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:
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.
Surviving a Bear Attack
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
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
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!
Have you ever come across a bear in the wild? We'd love to hear from our readers - comment in the section below and let's get a discussion going about bears!