Bears are among nature’s most majestic creatures, and seeing one in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Get too close, however, and your encounter with a bear can be more terrifying than awe-inspiring. Fortunately, despite humans’ continued encroachment into “bear country,” attacks on people are rare, and fatalities are even rarer. Still, bears are immense, powerful animals, and any meeting between bears and humans can potentially turn deadly if you’re unprepared.
Preventing Close Encounters
1Ward bears off by making regular noise, either with a bear bell or by traveling as a group. If you can prevent an encounter with a bear, the rest of the steps are unnecessary. Bears are reclusive creatures, and they generally prefer to steer clear of humans. You can help them to do so by announcing your presence when you’re exploring their home environment: talk loudly, sing, or carry “bear bells” so bears have time to escape you.
- There are very few records of bears ever attacking a group of people, so stick together.
- When alone, making noise or having a bear bell is a near essential, especially if there have been reports of bears nearby.
2Keep your eyes up for signs of bears, taking detours as needed. If you see bear tracks, make a detour or leave the area. Avoid surprising bears — if you see one in the distance, keep your ground and stay away. Let the bear move on before proceeding. If a bear changes its behavior because of you, then you are too close.
- When you actually see a bear, you want to reduce your noise. Be calm and quiet, letting it stay about it’s business.
- This is especially important with young, “harmless” bears. A mother may be nearby, which can spell big trouble. Even if bears seem sick or hurt, stay clear and call a ranger.
3Stay away from “kill sites” or carcasses. Bears will defend two things — their young, and their most recent meal. If you find any carcasses, especially fresh ones, give them a wide berth and immediately leave the area.
4Leave the pets at home. Bears know a lot better than to mess with humans, and they will rarely see you as a food source. But your dogs may not be so fortunate, especially if they regard the bear as a threat. No matter how well you think your dog is trained, leave it at home when traveling in bear country.
- If you must have your pet with you, make sure they are leashed — no exceptions.
5Purchase necessary bear repellents, such as pepper spray and bear proof canisters. Come prepared to both avoid bears and deal with them in the rare case that they become agitated. Remember that, when camping, both food and food waste need to be contained, as the smell of wrappers and remains can attract the animals.
6Understand the basics of bear behavior to know when situations are escalating. Bears are not quite as unpredictable as everyone claims they are. Like humans, they have a variety of maneuvers and body language ticks that can help you read the situations and react appropriately.
- Standing on it’s back two legs is a sign of curiosity, not aggression.
- Bears generally want to retreat — they are known to posture and feign aggression to avoid a fight. Stay calm.
- Bears are not always hyper aware — they can get distracted, which makes it doubly important to announce your presence with noise as you hike.
Know your bears. The steps you take to survive an encounter with a bear will depend in part on the type of bear. North America has three kinds of bears: brown bears, black bears, and polar bears. Polar bears, of course, are easily recognizable, and their range is limited to the far northern latitudes. Grizzlies and black bears cannot necessarily be differentiated by their colors. Grizzly bears can weigh up to and over 800 lbs., and they are distinguished by a prominent shoulder hump and a rump lower than the shoulder. Black bears are typically smaller (up to 400 lbs.), and have a rump higher than or at roughly the same level as the shoulder. If you see tracks, grizzly bears have claw marks well separated from the paw imprints, while black bears’ claw marks will be quite close to the paw imprint.
8Check into the office or park ranger station for the latest news and updates. Has their been a recent bear sighting, or an increase in bear activity around campgrounds? The rangers will know exactly what’s been going on in the park, and can give you up to date advice about avoiding any confrontations. Be sure to check in as you arrive to ensure you’re up to date.
- Be sure to heed local bear advisories and practice proper food storage techniques while camping. Each park is different — some require bear canisters, some raised bear bags, and some just want the food locked in the car.
Preventing Escalation or Aggression
Stay calm, and do not ever run. Running signals to the bear that you are prey worth chasing, and they are incredibly fast animals. Similarly, screaming and yelling will spook the bear into believing it is threatened. As hard as it seems, keeping cool, calm, and collected will always be you best bet..
2Keep your distance, stepping sideways away and keeping your eyes on the bear. If you see a bear from a long distance (greater than 300 feet), leave the area. If you need to continue on, make a wide detour around the bear. If the bear has not seen you, do not disturb it: retreat calmly and quietly, and then make ample noise when you are well away to prevent future chance encounters. But if you’re up close and the bear notices you, stay calm and keep your distance, shuffling sideways to avoid tripping and keeping your eyes up.
3Announce that you’re human by speaking in a low, calm voice. It doesn’t matter what you say, but say something as you retreat to the sides, keeping an eye on the bear. Your goal is to communicate to the bear that you are human (i.e. that you can defend yourself and are not frightened) while also letting it know that you are non-threatening, and that you are leaving its territory.
- Never yell, scream, or make high-pitched noises!
- Pick one phrase or mantra and just repeat it calmly: “There is nothing to fear, I am not hear to cause harm,” or something similarly calm and simple. It’s not the words that matter, of course, but the tone and the fact that you keep saying them.
