When we venture outdoors we often feel vulnerable. It's probably one of the reasons we do it, because risk and reward are such closely bonded concepts! But at the same time, most of us recognise the importance of planning and risk mitigation. So it's no surprise that a lot of people want to know what to do if you see a bear when out and about.
This article endeavours to give a short answer (summarising what you should do in the 3 most likely bear encounters) and a much longer answer (exploring the why's and how's in much more depth). I'd encourage you to look at the longer answer because there is a lot of nuance and context around this topic. But if you're short on time, here are the highlights:
Scenario 1: You see a bear but the bear doesn't see you
Rule #1 for bear safety is to avoid an encounter altogether. If you are keeping an eye out for signs of bears and regularly scanning the horizon, there's a chance you might spot a bear before they know you are in the area. In this situation, you want to slip away quietly.
Scenario 2: You see a bear and the bear sees you (but at a distance)
Again, if you are being aware of your surroundings and encounter a bear there's a chance you'll both notice each other from a distance. Because it's highly unlikely it's a predatory bear (see below), you have little to worry about. Most bear attacks are defensive in nature, so the greater the distance, the less threatened the bear will feel. In this situation, you want to reduce the threat further by leaving the area whilst discouraging the bear to follow you.
Scenario 3: You surprise a bear (or it surprises you) at close quarters
This scenario is unlikely because bears generally don't want to be near you and they have such good senses, most times they'll leave the area before you even know they're there. However, they may be drawn to you because you have food (if they're food habituated), or you might stumble into one of their feeding grounds, or any number of other reasons might result in a surprise encounter. This is obviously a very tense situation for all parties and the one most likely to result in a negative outcome if handled poorly. Your job here is to be assertive without being threatening and to leave the area without fleeing or showing fear.
If the bear follows you, or charges you, stop and stand your ground. Keep encouraging it to keep its distance by speaking and making yourself look bigger.
If you want to understand more about these do's and don'ts or want to read about how to deal with a bear charge, check out the longer article or click one of the quick links below...
While it’s normal to be nervous about encountering a bear while in the wilderness, the first thing you need to know is that bear attacks are extremely rare. That being said, it’s important to know exactly what to do in case it does actually happen. (Ed: Be “pre-beared”! Sorry)
How rare are bear attacks?
Bear attacks are comfortingly low, all things being considered. For example, in the USA and Canada, between 1900 and 1985, grizzly bears inflicted only about 162 injuries, many of them non life-threatening. [Source: Cardall, T. and Rosen, P. (2003). Grizzly Bear Attack. The Journal of Emergency Medicine]. That’s less than 2 attacks per year.
As for Black Bears, in the 20 years to 2017 there were 25 recorded fatalities in the United States and Canada. [Source: wideopenspaces.com]. That works out to 1.25 deaths per year. As you might expect, there were many more attacks than that but the numbers are clearly in your favor.
In fact, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a bear (over 500 people are struck by lightning in the USA every year). When it comes to fatalities, you’re statistically more likely to be killed by a dog or a cow than a bear...
Bear Facts: Why Preventing an Encounter Should Be a Priority
As hiking, camping and hunting become more popular, and because bear habitats are shrinking as the United States becomes more developed, there’s a growing likelihood that you might see a bear whether you are out and about, or even in your own backyard…
I’ll dive into detail about how to avoid encounters later. But first, I think it would be useful to explore some bear facts and bear behaviours to emphasise precisely why coming into close contact just isn’t a great idea.
Are Bears Dangerous?
Although bears would rather not come face to face with you, the fact remains that they are extremely large, strong creatures. And whenever you’re dealing with an animal that is bigger than you, there is inevitably an element of danger. Rather than explain how dangerous I think bears can be, let me instead outline a few facts about bears and you can be the judge...
The United States is home to three main bear species: the grizzly bear (also known as the brown bear), the polar bear, and the black bear.
Black bears weigh up to 600lbs (although the ladies are much daintier and won’t tip the scales beyond 400lbs). But they can get even bigger! They’re about 3ft high at the shoulder when on all fours but can be as tall as 7ft when standing on their hind legs. [Source: defenders.org]. According to Gary Brown in his 1993 book The Great Bear Almanac, they can hit speeds of up to 30mph and are so strong, they can flip a 300lb rock in a single movement with one front paw… These bad boys are the smallest of the three North American species.
