Bears are cute and fluffy creatures, especially when they’re still cubs. I’ve come across a number of them while in Wyoming, and their large, majestic forms never cease to inspire awe. Most of the time I’ve come in contact with them, they look like gentle giants, easy going and not very aggressive. And while it’s true that they don’t make a habit out of attacking humans, don’t let this give you a false sense of security around them. They’re still wild animals that are much larger and more dangerous than you are, and they won’t hesitate to defend themselves or their space if they feel threatened. To avoid becoming a victim of a bear attack, there are a few things regarding bear safety that you’ll want to consider before your next trip outdoors.
Avoid an Encounter
Obviously, when it comes to bears, the ideal situation would be avoiding them all together. The best place to watch a bear is on TV or from the safety of a zoo or your car (while still maintaining proper distance). Sometimes this isn’t always possible, but there are a few things that you can do to make sure bears keep their distance.
First, make a lot of noise while you hike. Bears don’t want to run into you either, so if they know you’re coming, they’re more likely to avoid you. If you’re hiking in a group, talking with each other is a great way to make noise and announce your presence. If you’re alone, try singing or wear a bell so that there’s always something that the bears can hear to know you’re around.
Now that the bear knows you’re in the area, do your best to respect their mealtime. Try to avoid dead animals, and steer clear of any indication that there might be a bear feasting nearby.
If you do happen to see one of these creatures, keep your distance. It’s tempting to get close for a few photos, especially if it seems like the bear is focused on something else or you think you’re at a safe distance. However, do your best to keep a healthy amount of space between the two of you – no photo or curiosity is worth risking your safety, especially when a wild animal is involved.
For those of you who are camping, make sure to keep your space clean and tidy. Avoid leaving meal scraps around, and keep your food in a secure place, preferably away from your tent. If possible, cook your meals away from your campsite as well, so the smell doesn’t attract unwanted visitors into the heart of your living area. The last thing you want is a bear sniffing around your pop-up tent!
Finally, leave your dog at home as well, as they might cause problems if there’s a bear around. While you might think that having your dog around to make noise might be helpful, it doesn’t make up for the risk you run if it decides to start chasing or attacking a bear.
What to Do if You Encounter a Bear
Now that you know what to do in order to lessen your odds of running into a bear in the first place, let’s talk about what to do if you happen to encounter one. The most important thing you can do is remain calm, no matter what scenario you find yourself in. If you scream or make sudden movements, the bear will likely interpret it as a threat or think you’re a dying animal and come after you.
While it might be difficult to remember at the time, most bears don’t actually want to attack you, as long as you’ve done nothing to provoke them. Identifying yourself as a human is an important step to take, so that the bear can recognize that you aren’t prey. Stand still and slowly wave your arms up and down, and speak to it in low tones to help everyone remain calm and non-aggressive. If it decides to stand on its hind legs, try not to panic, as this is typically a sign that it’s curious, not combative.
As another bear safety measure, it’s always wise to hike and camp in groups. The more people there are, the louder it will be and a stronger “human scent” will spread to alert the bears of your presence. The larger number of people will also prove to be intimidating for most bears, and they’ll avoid you for this reason alone. If there are small children in your group, make sure to pick them up immediately so that they don’t go running off toward the furry animal.
When possible, make yourself look bigger to the bear. You can do this by retaining good posture as well as by slowly moving to higher ground. Don’t drop your pack either, if you have one. It might slow you down if you try to get away quickly, but running isn’t a good idea anyway. Instead, the pack will act as a shield in case the bear does decide to attack you.
So if you aren’t supposed to run, what action should you take? Well, that depends on what the bear is doing. If it’s stationary, slowly move sideways, as this will allow you to keep your eye on the bear while reducing your chances of tripping. If it decides to follow after you, stop and stand your ground. Whatever you do, DO NOT try to flee – bears will chase after you, and they can run as fast as a racehorse. Climbing trees won’t help either, as both black bears and grizzly bears can also climb.
As far as bear safety goes, the worst possible situation you could find yourself in is running into a mother with her cubs. Never place yourself between the babies and their mother, and don’t make any threatening gestures toward either of them.
Bear Safety: What to Do if a Bear Charges
Now we come to the worst case scenario: the bear starts to charge. These creatures are usually defensive fighters, which means they usually only get aggressive if they’re trying to protect their food, children, or territory. Because of this, bear attacks aren’t very common, but it’s still good to be prepared in case of an emergency.
