I saw the first wild bear of my life on the Appalachian Trail. It was the summer of 2001, and I was 20 years old.
I walked through the usual green tunnel of forest, south of Shenandoah National Park on a summer afternoon. The woods were my home throughout the months of backpacking from Georgia, so it was a day like any other.
A rustle in the underbrush shattered my daydreams. I looked to the left, expecting to see a squirrel… or maybe a deer. Nothing was there.
The bear’s head popped out over the brush. Our eyes met.
It was a small black bear, up on its hind legs to have look at me. I can still see the silhouette of its dark head with the rounded ears, resembling a cuddly teddy bear.
It seemed equally startled, and dropped down on all four paws. Bushes rustled as it quickly scampered away, and was gone. Only a few seconds had passed.
I was alone in the woods again, realizing I’d just seen a bear. I’ll never forget the sound of its flat paws on the soft dirt. It was… well…
It was cute.
What wasn’t so cute was the time I saw a female grizzly and two cubs in Alaska.
That was scary. They were only about 20 yards away. Fortunately she didn’t charge us.
Yeah, a bear will sometimes charge at you.
I can only imagine what that’s like, but it must be terrifying. It’s usually just a “bluff charge.” You’re walking in the woods minding your own business, and suddenly a bear is running at you full speed like it wants to bite your head off.
Then, at the last second, it will veer off to the side. The charge is a scare tactic, just to make you soil your pants and let you know it means business.
Sometimes the bear will charge you repeatedly, two or three times until it feels satisfied that you’re not a threat.
A charging bear is usually defending something – like a mother that doesn’t want you near her cubs. Or maybe it’s defending a food source. Or maybe… maybe the bear is just having a bad day, and you interrupted its naptime.
Note that I said it’s “usually” just a bluff charge.
Sometimes a hiker is killed by a bear.
Then the rangers come and shoot it. The guilty beast is never hard to find, because it will be defending your half-eaten body as a food source. It went to the trouble of killing you, so it might as well eat you.
And there lies the root of our (Often irrational) fear of bears – the concept of being eaten by another creature as prey. Chomp Chomp Chomp. Nom.
Fortunately, bears don’t typically eat people. We’re not on the menu.
Mostly we can assume that we’re not worth the trouble, or maybe we just don’t taste good (You know, all those Big Macs and GMOs). Usually a bear will only eat someone because they’ve killed them for some other reason, and those reasons are avoidable.
That’s why I’m writing this article. Every once in while a fatal bear attack pops up in the news. Despite the brevity of most news reports, I sometimes see an obvious mistake that the victim made… and that’s too bad, because we’re talking about real people who could still be around today, walking and talking and ordering barbecue sauce with their chicken nuggets at the drive-thru.
Since my first encounter in 2001, I’ve seen a dozen or more black bears, and half a dozen grizzlies while hiking. I don’t doubt that I’ve been in the presence of countless more, and was simply never aware of their presence throughout of thousands of miles of backpacking.
How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic
I’ll start with some of the more obvious rules about behaving around bears, and then I’ll get into the finer facts and details.
Rule #1 – DON’T RUN!!!
Never run from a bear. NEVER.
This triggers it’s predatory chase instinct. At one moment you may be just another creature in the woods… but when you start running, you’re suddenly very interesting!
It will chase you down, and this will not end well for you. A bear can run at 30 miles per hour. The fastest human running speed ever recorded was 27.44 miles per hour, clocked for a brief clip of a 100-meter race .
While we’re at it, the same advice is true for any wild animal that acts as a predator. Don’t run from wolves, don’t run from coyotes, don’t run from mountain lions, don’t run from sharks, and definitely don’t run from scary rabbits with big pointy teeth.
Don’t run from anything with pointy teeth.
This poor guy was running.
This incident leads me to number two…
2: There’s Safety in Numbers
It’s very rare for a bear to attack a group of people together on foot. Makes sense… would you initiate a bar fight if you were outnumbered five to one?
Neither would a bear. Even a single buddy is a lot more discouraging than just you, all alone. Those college boys (in the link above) should have stayed together.
3: Sing a Song and Forget Bear Bells
Make a lot of noise in areas with poor visibility. This way you’ll alert a potential bear of your presence, and you won’t surprise it. Your own human voice is the most effective thing to identify yourself as a two-legged big-brained homo-sapien.
So sing a song or just say “Hey bear” periodically. Studies have shown that bear bells are ineffective and blend in with other natural sounds like songbirds.
