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What to Do If You See a Bear

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What to Do If You Encounter a Bear and How to Stay Safe

What to Do If You Encounter a Bear and How to Stay Safe

What to Do and How to Act If You See a Bear

Most people who have been camping, hiking, in the mountains, or live in a region with brown bears, black bears, cinnamon bears, and grizzlies, have seen a bear or bear cub. Coming across a bear can be startling.

In most cases, bears are just as wary of us as we are of them. Black bears, for the most part, can be scared off with some loud noise and posturing. It's important to note, however, that you can startle a bear or aggravate a bear, and their sheer size can make an encounter or an attack very dangerous or even deadly for a human (e.g., the grizzly bear/brown bear or polar bear). Find out how to act if you encounter a bear and protect yourself or avoid danger.

I've encountered black bears and grizzlies when camping in Montana at Glacier National Park. When it was a grizzly, she went rolling through our campsite with her cub. Based on these numerous instances, here's what I've learned.

Always Try to Stay Calm

When you first see a bear, you need to take a moment to activate your brain rather than your fight-or-flight response. Then you're going to want to identify what species of bear it is. This will help you determine how to act.

Black Bear or Grizzly Bear? How to Tell the Difference

The first time I ever saw a grizzly bear, I remember thinking, "Wow, that's one of the biggest animals I've seen in quite some time." Grizzly bears are massive and have huge necks/scruffs. Black bears have longer muzzles and tend to scavenge more and move quickly, scampering up trees. Here's how to determine the difference between the two.

Black Bear

  • Color: Black bears can be black, dark brown, brown, cinnamon, and white.
  • Size: Black bears are generally smaller than grizzlies. But in parts of Canada they can be as big as 800 pounds and in the Eastern United States, they can be as small as 250 pounds, so size is typically not that reliable.
  • Appearance: Black bears tend to carry more weight in the rear and less weight in the front. Their snouts are longer than the grizzly (more cone-like), and their ears are more pronounced. They do not have a large hump around the neck like the grizzly.
  • Claws: Black bears have 4-cm-long front claws and their 5th digit tends to be lower down in their paw pad compared to the grizzly.

Grizzly Bear

  • Color: Grizzlies can be blond, red, light brown, dark brown, and almost black. They tend to have lighter upper bodies. They can be "grizzled" in appearance, with the highlighted fur.
  • Size: Female grizzlies can be 200-350 pounds and males 300-650 pounds. They are much taller than back bears, but this can vary by age.
  • Appearance: One of the most notable characteristics of the grizzly is the shoulder hump. They have very muscular formations around their neck. The hump is generally the most prominent or highest point on their body. Their profile, too, is more "dish-shaped" with a flattened muzzle. They also tend to look fuzzy compared to black bears. Their ears are less pronounced than black bears.
  • Claws: Their claws tend to be quite long (4-10 cm in length). Their tracks look much different. The claw marks will be farther from the paw pad than the black bear.
Black bear in Alaska.

Black bear in Alaska.

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear

What to Do if You See a Bear From Far Away

If you see a bear from far away, do not go near it. Do not pause to take a photo. You will want to leave and go back the way you came. If you suspect you might encounter the bear by doing so, you will need to take an alternate route. It's important that you stay as calm as possible and do not try to intimidate or chase off the animal. Do not scream, shriek, for throw rocks. Stay as under the radar as possible.

What to Do If You Encounter a Black Bear

If a bear comes into your campsite, approaches your car, or tries to break into your cabin, take a second to think the situation through. Speak to the bear in a calm tone and back away to an area where you feel might be safe compared to your current situation. You will want to keep eyes on the bear. Always walk and do not run unless you are being attacked. The calmer you are around wildlife, the less likely you are to trigger it.

Black Bear Behavior

Black bears tend to be a little more skittish than grizzlies. If you see a black bear, move out of its way so that it can move on. Stand up tall and make eye contact. If you feel you are in a safe place, go ahead and yell at the bear to leave. Have your bear spray ready. Use lights, bang pots and pans, and be bold. You can use all types of deterrents on black bears—hoses, rocks or cans, loud music . . . try to keep it humane but treat the bear like an intruder and try to drive it away. Remove all deterrents.

