When facing a bear, it’s important to avoid confrontation at all costs. Only when all else fails should you attack.
Bears are the world’s largest land predators, and can be found right in our backyard across all of North America. Unfortunately, even though our technology lets us sit at the top of the food chain, remember that we can still seem like a delicious snack to a hungry bear.
These majestic creatures can give us a bit of that primordial thrill and fear of being prey. That said, you don’t actually want to end up on a bear’s dinner plate, that’s why we’re going to teach you how to survive a bear attack.
Be mindful of watching out for bears no matter what part of the U.S. you are in. Black bears inhabit a huge swath of the continent and can be found throughout the country.
Brown bears, also known as Grizzlies and Kodiaks, are common in western Canada, Alaska and some parts of the Northwest, not coincidentally some of the best places to go backpacking and camping.
Consider ourselves lucky; these bears once inhabited half the U.S., from Alaska to Mexico to Ohio. They were enough of a menace that they were hunted out of every part of the US except Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Though only around three people a year are fatally wounded by bears (with several more severely injured), it’s usually because they did not take precautions or were very unlucky. Here are a few tips that will teach you how to survive a bear attack.
Avoid Attracting Them
The first step in learning how to survive a bear attack is to prevent an encounter from happening altogether. Bears range in size quite a bit, but a full grown male Grizzly on the Alaskan coast can weigh in at over 1000 pounds. They are by no means, however, slow or lumbering.
Grizzlies can clock in at over 35mph: far faster than any human being. In the old frontier days, there were many stories of bears chasing down and eating horses.
You can’t outrun a bear, and if he wants to get you, he can hunt you down without too much fuss. What this means is that the best thing to do is basically avoid bears if you can. The key to this is to hide your food.
Bears have a diet that’s just as omnivorous as ours. They eat anything, from salmon, to berries, to smaller bears, to cookies. If you’re camping in highly-populated bear country, make sure to keep your food up high in a tree.
That means more than 30 feet high, where a bear can’t get it; or in a specially designed bear canister. Never, ever, bring food or anything with a food scent, such as toothpaste, into your tent.
No matter where you’re camping, a smart tip is to cook and eat far from your tent. A strategy recommended by the park service is the triangle rule: cook in one place, then pack your food in a canister 100 paces from your cooking spot, then pitch your tent as a third point in this triangle, 100 paces from the canister. Leave your pets at home, as dogs can sometimes attract bears as well.
Don’t Start a Fight
If you do run into a bear, the last thing you want to do is pick a fight with it. Most bears are wary of humans. There are a few circumstances, however, under which a bear will attack. The most dangerous situation being if you come between a mother and her cubs.
A mother will do anything to defend her cubs, including eliminating you. When that mom is 600 pounds of claws and teeth, that’s a problem. Stay away from cubs at all costs, especially if you stumble upon them unattended. This means the mother is somewhere nearby and now you’re suddenly stuck in the middle.
Another situation that might cause a bear to attack is if you stumble upon a bear with a fresh kill. Bears will go to great lengths to defend their freshly killed prey. If you find a bear like this, get out of the situation quickly, but carefully.
Finally, you might just stumble upon a bear and surprise it. If the bear doesn’t see you, back away quietly, always downwind. As your backing away in any of these situations, never run. Running, with your back turned, is what prey does, and you can’t outrun a bear. If the bear is facing you, don’t panic and walk backwards slowly.
Stay facing the bear, but don’t make eye contact at any cost, as the bear will see this as a challenge. Speak loud enough for the bear to hear you, but with an unthreatening voice that won’t alert or surprise the bear. You want to indicate that you’re a human that’s not trying to hide, and is not a threat.
Another last possibility is to climb a tree, but this isn’t a strong recommendation Black bears are good climbers, and even grizzlies can climb a bit, but if you can get high enough you might be safe. More importantly, if you’re up in a tree the bear might just not see you as much of a threat, or get lazy.
Many people traveling through the backcountry of Alaska and western Canada also carry firearms, not just to hunt, but to scare off animals that might attack. As of 2010 you are allowed to carry firearms into national parks, depending on state law.
Shooting at a bear, however, depending on the caliber of your gun, might do nothing more than make the bear angrier. Avoid going on the offensive and stick to scare tactics.
Many past outdoorsmen have been able to successfully scare away bears by firing shots into the air. The loud bang may or may not be enough of a deterrent to a charging bear attack, so don’t consider this a fail-proof plan.
Puffing Out Your Chest
If you finally end up in a situation where, unarmed, you encounter a bear that is following you, the first thing you want to do is intimidate it. First, put your arms up and speak in a loud voice as you slowly back away. If the bear continues its approach, you can get more extreme with the intimidation, with stomps and shouts.
One avid Alaskan hiker carried a large black trash bag, which he would shake in the air, making a lot of noise, while screaming, “I’m a human,” to keep the bears at bay. Another couple of hikers described chasing away a grizzly that had stumbled onto their camp by holding a tarp between them and screaming and shaking the tarp.
If this doesn’t work the bear might charge at you. Often, bears charging are only trying to scare you, so hold your ground. Many is the backpacker who has a story about a bear coming to within sneezing distance, then slinking away.
Don’t do anything that may make you appear vulnerable. Stay strong and hold your ground. Hopefully, the charging is just a bluff, a tactic the bear is using to scare you.
Play Dead or Fight
Always bring bear spray if you’re camping in grizzly country. It won’t hurt to do so in less-populated forests as well. If you feel the bear preparing to charge, have the bear spray ready at your side (and make sure you’ve practiced firing before). At about 40 to 50 feet away, this is the best time to unleash the spray at the bear.
If you don’t have bear spray handy, it’s time to play dead or fight. After the bear charges, you will have to decide at a certain point, usually at a fairly close distance, whether it’s a bluff or true attack. If the charge turns out not to be a bluff and the bear is rapidly approaching, then your best bet is to play dead.
Don’t drop to the ground until the last moment, but once you do, curl up in a ball protecting vulnerable areas like your neck and stomach. Leave your backpack on, as it’ll hopefully give you some protection. If the bear thinks you’re dead, it should decide you’re no threat and leave you alone. After it stops attacking, stay put. Don’t hop up and startle the bear into another attack.
Black bears are smaller and more timid than grizzlies. If attacked by one of those, you might be able to scare it off by fighting back with everything you have, including rocks, knives and fists. At the end of the day, bears can’t go to a hospital to get fixed up, so they want to avoid getting hurt.
A grizzly bear, however, is a different story. These kings of the forest aren’t really scared of anything. Unfortunately, when one of these bears is hungry there is no playing dead. If you feel that the bear is stalking you, you might be in trouble. A bear that’s hunting is already in the mindset to attack and win.
If the bear has been following or circling you, or attacks you suddenly at night, fighting might be your only chance to survive. This is also true if playing dead is not working, if the bear continues to attack then fight for your life.
Just like with black bears, if you have a knife, now’s the time to use it. If not, try to grab any nearby rock you can find. Aim your knife or implement at its face and nose, and by all means strike as hard as you can. If you don’t have a knife or nearby rock handy, make sure you’ve got some knockout boxing combinations ready to sock the bear’s snout.
Gouge the bears’ eyes if you can, anything you can do to inflict enough damage to fend the bear. Create space between you and bear, but never run, as much as your instincts may drive you to. You’ll be running on pure adrenaline at this point, so let that will you to survival.