Useful Information

Hiking With Bears: How to Handle Black and Brown Bears On The Trail

Bears in the wilderness can be a real danger to the unprepared and ill-informed outdoor adventurer. This guide will help you to understand everything there is to know about bears and how to stay safe on the trail.

Table of Contents

Information About Bears, Ecological Importance of Animals In Forests For Humans, How to Identify Bear Tracks, How to Avoid Bears, Smells That Repel and Attract Bears, How to Hang a Bear Bag or Use a Bear Canister, Best Bear Bag for Hiding Food, How to Use Bear Spray, Aggressive Black Bear and Grizzly Bear Attack Statistics, Best Handgun for Bear Protection, Conclusion

Information About Bears

Bears have one of the most powerful noses in the animal kingdom and have a sense of smell over two thousand times stronger than ours.

In strong gusts if a bear is upwind they’re capable of smelling a carcass up to twenty miles away. In calm or stagnant winds, their range of scent detection is reduced to only one mile, but they’re still aware of your presence before you’re aware of theirs.

If you’ve ever seen a bear up close you understand how truly fragile our lives are. Bears can run faster than the fastest people on the planet, and they can climb trees with ease. A bear’s immense size is intimidating as with just one swipe or bite, they can inflict critical damage. There’s no outrunning a bear.

Their claws are about the length of a golf tee and they aren’t really something you want to see up close. If you want to understand how strong their claws are though, at a safe distance preferably, you’ll want to look out for scars on the sides of trees.

Massive slash marks where bears have unleashed their might on bark and wood. Sometimes the wounds in the trees are several inches deep, and if the attacked tree is small enough they can be toppled and killed entirely.

Even the most stalwart hardwood trees of the old-world forests stand no chance against a mighty bear’s strength and slashing power. By comparison, someone wielding a hatchet with a lot of stamina would be the only way to match the wounds that bears have the ability to inflict on trees.

These ominous signs left by bears give an indication of the danger of the hiking, or camping area and need to be observed to understand what creatures may lurk in the shadows of the forest for those that dare to tread.

When it comes to defending themselves bears use their immense weight and size to swing heavy blows with their sharp claws which can instantly kill their foes.

Their list of enemies in the wilderness is great, but not many can stand against them. Their mightiest foes, and the ones that pose the most threat, are other bears particularly territorial males or a sow with cubs, a rutting moose which can weigh almost a ton and shatter bones with a single charge, and an organized pack of wolves which can pick at, weaken and wound a bear, then track it over miles until it’s defeated from its wounds.

The estimated strength of a bear is truly unknown, but they can flip cars or large trash bins with little resistance. Humans moving into nature encroaching settlements on the borders of large forests have to deal with bears rummaging their trash all the time which can be a real nuisance.

People have had their doors broken in, their homes invaded, their cars destroyed, their pets killed, and their trash thrown everywhere across their lawn, but bears aren’t the menace that some people believe them to be. Bears have needs and we just happen to be in the way.

As forests grow smaller due to deforestation, mostly due to newly constructed housing or farming projects, food supplies run dry in the remaining forest areas at a more rapid rate.

This drives desperate bears toward migrating into man-made settlements and causes an inevitable collision between man and bear. Once a bear learn that they can get all the food they need from the trash bins of people, their natural behavior shifts from being a member of the forest that controls populations and scavenges for dead carcasses and cleans them up, to rummaging in landfills of trash and plastic.

Also, when people encounter bears in cities or small towns there’s a much higher chance for a violent confrontation than when in the forest. As a result, encounters in the city lead to more deaths of bears, and sometimes even tragically lead to the death of people.

Ecological Importance of Animals In Forests For Humans

Each time a bear dies, the forest dies. Bears hold monolithic ecological importance for the old-world forests where thousands of new species are still being discovered to this day.

As animals tread on the forest floor they agitate the soil which is made up of thirty percent fungus. By engaging these mycelial networks of fungus, these networks of fungal spores, mushrooms of millions of varieties are able to sprout up from the ground.

Some animals, like the bear, also make marks on trees, or completely kill and knock down trees with their slashing claws and great weight. Thus, their agitation of the forest, which exposes sections of trees or creates dead trees, allows for mushroom or mold growth.

