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How to Respond When You Encounter a Bear

Follow these steps if you have a run in with a bear. 

By Trent Jonas

How to Respond When You Encounter a Bear

When you’re adventuring in bear country, it’s important to take precautions to avoid startling or attracting bears to your location. This is because bears that lose their fear of humans can be dangerous. However, the end result is far more often the death of a bear than any harm to a human, because bears that become acclimated to humans are often euthanized. So, in order to protect both yourself and bears, it is incumbent on you to be prepared when you’re in bear country. For example, hike in groups and make enough noise on the trail to alert bears to your presence and give them a chance to move away. When camping, cook and wash dishes at least 100 feet away from where you will sleep. Store food well away from camp, either in a bear canister, like a Bear Vault, or in a food bag, like an Ursack, suspended at least 12 feet above the ground or as recommended by the manufacturer and local rules.

Following these guidelines will help keep bears at a safe distance from you. However, even with all the proper preparations, a bruin could still wander into your camp or find its way into your path on the trail. How do you respond when you encounter a bear? Here are some tips.

Know Your Bears

How you respond to a bear encounter largely depends on the type of bear you run into. Three species of bears make their homes in North America—black bears, brown/grizzly bears, and polar bears. In the United States, unless you’re in far northern Alaska, you’re not likely to run into a polar bear. Brown bears can be found in coastal Alaska and Canada. Grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bears that range from Alaska through western Canada and into parts of the northwestern contiguous United States. In the U.S., outside of Alaska, grizzly bears have a very limited range, found only in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. In contrast, black bears can be found in 40 states, including Alaska. Their range extends from Canada to Mexico and across the length of the U.S. 

Most bear encounters in the United States, therefore, involve black bears. However, in Alaska, western Montana, northern Wyoming, Idaho or northeastern Washington, there also exists the possibility of running into a brown/grizzly bear. How do you tell the difference between the two?

First, look at the color of the fur. If it is dark black, it is most likely a black bear. Unfortunately, in the western U.S., you cannot always rely on fur color to differentiate between bear species, because many western black bears sport a brown or cinnamon phase, in which their fur closely resembles that of a grizzly bear. 

Look at the size of the bear. Black bears are typically smaller than brown or grizzly bears. Check out the bear’s shoulders over its front legs. If there is a visible “hump” of muscle behind its neck, it is a grizzly or brown bear—black bears do not have this feature.

Head shape is another way to identify bear species. Black bears’ heads extend in a direct line from their ears to the tips of their snouts, resulting in a “pointed” head shape. Black bears also have long, pointed ears. In contrast, brown or grizzly bears have a “dish-shaped” face with a visible forehead between the ears and the snout. Their ears are smaller and rounded.

Black bears will tend to have smaller paws with short, curved claws. Grizzly or brown bears, on the other hand, have large paws with long, almost straight claws. However, if you’re able to identify a bear by the length of its claws, you’re probably way too close.

Carry Bear Spray and Know How to Use It

Image Courtesy of Counter Assault

Anyone hiking or camping in bear country should carry a can of bear spray, like Counter Assault with them and know how to use it. Bear spray is a pepper spray that enters a bear’s nostrils and eyes, causes irritation, and typically makes the bear run away. Bear spray is deployable over a long distance (30 to 40 feet), which affords you the opportunity to try and deter a bear before it gets too close. The effects of bear spray wear off after a while and generally cause no long-term physical harm to the bear. In addition, bear spray serves to “haze” bears, which are intelligent animals, and conditions them to avoid humans. 

Give the Bear a Chance to Leave the Area

When you encounter a bear, stop upon seeing it, and don’t approach it. Most bears have a natural fear of humans and will typically leave the area upon noting your presence. However, bears with cubs or near a food cache can be aggressively defensive. Never put yourself between a mother bear and her cubs or between a bear and its food.

By stopping, you’re letting the bear know that you’re not encroaching on its space and that you’re not cutting off any of its escape routes. Avoid direct eye contact with the animal. Talk to the bear in low tones and wave your arms slowly, giving the animal a chance to identify you as a human. Once the bear is aware that you’re there, it may stand on its hind legs to get a better look at you—this is curiosity, not aggression, so remain calm. 

If you are carrying a pack, leave it on. Try and make yourself look as large as possible. If you are with children, pick them up. Do not scream, imitate bear sounds, make any loud noises or sudden movements. Do not give or surrender food to bears, this will only cause them to associate people with food. 

Attempt to Escape

If the bear does not leave the area, try and do so yourself. Walk slowly away sideways. The sideways position will appear non-threatening to the bear, while affording you the opportunity to keep an eye on both the trail and the animal. Don’t turn your back or run—this could trigger the bear’s instinct to chase you. Besides, a bear will outrun you, no matter how fast you think you are. 

Know What to Do Next

In the event that a bear starts to approach you or follows you as you attempt to leave, you must be prepared for an attack. Stop and face the bear. Let it know that you are standing your ground. If you have bear spray (which, as noted above, you should), keep it at the ready, with the safety released. 

Bluff charges are more common than attacks. If the bear starts to charge, stand your ground, slowly waving your arms and talking calmly. Look for warning signs of an aggressive charge, which include a lowered head and ears flattened back, while the bear huffs and pounds the ground with its paws. 

However, if you have bear spray, don’t wait to find out whether it is a bluff charge or an aggressive charge. At the first sign of a charge, begin deploying the bear spray. Hold it in front of you with two hands, business end pointed toward the bear. Deploy the spray in a z-shaped pattern in front of you, so the bear must run through it to get to you. If the bear does not stop when it reaches the cloud you’ve made, deploy the spray directly into its nose and eyes until it stops its charge.

If you do not have bear spray, or in the unlikely event that the bear spray did not work, what you do next depends on the species of bear. If you are attacked by a black bear, you must fight back with everything you have. Use anything you have at your disposal—sticks, rocks, trekking poles, tools, anything—to fight the bear. If you are attacked by a grizzly or brown bear, play dead. Roll onto your stomach, cover the back of your neck with your hands and remain as still as possible. Spread your legs to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over and reach your vital organs. Brown and grizzly bears typically don’t see humans as a food source, so once a bear believes you are no longer a threat, it will typically disengage. An attacking black bear, on the other hand, may see it as a predation opportunity.

Finally, in the very rare event that you are attacked by a predatory bear—one that has followed you, or otherwise treats you as a prey species—you must always stand your ground and fight, regardless of species. Again, bear spray makes such a fight a lot fairer. 

Due to the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for more information.

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