This applies mostly for grizzly bears. Actually almost everything here is primarily meant for grizzlies, because they’re like honey badgers. They don’t care.
Black bears, on the other hand, tend to be like big raccoons. Only the very desperate, psychotic, and/or acclimated black bears ever attack. More on that later.
4: Give a Bear Plenty of Space
It may sound obvious, but if you see a bear, please don’t approach it for a picture.
If you’d like to turn your back and take a selfie, well, that’s fine… the gene pool could use less people like you.
For almost 100 years, Denali National Park (Alaska) could proudly proclaim that “Nobody has ever been fatally attacked by bear in the Park,” until this guy came along in 2012.
Considering all of the people that go stomping around the backcountry up there, year after year, the statistic that only one person has been killed in Denali is still encouraging.
In most National Parks (like Denali) it’s illegal to be within 300 yards yards of a bear – you can technically be ticketed for it.
There’s a reason for that. Stay away.
5: If a Bear Charges You, Stand Your Ground
That’s right. When a bear comes running at you like you’re dead meat, you must stand there and meet your fate (See Rule #1, don’t run!).
In most accounts where a bear charges, I gather that everything happens very, very fast… like hitting a deer with your car.
- Wave your arms over your head
- Use your voice as calmly as possible
- Try to look big
Looking big helps deter an actual attack, so hold on to your hiking poles as you wave your arms. The swinging of your arms also helps identify you as non-tasty-human. We’re the only big mammals that can make that sort of an arm movement.
In the bear’s state of surprise, it may be afraid that you’re a more natural threat (Like another bear). So the more that you can do to quickly prove that you’re a human, the better.
If you can, go ahead take a few steps backwards while still facing the bear, as slowly and calmly as possible.
And forget that silly stuff about climbing a tree. Not only does it sound impractical, but bears can climb trees, too. Once I saw a black bear shimmy down the trunk of tree like it was a classic fireman, sliding down a pole in the firehouse.
Hopefully it’s a bluff charge, and you’ll have a great story to tell for the rest of your life.
6: Carry Bear Spray in Grizzly Country
And know how to use it.
Most models come with a holster that conveniently slides into the hip belt of your backpack. Attacks happen fast, so the canister needs to be there on your waist – not stowed away in your backpack, and not even in the side pocket.
Likewise, each individual in your party should have their own canister.
Read the directions when you first get it, and (Very carefully) try removing the safety clip, just to see how it comes off (Be sure to replace the safety afterward, duh).
In the event that you need to use it, try to remember to be mindful of the wind. You do not want to spray yourself with this stuff.
The outfitters near popular areas like Yellowstone, Glacier, and Denali carry bear spray. You can also order it online, but check with your airline when traveling to ensure that you don’t end up in a TSA water-boarding station.
You’re welcome to carry spray in black bear country too, if you wish, but most people (Like me) will see it and judge you for being silly.
7: Know How to Identify a Bear
Black bears can live in the same general area as grizzlies.
If you’re being attacked, you’ll want to know which type of bear you’re dealing with. Black bears sometimes look brown, and brown bears sometimes look black.
The most reliable way to tell the difference between them is to look for a distinctive hump of muscle over the back of the bear’s neck – grizzly bears have one and black bears do not.
Grizzlies also have longer claws. The picture at the top of this page is a grizzly bear.
8: If a Grizzly Bear Attacks You, Play Dead
Okay, so the charge wasn’t a bluff. It was too windy to use your bear spray, and this Grizz means business.
Remember, grizzlies are like honey badgers, they don’t care.
The fact that they don’t care means they’re more likely to attack on just a whim. This ultimately means, once you’re under attack, that a grizzly bear is actually less dangerous than a black bear.
The grizzly bear doesn’t care, so it’s more likely to lose interest in you. Get it?
Play dead. Drop to your knees, clasp your hands over the back of your neck, and put your face in the dirt. This leaves your backpack up in the air, so hopefully the bear gets a big mouthful of lightweight gear.
Don’t scream and don’t fight… sounds easy, right? Hmmm.
Believe it or not, people have played dead and survived, like this man in 2012. The idea is that the bear is most likely attacking you because it feels threatened, so if you pee yourself and cower into a little ball, then it will soon realize you’re just a wimpy little human who walked in to the wrong place at the wrong time.
9: If a Black Bear Attacks You, Fight Back!