The reason that we’re talking about mushrooms and molds is because a lot of modern medicines are developed from them, the most famous being Penicillin, which is an antibiotic that battles bacterial infections in the body.

Today, however, viruses are becoming known as “super-bugs” which means they’re resistant to conventional modern medicines such as Penicillin.

The only way to fight these viruses is for scientists to collect rare, or undiscovered mushrooms or molds from old-growth forests, test them against these viruses, and cross-breed them for combined and more potent effects.

There’s an immense untapped potential in the old forests where animals like bears roam which can benefit humanity indefinitely if used in an intelligent and sustainable way.

However, by destroying forests we reduce biodiversity and without biological diversity to agitate the forests and maintain balance, there’s a chance that ancient species of fungi and molds could be lost forever.

With that important information in mind about how animals play a role in forest ecology, let’s shift our focus on how to properly identify bear tracks so you can make educated decisions and avoid a close encounter.

How to Identify Bear Tracks

Since bears are so large they leave a very distinct footprint in the ground that can be found often times in the mud. Bears have five toes and enormous claws which extend out from each.

As we said before, bears can have claws that are the size of a golf tee. These claws leave large slice marks in the mud.

The length of their claws is truly put on display when you notice the distance between the tip of their toes and the slice marks in the ground. These are not creatures to be messed with, or provoked under any circumstance at all.

If you’re planning on traveling through bear country you may want to bring a tape measure to identify bear tracks and determine the size of bears roaming the area.

A wonderful section, written by Sciencing.com details how the exact measurements of a bear’s foot relates to the weight of the bear. Jae Allen writes;

Compare the size of the footprint to the usual weight range of a black or brown bear. For a black bear, a front paw print 5 inches long is average, equating to an average weight of between 150 and 175 lbs. A 7-inch front print is from a bigger bear — 300 to 400 lbs. for a black bear. An average weight for a male brown bear is 500 lbs., with a large male bear weighing up to 800 lbs. Brown bear front tracks are between 6 and 8 inches long — a 6- to 7-inch front track would likely represent a 400 to 500-lb. bear, while an 8-inch front track would indicate a 700 to 800-lb. animal. Brown bear rear tracks are 12 to 16 inch long, with 16-inch tracks representing the heavier bears.

With this in mind we can also determine roughly how tall a particular bear is using a method developed for field judging and estimating a bear’s size over at BCHuntingBlog.com, which states;

If you can find fresh bear tracks in an area, maybe mud or soft sand, measure the distance across the front pad and simply add 1. This will give you a rough “square” of the bear. So, if you measure the bear track and it came out at 5″ inches across, you would add 1 and could guesstimate that bear was roughly a 6′ foot bear.

These two pieces of information give us the ability to learn a lot just by examining the tracks of a bear, but ultimately our goal is to avoid bears and view them from a safe distance.

There are a few ways to avoid close encounters with bears that you’ll want to employ if you’re out hiking in bear country.

How to Avoid Bears And Stay Safe While Hiking, Backpacking In Bear Country

For the most part the only time that you really need to worry about bears, whether they’re black or brown bears, is when you’re preparing food on a campfire, or setting up camp for the night.

Bear attacks mostly happen during the summer months of June, July and August when people are enjoying the outdoors. People are fishing, barbecuing, and spending time with their families.

This creates a lot of food waste and trash, and delicious smells and sends the bears into a frenzy looking for food in the area.

When people go to sleep in their tents or hammocks at night after a sun filled adventure in the outdoors they sometimes improperly dispose of their food waste and leave it around their camp, or don’t use a dry sack and hang their food from a tree. These two poor decisions lead to more encounters with bears and can even lead to lethal encounters.

There are a lot of ways to hike and camp smart which will reduce your chances of having a critical encounter, and one way is to bring packable pots and pans that can be cleaned thoroughly.

This will reduce your cooking waste by a great deal. Avoid single use trash and any other cooking materials that will retain smells and attract animals since you’ll have to carry and pack away any trash that you create until you reach civilization.

Next, you’re going to want to make a lot of noise while you’re walking through the forest, either by talking or by singing. Being a noisy hiker is a common saying on reference materials on avoiding bear encounters.