The females and males can weigh over 400lbs and 800lbs respectively. They can be up to 3.5ft at the shoulder on all fours but when they get up on their hind feet they can be a towering 8ft tall. They can top speeds of 35mph, which is considerably faster than olympic sprinter Ussain Bolt, who clocks a mere 27mph. [Source: animalfactguide.com].
The big daddy of North American bears is one chunky monkey. The biggest polar bear ever recorded weighed in at over 2,200lbs. Even your average male is a colossal 800lbs-1200lbs. Up to 5ft at the shoulder and 10ft tall standing [Source: livescience.com] and it makes you realise that coming face to face with one is only going to make you feel small and puny. Luckily, your chances of encountering a polar bear is rare unless you live near the Arctic Circle or work in a zoo.
Are Bears Aggressive?
You can see from the stats above that these fellas are bigger n you, taller n you, stronger n you and faster n you. But are they gentle giants? Well, that’s a bit nuanced.
For the most part, bears are not naturally aggressive and only become aggressive when they feel threatened. Usually, if they see a human, they’ll slip away. But you can expect different behaviours in different situations depending on the species.
Like most animals, bears are reasonably territorial. If you enter a bear’s territory, you will be (wittingly or unwittingly) forcing that bear to act. While that action will most often be to run, it can also be to attack.
And if it’s an attack, it’s usually for one of two reasons: you are near a kill or food site, or the bear is protecting its cubs.
Bears will violently defend their cubs if necessary. Bears with first-year cubs, in particular, will attack quickly if you are near them, even if their cubs have already skittered up a tree. Bears with second-year cubs can also be aggressive, and this becomes even more dangerous as the cubs may participate in the charge toward you. This is more common when it is combined with the presence of a kill site.
Protecting Food Sources & Kill Sites
Ever had a friend or family member steal one of your fries? Remember how angry it made you? Now imagine that feeling multiplied by 100 and channelled through a 500lb bear!
I’m being flippant. But our friend Mr Bruin spends a long time asleep during the winter. Summer months are feeding time and they need to pack on the pounds before winter comes around again. And when I say pack on the lbs, a grizzly might put on as much as 3lbs a day during the summer! That means eating is a very serious business for these guys. And that means they are going to be extremely protective of their food sources.
If you find yourself around their berry bushes or an animal carcass, be prepared for a bear to stand their ground rather than run away.
Which Bear is Most Aggressive?
All three bears species have been known to attack. Although black bears are more likely to attack, grizzly bears are more violent, with black bear attacks rarely leading to death. Polar bear attacks are incredibly rare, typically occurring only in captivity. Only about 20 fatal attacks by polar bears have occurred in recorded history. [Source: polarbearscience.com]
Do Bears Eat Humans?
While there is such a thing as bears predating on humans, this is exceedingly rare. Technically, bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and plant-based foods. So yes, as a human, you are a potential source.
But the reality is, this is uncommon. Bears are more likely to eat things like dead animals, roots, berries, deer, fish and seeds. [Source: nps.gov]. A bear that’s predatory is usually either extremely hungry or otherwise thrown from its normal feeding regimen.
That being said, the behaviour of a predatory bear is very different from that of a surprised bear. If you see a bear watching you, following you, slipping in and out of sight, you’ll want to be on very high alert.
Bear Fictions: Dispelling the Biggest Myths About Bears
OK. So we’ve established that bears are big, strong and fast. We’ve also acknowledged that in certain circumstances they may even become aggressive. And all of that suggests the best thing to do is avoid an encounter as best you can.
However, it’s worth knowing the difference between bear fact and bear fiction. Because if you are carrying around information about bears that’s plain wrong it’s not going to help you avoid bears, it’s not going to help you if you see a bear and it’s certainly not going to help you survive a bear attack. So pay close attention. This section is going to cover the most common bear BS.
Can You Outrun a Bear?
Some people believe - wrongly - that in a pinch they could outrun a bear. Don’t fall into this trap - you may not live through it. Bears can run fifty feet per second - which is twice as fast as most people can run. They could outrun a racehorse over a very short distance! [Source: bearsmart.com]. What’s more, if you try to run away, there’s a good chance you’ll encourage the bear to give chase. Don’t try it.
