I love seeing wildlife when I’m hiking around, and there is something so exciting about the possibility of seeing a bear along the trail. For many people, even the word “bear” evokes fear and anxiety, which is why I am aiming to educate YOU about simple things you can do to have a positive experience in the wild.
This article is Part Two of Bear Safety 101. Be sure to read Part One – Preventing an Encounter before continuing on.
Contrary to popular belief (and the way the media portrays bears and bear attacks), most bears do not want to kill and eat humans. This type of attack is extremely rare and is not something that should keep you up at night. I always recommend carrying bear spray while you hike to minimize the likelihood of being defenseless should something happen, but in all of my years of hiking I have never even pulled the safety off the trigger.
I have lived in Alaska twice (grizzly bear central!) and in Grand Teton National Park with no problems. If you are prepared and educated, you can hike with confidence along the trail!
Is it a Black or a Grizzly Bear?
First things first, what kind of bear are you dealing with? Educate yourself on the differences between grizzly (aka brown bears) and black bears.
It is important to note that both types of bears come in all shades of colors, so don’t just assume that because the bear’s coat is black it is a black bear. The size of the bear is also not a good indicator of the type of bear you are seeing. I have seen black bears in Alaska that are bigger than the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, so it really just depends!
The easiest way for me to identify the type of bear is to look at the shoulders. A grizzly bear has a large hump of muscle on its shoulder bone that is often very pronounced and easy to see. You will also notice that a grizzly bear’s face is concave and dips down (like a bowl) from the forehead to the nose. A black bear has no shoulder hump and its face is a straight line from the forehead to the nose.
For more detailed information on how to identify a bear, head over to this website!
If you see a bear but the bear hasn’t noticed you…
- Keep your distance and never approach a bear
- Stay out of sight and downwind if possible
- Alter your route if you can
Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for the bear to move far enough away from the trail so that you can continue your hike. Never get closer in an effort to pressure the bear to move….then you risk agitating and creating a defensive bear that feels threatened.
If you see a bear and the bear has noticed you….
- DO NOT RUN! Trust me, you cannot outrun a bear and you do not want the bear to consider you as prey
- Stay calm
- Talk to the bear (do not shout) and slowly wave your arms up and down to identify yourself as a human
- Pick up any small children that you have in your group (so that they don’t run or make any sudden movements)
- Move away slowly but do not turn your back on the bear until you have moved far enough away that the bear no longer shows interest
Your goal is to look as large as possible and to help the bear identify you as a human. The absolute worst thing you can do is to run or to abandon your pack. Don’t let the bear get any food from you and don’t use food as a way to distract a bear.
If a bear attacks…..
Although highly unlikely, it is important to know what to do if a bear attacks. Sometimes a bear will get up on its hind legs to get a better view of you or to gather information. Do not assume that the bear is going to attack you just because it is standing on its back legs.
If the bear begins to huff, woof, slap the ground with its paws, or clack its teeth, it is warning you that are too close and it feels threatened by you. At this point, it is smart to pull out your bear spray and slowly back away from the bear. Often times, putting distance between you and the bear will dissolve the situation.
If the bear still feels threatened, it may charge at you and then veer away before making contact. This is called a bluff charge. Spray the bear spray when the bear is within 10-15 feet of you and aim for the face. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUN. Stand your ground unless the bear makes contact. If the bear makes contact, drop to the ground and play dead. Cover your neck with your hands and lay on your stomach with your pack covering your back.
A defensive bear (one who feels threatened by you) will usually charge and then back off which is why it is best to play dead in most cases. If you are dealing with a black bear, sometimes you may need to fight back if the bear doesn’t leave you alone.
A predatory bear (one who sees you as food) will likely not charge right away, but will instead stalk you and persistently approach you. This type of bear is highly unsafe and you should be aggressive and fight back if it attacks.
Please remember that it is highly unlikely that you will be charged by a bear! Most of the time on my hiking trips, the bear isn’t even bothered enough to stop eating and look up at me. A few times in Alaska, if I happened on a bear suddenly, the bear and I would look at each other and then the bear would seem to shrug its shoulders and go back to eating as I slowly backed away.
Often times, these bears are just as scared to see us as we are to see them. With a little bit of preparation and education, you can be ready to have an amazing adventure out in the beautiful mountains!
For additional reading, check out Yellowstone’s guide to Bear Safety. It provides an extensive guide and will answer many of your bear-related questions.
Do you have any questions or comments? Let me know on Facebook or in the comments below!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that (at no extra cost to you) I receive a tiny bit of compensation if you make a purchase. I promise to only recommend products that I absolutely love and would use myself while out on the trail! I appreciate your support and welcome any questions you may have about any products featured on my site. Thanks! Ash