Let’s start with the good news: thanks to a combination of hunting regulation and habitat conservation bear numbers are on the rise in the US.
You don’t have to be a statistician to work out that this makes human-bear encounters more likely – not good news for those whose primary source of knowledge on bears comes from the scene in The Revenant where Leonardo Di Caprio is savaged by a grizzly!
Fortunately, the vast number of human encounters with bears in the wilderness are peaceful. “If I'm hiking and see a bear the first thing I would do is get my camera," Dave Garshelis told National Geographic. "It's usually a really nice and rather rare experience.”
Please note, this isn’t our advice! If you see a bear in the wild there are a number of steps you can take to stay safe and reaching for a camera isn’t one of them!
It does, however, illustrate how relaxed about bear encounters experts like Garshelis are.
Check out our bear safety guide below to arm yourself with the kind of knowledge that could make your bear encounters safe and pleasant rather than leading to an, ahem, grizzly end.
General Safety Tips
1) Know What to Expect
Where are you headed? A national park or an area of untapped wilderness?
Wherever you’re going it’s good practice to check the relevant local authority or park website to get an idea of what to expect, particularly if you think the area may contain bears.
The National Park Service has an extremely helpful clickable map showing all the national parks in North America where bear sightings have been reported. Clicking on the relevant dot will display the type/s of bear spotted in any particular park.
This is critical info since different types of bear react to humans in different ways, which brings us to...
2) Know Your Bears
Basically, there are three types of bear you can encounter in North America: polar bears, black bears and brown (or grizzly) bears (2).
Polar bears should only be encountered in northern coastal regions (ie Alaska and Northern Canada). They are large bears (300 to 800 kilos) and despite their cuddly white fur have a reputation for aggression. Statistically, however, they are not the most dangerous North American bear. That honour goes to…
Brown bears, an encounter with whom is “3.5 times more likely to result in injury” (3) than a polar bear encounter. Somewhat confusingly, despite their name “brown bears range in colour from almost black, brown to very light brown or blonde” according to bearwithus.org. Their size varies according to location. In coastal areas of Alaska brown bears can rival polars for size, but the brown bears found in the US interior, those known as grizzlies, tend to be smaller.
Not as small, however, as black bears. These are the most common bears in North America but, statistically, the least dangerous - 21 times less likely to result in injury than a meeting with a brown bear. Indeed, black bears mainly eat vegetables and are, according to a blogger on bear.org, who interprets “aggressive displays by black bears in terms of their fear rather than mine,” the wimp of bears.
3) Take Precautions
Whether or not black bears are, in fact, wimps, it’s best to venture into the wild with a healthy respect for any animal that could cause you serious harm if it chose to.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple precautions you can take to minimise any danger bears may pose to you.
Travel in a group
“Safety in numbers” is a cliche for a reason - it’s true. Since the dawn of time it’s been more dangerous to wander alone in the wild than to travel in parties.
“The larger the better,” bearsmart.com advise of hiking groups in bear country, “and make lots of noise by talking or singing.”
If your singing doesn’t scare away bears what will?
Bring bear spray
Bear spray comes highly recommended. Virtually every site that advises on safety around bears suggests that you carry a can of bear deterrent pepper spray with you.
Udap.com suggest that you bring a holster for it, too, and that you practise your “draw,” since if a bear charges you’ll need to access the spray quickly.
Keep your eye on the trail
Like many animals, bears are most likely to attack when they are surprised, particularly if there are cubs nearby.
You may not be a bushman tracker but that’s no excuse for wandering blindly around the wild with your iPod plugged in. Keep your eyes and ears open. Paw prints or bear scat are obvious signs that bears are nearby so consider deviating from your route if you spot any.
Animal carcasses are also likely to attract bears so move on from any area with a kill as soon as possible (4).
Watch your odors!
According to sectionhiker.com a bear’s sense of smell is 2,100 times better than a human’s.
If you’re one metre away from a fire enjoying the smell of a barbecuing burger, a bear two kilometers away will be enjoying the same thing - and may well be on its way to the party!
If you plan to cook food in bear country it’s suggested that you do so a minimum of 100 yards from camp and that you store food in a cache that’s unreachable by bears (5). You can do this by stringing it up between two trees. Alternatively, store food in a bear-proof locker. Your garbage should also go in bear-proof cans (6) so they can’t smell it and home in.
Watch your pets!
Dogs are a man’s best friend, aren’t they?
Not when it comes to bears. “It’s best to leave your dog at home or keep it on a leash,” is the understated advice on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources website.
Want to know why?
Curious dogs seek out bears, disturb them and then run back to you - and hide behind you - if the bears chase them.
How to Survive a Bear Attack or Encounter
All your precautions have come to naught and a bear attack looks imminent. What should you do?
Let’s start with the things you shouldn’t do.
It’s an evolutionary response, I understand that, but it’ll only make things worse. You can’t outrun a bear. Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear. If you do run you risk triggering an instinct to chase in a predatory species, which you obviously don’t want to do (7).
Don’t climb a tree!
A bear is charging at you and you realise you can’t outrun it. Ah, there’s a tree!
Again, instinct betrays you. Black bears are so adept at climbing they will fly up trees themselves if scared and can be more aggressive in the heights (8). Grizzlies can also climb, albeit less enthusiastically.
Basically, unless a tree is right beside you and you’re confident you can get 30 feet up it extremely quickly this is a bad tactic (9).
