How To Survive A Bear Attack

For any avid outdoors person who spends a lot of time in the woods or backcountry, an occasional run-in with a bear seems inevitable. In normal circumstances, bears don’t want to attack people, and in all honesty, we kill more bears than they kill humans. Most of the time, a bear will attack because it is starving or startled.

If you encounter a bear, you may be as surprised as them, and this may lead to fatal consequences. The time of year and species of the bear dictates the best way to respond to a bear encounter, and there is no single strategy that will work in all situations.

The behavior of the bear can be unpredictable and dangerous, but these guidelines will help to make the encounter with a bear as peaceful and attack-free as possible.

How Common Are Bear Attacks On Humans?

On average, there are 2.56 fatal bear attack incidents in North America per year, so the chances of death by a bear are pretty slim.

However, bear attacks have significantly increased in recent years, as reported by Yellowstone National Park. After not reporting any attacks in 25 years, they recorded two fatal attacks in 2011, and another one in 2015. In 2016, A bicyclist was killed by a grizzly bear nearby Glacier National Park in Montana. This increase in bear attacks has been linked to a variety of factors, which include human intrusion, climate change, food shortages and habitat loss.

To a large extent, the behavior of bears is still influenced by upbringing and biology. Polar bears are more likely to attack people as prey and are more aggressive than the American black bear, which is normally skittish around humans and relatively docile.

Nonetheless, you shouldn’t try and understand why a bear is attacking, and since you can’t convey any peaceful intentions to the bear during an attack, you just aim to stay away from their path. Which brings us to our next point...

If Possible, Avoid an Encounter

When you're somewhere that you know has a significant bear population, you can follow these tips to avoid an encounter with a bear in the first place:

  • Whenever you’re visiting a national park, or you’re somewhere that will involve viewing wildlife, make sure and read up on the current “viewing etiquette.”
  • Respect the space that bears need. Keep your distance and watch them using a pair of binoculars; don’t get too close to them.
  • If you are watching a bear at a distance and they change their behaviour because they saw you, that means you’re too close. Most national parks have regulations that establish a viewing distance, specific to the area’s terrain and species. Always follow the recommendations of the rangers.
  • Whenever possible, hike in a group, as you will exude more scent and you will be noisier, which will alert any nearby bears to your presence. The bear will be more intimidated by the noise and a large group of people, and will therefore tend to stay out of your way.

What Do You Do When You Come Across a Bear?

The Alaska Interagency Bear Safety Education Committee recommends that if you encounter a bear while out camping or hiking, you begin by establishing the type of the encounter. Theway you need to act will depend on whether the bear is acting offensively or defensively.

A bear acts defensively when you've stumbled upon it by accident, and you’ve surprised it. In most scenarios, the bear will get scared and run off, but in worst case scenarios, it will rapidly attack you, and you will have very little to no time to react. If you are bitten or struck by the bear, drop to the ground, use your hands and arms to protect your neck and head, lie flat and play dead until the bear leaves.

Bears will act offensively by stalking you, or moving purposefully towards you if they see you from a distance. If this happens, you need to stop moving towards the bear and head back the way you came, putting a distance of at least 400 yards between yourself and the bear. Once you’ve lost sight of the bear, wait around 30 minutes before moving on, or change direction and use a different trail.

If the bear is close to you, never panic, scream or start running, as the bear might be encouraged by this and start chasing you. Identify yourself to the bear as human by talking in a calm and monotone voice while slowly moving your arms. The bear may stand up on its hind legs or approach you to get a better look at you, and this doesn't necessarily mean an attack, as they are doing this more out of curiosity than aggression. Defensive bears will also sometimes salivate, yawn, woof, lay their ears flat, growl or snap their jaws.

Avoid direct eye contact with the bear, stay still standing your ground and use your bear pepper spray if you have it (which if you’re hiking in an area with a bear population - you totally should.) To avoid an attack, back away slowly and sideways and talk in a low, monotone voice until you can’t see the bear anymore. While slowly backing away, move your arms up and down as if you’re doing a slow-motion jumping jack (while not actually jumping.) Don’t run or climb a tree, as bears have fantastic climbing abilities.

