Planet Earth

What You Should Do If You Encounter A Bear

When hiking or camping, you may encounter a bear. And playing dead may not be your best option.

By Monica CullNov 2, 2022 8:00 PM
Grizzly Bear
(Credit:Rostislav Stach/Shutterstock)

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Backpacking, camping and exploring the outdoors are great activities for mental and physical health. And, if done correctly, can be a safe and fun experience for you and the wildfire you may encounter.

Encountering a bear is rare, but it does happen. They are wild animals, and they can be dangerous. Just as you need plenty of water, suitable footwear, sunscreen and the appropriate layers to hike or camp in bear country, you'll also need to be aware of bears. According to the National Park Service, all bear encounters are also different, and should be treated with the respect they deserve. 

While there are techniques that can help you prevent dangerous bear encounters, these techniques do not guarantee safety. If you encounter a bear, here is what you can do that may keep yourself and wildlife safe. 

How to Avoid a Bear Encounter 

Bears are likely — but not always — skittish around humans. They will run away or avoid people if they hear a person coming. One of the best ways to stay safe during a bear encounter is to avoid one altogether. 

Traveling in large groups will help a bear hear and smell you from a greater distance. If you're alone, try clapping and yelling so a bear can hear you. While bear bells are commonly used among hikers, they are often only loud enough for a bear to hear once you are close. 

To help keep yourself and wildlife safe, a significant rule is never to feed wildlife. If you're traveling with food, ensure it's in a sealed container, and never leave any trash behind. If camping, ensure your food is sealed inside a car or a bear box. If you're in the backcountry, hang food bags well off the ground with a rope from a tree, away from the trunk — and make sure your food bag is at least 100 yards away from your tent. Never leave food in your tent, even if you aren't in bear country. The scent may attract other animals. 

Experiencing a Bear Encounter

While you may do everything in your power to avoid a bear, there is still a chance you will encounter one. If this happens, there are several things you can do to get the bear to leave you alone and go away. 

First things first, try to stay calm and do not run. Running may trigger a bear to chase you like a dog would chase a cat. Calmly and loudly announce your presence. Speak with a low tone, and do not scream. You could say something like, 

"Hey, bear!"

Never imitate the noises a bear is making. While standing still, you can also slowly wave your arms to get the bear to realize you are a human and not prey. If you're using walking sticks, put them up over your head to appear larger. If you have small children with you, pick them up. 

Suppose a bear does come towards you, you should slowly back away, don't turn your back on it and avoid looking it in the eye. Some bears may bluff charge, but try to hold your ground.

The bear may be after your food. Do not feed the bear, and do not drop your bag or backpack if there is food in it. Once a bear gets a taste for human food, it is likely to associate people with food. They'll become less afraid of approaching humans, which can lead to attacks and, in some cases, death.

Do not climb trees. Bears can climb trees, and you will likely not be safer up there. Lastly, exercise extreme caution if you see a bear with her cubs. Do not come in between a mother bear and her cubs. Keep your distance, and if you encounter them, back away slowly.

Experiencing a Bear Attack

Though you may have tried to avoid a bear, bear attacks happen. Bear attacks typically occur when a bear feels its food, offspring and territory are threatened. The bears you're likely to run into are either brown, grizzly or black bears. Each can be dangerous, and each attack can be different. 

Play dead if you encounter a brown or grizzly bear and they attack you. Make sure you keep your backpack on, lay flat on your stomach and cover the back of your neck with your hands. Spread your legs wide to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over. 

Wait there until the bear leaves. However, if the bear will not leave you alone, use anything you have to fight back. Use rocks or sticks to hit it in the nose. Use the heel of your shoe to kick it in the face. Fighting back should be the last possible thing you do. 

If a black bear attacks you, do NOT play dead. Instead, do your best to get away from the bear. Get inside of a car or a building. If that is not possible, use rocks or sticks or anything at hand to fight back against the bear. 

Other ways to ward off a bear attack include carrying bear spray. This may help deter a bear if it's trying to attack you. Be careful not to spray yourself and remember that the spray may not deter the bear.

The best way to be safe is to be prepared. Check with local guides or rangers in the area you're going to be in and ask about recent bear sightings. If you encounter a bear, report it to the nearest authorities to help spread the word and keep both people and wildlife safe. 

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