Bears are reclusive beings and their attacks are rare, but if you should cross paths with one, make sure you're equipped with the tools and knowledge to walk away unharmed.
Generally, bears are afraid of people and rarely attack unless they are provoked by unusual human behavior. If you’re an avid camper, hiker, or a wilderness girl in general, it doesn’t hurt to brush up on bear safety tips and share them with family and friends.
Bear Safety Tips and Bear Etiquette
- Know your bear. Grizzly bears can be found in Canada and the northwestern areas in the United States, including Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Washington State. Grizzlies can weigh up to and over 800 lbs and have a prominent shoulder hump and a rump lower than the shoulder. Black bears, also found in North America, are the smallest and most common bear species weighing typically up to 400 lbs.
- Understand your bear. Your response to a bear should depend on the bear’s motivations. If a bear seems to be stalking you (disappearing and reappearing) or if a bear attacks at night, it sees you as food and any attack will be predatory. If you surprise a bear on the trail, if the bear has cubs, or if it’s eating from or protecting a carcass, the bear will act in self-defense.
- Avoid close encounters. Make noise while walking. Clapping of the hands, speaking loudly, ringing bear bells, and even singing will prevent you from being surprised by a bear. They, like you, will want to steer clear of the other species. Bears who are shocked or surprised by human presence are more likely to react aggressively.
- Keep your distance. If you spot a bear from far away (more than 300 ft), leave the area. If you need to continue on a trail, make a wide detour around the bear. If the bear has not seen you, don’t disturb it or attract attention to yourself: retreat quietly and calmly. When you’re well away, make ample noise to prevent future encounters. If the bear does see you, keep an eye on the bear but avoid direct eye contact. You want to communicate you are human, you can defend yourself, and are not frightened while letting it know you are non-threatening and are leaving its territory.
- Keep your children close at all times on the trail. If you spot a bear, pick up any small children immediately while you assess what to do next.
- Never come between a mother bear and her cub. Know that mother bears are like you: protective of their cubs. A startled mother black bear will more than likely send her cubs up a tree while she guards the bottom. This allows you the chance to walk away without confrontation.
- Do not climb a tree to escape. Black bears climb excellently. Grizzlies can climb up to 12 feet. Consider climbing a sturdy tree only if you are right next to one and encounter a grizzly you are confident you can out-climb (15-30 feet up a tree). Don’t try to race a bear to a tree. They are fast.
- Leave your dog at home. Dogs are seemingly harmless pets, but they can provoke a bear and attract it to you.
- Always carry bear pepper spray. This is the first line of defense if accosted by a bear. Bear pepper creates a huge cloud that stops a bear in its tracks.
- If you see a bear and it sees you, and/or approached you, stand up. You want to stand tall and appear as large as possible. Try not to look frightened. The bear is not trying to attack you, it’s trying to see, hear, and smell you better. You can talk firmly, yet softly, in a low-pitched voice while slowly backing away. If the bear continues to approach you, speak louder in a deep yet calm voice and wave your arms to appear bigger. Do not be aggressive and do not crouch down. Avoid direct eye contact as bears may perceive your eye contact as a threat or a challenge.
- Respond appropriately. If a grizzly or polar bear (any bear other than a black bear) makes a non-predatory attack (self-defense), like touching you, play dead. Do so only after the bear makes contact with you or tries to. Drop to the ground, lie on your stomach protecting you vital parts, clasp your hands behind your neck protecting it, and use your elbows and toes (keep legs together) to avoid being rolled over. If the bear rolls you, keep rolling until you land on your stomach. Stay still and don’t scream or struggle. Don’t move until you’re positively sure the bear has left the area.
- Do not run. If accosted or attacked by a bear, do not run. The bear will chase you, thinking you are prey. If you do run, don’t run directly away, move left to right because bears can’t make turns as sharp as you can.
- Be scentless. Smells attract bears. Use fragrance-free shampoos and soaps. Insect repellant citronella candles can attract bears.
Bear attacks aren't something we often think about before setting off on an exciting hike or camping trip. Keep these tips in mind before going off on your next adventure!