What to Know About Staying Safe Around Bears

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 28, 2022
5 min read

Seeing a bear can be exciting, and watching the wildlife may be one of the reasons you decided to venture into the wilderness. You should follow guidelines for safely viewing bears, though, to protect your safety and theirs. If you want to avoid seeing bears, there are also steps you can take to decrease your chances of accidentally running into one.

Bear attacks are rare, but they do happen. However, the bigger danger is to posed the bear, stemming from human behavior. Bears who lose their fear of humans have a shorter life expectancy than bears who are afraid of humans and eat only their natural diet. 

If you want to see bears in national parks or other wilderness areas, the best place to look is where they can find food. In the spring, you may find them in meadows digging up roots and grasses. In the fall, they might be among oak trees eating acorns. When you spot one, you should take precautions because, like all wild animals, they can be dangerous and unpredictable.

You're in their home, so observe the following etiquette when you're watching them: 

  • Use binoculars so you can see them without getting too close. 
  • Never approach a bear. If they know you're there, you're too close. 
  • Don't wander off marked trails if you're on one. 
  • Leave baby bears alone. The mother is nearby. Never get between a mother and her cubs. 
  • Don't bring your pets to areas where bears live.
  • Give a bear room to pass you, but never run from them. 
  • Don't feed the bears or leave your food out for them to find. 

If you'd rather not see a bear, you're in luck. Most bears will avoid you if they know you're around. If you're out hiking or camping, just make noise. Talk to your companions and pay attention to your environment. Try to make yourself noticeable if you're in an environment where bears are known to be or if you're in an area that's a good food source for them.

If a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, do the following to de-escalate the situation: 

  • Do not run away, since this can make the bear think you're prey.
  • Stay calm. 
  • Gather your group together and pick up any small children.
  • Talk to the bear calmly so it knows you're human. 
  • Back away slowly. 
  • If the bear starts to approach you, make yourself as big as possible by stretching your arms over your head and make loud noises. 
  • Keep bear spray on you and know how to use it. If a bear charges toward you, use the bear spray to deter it. 

There are three species of bears that live in North America, including black bears, brown bears and grizzly bears (which are the same species), and polar bears. Black bears are the most common and are found widely throughout the US. 

Brown bears mostly live along the southern coast of Alaska. These are the bears you see standing in rivers catching salmon. Grizzly bears are smaller than brown bears and live in the northern and interior parts of Alaska as well as in the northern Cascades and Rocky Mountains. 

Although the bear safety rhyme “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s white, goodnight” sounds like good advice, you have to know why a bear is attacking you before you can decide the best way to respond.

When a bear is charging at you, it's usually for one of two reasons: 

Bluff charging. Bluff charges are the most common type of charges. A bear will bluff charge when it's trying to scare or intimidate you. Its head and ears will be facing forward and will be up. It will puff itself up to look bigger. It will move in big, bounding leaps toward you but will stop short or veer off at the last minute. It may make loud noises afterward. 

If you think a bluff charge is about to happen, make yourself big, wave your arms, and talk calmly to the bear. When the bear starts charging, stand your ground and stay calm. When the bear finishes charging, back away slowly while talking to the bear calmly. You want to let it know that you're human. 

Never run away when a bear is bluff charging since it may trigger an attack. However, you should be prepared to defend yourself in case the attack isn't a bluff and the bear turns aggressive. 

Aggressive charging. A bear who is aggressively charging is very dangerous. Signs of an impending aggressive charge include: 

  • Pounding front paws on the ground
  • Huffing
  • Yawning or clacking their teeth
  • Head down and ears pointed back
  • Running straight at you, full-speed

If you see these signs, prepare to defend yourself. This is where the bear safety rhyme has some merit. If a black bear attacks you, fight back. Don't play dead. Punch and kick at the bear's face. Use weapons such as rocks, sticks, or bear spray. 

If a brown bear attacks you, play dead. Don't fight back since that will make the attack worse. Cover your head with your hands and leave your backpack on to help protect yourself. Lie down flat on your stomach with your legs outspread and protect your head. As difficult as it may be, don't make any noise and be as still as possible. You want to convince the bear you're not a threat to it or its cubs. 

If the bear quits attacking you, continue to lie still for several minutes in case it's still in the area. Don't move until you're sure the bear is gone. 

If the bear continues to attack you, you may have no choice but to fight back. If you have to fight, fight it as hard as you can with any weapons you can find. 

Unlike brown and black bears, polar bears rarely bluff charge. If a polar bear is charging you, be ready to defend yourself and fight it off. Try to hit it in any sensitive areas such as the face, eyes, and nose.