Can Bears Run Downhill?
There is a weird belief in some corners of the internet that bears can't run downhill. This, too, is false. Bears can run downhill. Fact.
Can Bears Climb Trees?
An old piece of advice given to hikers was to simply hustle up a tree if a bear became aggressive. Both black bears and grizzly bears can climb (although grizzly bears aren’t great) and bears sometimes even kill each other while fighting in a tree. Cubs are much better at scrambling up into trees, and will often hide among the canopy while their mothers defend a threat down below.
Don’t try to climb a tree to avoid a bear.
Sense of Smell
Bears have an excellent sense of smell [Source: myfwc.com]. They can pick up scents from over a mile away, with noses that are more powerful than those of bloodhounds. In fact, bears are considered to have a better sense of smell than any other land mammal.
It’s actually quite important to realize that a bear’s sense of smell can lead to one of the greatest issues that we, as humans, have in our relationship with them. Because bears have such a tremendous appetite and a finely tuned sense of smell, they quickly learn how to find food when they are around humans.
Bears naturally forage on food in the wild, but once bears realize that humans can provide them with an easy supply of food, either through deliberate feeding or accidental exposure, they quickly lose their natural fear of people. As a result, this “food habituation” can cause bears to become reckless, posing a threat to public safety as well as to themselves. You can easily guard against this by refraining from feeding bears and by keeping your food well out of reach.
Bears Have Poor Eyesight
There is a common myth that bears cannot see well. This is not true. Black bears can actually see in color and have excellent eyesight up close. While their long distance eyesight isn’t fantastic, they can see much better than many other species of animals.
Bear Safety: How to Avoid an Encounter
If you’re worried about seeing a bear, the best thing to do is try and avoid having an encounter altogether. Here’s a few tips to help you stay well out of a bear’s way.
Where are Bears Found?
You may be familiar with the expression “fish where the fish are”. This piece of bear advice is the complete opposite. If you are worried about seeing a bear, try to hang out in areas where bears are rare or absent!
Black bears have the largest geographic range of any type of bear, found as far south as central Mexico and as far north as northern Alaska. But that doesn’t mean they live around every corner. There are often huge gaps between populations.
Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are found mostly in Alaska and northwestern Canada - although they are also found in smaller populations in northwestern Montana, Yellowstone National Park, northwestern Washington, and northern Utah.
Polar bears, the largest of all three types of bears, are only found in northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
When Are Bears Most Active?
Knowing when bears are most active can help you avoid an encounter.
Because bears hibernate, you’re far less likely to come across one in the winter months.They bed down in dens such as tree cavities or hollow stumps. It’s not impossible - particularly if a den is disturbed or if there is a brief warming trend or thaw - but it is significantly less likely.
Cubs are born in late January or early February, and the females (along with these newly born cubs) emerge in late March or early April. Cubs remain with their mothers for about eighteen months, or when she mates again - whichever comes first.
If you are out and about when bears are not hibernating, then you should be aware that they most active during early morning and late evening [source: nps.gov], particularly in spring and summer. Mating occurs in July, and bears will become calmer as the fall approaches.
Other Tips to Avoid an Encounter
Of course, there’s every chance that you don’t want to limit your outdoors activities to the depths of winter and summer lunchtimes just to further reduce the already slim chance of meeting a bear. So here’s a bunch more practical tips:
Store your food properly
Keep an eye out for signs of bears
When you’re out and about, get into the habit of scanning the horizon regularly with your binoculars. Look for a large shape in the distance. While grizzly bears can be blonde to black in color, they are usually dark to medium brown. Black bears are usually black but they have a light-colored snout. Grizzly bears have distinct shoulder humps, while black bears are more evenly built.
Besides watching for the bears themselves, keep an eye out for other signs that bears are around. Tracks are a key indicator, with black bears possessing tracks with short claws and grizzly bears having longer ones. You might also find scat, grizzly diggings, carcasses, or territorial markings. You may even find bear trails in the woods.
Be vigilant at all times. Don’t let yourself zone out while you walk - this isn’t safe in general, but especially not when you are hiking in bear country.