Bluff Charges

Black bears can make what's called a "bluff charge." A bluff charge is a method used to try to scare someone or something away. This might involving huffing and puffing, scraping the ground, short bursts of speed, and standing up tall. If a bear is doing this, respect the bear and leave. If you feel the bear is getting too close, stand your grand and have your bear spray ready. Be intimidating.

Carry an Air Horn

What to Do If You Get Attacked by a Black Bear

If you are worried about encountering a bear, you probably want to know how to survive a bear attack. Aside from the other points mentioned in the article (that most bears won't attack without reason), here are some points you can follow. It should be obvious that you won't have time to read this list if you are getting attacked by a bear.

Surviving a Black Bear Attack

  • Detonate your bear spray: If a black bear attacks you, you need to detonate your pepper spray.
  • Be big: Be large and powerful and intimating. Stand up tall and yell. If there are branches around, grab them and wave them to add height. If the bear "bluff charges," don't turn and run if it's from afar. It might leave.
  • Don't climb anything: Climbing something to get away from a black bear won't work. You also trigger the instinct for them to pursue you.
  • Fight back: You will want to fight off a black bear because you actually might have a chance compared to a grizzly. Use anything you find near you as a weapon. Punch and kick the bear's face. This should drive them away. Avoid running.
Grizzlies and brown bears are the same species but grizzlies are a subspecies.

Grizzlies and brown bears are the same species but grizzlies are a subspecies.

What to Do If You Run Into a Grizzly Bear

Never challenge or aggravate a grizzly bear. Never try to get a grizzly bear to leave. You are better off giving up your food and your belongings and letting them do their thing than trying to deter them. Adding noise, throwing things, and harassing the grizzly will aggravate it. You need to back out of the situation as calmly and discreetly as possible to a safer area. Have your bear spray ready.

Surviving a Grizzly Attack

  • Detonate your bear spray: If a grizzly bear attacks you, you need to detonate your pepper spray immediately.
  • Drop down into fetal and protect your organs: If you cannot outrun the bear, fall down and cover the back of your neck with your fingers interlaced and tuck into a ball or fetal position and protect your internal organs. Stay still and keep your head down.
  • Play dead: The bear is probably seeing you as a threat, so it wants to kill you or injure you. You need to pretend to be dead. Do not get up when you think the bear is gone. The bear is likely around. Stay down for half an hour unless you truly see an escape route. If you are a badly injured, you may need to try to get up before then (that's a chance you will be taking).
  • Hit it in the nose or eyes: If you have something sharp and long, you can try to hit the bear in the nose or eyes. You can try to kick it too, though you won't really have a chance. This will likely make the bear more upset. Do it as a last resort.

What About Polar Bears?

Polar bears are by far more terrifying than grizzly bears. Though rare to encounter, they are deadly. Use every tactic that you would against a grizzly and never wander into polar bear country without an expert guide and survival gear.

Can Bears (and Grizzlies) Climb Trees?

Yes, black bears are master climbers and enjoy being up in trees. Grizzlies can also climb trees but not as well as black beers. Their claw shape and size make it more difficult. Grizzly bears prefer flat land and will likely stand their ground rather than go up a tree.

How to Discharge Bear Spray

Always Be Prepared and Be Bear-Aware

Before you go wandering off into bear country, you need to know a little bit about how to deter bears.

Food: Pack It Away

When I traveled through Montana, the ranger warned me to not have food out longer than I was eating it. Sure enough, when I started eating, a bear showed up with her cub within 10 minutes. If you are traveling or camping with food, keep it in scent-proof baggies while you're backpacking. If you need to pull it out to eat, make sure you scan the area to ensure it's bear-free and eat quickly.

If you are camping in the backcountry, get a bear vault. Do not put your food in your car; bears will damage cars to get in. Some people will string their food up high in the trees in an area that cannot be reached. I've never tried this, but it's an okay but more complicated way to keep it from critters. Do not sleep with anything scented in the tent in the backcountry. Toothpaste, lotion, and the sort (though not appealing) are still interesting.

Carry Bear Spray

If you are hiking through backcountry or in Montana and Wyoming (or in the East), you will want to carry bear spray. Make sure you buy from a reputable source and you research how to use it. I personally like Montana-made bear spray with the glow-in-the-dark safety tab. It was designed by people who survived a bear attack. If you're really in the backcountry, carry multiple canisters in an easy-to-reach place like the side of a backpack or on your belt. Make sure you read the directions and know how to use it and you're familiar with its range. Note: It also doubles as a deterrent around sketchy people.

