If you’re going to be out camping or hiking in an area with known bear populations, it’s important to go in armed with the knowledge you need to stay safe.
While bear attacks are rare, they are wild animals and there’s always a chance you might wind up in a dangerous scenario whenever you’re in a bear habitat.
Before we get into ways to avoid a potentially dangerous bear encounter and how to survive a bear attack, it’s important to know about bear behavior in various bear populations.
- 1 Different Types of Bears & Their Habitats
- 2 Avoiding Bear Encounters
- 3 Keeping Bears Away From Your Campsite
- 4 Why Do Bears Attack?
- 5 What to Do During a Bear Encounter
- 6 How to Survive a Bear Attack: Wrap-Up
Different Types of Bears & Their Habitats
There are 8 species of bear in the world, including black bears, brown bears, polar bears, panda bears, and slot bears; and there are many subspecies of these bears. However, there are only a handful of bear species found in North America, so we’ll be focusing on them for this section of our guide. If you’re interested in bears found outside of the North American continent, such as the sloth bear, check out our other guide here.
If you’re going to be camping or hiking outside of the North American continent, you’ll want to research which bears may be native to the area, but the tips on what to do should you encounter a bear will be similar, so it’s worth jumping to the relevant sections below.
Brown Bears & Grizzly Bears
Ever wondered what’s the difference between grizzly bears & brown bears? Grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bear, and they’re found mountain valleys, dense forests, areas with thick brush, and thiand meadows. While grizzly bears don’t have much range in the U.S., they have a fairly large presence in Yellowstone National Park and the northwestern region of Montana. Brown bears, on the other hand, mostly live in Alaska, though there are small colonies throughout Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and along the coasts.
The grizzly bears’ diet consists of plants including clovers, dandelions, pine nuts, and various grasses. For protein, they’ll feast on trout from local streams, and are known to eat worms, moths, ants, and other various insects. When the opportunity arises, they’ll scavenge the leftover scraps wolves leave behind after attacking elk and bison.
Brown bears are found along the coasts and feast mostly on salmon. The brown bears that inhabit the Alaska Peninsula are able to score an abundance of fish, more than most other coastal areas, which is why they tend to be larger than browns bears found elsewhere.
While fish is their primary source of nutrition, these bears are also known to enjoy a variety of clams, along with flowers, roots, and berries. Brown bears play a major role in planting and fertilizing berry patches in Alaska’s forests due to eating them en masse and leaving their seeds behind after digestion.
Because brown bears often have access to an abundance of fish (lots of fat & protein), they tend to be much larger than their grizzly counterparts. The brown bears that live on Alaskan coastline can weigh over 1,500 lbs. and reach heights of 10 feet when standing on their hind legs. Grizzlies, on the other hand, typically weigh much less–anywhere from 200 to 800 pounds, and can stand up to 8 feet tall (or taller, in some cases).
In general, grizzly bears are territorial and tend to be more aggressive towards other bears and humans than brown bears due to the lack of easily-available food in their habitats. This means that a grizzly bear attack may be more likely than a brown bear attack, so extra caution is recommended when camping in grizzly country.
The name “black bear” is a bit of a misnomer–while he majority of these bears are indeed black, their fur can come in a variety of different colors, all the way from a snow white color, to many shades of brown. These bears are found all throughout North America, Canada, and Northern Mexico, and can live in a variety of habitats.
The American black bear tends to avoid plains and open lands and instead prefers forests and mountainous regions, unless the flat areas have river access and tree coverage.
Similar to brown bears and grizzly bears, black bears are omnivorous and enjoy a variety of food sources. When it comes to plants, these bears enjoy berries, grasses, roots, fruits, and other plants. In fact, much like brown bears, black bears play a big role in planting and fertilizing berry patches in the Alaskan forests, a little later in the season when the brown bears have moved on to fishing for salmon.
For protein, they enjoy hoofed animals such as deer, elk, and moose–though they’re usually only able to catch and kill younger prey. They’re also known to feast on livestock such as goats and sheep when the opportunity presents itself.
It’s important to note that black bears are especially fond of trash and pet food, so it’s important to keep your trash and food sealed up tight when camping in their habitats.