Travel in groups
For the most part, bears want nothing to do with you. While you may enjoy some quality time alone in the wilderness, safety best practices dictate that you should travel in groups of three or more. The logic here is simple - if a bear sees you approaching alone (or if you startle it because you, by yourself, are moving so quietly), it is more likely to attack. If it sees you approaching in a large group, it will want to stay away.
In fact, Yellowstone have an ongoing longitudinal study starting in 1970 which documents that of all bear attacks in the park, 91% of them occurred when the person was hiking alone or with just one other person. [Source: nps.gov]
Making noise can be an effective way to deter a bear, but don’t shout. Talking with your hiking companions, or even singing quietly, can announce your presence and help keep bears away.
Be Aware of Potential Food Sources
Be mindful of the potential for bears when you are walking around any possible sources of food. Some to watch out for include:
Get Away Immediately If You See a Cub
A mother bear that is with her cubs will be more defensive and aggressive than any other kind of bear. Therefore, your main priority if you see a mother with a cub should be to get away before she notices you. If she does, employ the techniques we will mention below to get yourself out of the situation as safely as possible.
Bear Bells: Do They Work?
A bear bell is a small bell attached to a velcro strap or carabiner that you attach to your body or backpack as you walk through the woods. These are designed to scare bears away by warning them of your approach, but unfortunately, they just don't work.
A recent study by a scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Tom Smith, indicates that wild bears will largely ignore bear bells. They treat the noise produced by these bells much like they would birds or other kinds of background noise. In some cases, bear bells can even make things worse.
This interesting effect was documented in a 1985 book by Stephen Herrero. Since they don’t frighten bears, they may actually attract bears who are curious about where the jingling noise is coming from.
Long story short, bear bells may do more harm than good.
Can You Use a Whistle as a Bear Deterrent?
Whistles should not be used for the same reason that you should avoid bear bells. First, bears may be curious as to what is making the noise, and second, because whistles are usually high-pitched, they can awaken a bear’s predatory instincts.
Bear whistles, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, can attract a bear to you more than they can repel it. It’s not unlike the effect of a dog that comes running when you squeeze his favorite squeaky toy! Instead, it’s better to make noise by singing, talking, or clapping as you move.
What To Do If You See a Bear
I guess I’ve really tried to hammer home the importance of trying not to see a bear. But what if that doesn’t work? What if you do see a bear? What if you surprise a bear? The most important thing is don’t panic; it’s highly unlikely a bear will want to attack you.
A Distant Encounter
If the bear is far away (say 100 yards or more), make your presence known and extract yourself calmly from the area. Neither party should feel particularly threatened. Just make sure to keep an eye on the situation, especially if the bear is on the move.
For example, if you spotted the bear on the trail ahead and it was moving down the trail towards you, you might consider backing up to the past intersection and taking a wide detour.
Do not run.
A Close Encounter
If you happen on a bear and it’s less than 100 yards away, both of you are likely to be somewhat surprised. But if the bear doesn’t immediately charged at you (which would be unlikely), it’s really important to try to diffuse the situation by showing you are not a threat.
Did you read the section on why bears become aggressive? About how they’ll only really threaten you if they themselves feel threatened?
Cubs. Food. Nowhere to run.
Your priority is to leave the area without showing weakness or fear. The NPS has a handy few notes on what to do if a bear finds you (read it here).
If the bear follows you: Stop. Keep talking. Keep making yourself look big. The chances are it’s just curious but you should also start preparing yourself for the possibility it may charge.
Why You Should Always Carry Bear Spray in Bear Country
One of the best ways you can protect yourself against a bear attack, particularly against a grizzly bear attack, is to use bear spray. Make sure you carry bear spray with you and familiarize yourself in advance with how it works. Practice outdoors and carry the spray on you when you are traveling in bear country.
What's in bear spray?
Bear spray is a high-pressure extraction of capsaicin. It usually contains about two percent capsaicin, which is the chemical that makes peppers hot.
How does it work?
In a 2008 study conducted for the Journal of Wildlife Management, scientists found that bear spray was effective 92% of the time in preventing attacks and 98% effective in preventing injury. [Source: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks]
Bear spray should be sprayed for about six to nine seconds, ideally out of a canister weight of at least 7.9 ounces. You should spray the canister about twenty-five feet away from the bear, which will give the bear the opportunity to feel the full effects of the spray.
