How to Escape from a Bear
Bears are among nature’s most majestic creatures, and seeing one in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Get too close, however, and your encounter with a bear can be more terrifying than awe-inspiring. Fortunately, despite humans’ continued encroachment into “bear country," attacks on people are rare, and fatalities are even rarer. Still, bears are immense, powerful wild animals, and any meeting between bears and humans can potentially turn deadly. Do you know what to do if you find yourself face to face with a bear? Read on, and hike safely.
1. Avoid close encounters. If you can prevent an encounter with a bear, the rest of the steps are unnecessary. Bears are reclusive creatures, and they generally prefer to steer clear of humans. You can help them to do so by announcing your presence when you’re exploring their home environment: talk loudly, sing, or carry "bear bells" so bears have time to escape you. Read up on bear behavior to decide which of the "noise" methods you are comfortable with as there are different views by professionals on the effectiveness of making noise. Be sure to heed local bear advisories and practice proper food storage techniques while camping, and try to hike in open areas so that a bear can see you (or you can see it) from a distance. Leave dogs at home or keep them leashed. If you see bear tracks, make a detour or leave the area. Avoid surprising bears.
2. Stand tall, even if the bear charges you. If the bear sees you and is closer than 300 feet, or if the bear is approaching you, remain calm and try to look as large as possible. Stand your ground and try not to look frightened. Try to back away slowly—do not run—and speak softly. If the bear continues to approach as you back away, stop and stand your ground. Speak more loudly in a deep, calm voice, and wave your arms to make yourself look bigger. Keep an eye on the bear, but avoid direct eye contact, this can be interpreted as a challenge by the bear. Do not be aggressive, but do not crouch down, play dead or otherwise show fear or vulnerability. If the bear charges you, muster all your courage and stay where you are: the charge is most likely a bluff, and if you stand your ground the bear will turn away.
3. Know your bear. The steps you take to survive an encounter with a bear will depend in part on the type of bear. North America has three kinds of bears: brown bears, black bears, and polar bears. Polar bears, of course, are easily recognizable, and their range is limited to the far northern latitudes. Grizzlies and black bears cannot necessarily be differentiated by their colors. Grizzly bears can weigh up to and over 800 lbs., and they are distinguished by a prominent shoulder hump and a rump lower than the shoulder. Black bears are typically smaller (up to 400 lbs.), and have a rump higher than or at roughly the same level as the shoulder. If you see tracks, grizzly bears have claw marks well separated from the paw imprints, while black bears’ claw marks will be quite close to the paw imprint.
4. Understand the bear's motivations. A little bear psychology can go a long way—your response to an attack should be shaped by the bear’s motivations. First, if a bear appears to be stalking you (disappearing and reappearing, for example), or if a bear attacks at night, it most likely sees you as food, and any attack will be predatory. If you surprise a bear on the trail, if the bear has cubs, or if the bear is eating from or protecting a carcass, the bear will most likely be acting in self-defense.
5. Respond appropriately based on the situation: If a grizzly or polar bear makes a non-predatory attack: Play dead. If the bear (other than a black bear) is attacking you in self-defense, you can put it at ease (and possibly save yourself) by playing dead by lying completely flat on the ground. Do so only after the bear makes contact with you or tries to do so. (In the past, bear experts recommended that one fall to the ground in a fetal position but researchers have since proven that doing this only allows the bear to easily flip over the human in question.) To play dead, lie flat on the ground protecting your vital parts with the ground, and your arms protecting your neck with your hands laced behind the neck. Keep your legs together and do not struggle. Once the bear leaves your immediate vicinity, wait several minutes before carefully looking to see if the bear is still around. A bear may look back and may return if it sees you moving.
If any bear makes a predatory attack or you receive any attack from a black bear: Fight back. Fight a black bear attack or any predatory attack. If the bear is a black bear, or if you have determined that the bear sees you as food (this is actually quite rare, and more common with black bears and, some say, polar bears than with grizzlies), your only chance of escape is to fight it or scare it away. Hit the bear with rocks, pots, pans, sticks or fists—anything handy. The odds may seem against you in a fight, but bears generally do not see humans as prey, and a bear that makes a predatory attacks is usually immature, starving, or wounded, and may easily be scared away if you hit it.
6. Consider last minute escape techniques: Climb a tree only under the right circumstances. Black bears are adept climbers, so climbing a tree will do you no good with one of them. Grizzlies, too, can climb a little, and they can reach up to 12 feet into the tree from the ground. Only consider climbing a tree if you encounter a grizzly and you are confident you can make it well up (at least 15 feet, but preferably 30 feet) into a sturdy tree by the time the bear reaches you. Bears are incredibly fast (black bears and grizzlies can run as fast as a horse, about 50 km/h), so do not try to race a bear to a tree—you will lose. This approach is usually only viable if you are right next to the tree, and you’re a good climber.
