenty of hints you can spot that tell you a bear is (or has been) in the area -- all you have to do is take the time to look. The three most obvious clues that a bear is nearby are:

  1. Scat (poop)
  2. Tracks
  3. Marks on trees
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Berry Bear Scat

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Bears will eat almost anything and, just like with any other animal, you can tell what they've been eating by what comes out the other end. In this case the bear -- almost certainly a black bear -- has obviously been eating berries.

If you're traveling in a noisy group, odds are good that any bear in the area will book it as soon as they hear, smell or see you coming. But it's still educational to bend down and poke a stick or the tip of your hiking pole into any scat you find to see how fresh it is. If you're hiking alone, scat freshness is a valuable clue that can help you decide whether you're going to continue hiking or turn back.

With that being said, remember that bears don't stop to defecate every few feet -- so the absence of bear scat doesn't guarantee the absence of bears. And while fresh scat confirms that a bear was there quite recently, old scat doesn't necessarily mean the bear has moved on; they'll often come back and use the same trails over and over again.

Bear scat comes in several distinct looks, depending on what the bear's been eating.

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Other Types of Bear Scat

Photo (c) Alan Majchrowicz / Getty Images

Another shot of bear scat -- most likely from a black bear because of a size, although there's so much overlap between the eating habits of the two species (both love berries of course) that it's almost impossible to be sure. 

Although I don't have any good shots of non-berryrific bear scat, if you find a fresh pile that contains hair, bone and other undigestible animal bits, it's a potential sign that you might be near an equally fresh bear kill -- exercise extreme caution and consider leaving the area.

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Brown Bear Tracks

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Bears aren't always so obliging as to step right in a giant puddle of mud, but this one was, so let's take the chance to examine it. This is a print from one of its front paws; the print of a bear's back paw is shaped more like that of a bare human foot, especially on black bears.

This track, however, was left by a brown bear; you can tell because the main pad is relatively straight just below the toes. If you can draw a line between toes and pad (just barely touching the middle of the pad) without crossing the toes, you're almost definitely looking at a brown bear track.

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Brown Bear Tracks in Snow

Photo © Lisa Maloney

This line of brown bear prints is a great opportunity to spot the difference between a bear's relatively round front prints and the prints of its rear feet, which are shaped more like bare human feet with fallen arches. The rear feet on black bears look even more human.

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Black Bear Print

Photo (c) Ray Pfortner / Getty Images

Here's a clear print from a black bear. See the curve at the front of the pad? If you started just underneath one of the toes and drew a straight line across the top of the foot, just brushing the top of the pad, it'd run into the other toes. That's the best way of differentiate between a black bear's tracks and those of a small brown bear.

Although prints are one of the most obvious -- and exciting -- types of bear sign, there's another clear sign to look out for: The marks bears leave on trees.

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Marks on Trees

Photo © Lisa Maloney

Bears will occasionally scratch, bite or rub against trees; this type of mark is often the result. As the tree grows, the damaged portion will grow larger as well. You could, conceivably, even find fur left on a tree from a bear's enthusiastic rubbing.