How to Identify Bear Tracks in Snow

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identify bear tracks in snow

Adult bear print in snow

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It’s so exciting to identify bear tracks in snow. A clean bear print is an impressive thing, always a thrill to see.

You’ve probably been told that bears hibernate in winter and, of course, they do — but not fully! Black bears semi-hibernate. They slow down. They den.

In New York, male bears generally den mid-December through mid-March. Female bears give birth in winter and they often bed down mid-November until mid-April. Further south, denning periods are shorter.

Black bears sometimes pop out to roam their neighborhood. In New York, it’s not unusual to identify black bear tracks in the snow all winter long. I don’t think I’ve made it through a winter in The Catskills without finding at least one monster bear print in the snow.

Animal prints are rarely as clear in nature as seen in diagrams. By the time you find a bear print, or a bobcat/coyote print, it will likely have been through at least one freeze/thaw cycle or some other weather degradation: rain, evaporation, more snow.

However, several times while hiking in winter, I’ve come across exceptionally fresh bear prints. See photos below.

Luckily, black bear prints are usually quite clear and easy to identify. Their size is often a helpful clue, but a small print cannot be discounted. A grown black bear is much bigger than a grizzly cub. Do not rely on the size of a pad to differentiate bear species.

Here’s how to identify bear tracks in snow…

Key Characteristics of Bear Tracks in Snow

There are no grizzlies in New York. We have only black bears. However, it’s useful to compare the two species’ tracks. Highlighting the differences between black bear and grizzly prints helps us learn both.

Identification Poster

If you’d like the following information in a single page printable poster showing all print identification features, I’ve added one to my ko-fi store.

Hi! You might really enjoy…

How Big Are Bear Tracks in the Snow?

They can be any size, large or small. Both adults and cubs move around all winter long.

Identify Bear Tracks: Key Differences

There are four key differences between black and brown bear prints. Identify bear tracks in the snow by cross-referencing all four characteristics.

black bear print diagram

  1. grizzly bear print diagram

    Black bear claw marks are spaced closer to the toes, compared with grizzly claw marks which are spaced farther from the toes.

  2. On black bears, the toes have good spacing between them. On grizzlies, the toes are more bunched together.
  3. On black bears, the space between the toe pads and the back pad is an arc. On grizzlies, it’s much less of an arc.
  4. On black bears, a line drawn from the bottom of the big toe pad along the top of the main pad cuts through the upper pad of the little toe. Whereas, on grizzlies, a line drawn from the bottom of the big toe pad along the top of the main pad cuts through the lower pad of the little toe.

Photo Gallery

Diagrams are great but here are some photographs to help you identify bear tracks in snow.

What do baby bear tracks look like in the snow? Like this! Here’s a set of cub tracks on the summit of Mount Sherrill in The Catskills…

black bear cub prints in snow
Cub tracks in snow

My hand for scale…

black bear cub prints in snow
Cub tracks in snow

Adult bear tracks in snow (in this case, the momma’s print)…

bear print in snow
Adult bear print in snow

You’ll also enjoy reading Identify Bobcat vs Coyote Prints in Snow.

I found the following impressive adult print on my way back down a clean trail I’d hiked up an hour earlier. Fresh print with a dusting of new snow on top…

identify bear tracks in snow
Adult bear print in snow

My foot for scale…

identify bear tracks in snow
Bear print

And I really loved finding this super-fresh bear print in February of 2022 on Sugarloaf Mountain in The Catskills, with the claw-marks dragged uphill through the snow…

identify bear tracks in snow
Super-fresh bear print

My foot for scale…

identify bear tracks in snow
Fresh bear print on Sugarloaf Mtn

Black Bear Tracks in Snow…

Some friends and I passed this bear track in 2019 on the way up Doubletop Mountain in The Catskills.

identify bear tracks in snow
Bear track in snow

I hope this page helps you identify bear tracks in snow this winter. If you plan to head out on a winter hike, you’ll enjoy reading the How to Winter Hike: The Essential Roundup.

Download the Identification Poster

If you’d like the above information in a single page printable poster showing all above print identification features, I’ve added one to my ko-fi store.

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Hello, I’m Sean

I write independent hiking content to help hikers like you find amazing hikes in the Catskills, Adirondacks, Gunks, Hudson Highlands, Taconics and beyond.

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