Black bears are medium-sized, with males usually weighing around 300-400 pounds (though some subspecies can weigh up to 600 pounds), and females usually weighing less than 200 lbs. The average height for these bears is around 5-6 feet when standing on its hind legs, which is quite a bit shorter than brown & grizzly bears (though still not small, by any stretch!).
Black bears tend to be fairly shy, and only act aggressively if they feel they have no other option. While they would generally rather avoid confrontations with humans, they can still be dangerous if provoked or hungry, though almost every incident with humans will be a defensive attack. If you encounter a black bear, avoidance is the best course of action if at all possible.
Unless you’re hiking in the artic circle or areas such as Alaska, the northern regions of Canada, Greenland, or Russia, you’re probably not going to run into any polar bears. If you find yourself in areas with sea ice, you’ll want to keep a sharp out eye for these beautiful, powerful creatures–they can be very dangerous in close quarters.
While most types of bears are omnivorous and enjoy a variety of plants, polar bears are hypercarnivores (they almost exclusively eat meat). This is due to the fact that not many plants can grow in the harsh ice-covered lands these bears inhabit. Their diets consist almost completely of ringed seals, though they will also feast on bearded seals when possible. They can also attack and eat walruses, but smaller malnourished polar bears may not be strong enough to take them down.
Male polar bears can be absolutely massive. It’s not uncommon for these beautiful creatures to weight up to 1,500 lbs. and stand up to 10 feet tall on hind legs. Female polar bears are generally much smaller, averaging 6 to 8 feet tall and usually don’t exceed 600 pounds.
Seals can be tricky to catch, even for skilled predators such as the polar bear. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for polar bears to go quite a while between meals, which means they can get very hungry. When they’re hungry, they become more aggressive, which can be bad for humans who find themselves in the same vicinity. With that said, polar bears who have recently eaten are much less likely to attack humans unless they feel threatened, but they’re not territorial like grizzly & brown bears and would prefer to avoid fights if possible. That said, they’re much more likely to commit a predatory attack than other species.
Avoiding Bear Encounters
Identify & Avoid Bear Habitats
Identifying bear habitats and keeping an eye out for fresh bear tracks can help to avoid a potentially fatal encounter.
Watching for droppings, footprints, leftover carcasses, potential dens, and natural landforms that could hide a grizzly is also very important in avoiding an attack.
Signs of Bear Dens
Bears are very clever creatures, and they know to avoid trails and heavily-trafficked areas where humans are known to roam. In fact, unless you’re exploring some fairly remote areas, the chances of encountering a den are pretty slim. With that said, it’s important to know the signs to look for so you can act appropriately in the off chance you stumble into a den.
Many people think of caves when they picture bear dens. While caves do make great dens, there are many places across the continent that don’t offer caves to shelter in, so bears will make due with what’s available.
Large hallow trees are a favorite option, but trees large and rotten enough to no longer have an inside are fairly rare. More commonly, bears will locate trees with large root systems and dig out space underneath to create a den. Another common choice for dens are hillsides, where bears will dig in to create a bear-made cave to ride out the winter in.
When bears can’t find a nice natural den, and can’t find a good place to hollow out, they often resort to finding an area with fallen trees and thick brush to camp out under, or find an area that has decent wind coverage and scoop up leaves and branches to create a bed.
While bears do sleep a lot during their hibernation period, many will often venture out several times in search of snacks in a state of torpor (lethargy, low brain activity). While they’re more likely to be docile during these forages, they’re still best avoided.
Polar bears don’t hibernate, but they still den to nurture their offspring. They create a shelter out of ice and snow to stay in while they give birth and feed their young for several months. Usually, only female polar bears will stay in a den for any length of time, and they’re very protective of potential intruders.
If you come across what you suspect may be a den, but there are no bears in sight, there are some telltale signs to look for. One sign you’re near a den is trees that are missing a lot of bark, and bark shavings on the ground. Bark makes a great bear bed, so they tend to harvest it when prepping their den for the winter. Additionally, if you come across large piles of bear scat there’s a good chance a den may not be too far off.