4Make yourself as big as possible with hands, clothes, and high ground. Again, you must do this calmly and slowly. If the bear sees you and is closer than 300 feet (91.4 m), or if the bear is approaching you, remain calm and try to look as large as possible. Stand your ground and try not to look frightened. Some things to do include:
- Open and spread your jacket wide at your sides.
- Slowly raise and wave your arms, indicating that you are human and not prey.
- Continue talking in a low, calm voice.
Give the bear an escape route, always. If you’ve cornered the animal, get out of the way calmly but quickly. Remember that most bears are posturing and don’t actually want to fight, But if the only way out is through you, they’re going to take their chances. Immediately provide a pathway allowing them to escape.
6Understand the bear’s motivations. A little bear psychology can go a long way—your response to an attack should be shaped by the bear’s motivations. First, if a bear appears to be stalking you (disappearing and reappearing, for example), or if a bear attacks at night, it most likely sees you as food, and any attack will be predatory. If you surprise a bear on the trail, if the bear has cubs, or if the bear is eating from or protecting a carcass, the bear will most likely be acting in self-defense.
- A bear attacking as a predator, no matter what type of bear, should be fought off. These bears are often desperate, but know that these attacks are extremely rare.
7If the bear seems to escalate and get aggressive, get aggressive in response. If you are sure this attack is meant to see if you’re prey (and only then), you should get louder and bigger. Stamp your feet, wave a walking stick menacingly, and or bang some pots and pans. Let it see that you aren’t worth the effort. That said, don’t hit it until it comes after you and makes contact. Never forget that their first charge is frequently a bluff– hold your ground, but don’t look meek.
- Again — this is not the norm. Predatory bear attacks are extremely rare, and you must read the situation appropriately.
Handling a Charge or Attack
1Stand tall, even if the bear charges you. Running cues the bear to chase you, and it will always be fast enough to catch up. Do not be aggressive, but do not crouch down, play dead or otherwise show fear or vulnerability. If the bear charges you, muster all your courage and stay where you are: the charge is most likely a bluff, and if you stand your ground the bear will turn away.
Sidestep advances if they’re closing in within a relatively short distance (<8 feet). Bears and other 4 legged animals have a wider center of gravity, and hence can’t make turns quite as sharp as you or me. Don’t just run in circles however, but if engaged in an open area (plains or field), do not run directly away from the bear as they’re generally faster. Move left and right where applicable to force the bear to change direction. Do not abuse the bear, however, as it drains vital energy.
3Only play dead with brown bears or grizzly bears after they’ve made contact. If the bear (other than a black bear) is attacking you in self-defense, you can put it at ease by playing dead and lying completely flat on the ground. Do so only after the bear makes contact with you or tries to do so. To play dead, lie flat on the ground protecting your vital parts with the ground, and your arms protecting your neck with your hands laced behind the neck. If you have a backpack on, keep it on to defend your back. Keep your legs together and do not struggle.
- Once the bear leaves your immediate vicinity, wait 10-15 minutes before carefully looking to see if the bear is still around. A bear may look back and may return if it sees you moving.
- Remember — if you believe this is a predatory encounter, as the bear has approached you or been following, you’ll need to change course and fight back.
4Fight back against black bears if they start to attack and make contact. Remember, this is not if they charge alone — this may be a bluff. If a bear charges and makes contact with you, however, you need to fight back with whatever you can. Focus on kicks and strikes to the face and muzzle in particular to scare it off. The odds may seem against you in a fight, but bears generally do not see humans as prey, and a bear that makes a predatory attacks is usually immature, starving, or wounded, and may easily be scared away if you hit it.
- If you believe any attack is predatory, such as an attack at night or if you’ve been “stalked” throughout the hike, fight back immediately — this is usually a bear desperate for food.
5Know how and when to use bear spray. If you get charged by bear, stand your ground and unclip the safety clip and put a cloud of spray in between you and the bear. Squint and hold your breath. Good aim doesn’t matter so much as a layer of protection, giving you plenty of time to escape. Begin spraying when the bears is 10-20 yards away for the greatest effectiveness.
- Keep spraying until the bear changes direction. If the cloud doesn’t work, hit it right in the face.
- You should practice quickly and easily getting your spray out of it’s holster before hiking.
Do bears attack a tent if there is no food in them?
It has occurred, but it’s rare. If you have a particularly interesting scent from a deodorant or perfume on you, it might create curiosity in the bear. If you’re in the tent with no food, and you are attacked, then the bear probably is seeing you as a food source and you’d better fight back as best you can. You should always have bear pepper spray with you.
How fast can bears eat?
It takes about an hour to eat a meal for a bear. If you need to time a bear’s being out of your area while it is eating, allow for less time, just in case and be quiet and stay downwind.
How does playing dead work and why?
A bear that is not after you to be its next meal, may feel you are a threat to itself, its cubs or to its food (such as a carcass that you’ve gotten too close to). If you seem to be dead, you no longer seem to be a threat. An agitated grizzly may nudge, scratch or nibble at you to make sure you are still no longer a threat. If they begin licking your wounds, you have become food – now you need to go to other tactics.
