For the most part, unless you’re a trash can filled with food scraps, you normally have nothing to fear from bears. Perhaps the best proof of this claim is exampled by Yellowstone Park. In 145+ years and with over 120 million park visitors and campers, there have been only 8 bear related fatalities, and remember this is prime grizzly bear territory. However, not all bear encounters are as friendly as meeting Yogi Bear & Boo-Boo, whose only intent is to steal your picnic basket. Therefore, we’ll learn how to survive a bear encounter without a trip to the hospital.
Learn the potential opponent:
There are 3 types of bears in North America, black, brown and polar bear. Unless you’re traveling the Arctic circle you won’t encounter polar bears, so scratch that one. Black bears can actually be black, white, blonde, cinnamon, chocolate or jet black in color. Many of this type of bear are strictly vegetation, so there’s no real danger unless you are perceived as a threat, especially to a cub.
Black Bear & Cub
Brown bears are divided into two categories, brown bears and grizzlies. Quite surprisingly, perhaps due to reputation, the grizzly bear is the smaller of the two types, weighing in at between 300 – 700 pounds. The normal brown bear can easily tip the scales at over 1000 lbs. Brown bear colors can be nearly identical to black bears, but are distinguished by their massive head and large hump at its shoulder.
Preventive Measures: Before we examine things to do/not do when encountering a bear, let’s figure out how to avoid an encounter in the first place. Always the best alternative. When entering possible bear territory:
1, Know and be aware of when you’re in or around bear habitat. Bears like thick brush, berry patches, parsnip and thickets which grow along hiking trails as well as the deep woods. Bears, like most animals, will take the easy way and will utilize hiking trails as an avenue to various foraging areas, so don’t think just because you’re on a trail that you are safe. There aren’t any “Bears not allowed” signs on these trails and if there were and the bears could read, they’d just ignore them.
2. Do not wear ear-buds when hiking. Although beautiful, nature is fraught with dangers that you may need to be aware of, and the sooner the better. Eliminating one of your 5 senses, hearing, is just plain stupid. Not only will you not be able to hear any forewarning of potential danger, you will be oblivious of your surroundings, because the music will make your mind wander or at least distract you.
3. Ironically, the music you are forbidden to listen to on ear-buds would be quite beneficial when listened to out loud. Hiking quietly, mostly unintentional, is actually dangerous. Most wild animals, bears included, will avoid face to face human contact, but if you surprise the bear by silently approaching … it could be a whole different ball game. Talk to yourself, hum or sing if hiking alone. Make some sort of noise periodically if nothing else but clapping your hands together. You want animals to know you are approaching in order to offer them a chance to scat away.
4. Beware of blind corners where you could startle a bear by suddenly appearing. This is especially true when loud natural noises are included, such as a raging creek or river which could mask the noise of you approaching.
5. Lastly, hike in groups. Three or more people create a dilemma for a bear contemplating a violent reaction and could be just enough deterrent for the bear to turn and flee instead of attack. This is no guarantee the bear won’t attack, but it diminishes the chances. A P.S. here. Carry bear spray. (pepper spray) More on that shortly.
Murphy’s Law Applies: No matter what you do or how careful you try to avoid it … bear and human encounters will still happen. Let’s look at what to do if such an encounter occurs.
1. Today’s social media mind-set can lead to tragic consequences. Please do not attempt to take a picture with your phone in order to post it on Facebook. “Hey, Mabel. Come take a “selfie” with the bear.” That may be okay if you don’t like Mabel, but you may place yourself in harm’s way as well. This is no time for photo taking as it could quickly turn into a life or death situation.
2. Do not run! Instinct will always override any sense of logic an animal may possess. If you act like prey, by running away, the bear may very well respond to your reaction instinctively and attack. Act like prey … be prey.
3. Freeze … stand still, do nothing threatening, don’t make any sudden or rash movements, never taking your eyes off the bear. Slowly pull your bear spray out of your pocket or holster and remove the safety lock. Practice this simple task so you don’t have to look at what you’re doing. A bear can travel a long way in the matter of a second or two.
