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What to do if you meet a bear in the wilderness

What to do if you meet a bear
Knowing what do do if you meet a bear in the wild can help avoid a serious confrontation (Image credit: Getty)

Seeing a bear in the wild while you are hiking can be truly memorable. But what kind of experience you have if you meet a bear depends on the situation, of course. And it depends on the type of bear.

Seeing a mother bear with her cubs from a distance can be the thrill of a lifetime, a chance to take memorable photos and even get a lot of love on Instagram. However, a bear encounter can also lead to a very dangerous situation, especially if you startle the animal, inadvertently intrude on its feeding grounds, or get too close to their offspring.

The good news is that – like most wild animals – bears tend to avoid people. Many hikers, trail runners, backpackers and campers have had a close encounter with a bear without ever knowing. And even most face-to-face meetings end with animal and human departing in opposite directions, without harm to either party. But, although your risk of being hurt if you meet a bear in the wild is statistically very low, they are large powerful animals, and can be unpredictable and dangerous.

Have a plan

Ashli Nudd, a former National Park Service ranger who works as a professional hiking guide and backpacking trip planner, says the best way to avoid bear encounters is to have a pre-determined hiking plan plotted out on maps based on known trails and likely camping locations.

When you arrive in a national park or state park, always remember to check with the nearest visitor center or backcountry office for the latest bear safety information and advice on where to hike and camp. Avoid going off trails, never try to approach a bear to take a photograph, and never try to feed a bear, Nudd says.

Don't run

If you see a bear, no matter if the bear has seen you or not, the most essential thing to remember is to fight the urge to run away. Most species of bears can run 30mph and cover 100 meters in about seven seconds – much faster that the world’s top Olympic sprinters.

If you run, you might trigger the bear’s predatory instincts – especially if it’s young – inspiring it to chase you down just to thwart off a potential threat.

“Do not run!” Nudd emphasises. “Trust me, you cannot outrun a bear and you do not want the bear to consider you as prey.”

Instead, Nudd says, try to say calm and observe the situation and consider the following tips.

1. If the bear is aware of you, talk to it in a calm, loud and consistent voice. While you’re doing this, slowly wave your arms over your head to make yourself look as large as possible without making any sudden movements.

2. Avoid direct eye contact with the bear, but do watch it to see what it does next. The bear may run away immediately, or it may look at you and then resume doing whatever it was doing. Or it may approach you.

3. Pick up any small children so you can eliminate any chance of them running, shouting or crying out loud. Make sure all dogs are kept on a leash.

4. Back away slowly, keeping your eyes focused on the bear, but try not to make direct eye contact with it. Do not turn your back on the bear – this is so you don’t lose sight of what it’s doing, but also to avoid triggering a chase reflex.

5.  If the bear runs away, walk away in a different direction to the one the bear took. Leave the area to avoid another encounter.

6. If the bear approaches you, stop, stand your ground. Remain calm and observe the bear for clues to its mood or intentions.

7. If the bear has not seen you, stay out of sight and try to stay downwind to avoid allowing the bear to smell your scent or any food you are carrying. Leave the area as soon as possible, even if that means altering your route.

8. If you are hiking and encounter a bear, make sure to report it to a park ranger or other land agency official as soon as possible to help protect other hikers from bear encounters.

Bear attacks

According to the National Park Service, most bears are only interested in protecting food, cubs, or their space. Bear attacks are rare, but they do happen and can lead to serious injuries or even death.

There were 664 bear attacks on people around the world between 2000–2015, about an average of 40 per year, according to Petpedia. There were 23 fatal black bear attacks in the U.S. between 2000–2016 and 180 fatal bear attacks in North America since 1784.

Each bear and each experience is unique; there is no single strategy that will work in all situations and that guarantees safety. However, what type of bear you encounter can help you react properly in the event of an attack. The NPS suggests following these guidelines to understand how brown bear attacks can differ from black bear attacks.

Brown/Grizzly Bears: If you are charged or approached by a brown bear or grizzly bear, it’s best to leave your backpack on and play dead. As scary as that might sound, it’s a defensive maneuver to help keep you as safe as possible. Simply lay flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over. Remain as motionless as possible until the bear leaves the area. Fighting back usually increases the intensity of such attacks. However, if the attack persists, fight back vigorously with whatever you have at hand – a branch, rocks, one of your boots – to hit the bear in the face.

Black Bears: If you are attacked by a black bear, try to escape to a secure place such as a car or building but avoid playing dead. If escape is not possible, try to fight back using any object available. Concentrate your kicks and blows on the bear's face and muzzle.

What do to if you meet a bear

Trails will clearly warn if there is a risk of a bear attack (Image credit: Getty)

Predatory attacks

If any bear attacks you in your tent, or stalks you on a trail and then attacks, fight back! This kind of attack is very rare, but can be serious because it often means the bear is looking for food and sees you as prey.

Bear pepper spray

Bear spray has been effective in significantly reducing the number of bear attacks with severe outcomes, but it should be considered a last resort when hiking in areas where bears are present. (Also, be aware that some parks do not allow hikers to carry bear sprays.)

1. Have your bear spray ready. Keep your bear spray on a belt holster or on a chest holster at all times. Never keep it in your backpack while hiking – you won’t be able to reach it in time if a bear charges or attacks you.

2. Know when to spray it. Only use your bear spray when the bear is charging or attacking you. When an aggressive charging bear is within 60 feet of you, this is the time to use it.

3. Know how to use your bear spray. Practise using bear spray before you go hiking, so you know what to do when the time comes. Practice pulling the canister out of its holster and removing the safety on the trigger, but be careful to not discharge it. Inert (non-active) cans are available for training purposes.

For additional tips and a video on how to properly use bear spray, visit this informational page provided by Yellowstone National Park.

Brian Metzler

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.