Surviving Bear Attacks
In the last ten years, only 28 people have been fatally attacked by a bear within North America (reported cases). Bear attacks are rare and almost always occur due to defensive reasons like defending their cubs or protecting their food.
My one and only real bear encounter happened in 2006, while my husband and I were hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls before sunrise. At about 6:00am, while enjoying the sunrise and scenery, we made a turn on the path and right in the middle of our path was a black bear. We were in the middle of a conversation and became suddenly quiet. The bear turned and looked at us. I was terrified. Were there bear cubs around? Were we in the way of its food source? I didn’t know what to do.
Fortunately, my husband knew more than I did. He started shouting “Go away bear!” as we slowly backed away and hid from sight. We waited a few seconds, peeked out from behind a tree, and kept an eye on where the bear was going. After a minute, the bear had left the path and scampered down the hill. We were speechless, dazed, and scared by our chance encounter. As we continued on our hike, we made sure to engage in conversation and make noise, to keep any other bears away from the path.
When in bear country, it’s essential to know what to do upon a bear encounter. Your survival could depend on it.
Black Bears vs. Grizzly Bears – What’s the difference?
Black bears live in 41 of the 50 US states, as well as Canada. They range from 5-6 feet long and weigh 200-500 lbs. Color ranges from a cinnamon brown to black, depending on region. Black bears are active mostly at dawn and dusk, and they hibernate in the winter. Mother black bears are extremely protective of their young and are likely to attack if you get between her and her cubs. Despite having poor eyesight, these bears are very smart and you’re likely to encounter one if you leave food out at your campsite.
Grizzly bears are distinct from black bears from the hump on their upper back or shoulder. They are usually 6-7 feet long and can weigh anywhere from 325 lbs to 850 lbs. Grizzlies hibernate 5-7 months of the year, and are also very protective of their young. While far more aggressive than black bears, they only live in a small area in the mainland US (Washington, Idaho, North Dakota and Montana) and mostly inhabit Alaska and Canada. Their color ranges from yellow to brown to black.
Remember that bear attacks are rare. Bears want to avoid humans and usually only attack when they feel threatened. Hike smart and know how to avoid a bear encounter or attack. Here’s how:
How to Avoid a Bear Encounter:
- AVOID BEING ALONE in bear country. Always hike, camp, and travel in groups. Bears usually want to avoid humans. Groups of people are also larger and more intimidating to animals and will help avoid an attack.
- BE AWARE – Look for signs of bears such as bear scat or scratch marks on trees.
- CAMP SMART and store your food and scented toiletries in a bear canister or bear locker. Do not leave any food trash, food, or anything with a scent in your tent or campsite. Practice LEAVE NO TRACE while out in nature.
- MAKE NOISE – This can be done simply by traveling in a group (see above). Bears will usually steer clear of conversation and noise.
- Carry BEAR SPRAY – This is a special formula of 1-2% capsaicin and is not regular pepper spray. Be sure to make a big cloud of bear spray downward and in front of you, as it will affect the bear’s vision and will make it harder for it to breathe.
If You See a Bear:
- Be sure to give it PLENTY OF SPACE. Respect the bear and give it room. Do not try to get close to it or take a photo.
- Stay calm and back away slowly from the bear and leave the area. DO NOT RUN. Increase the distance between you and the bear but keep your eyes on it. Bears can outrun you; running may provoke the animal and will make you look like prey.
- Try to determine if there are BEAR CUBS present or if the bear is DEFENDING A FOOD SOURCE. Female bears are more likely to act aggressively when protecting cubs and/or food.
If a Bear Approaches:
- Give it MORE SPACE – Continue to back away slowly. DON’T RUN. This is especially important if you see young bear cubs or a food source that the bear is defending.
- TALK FIRMLY – If you encounter a bear, speak firmly to the animal and back away slowly.
- Make yourself LOOK LARGER – Stand tall, raise your arms, or if you’re with a group, find higher ground to look bigger. Bears have poor eyesight so anything that appears larger than themselves, they will avoid.
- DO NOT LOOK into the bear’s eyes directly. This may provoke the animal.
- If a bear continues to follow you and is focused on you, STAND YOUR GROUND. If the bear is simply curious or is testing you, you should stand up to the animal, or it may see you as prey.
- If you are holding food that the bear is interested in, simply SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM THE FOOD and back away.
- THROW non-food sources such as rocks or sticks at the animal to get it to leave.
- Ready your BEAR SPRAY – Grab your bear spray, remove the safety, and point the nozzle towards the bear.
Information differs on what to do if you’re attacked by a black bear versus a grizzly bear. Here’s what to do during each attack:
If a Black Bear Attacks:
- Spray BEAR SPRAY at the animal.
- Act in an aggressive manner to intimidate the bear. Continue to SHOUT and make yourself LOOK BIG.
- DO NOT PLAY DEAD!
- DON’T CLIMB A TREE – Bears are keen climbers. Climbing a tree will provide you with zero safety.
- FIGHT BACK in any way possible. Kick or hit the bear and focus on its eyes and nose. Some bears will give up when faced with a fight. Fight for your life.
If a Grizzly Bear Attacks:
- Spray BEAR SPRAY.
- In most attacks by grizzlies, if victims PLAY DEAD during daytime attacks, their injuries tend to be less severe. Because grizzly bears are defensive, by playing dead, you are showing it you are not a threat.
- Leave your BACKPACK ON if you are wearing one, as it may protect your back.
- Drop to the ground and get into the FETAL POSITION. Position your legs to protect your chest and stomach. Tuck your head into your chest and wrap your arms around your legs.
- If the bear is behind you, you may need to place your HANDS ON THE BACK OF YOUR NECK to keep it protected.
- If the bear tries to roll you over, lay flat on your stomach, keep your elbows wide (with your hands on the back of your neck), and spread your legs. This will protect your vital organs.
- Once the bear moves on, CONTINUE TO PLAY DEAD. Grizzlies will often wait around to see if their victim will move and get up again. Use caution when determining if the bear is gone and if you are safe to get up and find help.
- If the bear attack becomes vicious and it begins to eat you, your only choice is to fight back with everything you have.
For a black bear attack, scare them away and fight back.
For grizzlies, look unthreatening and play dead.
If you encounter a bear, be sure to report the information to the park service, forest rangers, or the police. Informing authorities helps protect others in the area from suffering the same fate.
I sincerely hope you never have to use any of this information provided. If you are an avid outdoor enthusiast, it’s critical to educate yourself on these matters that are essential to your survival.
Happy (and safe) Travels!