Part 2 of Bear Safety: What to Do During a Bear Encounter

May 20, 2015 How to

A bear encounter can be remarkable, downright terrifying, or straight up deadly. Certain safety measures can be taken to prevent a bear encounter. However, if you do find yourself face to face with a grizzly or black bear, these tips will help you escape with your life.

Depending on your encounter situation and the bear you encounter, there are a variety of tactics you should use to have the best outcome.

The most common types of bear in North America are the black bear and the grizzly bear. Defensive maneuvers for these two types of bears differ. Therefore, it is important you know the physical differences between the two bears to ensure you defend yourself properly. Before you embark on a backcountry adventure, do a bit of research on the area to know if you will be in black bear or grizzly bear country.

Differences Between a Grizzly Bear and a Black Bear

Black bear

Black Bear. Photo Credit: USFWS on Flickr

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bear, also known as a brown bear, has a hump at the shoulders. Photo Credit: chascar on Flickr

black bear vs. grizzly bear

black bear vs. grizzly bear - comparison chart

Ursus americanus - American black bear

American black bear face. Notice the ear difference from the grizzly below. Photo Credit: Valerie on Flickr

Grizzly Bear with huge claws

Grizzly bear face. Notice the long claws! Photo Credit: Scott Calleja on Flickr

Signs of Aggression

  • For both types of bears, knowing the signs of aggression will help you understand these amazing creatures. First, if a bear stands on its hind legs or approach you, this isn’t always a sign of aggression. Bears do not have the best eyesight and the animal might just be trying to get a better look at you.
  • Signs of aggression: swaying of the head, huffing, snorting, and clacking of teeth.
black bear standing up

Black bear standing up is not necessarily a sign of aggression.
Photo Credit: anoldent on Flickr

Type of Encounter: Predatory or Defensive?

  • To have a positive encounter with a bear, you must value their space and their habitat. Stay alert and aware when you are in bear country.
  • Defensive encounter scenario: If you surprise a bear in close range, the bear will feel threatened and might charge toward you to intimidate you. This might be the case if the bear is near its food, den, or young.
  • Predatory encounter scenario: A bear might stalk or follow you because it considers you prey. It could attack from behind. This is rare.
black bear with cubs

Black bear with its young. Photo Credit: Ian Matchett on Flickr

mama grizzly bear and cub

Grizzly bear with cub. Photo Credit: xinem on Flickr

Black Bear Encounter

  • In North America, black bears are found in Canada, the Rocky Mountain range, the Appalachian Mountain range, Alaska, and the Midwest and west coast of the U.S.
  • Black bears are more timid than grizzlies and the likelihood of an attack is less with black bears than grizzly bears.
  • A black bear does not attack for self-defense, they only attack if they think you are prey. You could prevent this by staying very aware of your surroundings (take the headphones out!) as well as try to not smell like food. Black bears will follow you and stalk you before they attack.
  • A black bear attack is VERY RARE. I have come across numerous black bears while hiking through the Appalachian Mountains, Texas, and Colorado. All my encounters have resulted in the black bears running away, even if there is a mother with cubs.
    • DO NOT APPROACH THE BEAR. Approaching the bear could initiate aggressive behavior from the animal.
    • DO NOT RUN. You cannot outrun a bear. Slowly back away while keeping an eye on the bear.
    • If you are in a group, huddle together to appear bigger.
    • DO NOT CLIMB A TREE. Black bears are wonderful climbers.
    black bear in a tree

    Black bear 6 meters (20 feet) up a tree. Photo Credit: brew books on Flickr

    • If the bear starts to approach you, make your presence known by talking/shouting, standing tall, throwing rocks, and/or waving your arms or trekking poles. Make your presence as large as possible. Get on higher ground if you need.
    • If a black bear makes contact with you, FIGHT BACK. Since black bears are timid, you fighting back will alarm the bear. Use bear spray if possible. Bear spray is basically a strong pepper spray. Keep it handy instead of packed deep in your backpack.
    • If a bear makes contact with you because it is interested in your food, leave your food or pack and slowly back away.
can of bear spray

Bear spray is a strong pepper spray. Photo Credit: James Brooks on Fickr

Grizzly Bear (Brown bear) Encounter

    • Grizzly bears are found throughout the Canadian Rockies and Alaska. In the lower 48 states of the U.S., they are only found in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. They can sometimes be found in northern Washington as well.
    • If a bear notices you in the distance, raise your hands and speak in a low, calm voice. Find an alternative route to avoid the bear’s path.
    • Grizzly encounters most often happen by females protecting their young. The best thing you can do is to avoid surprising the bear by carrying a bear bell or singing while you hike.
      • As listed above for black bears, DO NOT RUN and DO NOT APPROACH THE BEAR.
      • Speak in a low, monotone voice to identify yourself as a non-threatening human.
      • Do NOT stare in the bear’s eyes.
      • If you are in a group, slowly come together to appear larger.
      • Start to back away slowly but make sure to NOT turn your back on the bear.
      • Grizzlies are not as skilled of climbers as black bears. However, they still can climb up a tree after you. Do not run toward the tree if the bear is very close. If you must climb, climb about 10 meters high (33 feet).
      • If you know the bear is about to charge for you and the attack is not a predatory attack, then, play dead. Keep your pack on and try to protect your neck and face by clasping your hands around the back of your neck. Lay on your stomach, keep your legs together and straight, and remain still and quiet. You might have heard to get in the fetal position but this position actually makes it easier for the bear to roll you over.
      • If you have bear spray, USE IT. As mentioned above, make sure to keep your bear spray handy (not deep in your pack!). Use the bear spray before you lay down (spray in the direction of the bear) as well as use it while you are playing dead. The spray should still be in your hands while you are playing dead with your hands behind your neck and the spray spout pointing up.
      • If the bear is temporary blinded by the same, make your escape slowly.
Using bear spray effectiveness

Spraying a bear with bear deterrent spray. Photo by WikiNobelExpert via Wikimedia Commons.

A bear encounter can be an incredible experience or a life-threatening one. This article’s purpose is to keep you safe during a bear encounter. However, please check out Part 1 of Bear Safety: How to Prevent a Bear Encounter to learn tactics and techniques to keep bears away while hiking and at your campsite.

Bears should not deter you from enjoying the great outdoors. Remember, we are in their home. I cherish every bear encounter I’ve ever had. These creatures are beautiful and are not always a threat. If you take preventive measures and know your basic encounter tactics, you will be safe in bear country.

 Have you ever encountered a bear? Tell us in the comments below!


Madison Dragna