One of the most important things you can do when hiking bear country is to be prepared and be aware. While the overwhelming majority of bears don’t want anything to do with people, there are bear attack incidents every year. Understanding how to handle yourself if you’re in this unlucky situation can be the difference between life and death.
The best way to survive a bear attack depends on species and attitude the bear displays. If a bear charges, use bear spray to try to deter it. Back away slowly never showing your back. Generally if a black bear attacks, you need to fight for your life with whatever is on hand. Play dead for brown bears, if they were showing warning signs instead of predatory behavior. Just stay away from polar bears. If a bear showed unusual predator behavior, ALWAYS fight back.
This can sound confusing, but honestly it can easily be broken down into a few important steps. Learn these so they are muscle memory versus having to think and you’ll be good to go.
General Rules for Surviving a Bear Attack (by Species)
There are two important things to figure out right away when dealing with a bear because these two pieces of information will tell you what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of walking away. Maybe not unscathed, but alive.
- The species of the bear
- Whether they’re showing warning behavior or predatory behavior
These two things will tell you the best way to react if you find yourself near an aggressive or surprised bear in a worst case scenario.
Why are these important?
- Because if a bear is showing predatory behavior instead of normal warning behaviors (which you need to understand both in order to tell them apart) then you ALWAYS need to fight to the death to fight back and give yourself any chance of surviving
- Black and brown bears act very different meaning your reaction to give yourself the best chance of surviving a bear attack will need to adjust accordingly
We’ll start with the different bear species you may run into.
Brown Bears (Includes Grizzly & Kodiak Bears)
Brown bears (Grizzly Bears and Kodiak Grizzlies are both considered sub-species of brown bear) are the main cause of many bear attacks. Both from warning/accidentally stumbling upon them as well as from predatory behavior that no one wants to see (especially Park Rangers).
If a Brown Bear Is Approaching Slowly
Do not run and do not turn your back on the bear. Not only do you not want to lose sight of the bear, but doing this will kick in a bear’s predatory instincts. It will chase you and it will view you as prey at that point.
You want to walk slowly backwards, being careful not to trip or stumble, talking in a calm voice to let the bear know you’re not aggressive. Don’t make any sudden movements and wave your arms above your head. This makes you look bigger, but not threatening, and will often be enough to keep a curious bear from deciding to look at you much further. Or it at least keeps it at a distance.
Do this until the bear goes away or charges. One or the other will happen. Almost certainly the first if you follow these directions.
If a bear is following you for any amount of time and you have bear spray, make a cloud between you and it. There’s a well above 95% chance that ends the encounter. If not, you need to look for predatory behavior and react as if this is a life or death situation because there’s a very good chance at that point it is.
Backwards Walking Technique in Real Life
Here’s an example of a scary situation in Alaska where a guy stumbled upon a momma grizzly and her two cubs. He backed away slowly, talking not only to narrate but show he was a human, and he handled the backwards walk like a pro.
Nice work – notice the breathing. His adrenaline was going nuts by the end and EXCELLENT job of ignoring the flight instinct that would almost certainly have resulted in the large bear chasing him down and mauling him if not outright killing him.
Man Walks Back from Grizzly and Two Cubs Video
If a Brown Bear Charges
Most charges from a brown bear are going to be warning charges. These are to show off the power of the brown bear, the danger, and show its anger, annoyance, or irritation with whatever caused that reaction. This is to drive off the potential threat and then give it space to retreat or defend its territory.
According to the National Park Service, most charges are going to be bluffs. The bear will veer off and run in another direction, stop short before retreating back slightly, or stop short and then roar or otherwise stand to make it look big and threatening.
In these situations you need to stand tall. DO NOT RUN. Stand in place, wave your arms but don’t yell. Talk in a calm, reassuring voice. You want to make it clear by the tone of your voice that you’re not threatening it.
If the bear veers off and runs away, let it. Turn if you have to in order to make sure your back isn’t to it but otherwise let it go. That’s a win.
If the bear stops and roars, then this is likely a bluff charge. The bear is agitated but not necessarily committed to fighting. This is a show of strength. Once it stops walk backwards very slowly, not moving fast, not running, and NOT turning your back. You want to keep your arms up and talk in a calm reassuring voice if possible.
