You might be surprised at how common it is to see a bear, especially if you are visiting a national park. Although bear sightings are frequent, bear attacks are not common — but they can happen and are very dangerous. Knowing what to do in the presence of a bear can save your life.
What Kinds of Bears Live in North America?
Three types of bears inhabit North America: black bears, brown bears, and polar bears. Grizzly bears — which are included in the brown bear species — most notoriously engage in attacks on humans. Polar bears are also known to attack humans. Though less common, even black bears can attack, especially when provoked.
While it can be exciting to see a bear wandering around, it is important to remember that bears are wild animals, and wild animals can be dangerous and unpredictable. As a whole, bear attacks are rare, but it is still important to know how to react when in the presence of a bear and what you should do if one decides to attack. If you ever encounter a bear in the wild, there are certain steps you should take to decrease the likelihood of an attack.
How Do Bears Behave?
To know what to do when encountering bears, it is important to understand the different behaviors of the bears commonly found throughout North America.
Brown bears. Brown bears — including grizzlies — live in many habitats like mountains and forests. They can usually be observed early in the mornings and evenings as they forage for food, but they prefer to spend the bulk of daytime resting.
Black bears. Black bears favor wooded and forest-like areas with plenty of fruits and nut-bearing trees. They tend to bluff when threatened, but that does not mean you should lower your guard. During their bluff, they may hit the ground or charge a short distance to scare away humans. Black bears will typically flee from fights rather than engage in them.
Polar bears. Polar bears are found in the arctic region. They prefer to live in solitude and only venture out from solitary confinement to find a mate, raise a family, or gather at a commonly shared food source. Polar bears’ keen sense of smell often draws them near human waste and animal carcasses.
What to Do if You See a Bear
A common fear is not knowing what to do when you see a bear. Each bear is different, and each encounter with a bear is different. Unfortunately, there is no surefire approach to encountering bears, and there is no guarantee that you will be safe during your encounter. Luckily, most encounters end without injury.
Despite the uniqueness of each situation, there are standard actions to employ during bear encounters.
Check in. When visiting national or state parks, or any outdoor facility, be sure to check in at the nearest visitor center or backcountry office. At these offices, you can find basic guidelines and information on bear safety.
Remain calm. While it can be hard to remain calm in stressful situations, you must do your best so you do not stress the bear out. Additionally, never sneak up on a bear.
Keep your cellphone on hand. You should always have your cellphone or smartwatch on you in an accessible place for calling emergency services. Many phones and watches have SOS features that allow for quick and easy emergency calls.
Do not feed bears. Feeding bears and other wildlife can be dangerous — not just for you but for other hikers and campers, too. Ensure that bears cannot get access to your food.
Don’t panic. Panic might be your first instinct, but you should never panic in the presence of a bear. You may want to drop your backpack, run away, or attempt to climb a tree, but do not make any swift movements. Keep your backpack on as it can provide protection for your back, don’t attempt to run away because the bear might chase after you, and don’t attempt to climb a tree as this can be a waste of time since many bears can climb trees.
Walk away slowly. If you come across a bear that is stationary, move away laterally at a slow, steady pace. Do not turn your back to the bear — lateral movement will help you keep an eye on both the bear and your escape route. It is also less threatening to the bear.
Be smart. Some other tips to help avoid bear attacks include:
- Identify yourself aloud to ensure the bear recognizes that you are a person and not prey.
- Pick up small children and help them keep quiet.
- Hike and travel in groups.
- Remember that when a bear stands on its hind legs, it usually does so out of curiosity. This should not be taken as a threat and does not necessarily warrant an emergency reaction.
- Use extra caution when in the presence of a mother bear and her cubs. Mothers are instinctively protective of their young and can perceive many actions as threats to their offspring.
What to Do if a Bear Attacks
In the rare occurrence of a bear attack, follow these steps to protect yourself.
Know the bear types. Some survival tactics are suited to certain types of bears but not others, so knowing the bear types in your area can help you make the best decisions during a bear attack. Polar bears are distinguishable by their white fur. However, color and size alone are not enough to distinguish black bears from brown bears. Brown bears have a hump behind their neck and walk with their rumps lower than their shoulders. Black bears do not have humps and walk with their rumps higher than their shoulders.
Play dead. With brown and grizzly bears, playing dead can help you survive an attack. Lay flat on your stomach and spread your legs wide to prevent the bear from turning you over.
Try to escape. When attacked by a black bear, you should not attempt to play dead. Instead, try to escape to a building or other enclosed space.
Fight back. Because black bears often flee from fights, fighting back is a good action if escape is not possible. Look them in the eye and appear as large and aggressive as possible. If playing dead doesn’t work with a brown bear, you might need to resort to fighting back vigorously. Hit them in the face using objects if possible. Fighting back might also be necessary if you are attacked by a polar bear. In which case, you should use your fists or other objects and aim for the bear’s face.
Use deterrents. Bear sprays can be helpful in certain situations. Bear sprays are the most effective non-lethal deterrents for stopping most attacking bears. They contain capsicum which causes unpleasant effects like eye pain when it comes into contact with the face. This means it cannot be applied preventatively. You should be careful when using bear spray as the stream can be manipulated by the wind and potentially hurt you.
Avoid using firearms if possible. Using a firearm instead of a bear spray is more likely to result in injury to the bear or human, which is why firearms are not recommended for stopping bear attacks. Furthermore, firearms can make bears more aggressive, especially if they are wounded.