What do I do if I throw something at a black bear, and it gets mad?
Firstly, don’t throw something at it unless necessary (i.e., the bear is attacking you or someone else). However if a bear IS attacking you, and you do throw something at it, which makes it even angrier, your only hope is to hurt it enough to get it away from you. Another possible option is playing dead.
What should I do if a bear starts to run toward me suddenly when it sees me?
As the article said earlier, it may be a bluff charge and the animal may just want to see if you will cower or stand your ground. If you stand your ground and don’t show fear it will likely not see you as easy prey. Remember to not show fear no matter how scared you actually may be. If you panic, it may give the bear an advantage
If I give a bear food, will it leave me alone?
The bear may assume you have more food and continue to follow you. Giving them food is generally not a good idea.
How do I escape a bear who is approaching me on all fours?
Make sure you know the species of the bear first. Do not show fear, as chances are the bear is faking a charge. Know the behavior of the bear– if its ears are pinned back and its hair is raised or is baring teeth, this indicates that it is in defensive or aggressive behavior, but if it approaches slowly and its ears are perked up and it seems to sniff around, it is determining whether you are a threat or not. In this state, it is wise to back away slowly while talking to the bear calmly and slowly. Do not turn your back on the bear, as you are more vulnerable this way.
Why is it not good to play dead during a black bear attack?
Black bears are not prone to attacking humans unless they feel threatened, and in most cases, it is possible to scare the bear off by making noise and making yourself appear big. If you play dead, the bear may approach you out of curiosity or no longer consider you a threat.
Why do they say “don’t look a bear in the eye”?
If you stare a bear in the eyes, the bear will see it as a challenge for dominance, territory, food, or anything else that is concerned. Bears will always want to defend there dominance or territory, and will therefore act with aggression. So you can look at the bear, just not in his eyes.
Wouldn’t it be easier to flip you if you had your legs together – wouldn’t it be harder if you were curled up in a ball or fetal position?
True, but you would look more ‘dead’ to the bear, as opposed to a fetal position.
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|This humorous video explains some of the points, but bypasses the crucial differences between various bears and their attack motivations.|
- Whenever you go into the woods, make sure people know where you are going, and take a cell phone/mobile with you.
- If possible, walk downwind — that is, with your back to the wind. Let your scent alert any bears to your presence.
- Do not keep food in your tent when camping. Always use proper food storage containers or suspend your food at least four meters off the ground using a park food pole or suspended between two trees. There are items called “bear bins” that you can buy or rent to store foodstuffs. Remember that most species of bear are excellent climbers.
- Stand your ground unless you are certain the bear sees you as dinner.
- If you have a firearm, use it to save your life if needed and only if you are truly in serious danger (not just a bluff charge). If it comes down to it use the weapon if you know how to use it properly. If you must shoot a bear, wait until it is close (30 or 40 feet at most), and aim for the low neck or head area. If you injure or kill the bear, be certain to report the encounter to the proper authorities.
- If you need to play dead and you’re wearing a large backpack, the pack will add some protection to your vital areas, and you can lie on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Use your legs and elbows to try to prevent the bear from flipping you over, but do not struggle. If you look dead and harmless, a defensive bear will usually leave you alone.
- Bears are attracted to smells, so keep all your trash together and don’t keep it near where you are sleeping. Be sure to stow or dispose of properly of any medical supplies or hygiene products that have blood on them. Zip lock bags provide some containment.
- Bears are EXTREMELY protective of their young, and will go crazy if they see a human next to a cub. Therefore, even if it’s just a cub, back off.
- Avoid spending time near bears’ food sources. Walking near animal carcasses, berry patches, and fish streams increases your chance of meeting a bear. In addition, the sound of rushing water can make it very difficult for a bear to hear you as you approach.
- Make noise and reduce your speed when mountain biking through woods in bear country. Mountain bikes move too fast to allow a bear time to know you’re coming, and you are liable to surprise a bear when speeding around a corner.
- At night, always walk with a flashlight and with a friend. This will also help warn any bears.
- Bear spray is an effective deterrent, but the scent of its resin can actually attract bears. Discard empty bear spray containers and do not try to spray a perimeter of pepper spray as a preventative measure.
- Do NOT attempt to play dead with a black bear or a bear that appears to consider you prey. If the bear begins to maul you after you have played dead, you have no choice but to fight back.
- Killing bears except in self-defense is illegal in many jurisdictions. Make sure to report your encounter to the proper authorities when it is safely over.
- Don’t try to get between a mother bear and her cubs. Do not attempt to take any pictures of bear cubs or follow the bear cubs into the woods.
- Do not feed the bears. Not only is it illegal in all of Canadian and U.S. national parks, it also trains bears to associate humans with an easy food supply and leads them to lose their fear of humans. This might make them a danger to other campers and ultimately lead to them being killed by park or wildlife officials.
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