Also, it should be noted and this is very unfortunate but whistling has been known to attract bears, . Some people postulate this is because whistling sounds like a small dying animal, so you may want to avoid whistling in bear country, or maybe not that’s up to you. Whistling is fun!

Last, if you can help it, you’ll want to travel in at least a group of three. Bears are a lot more likely to run away from large groups of people, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unsafe to travel alone.

While hiking alone in bear country you’ll want to bring bear spray, or a firearm if you’re really concerned. In most situations, if bear spray hasn’t worked, and the bear isn’t leaving you alone, a warning shot from a firearm will scare a bear away.

Obviously, if a bear is approaching you then you have the right to self-defense, but harming the bear should be your very last option when all other options have failed.

We’ll describe later what your options are and how to approach a situation when you’ve just killed a bear in self-defense, but next let’s talk about how to limit smells, and understand what attracts and repels bears.

Smells That Attract and Repel Bears

The smells that attract bears are mostly food related and can come in the form of freshly cooked food, leftover food, food waste such as unwanted sections of meat or vegetable trimmings, or trash such as canned meat containers, or single-use food wrappers, and aluminum foil used in cooking meats, especially fish.

Any of these will attract bears which is why it’s standard protocol to cook your meals and eat them one mile away from your campsite, then pack everything away immediately after cooking so that it’s ready to hung from a tree in a bear bag, or a canister when you reach the camp.

There’s also, albeit with mixed evidence, the issue of women that are menstruating. Some evidence states that it attracts bears, other information states that there’s no correlation.

What’s undisputed is that it’s definitely best to use menstrual cups, or tampons instead of pads since cups can be washed and tampons are small and more comfortable when walking. Pads are large, which means dedicating a lot of pack space to storing the used pads, and they can cause chafing and rashes over extended use.

When it comes to smells that repel bears there is no better tool than bear spray. Made of a highly concentrated capsaicin blend, a variant of the chemical found in hot peppers which gives them their spicy burn, is bear spray. This is the ultimate repellent due to the sensitivity of a bear’s nostrils to scent.

As we stated before a bear has a sense of smell two thousand times greater than a human’s. This gives them a distinct advantage when hunting or scavenging prey, but a major disadvantage when breathing in aerosolized capsaicin.

If you’re hiking in bear country it can be a lot of peace of mind to bring bear spray along with you, but a lot of seasoned hikers don’t bother. Either way, the decision is yours and sometimes it’s better to have it than to not, even if it’s just so you can sleep better at night.

How to Use Bear Spray

For the most part you’ll only need bear spray in brown bear country. Black bears are generally afraid of humans and will run away when they spot you, or hear your lovely singing or speaking voice echo through the forest, but every bear is different and they have individual personalities and need to be treated with respect.

Experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts swear by the Frontiersman Brand of Bear Spray, and it’s the go to brand for Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Rangers that operate in the deep Alaskan wilderness in grizzly bear country.

Make sure that you have your bear spray in a holster that’s easily accessible on your person at all times, and practice many times withdrawing the canister from the holster, and withdrawing the safety, to achieve a high speed.

You’re going to want to be ready to spray in less than three seconds since a lethal encounter with a startled bear in close quarters can end very fast. You’ll have very little room for error and no time to waste.

If you encounter a mother with her cubs there may be nothing that will stop her, but in either case do not run.

Running immediately initiates the predator-prey mechanic in many animals and it’s no different with bears. There’s no where that you can go to avoid them either since they can run faster than you and climb trees, so you’ll have to stand your ground and fight, then change your underwear afterwards.

To use bear spray make sure that the wind isn’t blowing back toward you if possible, or you’ll feel that wonderful and painful burning sensation on your hands, and possibly in your eyes a bit.

Then, due to the shape of the can, aim below the bear’s nose to make sure you hit the stream directly into their nose. This will blind and stun the bear and give you time to retreat from the situation. Be ready for a possible follow-up attack and keep your bear spray ready while you run away.

If all else fails and the bear is upon you, curl into the fetal position and place your hands over the back of your neck and tuck your head in and hope the bear only pushes at you, smells you and leaves you alone. Your other option is to climb a tree and try to jump between trees, but good luck with that.

Ultimately, bear spray is your last line of defense and you should practice proper food scent management and constantly be making sounds every few minutes to alert any bears in the area of your presence.

