The Bear Necessities: What To Do When You Meet a Bear

Key Tips

  • Know what to do if you encounter a bear.

  • Know how to spot different types of bears.

  • Follow these rules to ensure you stay safe around bears.

  • Recognize that bears are wild animals, and there's always a chance they might kill you.

Bears. They're majestic animals, and their populations are increasing. Three cheers for conservation. But remember, more bears equal a higher chance of encountering one.

As a native of the Northern Rockies, where bears are aplenty, I've had lots of run-ins with bears. Yes, it's scary, but with the right knowledge, equipment, and a smattering of luck, I've survived.

That last bit is important. Bears are wild animals, unrestricted by human morality. They can eat your face off and think nothing of it.

There's a tough-to-watch video on the internet of a bear eating a deer while the deer is still alive. That's the nature of Nature.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes says in his book Leviathan, that life outside civilization is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Sometimes, even when equipped and informed, a bear may attack and kill you. Being prepared increases your chance of survival.

Here are some tips to get you through your next bear encounter.

bear in wilderness

Know the Different Types of Bears

People in North America come across three main types of bears: black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears. It's important to know the distinction. Each bear requires a different tactic.

As the old saying goes, "If it's black, fight back. If it's brown, lie down. If it's white, say goodnight." Ain't no way you're fighting a polar bear.

Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bears typically sport shaggy, brown fur, though the color varies. They have a distinct hump of muscle on their shoulders, which gives their forelimbs even more deadly strength. They're bigger than black bears.

An adult male grizzly weighs between 400 and 1,500 pounds and stands roughly seven feet tall when on its hind legs. Nothing humbles human hubris like witnessing a fully grown, standing grizzly bear.

Females are smaller, weighing between 200 and 700 pounds — they're also fiercer if they have a cub. If you see a grizzly cub, get as far away as possible. Mama is out there somewhere and ready to do anything — ANYTHING — to protect her baby.

Grizzly bears are loners, but sometimes they congregate in places with abundant food sources. They eat plants, berries, nuts, insects, fish, and the occasional mammal (including you). They're territorial beasts that display aggression when they feel threatened.

Black Bears

Black bears are daintier creatures, coming in colors ranging from black, brown, cinnamon, and even blonde. They don't have a hump like a grizzly. An adult male weighs 150 to 600 pounds and stands four to seven feet tall on their hind legs. Females are between 90 and 300 pounds.

They're some of nature's finest climbers. Climbing to the top of a tree is as easy for a black bear as you slipping on some sandals. They're also more cowardly than a grizzly.

Black bears attack people less often but have been known to do so if they feel threatened or see you as an easy target. They're diet consists of plants, berries, nuts, insects, fish, and small mammals.

Remember: Children are small mammals. If you're out in the wilderness, don't let your kids out of sight.

Polar Bears

Polar bears are found in the Arctic regions and are highly adapted to their cold, icy environment. They're the rarest bear and the deadliest. If you see white fur, a long neck, a narrow head, and a strong, elongated body with paws sprouting blade-like claws, then get the heck out of Dodge. That's a polar bear.

They're huge. Adult males tower up to 10 feet tall and weigh 900 to 1,600 pounds. Females weigh between 500 to 1,100 pounds.

I'm going to focus on grizzlies and black bears for the rest of this article because they're what you're most likely to encounter. Just know that polar bears are apex predators. If you're its target, the best course of action is to stand up, turn around, put your head between your legs, and kiss your butt goodbye. The best thing is to stay as far away from them as possible.

Stay Calm

Your body knows what's dangerous. I've been around dozens of grizzlies, and my adrenaline glands still start firing off when I encounter one. It's natural. You want to live.

That desire to live kickstarts the fight or flight mechanism, neither of which is suited for dealing with a bear.

What you must do is stay calm. Bears sense fear and might perceive your erratic panic as a threat. Take deep breaths, control your body language, and try to project calmness. If you're with others, keep them relaxed.

Assess the Situation

Cool heads prevail. Now that you are calm (excellent), identify the bear. Each species has different behaviors and require an appropriate strategy.

Look up, look down, look around. Are there other threats in the area? Is there a place for you to retreat? Is there a cub with the bear? These are important questions to ask yourself.

mother bear with cubs in the forrest

Make Yourself Known

Bears have keen senses of hearing and smell. Sight, not so much. If you come across one intensely focused on eating berries, don't surprise it. Don't sneak up behind it and take a selfie. Stay far away.

If possible, quietly turn around and head the other way. If an encounter is inevitable, alert the bear to your presence. Speak calmly and firmly in a low tone.

Bears are scared of people. They most often see us as the predator. Talking shows a bear you're a human and not a potential prey animal.

What do you tell a bear?

I go with the classic, "Whoa, bear. Easy, bear. I'm not gonna hurt you. Kindly boot, scoot, and boogie the heck away from me, please." Something like that.

Don't Run

Outrunning a bear is like beating Usain Bolt in a 100-meter dash. Not gonna happen. These beasts are fast. Faster than you, me, and every Olympic-level Homo sapien on the planet.

Running triggers a bear's instinct to chase moving objects. Take off sprinting, and that bear might think, "Oh boy! Chow time!" and take off after you.