Bluff charges occur frequently, but try to stay calm. Turning to flee when you see a bear charging you is an understandable reaction – however, this behavior can trigger the bear’s predatory response, and turn a bluff charge into a real attack.
Grizzlies are large creatures that are strong enough to easily crush a human skull in their mouth, even if that human is wearing a high quality helmet. In fact, the amount of force they use would be enough to break a bowling ball, if that helps put things in perspective. Their sense of smell is also quite impressive, as it’s even better than a hound dog, and they can pick up the scent of food from over a mile away.
If you find yourself being attacked by one of these creatures, get down on your stomach immediately and play dead. Leave your backpack on (if you’re wearing one) as an extra barrier between you and the bear. It will likely be curious and try to roll you over, so keep your legs spread apart to make it more difficult to flip you over. In many cases, this will be enough for the bear to leave you alone, but if its actions are starting to get more aggressive, you’ll have to change your strategy.
While it’s not ideal, you’ll have to start fighting back if the bear starts getting violent with you. If there’s a good sized rock within reach, grab it, otherwise use whatever you have available to start hitting its face and muzzle. Fighting usually isn’t recommended because it tends to increase the intensity of the bear’s attack, but if things have escalated to this extent, you don’t have any other choice.
Black bears are quite a bit different than grizzlies. They’re small and agile, which makes them excellent tree climbers and decent swimmers. You might think that you respond to a black bear attack the same way you would if a grizzly bear came after you. However, you DO NOT want to play dead with a black bear. If one starts coming after you, fight it right away as aggressively as you can, aiming for the face. When the bear discovers that its prey won’t go down without a fight, it’ll typically give up and leave you alone.
The pepper spray for bears, this is a handy bear safety tool to carry around with you in case you find yourself in trouble. Filled with Capsicum (the part of a pepper that tastes spicy), spraying this creates a fine cloud between you and the bear that will make it temporarily more difficult for the creature to breathe, see, and smell. You’ll want to take that time to make your escape, ideally somewhere enclosed like a building or your car.
Since bears often shy away from larger groups, I believe bear spray is even more important for solo campers to store in their one person tents or bivy sacks. Better to be safe than sorry!
Tips for Use
It never hurts to practice bear safety procedures before you find yourself in the real deal, and this is especially true with bear spray. Get yourself a can of inert bear spray and get comfortable pulling it out, removing the safety tab, and firing. It’s also not a bad idea to practice spraying it in different wind conditions. Fire it into a headwind, crosswind, and backwind so you know how the spray will behave in different weather conditions.
Remember to keep it somewhere that’s easy to get to as well. Bear encounters can happen suddenly, and wasting precious moments to search for your spray can be the difference between getting away unhurt and coming face to face with an angry predator. Always have it on hand, and don’t worry about precision when you’re spraying – all you need to do is fire it in the general direction of the bear to create a cloud of spray between the two of you.
A common misconception that some people have is that bear spray can be used like insect repellant. Whatever you do, don’t spray it on yourself! Not only will this be ineffective, but it could cause harmful irritation to your skin or other parts of your body. And don’t forget, no bear spray is 100% effective. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable getting close to a bear or ignore the other information in this article.
If a Bear Attacks…
Should you find yourself in a situation where a bear is charging after you, the steps for using the spray is simple. First, remove the safety clip and aim slightly downward. Adjust for the wind, and begin spraying when the bear is around 30-60 feet away from you. Obviously you’ll want to spray it in such a way that creates a cloud between you and the bear, so that it has to charge through it to get to you. If that doesn’t make it stop, spray directly in its face and escape as quickly as possible.
Things to Consider
Hopefully you won’t ever have a close encounter with a bear, but if you do, it’s important to call 911 if you’re in cell service. Making sure you get yourself out of harm’s way takes priority, but once you’ve accomplished that, it’s good to let the authorities know what happened. This could help prevent others from having a less fortunate run in with the animal, and the art of bear safety is also about keeping the bear safe.
For those of you with bear spray, keep in mind that it can’t be taken on airplanes and can be harmful if thrown away. It’s always a good idea to recycle it at an outdoors store, visitor center, or ranger station.
Looking for more helpful information to give you confidence on your next outing? Check out these guides:
10 Essentials for Safety in the Wilderness
Using a Compass: How to Find your Way in Nature
How to Go Camping: A Guide for your Next Adventure