Whenever you’re enjoying outdoor activities, it’s best practice to be aware of your surroundings. In most cases, prevention and common sense are sure ways to stay out of trouble. However, in rare circumstances, you may find yourself in a life threatening situation and for that fraction of a chance, it’s worth knowing what to do.
Bear attacks are a whole lot rarer than people are led to believe, but that’s not to say they don’t ever occur. Again, planning and prevention will be your best form of defense, but there may come a time when you will need to know how to scare a bear.
Bears can be found around much of North America and as such, bear encounters can be a very real possibility. While encounters are not too rare, attacks most certainly are. Regardless, it’s good to know how to scare off a bear if one does decide to attack.
The bears of North America
There are three types of bears that can be found around North America, the polar bear, the brown – or grizzly – bear and black bears.
It’s worth knowing a little about each type and how to differentiate between them, as their differing behaviors may be key to reading and surviving an attack.
It’s pretty easy to tell a polar bear apart from the other species. The magnificent white coat gives them away somewhat! They’re found in the far northern reaches of Canada and Alaska as well as Greenland. Living in such remote areas results in very little contact with humans.
This makes them the most dangerous to us as they may consider humans as prey, especially when they’re extremely hungry. Their diet consists almost entirely of meat and they’re the largest of the three species, weighing in at anywhere between 700 and 1500 pounds.
The second largest bear in the US, weighing in at around 800 pounds, grizzlies can be identified by their humped shoulders. Their rump is lower than their shoulders, giving them a somewhat slanted back. Colorings range from light brown to almost black.
They’re most commonly found in Alaska and northwest Canada, though some small populations inhabit small areas of the US, such as Yellowstone. They tend to avoid human settlements, preferring the shelter of the forest or coastal areas.
They’re fairly defensive and will protect their young and a kill site vigorously, though it’s extremely rare for them to attack a human in a predatory manner. When looking at their paw prints, the claws are separated from the paw, whereas black bear’s claws are close to the paw.
The smallest of the three weigh in at an average of around 400 pounds and have varied coloring, from black to light brown. To tell them apart from grizzlies, check their shoulders. They lack the hump that polar and grizzly bears have, and their rump is higher or on level with their shoulders.
When looking at prints, their claw print will be close to the paw print, unlike a grizzly. They’re the most tolerant of humans and have adapted to scavenge from human settlements. They’re excellent climbers and as such are less defensive than grizzlies when it comes to their cubs.
In general if a mother black bear with cubs encounters a human, the cubs will be sent up the nearest trees for safety. If they feel threatened, black bears are more likely to retreat than the other two species. However, they can become desperate and in extreme cases they will attack humans in a predatory manner.
In general bears are active throughout the day, however some that dwell closer to human settlements have adjusted their habits and have become nocturnal. They’re solitary creatures and will generally want to avoid contact with humans.
However, they have been known to get distracted and stumble across hikers. While they have a healthy fear of humans, they won’t necessarily run away during a close encounter. Instead they will stand their ground and try to determine whether you are a threat or not.
Bears will be most defensive when they feel their cubs or kill site are threatened. A defensive bear, while dangerous, can be soothed in a number of ways. On the other hand, a predatory bear who sees you as food is far more dangerous. If you appear weaker, you might well have to fight for your life.
Preventing an encounter
By far the best means of defense against a bear attack you have at your disposal is prevention. Bears, unless extremely desperate, will not seek out humans and will do their best to avoid us. However they have been known to stumble upon hikers, surprising both parties.
Hiking in bear country
Whenever you’re hiking through bear country, the best way to avoid bears is to make noise. Talk loudly with friends, wear bells on your clothing or sing songs. If you’re alone you can talk to yourself, whistle or sing out loud.
It may seem a bit odd, but the more noise you make, the more likely a bear is to sense you, long before you see one another, giving it ample time to make itself scarce. It’s good practice to travel in a group whenever possible. If you’re traveling with children, see our guide on camping with kids to help you.
Keep an eye open for tracks, and learn to recognize the signs of bears. Look out for paw prints, scat and scratched tree trunks.
Always check in with local rangers whenever crossing through bear country. Ask for the latest news and whether there have been any recent bear sightings. Aside from being a step ahead, if rangers know you’re out there, there is a higher chance they will come looking if you disappear.
It’s best to leave your dog(s) at home, or if it must come with you, it should be kept on a leash. Dogs may startle a bear and are more likely to act aggressively during an encounter.
