Understanding how to avoid (and what to do during) a bear attack is an essential survival skill for those who plan to spend time in bear country. Hiking and backpacking in bear habitat, especially in grizzly country, is a sure-fire way to feel alive. The knowledge of traveling where there is something that can eat you adds a certain spice to your adventures. A shiver of hesitation and fear coupled with a burning sense of feeling alive that can only be understood by those that have experienced it. Understanding how to survive a bear attack offers at least a little piece of mind.
Best chance at surviving a bear attack is avoiding one
The best way to survive a bear attack is to avoid one. Be alert at all times! Scan for any signs of bear such as tracks, scat or dig sites. When hiking in areas with thick brush, along waterways, or if your view is obscured, you are advised to sing a song, shout, “hey bear!” and in general make some racket! You don’t want to accidently surprise a bear. If you know you are going into an area with bears, especially grizzlies, don’t go solo. Hike in small groups. You and your friends are louder and smellier and will likely deter a bear before you ever see it. Remember, while grizzlies are more famous for bear attacks, black bears are dangerous as well.
If you can smell it, a bear can really smell it
Make sure anything particularly odorous is safely stowed away in a bear-proof canister. That includes all food, as well as things like toothpaste, deodorant and feminine hygiene products. NPS wildlife biologists estimate a bear’s sense of smell is 100 times greater than our own. Keep that in mind when basking in the smell of morning bacon next time.
Try to stay calm during a bear encounter
What to do if you encounter a bear is a very common question, especially for those new to hiking in bear country. Obviously, do not approach the bear (as obvious as this sounds it must be said). Again, STAY CALM! We realize that is easy to say and difficult to practice, but we can’t emphasize enough the importance of remaining calm. A scream or sudden movement may turn a curious bear into an angry bear. A bear may act defensively to your presence by growling, standing, salivating or pinning its ears. If this occurs, again remain calm and speak in soothing low tones! High-pitched screams and yelling are not going to intimidate a bear and may do the exact opposite by escalating the situation.
Identify yourself as a human, not prey
If a bear sees you, identify yourself as a human and not prey! Hold your ground and make yourself look bigger by raising your arms. Again, speaking in a low calm voice to the bear. If the bear comes closer or stands on its hind legs, don’t freak out! It is likely just getting a better look or a good sniff. A standing bear generally means it is curious, not threatening. If you are hiking with small children, keep them calm and pick them up immediately.
Ready your bear spray
If you are hiking in bear country, especially in areas where there are grizzlies, make sure to carry bear spray. It is important to realize bear spray is a bear deterrent and is just as harmful to humans as it is bears. Lastly, before you hit the trail in bear country make sure you understand how to use bear spray. Your Counter Assault is simply an expensive paperweight if you don’t know to properly use it and have it easily accessible.
Get out of dodge!
After the initial encounter, you'll want to think about how to extricate yourself. Always leave the bear an escape route! You don’t want the only route away from you to be through you. Once you’ve identified yourself as human, and if the bear is not moving away, it's your turn to move. Slowly and sideways! The sideways movement allows you to keep an eye on the bear and not trip. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground and repeat above steps.
What to do if you see a bear
Seeing a bear in the wild is a bucket-list experience for most of us. Knowing what to do if you see a bear when hiking may prevent an attack from ever occuring.
DO NOT RUN! Know how your dog likes to chase things? So do bears! And they can run roughly 30 mph uphill or downhill. Yes, that’s much faster than you!
DO NOT TAKE YOUR PACK OFF! Any protection you have between the bear and your body, you need!
DO NOT THROW FOOD in hopes of distracting it! You are only going to make the problem much worse!
DO NOT GET YOURSELF between a sow and her cubs! Your chances of becoming injured increase dramatically if she believes you are a threat to her cubs.
When to fight during a bear attack
If you find yourself in the worst-case scenario and are being attacked by a bear, there are different generally accepted survival tactics.
FIGHT BACK if you are being attacked by a black bear. DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Try to aim your blows on the bear’s face and muzzle. Fight back with any weapon or object and kick. Once the attack stops, immediately escape to a safe area.
PLAY DEAD if you are being attacked by a grizzly bear. With your pack on, lie face down on the ground with your hands covering the back of your neck. Spread your legs wide to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over. Keep this position until the bear leaves, then immediately escape to safety. While fighting back may increase the intensity of the attack, if the attack persists, fight back vigorously with whatever weapon or object you have available, again concentrating blows on the bear’s face and muzzle. This is a subjective matter and there is no hard and fast rule on when to fight back.
If you are attacked by a bear in your tent or are being stalked, then fight back immediately regardless of the kind of bear. These attacks are very rare but do occur, most often when the bear has already determined you are prey. Again, remember the best bear defense is always to avoid bear encounters.
And lastly, remember that these are all good general rules, but you should always check with local officials for particular advice and recommendations specific to the area you are visiting!