First and foremost, it must be noted that bear attacks are rare. You shouldn’t feel that the threat of a bear attack is imminent, once you step into bear country. That being said, bear attacks do happen and knowing what to expect, what is likely to provoke an attack, and how to react, is the best way to lower your chances, if you encounter an angry bear.

Black vs. Grizzly (Brown) Bears

Grizzly (Brown) Bears

  • Grizzly bears average around 400 lbs. but can be as large as 800 lbs.
  • The best way to identify a grizzly is by the distinctive hump, in between the shoulders.
  • Grizzly tracks are most easily identifiable by the small arch of the toes. In other words, you would be able to draw a straight line in the space between the front of the foot and the bottom of the toes. Also they have large claws that can sometimes be seen in the tracks.
  • Grizzly bears have short ears that are rounded.

Black Bears

  • Black bears average around 200 lbs. but can be as big as 400 lbs.
  • Black bears don’t have a hump between their shoulders, like a grizzly bear.
  • A black bear has shorter claws and the arch of their foot is larger. If you were to draw a straight line through the space, you’d hit the middle of both the end toes. A black bear’s print is more likely not to have the claws in it.
  • Black bears have large, pointed ears.

Precautionary Measures in Bear Country

  • Before you hit the trail, ask a ranger if there have been any complaints of bears being either aggressive or overly friendly with people. Ask them where these encounters have taken place, and avoid these locations. Many trailheads will have notices posted about recent bear activity. Be prepared to alter your planned hike to accommodate a bear that has been known to be causing problems in the area of your intended destination.
  • When you come to a site at which you would like to make camp, make sure there are no signs that it has been visited by bear. Look for scat, prints, and trees with their bark rubbed down. Also, an open site that is relatively clear of trees and away from a trail made by small animals is better. Avoid campsites with garbage strewn about. This type of site is attractive to bears.
  • Bears are most active at night and during dawn and dusk hours. Avoid hiking during these times, as that’s when you’re most likely to run into a bear.
  • When you are hiking, keep an eye out for any sign of recent bear activity.
  • Making noise, like singing or talking during your hike, will alert a bear to your presence and avoid a “sneak attack”.
  • Traveling with a group is safer than traveling alone.
  • Leaving your dog at home, when going into serious bear country, is the best policy, for their safety and yours.
  • When you cook, try to do it downwind of where you plan to sleep, and at least 100 feet away. This way, if the residual food odors attract a bear, the bear won’t be drawn to you as you sleep.
  • Store your food and other items properly, in a bear bag, bear box, or bear proof canister. Check what the requirements are in that area, and comply with them. Be prepared to bring extra gear, such as backpacking rope, to secure food and clothing away from your sleeping area.
  • When you store food, don’t forget to include your toothpaste, soap, and the clothes you hiked and ate in. The smells of food, salt, and people attract bears and other animals.
  • Never sneak up on a bear. If a bear is aware of your presence, don’t go near it. If you see cubs around, stay away from them. A mother bear never is far from her cubs and will fiercely (and violently) defend her babies from any intruders.
  • Stay on trails that are marked, and follow all of the rules provided by the location. These rules are created for park preservation and your safety.
  • If you want, you can carry bear spray. Keep it readily accessible, and practice with it at home so you know how to use it.

Encountering a Bear

  • Bears are, for the most part, solitary animals. They enjoy having personal space, so give it to them. A bear is much less likely to charge, if you stay far away from it.
  • If you accidentally walk up on a bear, speak in a calming voice and slowly walk away backwards. Don’t make eye contact.
  • Remember, each bear you encounter has a different personality and an individual sense of personal space. If you’ve run into a bear before, don’t assume this one will react similarly. Stay vigilant and treat each bear encounter as if it was your first.
  • DO NOT RUN! The average bear can run about thirty miles per hour, while the fastest human running speed was recorded at twenty-seven miles per hour.  You stand absolutely no chance of outrunning a bear, and running will make them chase you.
  • If a bear charges, it’s usually a bluff. Bears will often charge and veer off to the side. They may do this several times. If a bear charges, stand your ground. If they stop, slowly back away.

If a Grizzly Bear Attacks

  • If a grizzly bear attacks, play dead.
  • When you drop to the ground, keep your backpack on and fall onto your stomach, with your hands on the back of your neck for protection.
  • If the bear leaves, stay down. Sometimes grizzlies will hang around to see if you get up.

If a Black Bear Attacks

  • When a black bear attacks, be loud and large, wave your arms around and yell. If that approach doesn’t make them stop, then play dead.
  • Use pepper spray (or bear repellent) if you know how to use it.
  • If you encounter a mother bear, playing dead is a better choice. They won’t back off if you act big, especially if their cubs are around. You’ll only convince them further that their cubs are in danger.

A Few Tips on Bear Body Language

  • If a bear is standing on its hind legs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they plan to attack. Sometimes they stand up to get a better view. Although they may not be standing in an aggressive manner, it’s best to back away, as they may decide to charge at any moment.
  • If a bear swings its head, it’s looking for a way out of the situation without charging. Walk away without presenting your back.
  • If a bear makes a barking noise, meets your eyes, or puts its ears back, you are much too close. Get out of the bear’s personal space or it will charge. When you get out of its space, don’t meet its eyes and don’t present your back.

Bear attacks in the backcountry are rare, but being prepared before you enter the area is the best plan of action. Many bear attacks could have been prevented and happened simply because the bear was surprised or because hikers got too close to cubs. When you are in the backcountry, especially in areas where bear activity is high, always practice proper bear safety and food handling. For additional information we suggest you think about watching “Staying Safe in Bear Country”.