If you come across a recent kill site, leave and make a detour. A bear will guard its prey jealously and will occasionally leave a kill site temporarily, only to return shortly after. If it sees you there it will see a threat and may well become aggressive.
You may spot a bear at a distance, if so you have time to retreat. If it’s more than 300 feet away, calmly and slowly backtrack and leave the area – don’t run! Once there is some distance between you and the bear, start to make noise so as to alert it to your presence and make a detour.
Camping in bear country
If you’re camping in bear country there are several things you can do to prevent an unwanted night time visitor. Always keep your food and litter hidden. Never store it in the tent as this is certain to lure a bear to your sleeping quarters.
Instead, use bear proof canisters for both food and litter. If you don’t have access to such canisters, hang your food and litter up in the trees. It should be high off the ground and ideally suspended between two trees. Remember that black bears are extremely good climbers.
Avoid spraying a protective perimeter with bear/pepper spray. While these sprays work when you’re up close and personal, from a distance the smell can actually attract bears.
Reading a bear
Before discussing what to do in the event of an encounter, it’s worth dispelling a few of the more common myths and looking at the body language of bears.
Many people think that bears are unpredictable creatures, but they’re really not. With a little understanding of what makes a bear tick, you have a far better chance of reading the situation correctly and acting appropriately.
- Standing on hind legs – while most people regard this pose as an act of aggression, it’s actually a display of curiosity. They’re simply trying to get a better look at what has caught their attention.
- Bears may feign aggression in order to avoid a conflict. This may involve a charge, but no contact. If you stand your ground during this charge, they’re likely to retreat. You should never run or cower from a charge.
Understanding a bear’s motivation
Understanding whether the bear is acting in self-defence or in a predatory manner is key to surviving an encounter. A predatory bear must be scared off quickly, while a defensive bear can be put at ease. In both cases, you can normally avoid contact.
If the bear has been stalking you, it’s certain that it sees you as food. If a bear is following you and keeps disappearing, it’s stalking you and waiting for an opportunity to attack.
Night time attacks are normally predatory in nature also. Generally a desperate, starving, immature or wounded bear will act in this way. As such they’re likely to be easily scared.
Because of the way they have evolved, black bears tend to retreat up trees or make a run for it if stumbled upon. Grizzlies and polar bears are more likely to stand their ground and assess the situation.
If cubs or a kill site are involved, they will be particularly defensive. They’re likely to be looking to retreat as well, though they may appear to be aggressive.
Dealing with a bear encounter
If you find yourself in close proximity with a bear, be sure to read the situation and understand what is motivating the bear. More often than not it will be defensive rather than predatory.
Both types of encounter can be dealt with in the same way, though things may escalate quickly if it’s a predatory encounter. The following steps will help no matter what the motivation.
If a bear notices you and is approaching, do all you can to appear as big as possible. Open up your jacket out wide, stand tall and get the higher ground if possible. It’s important to do this in a calm and controlled manner. Don’t rush and don’t start shouting.
As the bear approaches talk to it. What you say doesn’t matter as long as you sound firm and confident. Decide on a mantra and repeat it to the bear, remaining in control.
This lets the bear know that you’re a human and are capable of defending yourself. Continue talking to it in this manner throughout the encounter, unless things take a turn for the worst.
Breathe deeply and remain in control. No matter how scared you are don’t run. A bear can run far faster than you can and once you start running it will either attempt to chase you off or hunt you as prey. By staying calm and standing your ground the bear will believe you’re not worth the trouble.
Maintain a distance and create an escape route
Sidestep to avoid the risk of falling and don’t take your eyes of the bear. Don’t look it directly in the eyes as this will appear to be a challenge, but keep your eyes on it. Continue to speak calmly to the bear as you move and don’t make any sudden movements. Bears can feel especially threatened if they feel trapped.
Sidestep and create an escape route for the bear in the same manner, always remaining calm. If the bear does seem trapped, it’s best to create an exit for it as quickly as possible, as even if it wants to retreat, it may feel it has to go through you to get out.
More often than not, when the bear has space to retreat it will, as long as you’ve proved to it that you’re not worth picking a fight with.
If after all this the bear isn’t retreating and becomes increasingly aggressive, you need to mimic it and let it know you’re not going to back down without a fight. Of course you want to avoid physical contact, but at this point it’s a mental game and you need to play your part well.
Wave a stick and stomp at the ground, raise your voice but don’t full out yell at it just yet. Stay calm and keep your eyes peeled for danger. If all goes well it will see that you are not worth its effort.
