What to Do (and NOT to DO) if you See a Bear

One of the biggest fears people have about going camping in the wilderness is that they will encounter a wild animal like a bear.  In most cases, this fear of bears is completely misplaced.  Take for example the time I went camping with a friend (who only after we arrived told me that he’d never been camping before).

My friend spent the entire night sleepless out of terror of a bear attack.  Never mind the fact that we were over 200 miles from bear country.  If you aren’t going camping or hiking in a place where bears actually live, then you don’t have to worry about encountering a bear.  This should be obvious, but it is surprising how many people worry about bears when there aren’t even any bears around!


The First Thing You Need to Know about Encountering a Bear

The very first thing you need to know is that there are two different kinds of bears that you may encounter. Actually, there are 8 species of bears but, unless you are hiking in the arctic, the Andes, or mountains of China, I doubt you will ever see the other types outside of a zoo.

The first type of bear you might encounter is a black bear (Ursus americanus).  The other is a brown bear (Ursus arctos)It is important to know the difference between these bears because the protocol for bear encounters is different depending on the type you see.


Difference between Black Bears and Brown Bears

Forget about the names “black” and “brown” for the bears.  Both of these bears can be anywhere for blonde or dark black in color. You can’t identify a bear based on its color alone!

The best way to identify a bear is by knowing what type of bear to expect where you will be going.  For example, I currently live in Eastern Europe and have gone hiking in Albania and Bulgaria.  In these areas, there aren’t any black bears.  We do, however, have a type of brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos).

There are a lot of differences in appearances between black bears and brown bears.  I’ve listed these below.  However, I doubt you’ll have time to check out the length of the claws or the shape of the ears during a bear encounter.  If you are able to see these features, then god help you!

In my opinion, the easiest way to tell if a bear is a black bear or a brown bear (from a safe distance) is to look for the shoulder hump.  Brown bears have a very distinct hump on their shoulder area which black bears do not.


Black Bears

  • Color varies from blond to black
  • No distinctive shoulder hump.
  • Butt: Is higher than its shoulders.
  • Face: Profile is straight
  • Ears: Tall and fairly pointy
  • Front claws: 1-2 inches long and curved
black bear

American black bear. Note the lack of shoulder hump.


Brown Bears

  • Color: Varies from blonde to black.
  • Noticeable shoulder hump
  • Butt: Is lower than shoulder hump.
  • Face:  Profile is flatter
  • Ears: Short and rounded.
  • Front claws: 2-4 inches long and are slightly curved. Claw marks are usually visible in tracks.
brown bear

Note the distinctive hump on its back.


brown bear color

This is also a brown bear, even though it is almost black in color.


Brown Bears vs. Grizzly Bears

Brown bear is the name we give to the species Ursus arctos.  There are many subspecies of brown ears.  The most famous brown bears are grizzlies (Ursus arctos horribilis).  So, all grizzly bears are brown bears but not all brown bears are grizzlies!

Grizzly bears are a type of brown bear.  However, not all brown bears are grizzlies!  There are many other subspecies of brown bears (Ursus arctos).  For example, in Europe where I live, we have Ursus arctos arctos.


What to Do If You See a Black Bear

There are approximately 750,000 black bears in the lower 48 states.  This means that there actually is a pretty good chance of encountering a black bear.  I even once saw a black bear in my parents’ suburban backyard in PA.  And recently there was that case of a black bear swimming in someone’s suburban Californian pool during the heat wave!

But you don’t have to be too worried about black bears.  They aren’t considered very aggressive and aren’t known to attack humans.  Even the mama bears aren’t as defensive of their cubs as grizzlies notoriously are.   Since 1900, only 61 people in North America have been killed by black bears.   To put this in perspective, you’re more likely to get killed by a domestic dog than a black bear.

If a black bear sees you, it will probably run away.  If you happen to get very close to the black bear, it might make an defensive move – such as slapping you.  But, according to Bear.org this isn’t as terrible as it sounds.  You won’t get disemboweled by a black bear slap.


If You See a Black Bear AND It Has NOT Detected Your Presence

Remain quiet and slowly retreat (don’t run!).  You can then decide to stop hiking and leave the trail to the bear.  Or you can wait for a while until the bear has probably left the trail.  Or you can make a very wide detour of the bear.  Go downwind and be quiet as you go.


If You See a Black Bear AND It Has Detected Your Presence

  • DO NOT RUN: This might cause the black bear to chase after you. They tend to chase after anything which is running.
  • DO NOT CLIMB A TREE: Most people know this by now, but bears are good climbers. Going up a tree might just cause the bear to chase you up the tree, trapping you there.
  • Start Talking Calmly: The idea here is to let the bear know you’ve seen it and that you aren’t a threat. Just start talking calmly.  Apparently, it doesn’t matter what you say to the bear.  But giving complements couldn’t hurt 😉
  • Slowly Back Away
  • Stand Your Ground: Remember, black bears are timid. If you encounter one, slowly put your arms up around you to make yourself look bigger.  Grab any nearby branches and put these up too.  If you have small children with you, grab them and pull them close. It will make you seem like a bigger threat.
  • Charges: Black bears might give a bluff charge to intimidate you, but rarely will they actually charge. If the bear actually does charge, now is a good time to get out your bear spray.  If you don’t have bear spray, then FIGHT BACK.  Punch the bear, hit it with sticks, kick, scream!   By fighting back, it should be enough to scare the black bear away.