There is a good chance the bear will let you slowly back off once it’s clear its dominance has been asserted.
If the bear attacks, then read the next section.
If a Brown Bear Mauls You
Your first instinct needs to be to play dead and cover up. Protect your neck and head with your arms. You will get clawed and batted around a bit, but the attack will likely stop quite quickly after an initial burst. Keep playing dead.
If you have a pack on, lay face down, legs apart, pack still on.
After the initial attack do not get up right away. Many brown bears will stay in the area for a short time, looking for signs of movement from the threat. If you get up too soon it may attack again.
You need to wait several minutes, then bind up your wounds and get to help. Keep your eyes open. You don’t know which way the bear went and you don’t want to stumble into a second attack.
Important: If the attack doesn’t dissipate, then start fighting back with everything you have, because at that point it’s an aggressive predatory attack and you are literally fighting for your life.
However, most of the time fighting back is going to make an attack for a brown bear worse.
Black bears are among the most common and live in a wide spread of spaces throughout the world. They are generally less confrontational than brown bears. There are far fewer attacks from black bears than browns, even though there tends to be far more human population around areas with black bears than brown.
However, black bears to have one distinction: they don’t wander off once an attack starts. If they attack you, they intend to kill you.
If a Black Bear Is Getting Too Close
You want to make noise and make yourself as big as possible. Black bears aren’t as adventurous as their larger cousins. If you look big, make a lot of noise, show yourself to be a potential threat they will run 99% of the time.
You want to stand your ground, look scary, and unless you put yourself in a bad situation by accident like getting between a mom and her cubs without knowing it, this will be enough to get you out of a potentially bad situation.
If a Black Bear Attacks
With black bears the situation is actually really simple in regards to what you should be doing. You need to fight back. Black bears are much less likely to outright attack a person but when they do they fight for the full kill.
Because of this is a black bear is attacking you the worries about curious attitudes versus warning goes out the window. If a black bear attacks it will kill you if you don’t fight back.
Hit its face, gouge its eyes, use bear spray, firearms, sticks and rocks laying around, whatever you can get your hands on.
Black bears don’t like a super hard fight. They’re not ambush predators like mountain lions but they are not looking for a drag out fight with potential prey, either.
You need to fight back hard and there’s a chance you can drive them off.
First of all, what the (censored) were you doing to get into the range of a curious, hungry polar bear? Just how, why, and how are you alive for us to be having this conversation?
I would say all jokes aside…but no, prevention is absolutely the way to go here. Polar bears are a very different animal when it comes to
This might be a good time to bring up the old rule of thumb survival rhyme when it comes to bears:
Bear is brown, get down!
Bear is black, fight back!
Bear is white…good night.
Polar bears don’t care about people, they’re not afraid of people, and they are bigger, stronger, and nastier than grizzlies. In other words, you don’t ever want to be in a situation where you are face to face with these massive beasts.
They’re not like the Coca-Cola commercials of old.
The right response is to give these apex predators a wide berth. There’s a reason any escort for photographers up north includes multiple sharpshooters with extremely high power rifles.
If somehow you end up in an inconceivable situation where you’re up close and personal with one of these monsters and you can’t just back away then fight like hell but…well good luck.
Warning Behavior Vs. Predatory/Aggressive Behavior
Generally brown bears are sort of the big wildcard that makes this necessary. Polar bears are always happy to view an unarmed person as prey. Black bears generally only attack when startled or defending cubs and then after a brief frenzy run off.
Grizzlies do what they want, and that’s a problem.
Still, there are those exceptions of times when a black bear is desperate, starving, or aggressive.
The overwhelming majority of the time you can get an idea of how to react to a bear based on the species. But sometimes a bear acts…strangely. In those cases you need to look out for these signals because they indicate the bear intends to seriously attack and you need to react accordingly.
What Are Signs of Predatory or Aggressive Bear Behavior?
It’s definitely important to understand the difference between normal bear behavior around humans versus those that are clearly aggressive or predatory.