Before you head out into the wilderness with a canister of bear spray, make sure you practice with it. Try arming the container, spraying it, and then restoring the safety clip. You should take a test spray or two so that you have mastered the technique of spraying before you actually need to use it.
What to Do if a Bear Charges
With most encounters, you’ll be trying to give the bear space; retreating slowly and leaving the area. However, that all changes the second a bear starts to charge. At that point you should stand your ground, ready your bear spray and prepare for contact.
Stand Your Ground
It will be terrifying. But be aware there’s still a really good chance contact will never be made, because there’s a big difference between a charge and an attack. The majority of charges will be bluff charges rather than aggressive charges (ones which will make contact).
“Mother bears, whenever they feel threatened or a person is too close, they act very aggressively. They make noise, they swat the ground with their paws and they run at people. They want to make you think that they’ll eat you alive, but they almost always stop.”
Stephen Herrero author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes & Avoidance, (quoted in NY Times)
Bluff charges are designed to intimidate you whilst avoiding direct contact. According to the National Park Service, a bluff charge is when a bear lifts its head and ears up and forward, trying to make itself look bigger. The bear may even start bounding toward you on its front paws - but it will ultimately charge off to one side or stop running entirely.
Check out this awesome video of a mama bear repeatedly bluff charging a researcher in the 1980s:
Notice the snapping jaws and the puffing. Also note the lack of eye contact and her defensive posture when she isn’t charging. These are all signs of discomfort, but not aggression.
Sure, having her rushing at you will be scary as hell, but everything about body language says “get outta here” more than “I’m gonna kill you!”. Here’s a really good article about “bear bluster” from bear.org
Aggressive charges will end in contact. They are extremely rare but can occur if a bear has been stalking you, has no easy escape route, or is showing other signs of predatory behavior. Aggressive attacks are more likely if a bear is sick or starving.
Signs of an imminent aggressive charge might include the bear’s ears being pointed flat back, its head pointed down and Intense staring.
“The kind of bear you need to be afraid of is not feeling threatened by you — it’s testing you out as a possible prey item. It’s quiet. It stalks you just like a lion might stalk you.”
Stephen Herrero author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes & Avoidance, (quoted in NY Times)
Reacting to a Charge
The reality is, in the heat of the moment you’ll probably have no idea if you’re facing a bluff charge or an aggressive charge. So that means you have to ready yourself for contact.
All that should bring things to a halt.
When the bear stops or moves off to the side, go back to removing yourself from the situation. Kids behind you, arms above your head, speaking calmly… start to retreat again keeping an eye on the bear.
How To Survive a Bear Attack
In the highly unlikely situation a bear does decide to make contact, you essentially have two choices: you can play dead, or you can fight back. Your best course of action will depend on the type of bear that is attacking you, so you really need to know what you’re up against. (If you’re in an area that have Black Bears and Grizzly Bears, make sure you know the difference).
If a Black Bear Makes Contact
If a black bear attacks you, fight back with everything you have. Direct your kicks and punches at the bear’s face, and use any weapon you can find.
You should never play dead with a black bear. The reason for this is because most black bear attacks will be predatory (in other words, they want to kill and eat you). So in that situation, it makes sense to fight back and give it your best shot. [Source: New York Times]
If a Grizzly Bear Makes Contact
If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, do NOT fight back. A grizzly attack is far more likely to be defensive in nature. We’re back to the bear feeling threatened. Playing dead is a clear sign to the bear that you are no longer a threat. Although you must be warned that this only works if the bear has made contact (they aren’t stoopid).
Lie on the ground face down with your hands covering your neck, your elbows out to the side and your legs spread wide. This will help protect your head and neck whilst making it more difficult for the bear to flip you. Stay down until the bear goes away (and you are certain the bear has left the area).
Yellowstone National Park has tracked bear attacks since 1970, and officials have found that individuals who played dead during an attack by a grizzly bear were only mildly injured about 75 percent of the time. Of those who fought back around 80% received severe injuries.
The only time you should fight is if the attack is persistent (or if, shudder, the bear start eating you).
So there you have it. Hopefully a complete account of the what’s, where’s, why’s and how’s of bear safety. Please drop any stories in the comments below!