How to Handle the “Uh-Oh Moment”

This is also known as the moment when you notice that a bear has been paying a bit too much attention to you, and doesn’t seem to be losing interest.

  • It may be difficult to do so with a bear in your face, but as much as possible, try and stay calm and remember that most likely, the bear doesn't want to attack you.
  • Pick up any dogs and small children immediately, as they are seen as the easiest prey.
  • Don’t offer the bear any food or allow it to have access to it, as this will only encourage the bear.
  • If you are wearing a backpack, don’t put it on the ground. This will block the bear from getting at your food, and can act as an extra layer of protection in case of attack.
  • Before starting your hike, examine the area and make a note of any escape routes.
  • Never come between a mother bear and her cubs, as she will get very aggressive if she feels they are being threatened.

Surviving a Bear Attack

The type of bear you encounter will determine the best way to handle the attack, so the first survival step is knowing what type of bear is attacking you.

Grizzly Bears:

Grizzly bears (aka brown bears) are the most common species of bears in the world, and are commonly bigger and more aggressive than black bears. To distinguish between the two, you need to look for a few more characteristics than just color.

Grizzly Bear Characteristics

Color: Medium or dark brown

Body: Look for a distinctive hump of muscles in their upper back, as this is a brown bear trademark. They use this muscle to slash prey and dig roots.

Height: The average height of a grizzly bear is around 6.5 feet.

Location: Most grizzly bears are found in Canada. However, they also inhabit Alaska and portions of the northwest U.S., including Idaho, Montana, Washington, and the Dakotas.

How to Survive a Grizzly Attack

  • Always carry bear pepper spray, which commonly contains a concentrated solution of capsaicin, which will normally stop a bear in its tracks.
  • Never run. Running will make the bear see you as prey, and it will start to chase you, so always stand your ground. Think you could outrun a bear? Think again. Grizzlies can reach speeds of up to 30mph.
  • Aim and spray. An optimal distance to spray is when the bear is about 50 feet away. As much as possible, create a wall of spray between the both of you.
  • If the bear spray didn’t deter the bear, drop to the ground, curl up in the fetal position and use your arms to cover your head and neck.
  • Play dead. Grizzly bears will stop the attack if they no longer feel threatened, and if they believe you to be dead, you’re no longer a threat to them. Continue playing dead for at least 20 minutes once the bear has stopped tossing you around, as they are known for hanging around and checking that the victim is really dead.
  • As a last resort, box its eyes or nose. A grizzly bear attack could be thwarted by this, but don’t do this unless it's absolutely necessary. If you do end up boxing its eyes or nose and are successful in getting free, you still shouldn't run, always back away slowly.

Black Bears:

The American black bear is the most common bear found in North America. While they are faster, smaller and can climb better than grizzly bears, they are normally less aggressive and would rather flee than attack.

Black Bear Characteristics

Color: Contrary to their name, black bears can exhibit a wide range of colors, from light blond to black.

Body: Smaller than grizzly bears, and without the trademark hump.

Height: The average height of a black bear is around 3 feet.

Location: Black bears can be found in all of Canada’s provinces, and in at least 40 states in the U.S.

How to Survive a Black Bear Attack

  • Be aware of your surroundings. In general, the same precautions should be taken as when you are in grizzly county. Always carry bear spray, which should be your first line of defense, pack away your food and trash, and make noise while hiking so bears are not surprised by your presence.
  • If you believe the bear wants to attack you, make lots of noise and stand your ground. Its typical for black bears to bluff your attack, and if they see you standing your ground, they could lose interest and walk away.
  • Don’t try to get away by climbing a tree. Black bears in particular are excellent climbers, and will just climb up with you.
  • Fight back. Unlike grizzlies, you stand a better chance of fighting back with a black bear instead of playing dead. Use anything and everything around you as weapons - sticks, rocks, backpack and even your fists. Your blows should be aimed at the bear's face, especially its nose and eyes. Most of the time a black bear will back down when they sense their victim is prepared for a fight.

Don’t let bears keep you from enjoying the outdoors, just make sure read up on the area you’re visiting and don’t forget your spray!

List of Useful Resources

We've gathered information from reputable sources to come up with this handy bear attack survival guide, linking out to relevant sources throughout. Here are some additional resources you may find useful:

Join the Discussion!

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