- The bear yawns (yeah it’s not cute – it’s showing off its teeth at you)
- The bear clacks its teeth
- The bear claws at the ground
These are signs that the bear is stressed and a real (not bluff) charge is likely on the way.
If you notice the bear’s head is up while charging that’s actually a good sign because it’s likely a bluff charge as the animal is looking for other animals, escape routes, etc. This isn’t always the case, but the gait and head position tend to be different with bluff charges versus an all out attack.
Prepare Yourself Ahead of Time
Preparation is crucial. You need to make sure you are prepared for a worst case scenario PRIOR to heading out into nature.
Step 1: Knowledge
Know the area you’re heading into. Are there only one type of bear in the area? Both brown bears and black bears? What type of bears are you most common to run into and when are the cubs out and about as the bears come out of hibernation?
Understanding any potential threats to your safety is the first step in preparing for it.
Doing a little bit of study/research ahead of time does something else very important: it puts you in the mindset to look out for potential threats. Being more aware in the wild is never a bad thing.
Whether focusing on bears or not.
Step 2: Bear Spray
There have been multiple, multiple studies done on the topic of the effectiveness of bear spray. Both on its own, and compared to firearms.
As well as in-lab testing of bear spray versus real world situations.
Bear spray is the much better and more effective option for well over 95% of the population out there. When properly used it drastically reduces the chance of injury and often will result in lesser injuries than someone who shot at the bear or didn’t have any bear spray on them.
Source: Government Study
The key is proper use. Bear spray only works if it is used correctly, and awareness of your surroundings is a part of that as wind direction and strength matter when it comes to creating an aerosol cloud.
I always recommend getting several cans and using one before a hike to be familiar with it. When a bear charges you is not the time you want to realize “I can’t pull the can from the holster,” or “This pin is hard to pull out.”
But carrying bear spray with you is a major step towards making sure you stay safe.
Only trust EPA-approved bear spray. These are the only ones that are actually tested to be real world effective against overly aggressive or curious bears.
As of this writing there are only four brands that are approved by the EPA. These are all proven effective, so beyond that it’s about finding a decent deal and dealing with the aerosol delivery system that you prefer.
Step 3: Firearm or No Firearm?
To gun enthusiasts this is an easy question. However, there is actually nuance to it. A Glock won’t do shit against a charging grizzly other than confirm in its mind it needs to rip you to shreds.
Having lived many years in Alaska bears weren’t the biggest worry. Idiot tourists wounding a bear with a gun too small to bring it down was.
There aren’t many guns that are going to be practical and effective if you’re not hunting in bear country. Sure, the right high powered rifle can work and a 12 gauge shotgun is the defense gun of choice for people in very isolated areas of bear country because several shots will get the job done.
However, many people in these areas are looking for a sidearm. There are a few that can work, but it’s a short list. .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum were the two I heard, though some say the .50 Caliber Desert Eagle also should be included.
Keep in mind these are guns that have massive kickback and are very hard to aim and control. This isn’t the same as shooting a conventional handgun.
If you’re not an expert at using one of those high caliber handguns specifically, you’re much better off going with bear spray.
Step 4: First Aid Kit AND Training
Always have an emergency first aid kit that you make yourself on hand so if an attack does happen you can wrap up any wounds or injuries. Stopping the bleeding, or at least slowing it down, is going to be extremely important to give yourself the best chance of getting to safety and surviving.
This should be a normal practice, but considering how often I’ve heard about someone almost biting it because they didn’t have any bandages – just take a first aid kit out with you when camping, hiking, or otherwise out and about, people.
Hopefully you never find yourself in this situation. Having lived in Alaska for several years and spending a ton of time out on the hiking trails up there solo there are two things you really don’t want to see up close and personal: a bear or a moose.
Also, don’t panic. In the entire world there are an estimated 40 bear attacks per year with less than 20% of those attacks ending up with a fatality. A lot of this is because of the ability to get medical treatment. It’s also worth noting the most bear attacks happen in Russia with the second most in North America.
This means there are very few encounters that result in a violent confrontation and that’s good. But you definitely need to be prepared if you’re going to be spending extended time in bear country.