What to Do If You See a Brown Bear

There aren’t nearly as many brown bears as black bears in North America (only about 1,100 according to PBS)  so your chances of seeing one are slimmer.  However, this is not the bear you want to encounter!  Unlike black bears which are known for being timid, brown bears are notoriously aggressive.  This is especially true when it is a mama bear with cubs.  Trying to stand your ground with a brown bear isn’t going to work.  You’ll have to play dead or fight back with everything you have.


If You See a Brown Bear AND It Has NOT Detected Your Presence

The same rules for encountering a black bear apply here.  Just slowly back away before the bear sees you.  Wait for a while so the bear has time to leave the trail, or make a wide detour around the bear.   Don’t do anything stupid like stopping to take a photo.  Apparently, brown bears are camera shy and taking their photos is sure to piss them off! :0


If You See a Brown Bear AND It Has Detected Your Presence

  • DO NOT RUN: Absolutely do not run. This might cause it to think you are prey and go chasing you in pursuit.  There is no way you can outrun a bear.
  • DO NOT look the bear in the eye: This is taken as a sign of aggression.
  • Start Talking Calmly: Speaking out loud (emphasis on calm speaking; you don’t want to shout) helps the bear realize you are human so it won’t attack. Bears have bad eyesight.  As you speak, start slowly backing away.
  • Slowly Back Away: While still talking calmly, start to slowly back away. Do not turn your back to the brown bear.   The bear might make a bluff charge, stopping well before contact.   If this happens, keep your emotions in check and don’t run.  Running will just make things worse!
  • Charges: If the brown bear charges, be ready with your bear spray! If you don’t have bear spray or the bear spray doesn’t stop the charge, then you should…
  • Play Dead: Most brown bear attacks are defensive. By curling up in a ball, you show that you are not a threat. You will probably get a few painful slaps, but the bear should go away after this.  According to the BC Parks Service, the “cannonball” position with your hands clasped behind your neck and face buried in your knees is best.  Note though that you should reserve playing dead for the very last moment.  Don’t drop dead the moment you see a bear – only if it is charging.


If a Brown Bear is Stalking You

In very rare cases, a brown bear may take you as prey.  A “predatory” bear is one that continues to follow you, such as by disappearing and reappearing.  Again, this is very rare but you should still know what to do.

  • Do NOT play dead: With a predatory bear, this will just make you an easy meal.
  • Drop Your Pack: One option if you think a bear is stalking you is to drop your food pack as a distraction.  I should note that this advice is very controversial.  By giving the bear your food, you are encouraging the aggressive behavior and making the problem worse for other people.   If it is a life-or-death situation though, then drop your pack!
  • Make Yourself Look Bigger: Show the bear that you aren’t going to be easy prey. Make lots of noise. Grab some big branches and wave them over your head.
  • Climb a Tree: Grizzly bears aren’t as good of climbers as black bears, so one option is to climb a tree – though this is no guarantee that the bear won’t follow you up the tree. However, speaking as someone who sucks at climbing trees, this doesn’t seem like a good option.  I bet a grizzly could climb a tree better than I could.
  • If You Are Charged: If the predatory bear charges, you need to be ready to fight back with all that you have!  Grab some large branches and whack the bear.  Throw sticks at it. Make a LOT of noise.


If You See a Bear Cub

Bear cubs might be cute, by an angry mama bear isn’t! If you see a cub, get away as fast as you can!!!

My dad recently saw some bear cubs while hiking on the PCT trail.  He wisely picked up speed and continued down the trail.  Then he heard something ahead of him on the trail….  Luckily, it was just a fellow hiker and not the mama.  That would have been very bad for him!  He warned the other hiker to make a wide berth to avoid the bears.

If you see one of these cute guys while hiking, you better get away before mama comes!

If you see one of these cute guys while hiking, you better get away before mama comes

Avoid Seeing a Bear in the First Place

You have to be either very lucky or very unlucky to see a bear in the wild.  Bears generally know to stay away from humans.  Their hearing and sense of smell are very good.  If they hear or smell you coming, they will move before you spot them.

So, unless you are hiking upwind and being really quiet about it and happen to encounter a bear as you round a bend in the trail, you probably won’t see one.

Here are some tips to avoid encountering a bear:

  • Make noise while hiking: As someone who goes hiking with a five year old, this is no problem for me. 😉
  • Keep food in a bear bag: Never put food in the tent or even near your campsite! Instead, put it in a bear canister or hang a bear bag.
  • Don’t hike at dawn or dusk: Bears are usually crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), so this is the time you are most likely to encounter them.


Bear Spray

Unless you are a hardcore ultralight hiker and can’t spare a few ounces, then pack some bear spray.  Keep it somewhere readily accessible, like on your hip pocket or attached to your walking stick.  You’ll probably never need it, but you’ll be glad to have it in case you do encounter a bear!

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Have you encountered a bear?  How was it and how did you react?

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