Staying Safe in Bear Country

Bears are an important part of our wild heritage. Learning all you can about bears and how to live compatibly in bear country helps preserve the important wild nature of bear habitat. Bear attacks are rare though thousands of people live, work and recreate in bear country. Bears are far more likely to enhance your wilderness experience than spoil it. However, it is always good to be prepared for an encounter. Always carry bear spray while recreating in bear country. Remember, there is no fool-proof way of dealing with a bear encounter: each bear and encounter is different. Knowing how to interpret their behavior and how to act responsibly is part of the pleasure of sharing our environment with wild bears.

Remember, In Bear Country:

  • Do not hike alone
  • Make noise on the trail
  • Carry bear spray and have it accessible
  • Never run from a bear

Bear Body Language

Bear body language is subtle and may be difficult to read. Just because a bear appears to be grazing quietly does not mean that it is comfortable with your nearby presence. In some encounters, a bear may stand in its hind legs or approach you to get a better view, but these actions are not necessarily signs of aggression. The bear might not have identified you as a human and may be unable to smell or hear your from a distance. Once it identifies you as human, it is likely to run away. In general, bears show agitation by swaying their heads, huffing, moaning, making a popping sound, salivating, or growling. Lowered head and laid-back ears indicate possible agression.

If you see a bear in the distance, respect the bear’s need for space.  Try to make a wide detour or leave the area. If you suddenly surprise a bear at close range, STOP. Don’t crowd the bear – leave it a clear escape route and it will probably exit. Assess the situation. Is the bear acting in a calm and curious manner, or is it acting in a predatory or defensive manner?

Defensive Confrontations

Defensive confrontations are usually the result of a sudden encounter with a bear at close range, at a food cache or with young. Defensive confrontations seldom lead to contact. In defensive confrontations, the bear is threatening you because it feels threatened.

  • If you suddenly surprise a bear and it is not approaching you remain calm and do not run. Back away slowly.
  • Speak in a calm voice so the bear can identify you as human.
  • A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you, usually stopping well short of contact. Stand your ground until the bear has broken off its charge.
  • If contact is made during a defensive confrontation drop to the ground and play dead. Protect your back by keeping your pack on. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. Remain still and quiet. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.

Predatory Confrontations

Predatory attacks by bears are extremely rare. A bear that continues to approach, follow, disappear and reappear, or displays other stalking behaviors is possibly considering you as prey. Bears that attack you in your tent or confront you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat. If you think you are encountering a predatory bear:

  • Stand your ground. Try to be intimidating and look as large as possible.
  • If the bear does not respond to aggressive actions such as yelling, throwing rocks and sticks, etc., you should use your bear spray. Fight back if it attempts to make contact.
  • If you have bear spray, emit a deterring blast, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. If the bear continues to follow you, place your pack or another item as a distraction.

Q. Should I always play dead if attacked by a black bear or grizzly bear?

A. It is the type of attack, Defensive or Predatory, and not the type of bear attacking that should determine your response to a bear attack.