Trail Safety for Bear Encounters and Attacks

black bear encounter

Photo by Geoff Rowley. 

Written by Sarah McMahon“The bear charged at me, but stopped running about 20 yards from where I stood. I put up my hands and yelled. He stopped, turned, and went back into the woods. Black bears rarely attack humans, except when they have cubs. They can be very aggressive when that happens.” Cody didn’t plan on seeing a bear that day, but he knew how to react. And with an estimated 600,000 black bears and 2,000 grizzly bears in North America, encountering one is more common than you might think.

Grizzly bears are commonly found in Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Black bears are most commonly found along both the east and west coast, in the Rocky Mountains, and in parts of Alaska. They are also found in a few small areas in the southwest and southeast. If you’re in one of these areas where bear encounters are common, it’s important to know how to act if (or when) you run into one.

How to Avoid a Bear Encounter

Bear attacks on humans are relatively rare—there are an estimated 2-5 deaths per year in the United States from bear attacks. The following stats from the CDC show how uncommon deaths from bear attacks really are:

Cause of Death

Number of Deaths

Cardiovascular disease

856,030

Transportation accidents

48,441

Drowning

3,582

Hypothermia

699

West Nile virus

119

Hornet/bee/wasp stings

48.5

Snake bites

5.2

Bear attacks

2

 

Although bear attacks are relatively uncommon, they are widely publicized when they do occur. Bear attacks can result in serious injury, and there is no good way to predict how a bear will behave in all situations. However, you can follow some basic guidelines to stay safe when running, hiking, or camping.

1. Respect a bear's space.

Never approach, crowd, pursue, or displace bears. You should maintain enough distance between yourself and a bear that they don’t change their behavior. This of course only works if you spot a bear from a distance. Yellowstone National Park requests visitors to keep a distance of at least 100 yards (300 feet) and Shenandoah National Park recommends 200 feet or more.

2. Run or hike in groups.

This is a great tactic to avoid being attacked by any sort of wildlife, but it’s not always feasible. If you are running or hiking alone, stay alert, stay on designated trails, and carry bells or talk to yourself to scare away animals who may think you’re prey or a threat.

3. Never get between a mother and her cub.

Mother bears are notoriously protective of their cubs and inadvertently getting in the way of a mother bear and her kin is probably the worst time to have an encounter. Bear cubs are normally born in January, so be extra mindful in the spring months. Check out this video of a mother bear protecting her cubs from an aggressive male bear:

  

4. Give bears room to pass.

Never run from a bear. This will make you seem like a threat and will entice the bear to chase you. Many people have told me that bears cannot run downhill because their hind legs are longer than their fore legs. This is a mythe—bears can run very quickly downhill (or uphill for that matter), and you won’t outrun them. 

What to do When Encountering a Bear

You are responsible for your safety and the safety of wildlife. If a bear approaches you, it is up to you to move away and maintain a safe distance.  Once a bear notices you, take the following steps to ensure your safety.

 1. Make sure the bear knows you’re not a threat.

Speak calmly so the bear knows you’re not a pretty animal. Running will make you seem like a threat so stand still and slowly wave your arms. A bear might be curious about you and come closer to smell you or stand on its hind legs. A standing bear is usually not threatening but simply curious.

 2. Remain calm.

Just like we mentioned in our last Trail Safety article about snake encounters, try to stay calm. Remaining calm may be easier said than done, but bears are not normally looking to harm humans—they’d rather be left alone. In Cody’s experience, a bear charged him but turned away, a common scare tactic. Bears may also growl, snap their jaws, or make woofing noises to scare you away. Remain calm and speak in low tones—being loud or shrill will only irritate the bear.

3. Make yourself look as large as possible.

If you’re in a group, a bear will likely be intimidated and hide. If you’re with a small child, pick them up and put them on your shoulders. This will make you appear even larger and will seem threatening to the bear. The larger you appear, the more likely a bear will be to retreat.

4. Do not allow a bear to access your food.

If you’re carrying food, don’t try to give it to the bear or ply the bear with a snack. This will only encourage the bear to approach and make matters worse. There is never a good reason to feed a bear.

5. Move slowly.

If the bear is stationary, move sideways slowly away from it. If the bear follows you, stop and talk to it some more. Bears are a bit like dogs in that they will nearly always chase a fleeing animal. Usually, you can wait a bear out but be sure to leave it an easy escape route.

What to Do if a bear Attacks You

There is a distinct difference between Grizzly Bears and black bears; grizzly bears are much more confrontational and dangerous. If you see a grizzly bear, leave your pack on and play dead by laying flat on your stomach. Remain still until the bear leaves. If it does attack you, use whatever you have on hand to hit the grizzly hard in the face. If you attempt to run, it will likely catch you. 

Black bears usually won’t attack you but if one does, do not play dead. Fight back using any object possible concentrating blows on its face and muzzle. If you’re in a tent and a bear stalks and then attacks, don’t play dead either. The bear is likely looking for food and thinks you’re prey. A few simple tools can help you if you’re exploring back country areas where sighting a bear is more likely.

Grizzly bear vs black bear

Image via Yellowstone.org - "How to identify Grizzly and Black Bears 

Bear Spray

Bear spray is used defensively to stop an aggressive, charging, or attacking bear. Although it’s used in the same manner you would use mace on an attacking person, bear pepper spray and human pepper spray are not the same. Bear spray is incredibly potent and may be the most effective way to stave off a bear, even over firearms. A study conducted by Professors Tom Smith and Steve Herrero found that 93 percent of the time, bears stop their aggressive advances when sprayed. Bears only injured 2 percent of people who deployed bear spray, compared to 56 percent of those who tried to fend them off by other means.

George Hyde, general manager of Counter Assault bear spray says that it’s important for consumers to learn how to use the spray correctly. Bear spray is made with very hot peppers, usually oleoresin of capsicum, which is oil-based and extremely potent. Hyde says, “If bear spray is discharged in a campground, the area is dead to the world for 24 hours. Walk across the ground and it’ll become reatomized. Spray it on your tent or clothing and you’ll probably never use those things again.”

When you’re enjoying nature—running, hiking, or camping—your safety is your own responsibility. Bear encounters happen often, but they don’t often result in injury or death. Knowing how to respond to a bear will help you, and the wildlife around you, remain safe.

Further Reading on Bear Encounters and Attacks

Resources

Written by Sarah McMahon from The Prosiest

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