Sidestep advances if they're closing in within a relatively short distance (<8 feet). Bears and other 4 legged animals have a wider center of gravity, and hence can't make turns quite as sharp as you or me. Don't just run in circles however, but if engaged in an open area (plains or field), do not run directly away from the bear as they're generally faster. Move left and right where applicable to force the bear to change direction. Do not abuse the bear, however, as it drains vital energy.
7. Various other tips
If you have a firearm, use it to save your life if needed and only if you are truly in serious danger (not just a bluff charge). If it comes down to it use the weapon if you know how to use it properly. If you must shoot a bear, wait until it is close (30 or 40 feet at most), and aim for the low neck or head area. If you injure or kill the bear, be certain to report the encounter to the proper authorities.
Never surprise a bear — let it know you're coming. Many hikers like to walk with cow bells or tie small bells to their feet, but many bear experts say this is not as good as talking, singing or clapping loudly as you walk. Bears are a lot more likely to recognize you as human by your voice than by a bell.
If you need to play dead and you’re wearing a large backpack, the pack will add some protection to your vital areas, and you can lie on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Use your legs and elbows to try to prevent the bear from flipping you over, but do not struggle. If you look dead and harmless, a defensive bear will usually leave you alone.
If you get too close to a bear back away slowly while you speak in a calm voice.
Whenever you go into the woods, make sure people know where you are going, and take a cell phone/mobile with you.
If possible, walk downwind — that is, with your back to the wind. Let your scent alert any bears to your presence.
Bears are attracted to smells, so keep all your trash together and don't keep it near where you are sleeping. Be sure to stow or dispose of properly of any medical supplies or hygiene products that have blood on them. Zip lock bags provide some containment.
Parks Canada recommends leaving dogs at home. A barking dog does all the things that are most likely to infuriate a bear and, if it encounters a bear, it might actually run back to you for help — with an angry bear in pursuit!
Carry bear spray. Bear spray is pepper spray in a specially designed container, and it has proven to be an invaluable deterrent. You will need to wait until the bear is close to you, however, (about 15-20 feet), before you can effectively deploy it. Be careful, though. Bears in some regions such as Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons have become accustomed to bear spray. When they are sprayed, they will turn their heads. A direct spray to the face is the only way you will be able to deter a bear. In most cases, you will only have one shot at this, so make it your best. A way to get around this is to spray a quick short spray at the bear. If the bear turns on this spray you will not have wasted all your spray.
Stand your ground unless you are certain the bear sees you as dinner.
At night, always walk with a flashlight. This will also help warn any bears.
Killing bears except in self-defense is illegal in many jurisdictions. Make sure to report your encounter to the proper authorities, otherwise you risk being prosecuted as a poacher.
Bear spray is an effective deterrent, but the scent of its resin can actually attract bears. Discard empty bear spray containers, and do not try to spray a perimeter of pepper spray as a preventative measure.
Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. Do not attempt to take any pictures of bear cubs or follow the bear cubs into the woods.
Never attempt to play dead with a black bear or a bear that appears to consider you prey. If the bear begins to maul you after you have played dead, you have no choice but to fight back.
It takes quite a bit of training to be able to draw, track a moving object, and fire accurately in the amount of time required. Do not expect to be able to defend yourself against a bear with a gun if you are not skilled with it.
Make noise and reduce your speed when mountain biking through woods in bear country. Mountain bikes move too fast to allow a bear time to know you’re coming, and you are liable to surprise a bear when speeding around a corner.
Avoid spending time near bears’ food sources. Walking near animal carcasses, berry patches, and fish streams increases your chance of meeting a bear. In addition, the sound of rushing water can make it very difficult for a bear to hear you as you approach.
Do not feed the bears. Not only is it illegal in all of Canadian and U.S. national parks, it also trains bears to associate humans with an easy food supply and leads them to lose their fear of humans. This might make them a danger to other campers and ultimately lead to them being killed by park or wildlife officials.
Do not discharge bear spray into the wind. Bear spray is only useful in ideal circumstances. If conditions are windy, try to avoid using bear spray, as it can actually shift with the wind and potentially blind you temporarily, giving the bear an edge on you.
Do not whistle to keep bears away; the bear may mistake this for the whistle of a marmot or pika and come closer to investigate.