If you managed to make it through the forests to your camp site in bear country without being eaten alive by a bear, congratulations, but now you’ll need to know how to hang a bear bag or use a bear canister for storing your food, and it’s fairly simple.

How to Hang a Bear Bag or Use a Bear Canister

Since hungry bears, and at least a dozen other critters, like to scope out the grounds of camp sites for food at night when you’re sleeping, one way to massively reduce your risk especially when you’re out in grizzly country, is to cook all your food one mile away from where you plan on setting up camp. The general rule is 200 feet downwind, but this is more safe.

An illustration on “TheUltimateHang.com“; An incredible resource for hammock campers that you should certainly check out.

After you’re done eating, clean your pots and pants and immediately put all of your food and hygiene items, and any foul smelling clothes that you’re not wearing in a few odorless bags such as these.

Then, gather the bags into a dry sack like the one found here, and once that’s done, head to your camp site and hang the bear bag away from your tent or hammock on a sturdy tree downwind with some rope.

You’ll want to learn different ways to set up a bear bag depending on your situation and they all involve different tying techniques and tree combinations to achieve the same goal, keep the food away from the bear.

Ideally, you’re going to want your bag to be about 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree and 15-20 feet in the air. This will ensure the bear can’t climb the tree or jump from the ground and grab your tasty treats.

How you actually hang a dry bag is up to you. In, The Backpacker’s Field Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills,” two methods are described which are equally effective at preventing bears from getting your food providing you have the right tree and they are the Counterbalance Method and the Marrison Haul System.

The Counterbalance Method is an easy way to store two food bags on a single tree and it’s pretty simple. First, start by dividing your desired stored items into two roughly equal weighted bags.

Then, find a tree that has a branch twenty feet up that extends out from the tree ten feet, and throw your weighted rope up and over the branch and attach one end of the rope to one of your food bags.

Pull the first bag up as high as you can to the branch, then attach the second food bag up on the rest of the rope as high as you can with a loop dangling down slightly below the bottom of the bag for easier access.

Now take a very long stick stick and push up on the bottom of the second bag to equalize the two bags and bring them out of reach of bears. Whenever you need to retrieve your food bags you just take the very long stick and place it into the loop allowing you to pull down the bags.

Next, we have the Marrison Haul System which is a more stable method and can survive more inclement weather than the Counterbalance Method since the food bags are attached to the tree.

The difficulty with this method is learning how to tie the Trucker’s Hitch knot, but this can be accomplished pretty quickly by checking out this really nice video below, and a little bit of practice.

Once you’ve mastered the trucker’s hitch you’ll want to apply it to hanging your food bag.

Throw your weighted rope over a tree of a similar size as the previous method and place a trucker’s hitch about six feet off the ground on one half of the rope, then attach a carabiner into the loop of the trucker’s hitch.

Then, place another carabiner on the rest of the rope on the other half and feed the rope through the first carabiner to create a tie point for your food bag.

Pull the first section of rope to bring the bag as close to the top of the branch as possible and then tie it off onto the tree. Then pull on your second section of rope to eliminate any slack and tie it off on the tree as well.

Now that your food is secure in the trees your chances of being bothered by a bear have gone down significantly, but what if there aren’t any trees available?

Well, the answer is the bear canister which is placed in the same place from the camp site some two hundred feet away downwind, but it’s not placed in a tree, but instead on the ground in a very secure container.

Some national parks have bear boxes, or large standing poles that can be used to hang food on, so you’ll want to check in with your local park ranger and inquire about them, or look for them on local maps of the area you’ll be hiking.

Best Bear Bags for Hiding Food

What are the best bear bags for hiding food from hungry bears? The answer is that not all bear bags are created equal, but we can make a suggestion about an all around dry sack that’s durable enough to withstand extended use, and that’s the Osprey Ultralight 3L Dry Sack.

We love this dry pack because it’s made of waterproof nylon and has a roll top which allows it to be completely sealed away from the elements. Plus, we really like these colors since they’re easy to spot in the trees, particularly the orange dry sack.

These dry sacks are really tough and will last you a long time if they’re taken care of properly, but you’ll still want to pick up some odorless bags for maximum water protection.

