One of the great parts of exploring the great outdoors is the opportunity to encounter all kinds of unique wildlife, including bears. Seeing a bear in the wilderness can be an incredibly exciting experience, however, it’s important to remember they are wild animals and their behavior can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Although uncommon, bears have been known to attack humans causing serious injuries that can even be fatal. While every bear encounter will be unique, there are certain bear safety tips you can follow to minimize the dangers.
Remember that different species of bears behave differently, and the same species of bear may act differently in a different environment. Make sure you do your research before you head out into bear country. Before embarking on your adventure, it’s vital to check park websites and talk with the park staff about the latest bear safety information and regulations in the specific park you’ll be visiting.
Avoid an Encounter
The best way to stay safe around bears is by keeping your distance and avoiding an encounter altogether. Here are some ways to keep your distance and avoid surprising bears in the wild.
Be noisy – The last thing you want to do is surprise or sneak up on a bear. However, most bears will choose to avoid humans if they can hear them coming. While hiking through bear country sing, talk calmly, or wear a bell to make a bear aware of your presence. This will usually scare a bear off reducing the chances of you having any surprise run-ins with a bear.
Be aware of your surroundings – Always pay attention to your surroundings and stay on the marked trail. If you’re in an area where there are often bear sitings or near a common food source like berry bushes, be extra vigilant.
Respect their natural food source – If you come across a dead animal, don’t touch it and leave the area immediately. That is likely a predator’s meal and they will usually come back for it. If the animal feels you may be a threat to their food source, they will be more likely to attack.
Keep a clean camp – Bears have a very keen sense of smell, and the smell of food will attract bears and other animals. If you’re camping in the wilderness, make sure to follow the proper food storage requirements such as using a bear canister, and always keep a clean camp. Read our guide to find out more about how to properly keep animals from raiding your food.
Hike in groups – Hiking with others is always safer than hiking alone in many aspects. However, when it comes to bears, groups of people are nosier and have a stronger scent allowing the bear to become aware of the group from a greater distance. A group of people is also intimidating to bears making them less likely to approach.
Leave your furry friend at home – While hiking with your dog can be a lot of fun, in bear country it can potentially attract an unwelcome encounter with a bear. A barking dog may also be threatening to a bear and can provoke or intensify an encounter.
Stay away from bear cubs – Young animals can be adorable, however, if you see a bear cub alone, do not go near it, there’s a good chance the mother is nearby. Mother bears are extremely protective of their cubs and touching one can provoke an attack.
Identify yourself – If you encounter a bear and it notices you, identify yourself as a human and not a prey animal. Make yourself look larger by standing your ground and slowly waving your arms above your head. Talk to the bear calmly and don’t make any high-pitched sounds that could imitate prey animals.
Keep calm – Remember that most bears don’t want to attack you and actually just want to be left alone. In a bear encounter, the most important thing you can do is remain calm. Speak to the bear in quiet, low tones that aren’t threatening. Do not yell, scream, make high-pitched noises, or any sudden movements as this may trigger an attack. A bear may come closer and stand on its hind legs to get a better sense of you, do not panic. A standing bear is usually just curious. Bears may display defensive behavior by yawning, growling, salivating, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Try to remain calm.
Give the bear space – While rare, a bear may attack if its space feels threatened. If you come across a bear, do not approach it, and never sneak up on it. Instead, back away slowly giving it plenty of room to escape. Most likely, the bear will move away on its own.
Do NOT run – Move away slowly and sideways to prevent tripping, keeping your eyes on the bear at all times. Do not turn your back and run. Running can trigger the prey drive making the bear more likely to chase you and you cannot outrun a bear.
Do NOT climb a tree – Do not try to escape a bear by climbing a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can easily climb trees.
Do NOT feed the bear – Do not try to feed the bear to distract its attention away from you. This can actually make their bear more aggressive.
Be extra cautious of females with cubs – If you see a mother with her cubs, do not approach them, and never get between a mother and her cubs. If the mother perceives you as a threat to her cubs she will be more likely to attack.
Bear attacks are not common and most bears will only attack when it comes to protecting food, cubs, or their space. However, if you’ll be spending time in bear country, it’s important to be prepared for anything. Knowing what to do if a bear does attack will give you more confidence and the greatest chance of survival.
Brown/Grizzly Bears: Grizzly bears can be incredibly aggressive, and they are also big and powerful. If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, leave your pack on to protect yourself and play dead. Lay flat on your stomach and clasp your hands behind your neck. Spread your legs to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over. Play dead until the bear leaves, as fighting back can often make the attack worse.
Black Bears: Black bears are typically not aggressive and are less likely to attack. However, if you are attacked by a black bear, do not play dead. Try to escape to somewhere safe. If that’s not possible, fight back with any object on hand concentrating on the bear’s face.
Bear spray is essentially a strong pepper spray that is used as a deterrent for aggressive bears. However, bear spray should be your last line of defense during an attack and not an alternative to any of the other bear safety guidelines and precautions. Keep in mind, bears can act differently in different environments, and in some national parks, bear spray is not recommended or even allowed. Before packing for your trip, check with the national park to see if bear pepper spray is recommended or allowed.
Our Wilderness First Responder course (WFR) covers skills that may be needed in the case of a bear attack.