Almost every black bear that I’ve ever seen has ran off into the woods, scared. It’s not just me and my bad smell after a week of hiking. Most black bear sightings are the same story – a fleeting view of the bear’s rear end, rumbling to and fro as it gets away from you.
Generally this is because most states have a hunting season for black bears, and they learn to associate people with guns. Bears (Like wild deer and other large mammals) tend to have a natural distrust and fear of humans.
So if a black bear actually attacks you, then it’s probably starving and really, really desperate… or just plain psychotic. If you play dead you will likely be eaten just the same, so you must fight.
Yell, scream, stick your hiking pole up its nose, stab its eyes out, and let your wild alter-ego have at it with everything you’ve got. Fight for your life.
Black bears tend to be so timid that most experienced hikers develop a false sense of security about them. Sometimes on the Appalachian Trail I’d daydream about what would happen if it came down to a fight.
After a few months in the woods you start to feel a little like a wild animal yourself, and downright bulletproof. I remember seeing a black bear and thinking “Yeah, I could take him.” It developed into a fantasy about being found injured or dead… with the bear’s dead body nearby.
So yeah, a lot of us don’t see black bears as much of a threat.
It doesn’t affect any of the rules above, but sometimes a bear will get aggressive because it likes the taste of Snickers bars, so…
10: Never Let a Bear Have Your Food
Imagine you’re a black bear, roaming through the woods. You eat roots, leaves, berries, and bugs… all day, every day. Sometimes you’re lucky and get some honey, or maybe a rabbit.
Then one day a hiker leaves a smelly bag of food unattended, and it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever tasted! You want more, but you can never have it again.
Or can you?
You’re not stupid, you know it’s the two-legged hikers that have the good stuff. You’re obsessed, you want more.
So you start to follow them around. You hang out where they sleep, hoping to get in between them and their rapturous food. If you’re really brave, maybe you’ll even bluff charge a hiker, hoping to scare him into dropping his food.
Never let a wild animal have your food.
11: Follow the Local Regulations
Remember how I said that bears are scared of us because sometimes we like to shoot them and mount their heads on our walls?
Well there’s no hunting allowed in the National Parks, so the Parks tend to have more of a problem with bears than other places. Rangers create the rules and regulations because they help keep you from getting harassed and attacked by wild, Snickers-obsessed bears.
Follow the rules. For example, many parks require you to carry a bulky and heavy bear canister. Others require you to camp only in designated areas, because those areas come equipped with a safe place to store your food.
12: Be a Smart Camper in Grizzly Country
Your campsite in grizzly country is going to have three important locations. They should all be 100 yards away from each other, creating a sort of triangle. They are:
- the place where you cook and eat
- the place where you store your bear canister (You’re using one in grizzly country, right?)
- the place where you sleep
The place where you sleep should ideally be upwind of the other two locations. Store everything with any type of scent with your food, like toothpaste, lotions, etc. (Applies to black bear country, too). Keep a clean camp, avoiding crumbs and spills.
Some people recommend cooking and eating in a different set of clothes than those you wear to sleep, but I think that’s overkill.
Choose an open area with good visibility to cook your dinner. If a bear approaches your site while you’re cooking, you’re going to want to see it as soon as possible.
If a bear comes toward you, dump your food into a baggie (Freeze-dried meals are handy in grizzly country because they’re already in a bag), and quickly stuff it all into your bear can. Bring the canister with you, and go on to follow the procedures I listed above (Waving your arms, etc.).
When there’s only black bears in the area, it’s still sometimes a good idea to use a canister. Sometimes it’s required, like in Yosemite.
Stringing your food up in a tree is generally regarded as the right thing to do elsewhere, despite the fact that black bears are excellent climbers… and it’s quite difficult to rig a bag in a tree that a bear couldn’t get a hold of if it really, really wanted to.
In certain situations you can actually get away with sleeping with food in your tent… but since this article is about not getting eaten by a bear, I won’t elaborate on that here.
Finally, Please Wear Your Seatbelt… and Don’t Shake the Vending Machines
Getting into an automobile is so much more dangerous than hiking in bear country. Snack machines are probably more hazardous too… those things can fall over and squish you like a grape!
With this knowledge you’re now free to go on and explore the places of your wildest dreams… the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, or even a a field of ripe blueberries in Alaska.
For some wildly entertaining bear footage, check out the movie Grizzly Man. It’s a documentary filmed by a man who… eventually and unfortunately… got eaten by a bear.