Carry a Bright Light and an Air Horn

These are two of my favorite humane "weapons." The bright light (could be a headlamp, but house inspection lights are great for this too), should be so bright that they blind and can stop an approaching bear or human at night. In addition, I like to carry an air horn (usually they come with a 6-mile reach) and are used in maritime for small craft/vessel emergencies. An air horn will definitely scare and deter a wild animal that has never heard something so loud before.

Set a Perimeter

When I camped in the Montana backcountry, I was in a tent and there were definitely bears out. I ended up taking fallen wood and I set up a perimeter around my tent. If you really want to get serious, you can set up a trip-wire (trip-string) perimeter with bells around your campsite. A simple wooden "fence" was enough for me to be able to hear an approaching bear at night. I slept pretty well.

A Word About Guns and Rifles

If you go into the backcountry in Montana, there are warning postings: if you shoot something sizable like a grizzly bear, you might end up just angering it. People who carry rifles in the backcountry often do so because they might wind up in a dire situation. Gun safety is super important. If you don't know how to handle one, don't carry or acquire one. Also, don't put yourself in a stupid situation and you won't need one.

Always be aware in bear country.

Always be aware in bear country.

Stay Out of Bear Habitat

Be mindful of classic bear habitat and don't go wandering through berry bushes or taking unmarked turns in the back country. Most of the time, bears are out munching and enjoying their habitat, so coming across one or one of their cubs is a good excuse for bears to go on the attack.

Stay in a Group If You Can

You'll want to be in a larger group (power in numbers), and avoid wandering solo if you can help it. It's also good to make noise as you're walking through areas of low visibility. Some people say to avoid carrying bear bells and to talk, sing, or clap instead (bells may actually draw attention).

Look for Bear Poop

Look for bear poop. If you find bear poop, gauge how fresh it is. If it's dried out, the bear is probably gone. If it's fresh, you will probably see flies on it, it will look wet, and it will have berry seeds in it or similar. If you find bear poop, move somewhere safe.

Always be aware of the territory you are in.

Always be aware of the territory you are in.

Respect Wildlife

Always remember that you are in bear habitat. If you have bears breaking into your cabin or your garbage, you are still in bear habitat. Bears are just looking to exist and survive. Mother bears are looking to defend their young. If you stay out of the bear's way, you won't get in to trouble. It is rare that a bear will purposefully attack to kill a human. There is always risk, but the chances of getting attacked by a bear are slim, especially if you abide by the deterrents listed in this article.

Bears Are Beautiful

The biggest rule of all is to respect wildlife to get respect. Some people become targets of bear attacks sadly without much reason—these instances can be quite random—but in most cases, bear attacks are absolutely avoidable. Stay safe!


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Laynie H


Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 21, 2020:

Hi Dora, thanks for reading this article. I am glad you learned something too about save encounters. Bear spray is a must have!

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 21, 2020:

HI Drew, glad you took interest in this article!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 20, 2020:

Still hoping that I never get close to a bear, but I certainly appreciate this article. Thanks for the prevention and survival tips. Glad for the information on bear spray.

Drew Agravante from Philippines on September 17, 2020:

I haven't seen a bear aside in zoos and only heard stories of bear attacks. Even so, I can feel the danger of meeting one through your article. Thanks for sharing this curious piece.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 16, 2020:

Hi Peggy, good call on getting out of there! I definitely camp and travel with bear spray. Who knows how helpful it will be but it's a good deterrent in a dangerous situation. I tend to try to respect their territory as you mentioned and clean up food.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 16, 2020:

Hi Liz, I'm glad you found this helpful. In doing the research, there is a lot of conflicting information, but most of all it comes down to respecting bears and being prepared! We see a lot of bears out here.

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on September 16, 2020:

Hi T, thanks for being into protecting bears!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 16, 2020:

One time in Oregon we stopped in a little park that had wild apple trees. When we discovered a fresh bear dropping, we quickly got out of there. Your examples of how to avoid a bear attack are informative. I did not know that there were bear sprays available. That video about how to use it was also very informative.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 16, 2020:

We don't have bears running wild in the UK, but I have had friends tell tales of bear encounters on their travels abroad. I have wondered what one should do when faced with a bear. Your article gives detailed and useful instructions.