What should I do then?
How to react to an encounter with a bear depends on what kind of bear it is. Since polar bear encounters are limited to icy, coastal areas, we’ll focus on the types of bears you’re most likely to encounter on the trail.
Brown (Grizzly) Bears
How to Recognise Them
Brown bears are large (usually over 6 feet tall) and have a distinctive hump in the shoulder area. Their colour can be an unreliable guide (they can have dark fur and black bears can have brown fur) so look for the hump and long claws to mark them apart from black bears, which are usually smaller, too (10)
If You Spot One
Reach for your bear spray. You’ll want it to hand in case the bear attacks. USparks.com suggest that if you “give the bear plenty of room” it may simply ignore you. If the bear alters its behaviour “you're too close so back away.”
You should do so slowly, avoiding sudden movements. If the bear tracks your movements consider throwing a non-food item on the ground (e.g. a camera) to distract it while you move away.
Many grizzly bear charges are bluffs so “stand your ground until the bear stops, then slowly back away.” (11)
If a Grizzly Actually Attacks
Wait until the bear is in range (lifehacker.com suggest this is 30-35 feet) and spray the pepper spray at the level of their face and eyes so they run into it. If this doesn’t deter the bear and it makes contact with you play dead. To protect your vital organs lie on your stomach with your legs pulled up and your arms clasped behind your neck (12).
If the bear leaves you alone wait before getting back to your feet as grizzlies sometimes hang around to make sure the threat (as they perceive you) has been eliminated (13).
Watch as Steven Rinella and Ryan Callaghan encounter a grizzly bear in BC Canada
How to Recognise Them
Black Bears are usually smaller than brown bears (around 5 feet tall) and have larger, pointier ears (14). The best way to recognise black bears may be the absence of the distinguishing features of brown bears – the hump and long claws.
If You Spot One
Again, have your bear spray at the ready. Generally, however, black bears are more “timid” than grizzlies and are more likely to run away when startled than to attack (15). Like brown bears, black bears bluff charge but, as they are more timid by nature, rather than standing still in the face of an attack it’s best to jump around and make as much noise as you can to try and intimidate them (16).
If a Black Bear Actually Attacks
Fight back! Use the bear spray first. If that doesn’t deter the bear and it makes contact with you, strike at its face and eyes with your hands or anything available. Only if it becomes clear that the bear will not relent in its attack (for example, if it’s defending clubs) should you try playing dead (17).
Watch as this hunter in Ontario runs into a black bear
Bear Attack Statistics
A bear attack is a frightening prospect, however well advised you are, but how likely is it?
Fortunately, the answer to this is: not very likely at all. An expert on black bears notes that they have killed 61 people in North America since 1900. “My chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightning are vastly greater,” they add. “My chances of being murdered are 60,000 times greater.” (18)
Backpacker.com note that between 2000 and 2009 a total of 27 people were killed by bears in Canada and the US. They note that this averages out as three deaths a year and put it in perspective by adding that “26 people get killed by dogs every year, and 90 people are killed every year by lightning.”
The National Park Service are equally keen to put the danger posed by bears in perspective. They estimate that your chances of being injured by a bear are 1 in 2.1 million!.
Perhaps the critical thing to note is that humans can reduce the chances of injuries by bears even further. Biologist Tom Smith believes that “the vast majority of these negative encounters are avoidable.”
“I've seen people do stupid things,” another biologist John Hechtel notes. “I’ve seen people throw rocks at a grazing bear from 2 feet away just to get a better picture."
Act sensibly, follow the advice in this article and bears needn’t be the terrifying creatures of lore, just another awe-inspiring part of your journey outdoors.
Frequently Asked Questions About Bears
Are bears afraid of fire?
Nope. Bears are regular visitors to campsites where fires are present, attracted by food smells. Don’t believe me? Ask a bear.
Are bears color blind?
“Tests with black bears and polar bears indicate that bears can see color.” So says the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Why do bears attack?
Bears can attack for a number of reasons. Defending territory, cubs or a kill is probably the most common cause of attack. Rarely, bears can become predatory and actively hunt humans. In-depth info on bear attack motives is available here.
When do bears come out of hibernation?
Yellowstone Park state that black bears usually emerge from hibernation first, in late-February. Male grizzlies tend to emerge in late-March and females with cubs can emerge as late as May.
Note that grizzlies may emerge earlier if the weather is unseasonably warm and that black bears will sometimes interrupt hibernation for a meal if a winter is mild.
What bears can climb trees?
Black bears are excellent climbers and love trees. Grizzlies are less enthusiastic but can still climb. As bearsmart.com note, it’s best not to follow mythical advice to climb a tree if you see a bear!
What do bears eat?
Bears, like humans, are omnivores. They eat vegetables, fish and meat (22). Their taste for plants shouldn’t be underestimated. The bulk of a black bear’s food intake is vegetable and one of the reasons grizzlies have such long claws is so they can dig for roots.
Which bears are more aggressive?
Statistics suggest that grizzlies are 3.5 times more dangerous to humans than polar bears and 21 times more dangerous than black bears.
Where are bears most commonly found?
Black bears are creatures of the forest and tend to make their homes in woodland areas.
Brown bears tend to have a wider habitat range. Ultimately, however, you’re still most likely to encounter them in forests, especially the northern rainforests of Canada and Alaska. (24)