4. If you determine the bear is a black bear, likely a herbivore, and it isn’t leaving, it’s probably because its either confused, curious or has become accustomed to seeing people. This can be a two edged sword. The bear is not aggressive, but it may have been fed by humans, (Not good) and may expect a treat. Bears are massively powerful and any contact, although not intending harm, could result in injury. Confront the bear by making yourself look as large as possible, raise your arms and wave them, and make lots of noise. Continue to do this until the bear leaves.
5. On the other hand, if the bear is a grizzly, remain perfectly still and stay calm. The old saying animals can smell fear … that’s rooted in fact. Slowly retrieve your bear spray, insure you have it properly positioned in your hand and ready to use, safety off. Again … Do not try to run away! You can not escape a bear. A bear can run 30 mph … you can’t. A bear can scale a tree quicker than an experienced tree climbing logger … you can’t. You will lose. Remember … Act like prey … be prey.
6. Speak in a low, calm and appeasing voice while very slowly backing away. Do not turn your back on the bear. Do not challenge the bear by staring directly into its eyes. Be prepared, if that’s possible, for an extreme demonstration of force and intimidation from the bear.
An agitated grizzly may pound its paws on the ground, rear up and down, roar, show its teeth in a menacing manner and do whatever else comes to its mind in an attempt to literally scared the shit out of you. (excuse the French) It may also lunge in a bluff charge to illicit a response. Stand your ground avoiding any sudden moves. Do not use your bear spray unless you’re sure the bear is charging and not bluffing. There are times in a territorial show of force, the bear will leave if you demonstrate your claim to be there.
If the bear does charge, aim the nozzle of your bear spray just above the bear’s head and give a sustained blast. You want the spray to hover and fall into the bear’s face, that’s why the slightly high aim.
Do Not use your bear spray unless the bear is within 25 feet. Farther away than that exceeds the sprays effective range and is a waste of a very valuable commodity. Additionally, if it were a fake charge, you spray and droplets of the spray, carried by the breeze, land on the bear, the pain induced will produce a real charge as you have, as they say “Drawn first blood.”
Guns are useless: I don’t want to enter into a philosophical debate with the NRA members about the effectiveness of guns when trying to protect yourself during a bear attack. The statics clearly show bear spray (pepper spray) being more effective at negating a bear attack. I’m not taking sides … I’m trying to save lives. A 30-06 from a 200 yard distance. Deadly with an accurate aim. A 30-06 bullet entering a charging bear at 20 yards is not going to stop it. Maker it madder? Yes. Stop it? No.
If you’re an experienced hunter you should readily agree with my assessment as you have witnessed how far a seriously wounded animal can travel.
Always use bear spray. Always have it available for emergency use. Don’t pack it in your backpack or forget it in the car. It could be the only thing between you and death.
Should the Worse Happen: To say nobody’s ever been mauled or killed by a bear would be an out right lie. Yes it has happened and unfortunately will happen again in the future. There are times when minimizing injury is considered a victory. Unable to avoid an attack do the following:
Try to cover back of neck
Drop to the ground and curl up making yourself as small as possible. Tuck your head and try to protect the back of your neck. This is not the adhering to “play dead and the bear will leave” theory. If a bear is intent on attacking playing dead will not deter him. You’re not trying to play dead … you’re trying to protect your most vulnerable body parts, head and neck.
When the attack stops … remain tucked, still and quiet. Bears are known to leave temporarily but return. Make sure the bear is gone then leave as quickly as possible. It’s real easy for me to sit here at this computer and tell you to stay balled up and resist the urge to unfold and fight back or try to run, but to do so will make matters worse.
The instinct and will to live will help you maintain. Prayer is always a good option to invoke.
Bear encounters are very serious. I have chosen not to post photos of bear mauling victims as they, in my opinion, are too grotesque to include.