It’s also suggested that you don’t submerge the dry sacks as well because while they are waterproof, if your seal isn’t proper on the top of the bag due to improper folding, the bag will leak.

If you do fold it properly however the dry sack can be filled with some air and float on water preventing your food from being sunk to the bottom of a river or lake in a flash flood.

If you’re looking for a high quality dry sack at an affordable price, you really can’t go wrong with these bags from Osprey.

Aggressive Black Bear and Grizzly Bear Attack Statistics

In Canada and the United States there have been about 150 deaths from black bears, brown bears and polar bears attacks since the 1950s, and roughly 55 of those lethal attacks, over thirty percent, happened in the last twenty years.

There could be a few reasons for the why it seems like there are more attacks now than in the past.

First of all, our information gathering, documentation and record keeping abilities is a lot better than they were in the 1950s. With computers and cell phones we’re able to immediately document attacks and add them to a database. This could make it seem like more attacks are happening because less paperwork slips through the cracks.

Another reason could be because of population growth patterns. Since there has been an enormous spike in the number of people on the planet over the last one hundred years, people are moving into areas that are closer to large forests and encountering more bears as a result.

Either way, it’s important to use all the precautionary measures listed above in the other sections to ensure that you’re maintaining a safe distance from bears, so that you don’t end up as the victim of a tragic animal attack.

If all other measures fail, like making loud noises in the forest every few minutes to scare the bears away, managing the scents you’re producing and containing them to stop attracting bears, or using bear spray stun and disable a bear while you escape, and the bear is still coming after you, you’ll unfortunately have to switch to a firearm and take the life of the bear in self-defense.

Best Handgun for Bear Protection

We do not write this section lightly. Using a firearm on a bear in self-defense should be a last resort after all other options have failed. Please read through the other sections and understand how to properly avoid the situation which forces you to kill a bear in self-defense.

The simple fact is that if you’re not registered to hunt bears in the area where you’re at, then you’re negatively disrupting the population by killing a bear in self-defense.

That being said, sometimes there are situations that arise where it’s either you or them, and of course you have the absolute right to choose yourself. This means you may want to think about bringing a firearm if such a fatal situation arises, but always use bear spray first if you can.

This article written by Thomas Smith, a wildlife ecologist who was stationed in Alaska for many years, and has had dozens of encounters with bears, explains how effective bear spray is.

Thomas Smith holding two polar bear cubs next to their inoculated and sleeping mother.

“Smith and fellow researchers’ comprehensive look at bear-spray incidents in Alaska from 1985 to 2006 was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2006.”

“They found that when people used bear spray to defend themselves the bears stopped their undesirable behavior more than 90 percent of the time and that 98 percent of the time people in close-range encounters with bears while carrying bear spray were uninjured.”

While some studies state that firearms are less effective than bear spray, there’s varying evidence supporting both sides. Some say that firearms are more effective, and others say bear spray is more effective.

Either way, it’s not a bad idea to bring both as there are plenty of reports of bear spray failing forcing people to resort to a firearm.

Here you can read through some of the reports of firearms being used against bears over at Ammoland.com by Dean Weingarten. We’ve pulled one story from an original news article posted on their website using one of our firearms of choice, the .41 magnum.

“Within seconds, the 275-pound animal had crushed the Wyoming man’s jaw when it bit him in the face, fractured his rib and punctured his lung and left deep bite wounds in his calf and scratches across his back.”

“Ruth grabbed for the .41-caliber magnum revolver he was carrying in a hip holster and relied on his training and experience as a police officer to save his life. He fired three times, saving three bullets in case his first shots failed, but the bear dropped and didn’t move, ending the furious encounter as swiftly as it started.

Reading through the reports there are many more which state that a bear was on-top of someone before they even realized what was happening and only by having their firearm on their hip, they survived.

Others state that they attempted to use bear spray, but the bear kept charging, so they switched to their firearm and fired a few shots ending the heart-pounding encounter.

With adrenaline coursing through their veins and little time to react they had to make a few shots directly into the head of the bear within at most five seconds.

This means in order to use a firearm effectively against a charging bear you have to train to; unbuckle the cover from the holster, draw the gun, turn off the safety, and aim within about three seconds. From there you have about two seconds to discharge three bullets, or the entire clip in a frenzied panic, before the bear’s on-top of you.