The first charge
If the bear charges at you, the first charge is almost always a bluff. Stand your ground and don’t look meek. Certainly don’t run as this will ruin all your hard work. While it is hard not to panic as a bear charges at you, try to remember that it will stop short and retreat. Defensive bears generally aren’t looking for a fight and want nothing more than to retreat.
If you believe the bear you have encountered is predatory and sees you as its next meal, follow the above steps, but know that if it doesn’t back away soon you will have to attack and drive it off. As mentioned, such attacks are extremely rare, but not completely unheard of.
Desperate, starving bears are normally the only that will treat you as prey. They will also be weak and will scare easily. Starving or immature black bears most frequently fall into this category, though grizzlies and polar bears have been known to attack humans in a predatory manner.
If after following the above steps the bear doesn’t seem to be backing off you can resort to pepper spray, which will discussed in detail below. If you don’t have any then you will have to drive it off.
Yell and charge the bear with a stick. Attack the muzzle area. If you’re in a group, work together to drive the bear away. Remember safety in numbers, and you’ll certainly appear more intimidating to a bear as a group.
Never play dead with a predatory bear, as they will soon take advantage and overwhelm you. Also, avoid climbing trees in an attempt to escape, especially when dealing with a black bear. They’re excellent climbers and have been known to kill one another by throwing each other down from trees. Even grizzlies can climb to some extent.
With defensive bears it’s a slightly different scenario. They’re not looking to fight, or indeed eat you and would rather just leave or force you to leave the area. If you find yourself in a kill zone or faced with a mother and her cubs, do your best to slowly back away.
Don’t take your eyes of the bear the whole time and sidestep to get away. Remember to continue to talk calmly and chances are the bear will retreat once you’ve backed away enough or left the kill zone or cub area.
If it looks as if a defensive bear is intent on attacking and isn’t backing down after the first charge, it may be best to employ pepper spray or play dead. The latter could certainly be the best option if it charges a second time and makes contact.
Remember, only play dead if you’re sure the attack is of a defensive nature. As a rule of thumb, don’t ever play dead with a black bear as they’re most likely to be desperate enough to attack you as a predator.
By playing dead you put the defensive bear at ease. It no longer sees a threat and feels as if it can safely move on.
- Lay flat on your stomach, keeping your vitals protected.
- Cover your neck and head with your arms.
- If you’re wearing a backpack, keep it on for additional protection.
- Stay still and remain calm.
- If it seems as if the bear has gone, wait ten minutes or so before slowly getting up. They can occasionally look back to be sure that the threat is gone and if they see you getting up too soon they will know they were duped.
- If the bear starts to lick at you while you’re lying there, it sees you as its next meal. The only option you have now is to fight back with everything you have.
Using bear spray
When out in bear country, it’s well worth carrying bear or pepper spray with you. This should only ever be used as a final line of defence and never as a preventative measure.
From a distance the spray can actually attract bears. It’s best practice to keep your spray close at hand, where it is easily accessible, consider using a holster.
- If an aggressive bear is approaching, spray a cloud of deterrent between you and the bear.
- Hold your breath and squint your eyes to prevent feeling the effects.
- Wait until the bear is less than twenty yards away for the best results.
- Continue to spray until the bear changes direction.
- If the bear continues to advance towards you, spray it directly in the face. Aim for the eyes, nose and muzzle.
After a dose of pepper spray a bear will more often than not retreat. At the very least it will be dazed and confused. Use this time to back away and put more distance between the bear and yourself. Check out more tips on how to use pepper spray against bears for more information.
You should avoid running from a bear at all costs, but if you absolutely have to, avoid running in circles or in a direct line. Instead zig zag, bears take longer to make turns than we do and this can slow them down considerably.
It’s a fact that bears can run faster than humans, so don’t rely on running alone to save you from danger. Bears are also more than capable of running downhill, contrary to popular belief.
Pause for thought
Bear attacks are rare, but not unheard. Remember to stand your ground and make yourself as big as possible. Most of the battle is mental and if you are able to convince the bear that you’re not worth agitating, physical contact can normally be avoided.
It’s important to read the situation and act accordingly, knowing when to play dead and when to attack. Remember to avoid looking meek, running away and becoming too aggressive too soon. Finally, prevention is your best defense, take every precaution when in bear country and pack bear spray as a final defensive measure.
For more tips on how to survive a bear attack and be safe, check out our article on this timely topic.