How to Survive a Bear Encounter

CC BY 2.0. Denali National Park and Preserve

Bears don’t want to attack you and then be at risk for a official’s rifle or euthanasia. They’d probably rather just be left alone. But as human and ursine paths increasingly cross, we hear more and more about bear attacks, sometimes with an abysmal ending for both person and bear.

While some bears are more accustomed to seeing humans, others are completely wild – either way, a bear’s behavior can be dangerous and unpredictable. Each bear and encounter experience is unique, notes the National Parks Service (NPS), and there is no single strategy that will work in all situations. While all in all bear attacks are rare, these NPS guidelines will help to make a bear encounter as peaceful as possible.

Avoid an encounter in the first place

• If you’re visiting a national park or will be involved in any kind of wildlife viewing scenario, be sure to brush up on your “viewing etiquette”:• Bears need space, respect it: Use binoculars or spotting scopes to keep some distance.

• If a bear changes its behavior because it sees you, you are too close. Most parks have viewing distance regulations which are specific to the area's species and terrain. (Yellowstone National Park, for example, requires visitors to keep a distance of at least 100 yards.)

• Try to stay on designated trails. Leave pets at home.

• Hike and travel in groups, which are noisier and have more scent than a single person, allowing a bear more warning that people are near. Groups are also more intimidating to a bear.

Once a bear starts paying attention to you

Otherwise known as the "uh-oh moment."

• Identify yourself as human by talking calmly, letting the bear know that you are not a prey animal. Remain still, but wave your arms slowly. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell, this gesture is more curiosity than threat.

• Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you, though they may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Fun! Bears can also act defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears flat. Keep talking to the bear in a low voice; do not scream or growl, so not surprise the bear.

• Pick up small children immediately.

• Do not allow the bear access to your food or give it any, this will only encourage it.

• Keep your pack on, if wearing one; It will prevent the bear from getting your food (if you have any) and can add protection should the bear attack.

• If the bear is standing still, move away slowly and sideways; this is non-threatening and non-inviting and allows you to watch the bear and avoid stumbling. Do not run, bears chase fleeing animals. Likewise, don't climb a tree; bears are great climbers.

• Find a way to get out of there the area, always leave the bear with an escape route.

• Never get between a mamma bear and her cubs.

If a bear attacks

The kind of bear involved matters, so brush up on who's who in the bear world. Here are the NPS guidelines on how to deal with attacks from different trypes of bear.

Brown/Grizzly Bears: If you are attacked by a brown/grizzly bear, leave your pack on and PLAY DEAD. Lay flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over. Remain still until the bear leaves the area. Fighting back usually increases the intensity of such attacks. However, if the attack persists, fight back vigorously. Use whatever you have at hand to hit the bear in the face.
Black Bears: If you are attacked by a black bear, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Try to escape to a secure place such as a car or building. If escape is not possible, try to fight back using any object available. Concentrate your kicks and blows on the bear's face and muzzle.
If any bear attacks you in your tent, or stalks you and then attacks, do NOT play dead—fight back! This kind of attack is very rare, but can be serious because it often means the bear is looking for food and sees you as prey.