This is a very tall order and requires a lot of practice on a firing range to achieve that level of speed and accuracy. Certainly not impossible, but unlikely to be successful without doing dozens or hundreds of practice runs, or being a police officer that has already trained with firearms.

Without practice you’re not going to have the muscle memory to pull something like that off in a panicked state staring down a charging bear.

Either way, if you’re still deciding to carry a firearm, you’re going to want a handgun if you’re hiking and backpacking, and a rifle and a handgun if you’re bushcrafting or in the deep wilderness in bear country.

The reason that handguns are the best option for hiking is because they’re lightweight and easily concealed and carried. Handguns are certainly not the ultimate weapon to use against a charging bear, but carrying around a rifle everywhere, especially on the trail in front of other hikers would cause concerned people to probably call the cops.

We suggest a .44 magnum in a holster on your hip with at least 240+ grain hard cast rounds to pierce through the extremely tough muscle and bone that bears have.

Lower grain .44 rounds, or just any smaller rounds in general, have a tendency to get lodged in the first few layers of a bear’s thick skin as the bullet’s stopped, or deflected by bone or cartilage.

This can result in a non-lethal shot and could cost you your life, so having a heavy duty piercing round which rips a massive exit wound is essential.

As a disclaimer make sure to inform yourself on local and state laws regarding firearm ownership in your area. Never carry firearms across state lines without the proper registrations as not all states honor a concealed carry license from another state.

It should go without saying as this is common sense, (Common sense, so rare now that it’s a super power), but it needs to be said.

Always carry your firearm in an intelligent manner. Don’t show off your firearm to people and let anyone know you have it. The point of the firearm is to protect yourself, not boost your ego and make you feel “tough.”

A firearm is a tool that needs to be treated with respect and if you’ve ended up in a situation where you’ve been forced to use that tool on a charging bear, ending its life, you’re going to need to start thinking about what your options are.

We’ll use Alaska as an example, but your laws may be different. In Alaska, a bear killed in self defense is the property of the state. The bear must have its hide removed with the claws attached, and have its skull salvaged and turned into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with a filed report within fifteen days.

Please check the states that you’ll be traveling through to determine how to handle the situation properly, but in general know that in every state you do have a responsibility for the carcass of any animal that you’ve been forced to dispatch in self-defense.

Conclusion

Black bears and grizzly bears are enormous creatures with great ecological importance to the forests trying to survive in a world that we’ve built around them.

Now, with more people than ever in the world, humans and animals are colliding at an ever greater rate and sometimes the results can be tragic.

Understanding how to properly act to leave the least amount of impact on the forests and avoid a possible deadly encounter with the animals in it is the ultimate goal to keep everyone safe.

Alerting bears to our presence with loud sounds every so often, storing our food and hygiene items properly in odorless dry sacks tied to trees, and traveling in groups of three with at least two cans of bear spray, are all ways that we can save the lives of bears and people and keep the biodiversity of the forests, that we enjoy so much, alive for many generations to come.

Thanks for reading and if you have any questions, comments, concerns or suggestions do not hesitate to ask in the comments below or by contacting us via our email at ContactParagonTrails@gmail.com.

If you can think of anything to add to the article, it could save the life of someone in the future, so please reach out to us for that reason as well.

As always, may the trails treat you well and have a wonderful day!

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5 comments on “Hiking With Bears: How to Handle Black and Brown Bears On The Trail

  1. I was just about to search up this info because I’ll be heading to an area with bears soon. Excellent post!! Thanks 🌺

    • Thanks for the kind words, and you’re welcome! Let me know if there’s anything that you think I missed. This is actually the longest article on the website at the moment, and I tried to be as detailed as possible. I can think of a few more pieces of information I want to add, but anyways I hope that you enjoy it! Happy Trails!

      • Maybe I’ll have some input after I go … and hopefully only see bears from a safe distance 😉 but otherwise I think you covered everything! Great article 💕

  2. Thanks for touching base on our posts. Good info here! You clearly have tons of experience to share. Happy trails!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and I really appreciate the feedback! I’m planning on a few more informational articles about animal safety. You’ll have to check them out when they’re finished! 😀 Anyways though, I hope you enjoy the website, and as always, Happy Trails!

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