Never break eye contact. Raise your hands in the air to look bigger, walk away slowly, and keep talking to it.

Give the Bear Space

Bears typically avoid confrontation. Give them no reason to see you as a threat. Always provide them with a way out of the situation. Maintain a safe distance between you and the bear — 100 feet is adequate. If the bear takes a step towards you, take a step back. Never take your eyes off of it.

Don't ever get between a bear and its cub. Parents know what I mean.

Always Have Bear Spray

Bear spray is a highly effective deterrent. Always bring it with you. If you encounter a bear, ensure your bear spray is at-the-ready. Be prepared to use it if the bear gets too close for comfort — say roughly 30 feet. If a bear comes closer than that, it's looking to attack.

Aim the spray slightly downward, account for wind direction, and pull the trigger. Bear spray comes out like a rocket and travels far. The goal is to hit the bear's eyes. Once the bear is distracted by the pain of the spray, get out ASAP.

Bear spray doesn't always stop bear attacks. Sometimes, it just makes them angrier. Nothing is going to stop a bear hellbent on taking you out. Most times, though, bear spray deters them.

Play Dead if Attacked by a Grizzly Bear

You've got a snowball's chance in hell of beating a grizzly bear in a fistfight. Even a bullet might not stop it. I've heard of people shooting grizzlies in the head and nothing happens. Their skull is that thick.

If a grizzly makes contact, play dead. If you don't, the "playing" quickly turns to "being." Cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Lay flat on your stomach, and spread your legs apart. Keep your pack on because it protects you during an attack.

Stay still and don't make any noise. You're trying to convince the bear that you aren't a threat to it or its cubs. Don't get up right away because the bear may still be in the area. Wait several minutes until you are sure that the bear is gone.

There is a caveat to this. Only play dead if the grizzly is attacking you because it sees you as a threat. If it's attacking because it wants to eat you, it doesn't care if you play dead. It's still going to eat you. This massive creature is now in predator mode, and you're its prey.

A grizzly that's trying to make you its next meal must be deterred at any cost. Punch, kick, scream, and use bear spray. Do what you must to survive.

Hopefully, this never happens. That's why it's essential to stop the bear before it attacks you. If it wants to eat you, it's going to behave differently than if it's attacking because it views you as a threat. The bear is going to stalk you no matter what.

If you move to the side, and it moves with you, then its aggression is based on attack, not defense. Don't run. Fight. Your life is on the line. In this situation, be thankful for America's 2nd Amendment.

Fight Back if Attacked by a Black Bear

Always fight a black bear. A little aggression on your part is usually enough to scare them away. Use any object as a weapon — rocks, sticks, a gun, or your fists. Aim for sensitive areas like the bear's eyes, nose, and face.

The goal is to convince the black bear you are a force to be reckoned with.

Manage Your Dog

I know it's nice to let Spot run around, but the wilderness isn't a dog park. Your dog might spark a few dangerous encounters with wild animals. Keep your dog on a leash.

If you decide to go leashless, fine. Ensure your dog is very, very, very well-trained. It's easy to get them to heel when everything is hunky-dory, but not so much when there's a giant beast in the distance and your dog's survival instincts kick in.

Keep an Eye Out for Animal Carcasses

If you see or smell a dead animal, take note. It might have died of natural causes, or a giant predator might've killed it. It could've been a bear or a mountain lion (which is a whole different predator to think about).

The point is to be aware of your surroundings. Look for dead animals. Often your sense of smell tells you things your eyes can't. You are probably going to smell a carcass before you see it. You might even smell the grizzly bear if you're downwind of it. They're stanky creatures.

Travel in Groups

Solo hiking is fun, but the risk is higher. You're always safer in a group. Groups of humans are about as subtle as a firework on the 4th of July. Animals from miles away can smell and hear people, and they almost always steer clear of groups.

Don't Litter or Keep Your Food Out

Never keep your food out or leave your litter next to your campsite. Follow the No Trace Principles. It's good for the environment and could keep you alive.

Bears smell food from miles away. If your food is in your campground, the bear may RSVP the invitation. If the food is in your tent, the bear is going to come into your tent.

Hang your food and litter in a tree far away from your campsite.

Don't sleep in the same clothes you cook in. Maybe that's a bit nit-picky, but a woman died from a bear attack in Montana on July 6, 2021.

It's better to be thorough than dead.

Make Noise

When you're hiking or camping, be loud. Let the surrounding wildlife know where you are. Trust me, they don't want to join the festivities.

This is easier when you're with people. When you're alone, it's hard to be loud because you sound like a crazy person shouting at yourself.

I do it all the time. Don't worry. If I'm alone in the woods, I holler every 15 minutes so creatures give me a wide berth.

side view of bear in the forrest

Bears: Majesty and Might

Author Charles Fergus says, "Bears project a mighty physical presence and a capacity for action. They are smart — something that often becomes apparent the moment you come face-to-face with one."

My goal isn't to scare you. Bears are incredible creatures to witness, and a vital link in the ecosystem. The problem is when their physical presence and capacity for action are honed in on you.

Follow the steps laid out here to ensure you enjoy all the majesty of bears and none of their might.

Check out MyOutdoorGear for more tips, tricks, and insights on how to survive and thrive in The Great Outdoors.

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