If you happen to stumble upon a bear den in the middle of winter, it’s not advisable to go near it. While bears often sleep during the coldest months of the year, they also have babies during this time and will nurse them, so they can be hypersensitive and protective when it comes to their offspring.
Similarly, you don’t want to find yourself too close to a den as bears emerge from hibernation during the spring. Male bears tend to emerge in the later part of March, while female bears with cubs tend to emerge in April and May.
After a long winter of little to no eating, plus nurturing newborn cubs, it’s unsurprising bears will emerge from their dens with quite an appetite. Plants will work in a pinch, but meat is necessary to help bears regain their strength. They’ll be looking for easy prey, and will also jump at the chance to rummage through garbage in nearby campsites. Hungry bears and defensive bears are the most likely to attack humans, so you don’t want to run into any that have recently emerged from hibernation.
If you’re thinking about doing some hiking during your trip, plan ahead and be prepared to help reduce the chances of encountering a bear during your outing.
Most bears do their feeding around dawn and dusk, so it’s a good idea to plan your hikes around these times. That’s not to say you won’t encounter a bear at any other times during the day, but the odds are reduced.
If at all possible, avoid hiking solo. Bring at least one partner on your hikes, to help establish more of a presence and reduce the chances of accidentally sneaking up on a bear and surprising it. The more people in your group, the safer you’ll be from bears. No only does having more people create more noise which can help scare bears off, but more hikers means more eyes keeping a lookout and spotting bears so that your group can act accordingly.
Hiking is a rigorous activity, so you’ll likely need to bring along some snacks to help keep your energy levels up. Keep these snacks sealed tightly while you’re out on the trail, and keep your trash and wrappers sealed up when you’re finished eating to help reduce the chances of nearby bears smelling food as you pass through their territory.
Make plenty of noise with your group while you’re hiking to let nearby bears know you’re in the area. Since bears would prefer to avoid humans, giving them a heads up that you’re passing through is often all that’s necessary to ensure you avoid any run-ins during your hike. See below for more tips on using noise as a deterrent.
Carry bear spray with you in the event that you do encounter a hostile bear that isn’t scared off by your group. Hopefully you won’t need to use it, but it’s better to have it just in case. Also go armed with knowledge of best ways to protect yourself in the event of an attack as a last-ditch resort (covered below).
Noise as a Deterrent
While bears aren’t generally scare of humans, most species would prefer to avoid human contact when possible. Sounds associated with humans–such as talking, yelling, laughing, and clapping can help keep bears away. With that said, there are plenty of ways to make noise, though none of them are as effective as sounding human.
Even so, noise of any kind can’t be considered a terribly effective way to ward off bears–especially if they’re hungry, startled, or cornered (accidentally or otherwise).
While noisemakers may keep bears away, they’ll quickly discover that these noises don’t lead to any negative repercussions, so they’ll likely learn to ignore them. Some believe strapping bear bells to your backpack can help deter bears, but in reality they aren’t a great deterrent. They’re not loud enough, and by the time a bear hears them, you’re already too close. Plus, bears don’t associate the sound of bells with the sound of humans, so they don’t know to be wary in the even they do hear them.
Whistle sounds aren’t intimidating to bears and generally have no effect when it comes to scaring them off. However, a whistle can be a very handy SOS signal to alert any nearby campers or hikers that you’re in trouble, which can hopefully lead to people arriving to assist (and groups of people are more intimidating than a solo person or small group of people).
Unnatural noises may keep bears away, though the jury is out on whether music may keep bears at bay. In some cases, music may notify bears that something strange is in the area and they may be inclined to investigate. However, in other cases, it’s been discovered that music can annoy and deter bears. It’s not advisable to put all your eggs in the music-as-a-deterrent basket, however.
As mentioned earlier, most bears would rather avoid humans in most situations. Talking loudly, yelling, and clapping can signal to a bear that humans are nearby. This can be enough to keep them at bay, but it’s also not a fool-proof method. It does work better than most other options, though, as noises NOT associated with humans may trigger a bear’s curiosity and lead them to you, instead of scaring them away.
Mammals, and bears especially, are curious creatures. Odd smells such as scented lotions and perfumes may attract the interest of bears in the area, so it’s best to avoid them. If you’re able to shower, be sure to use scent-free soap and shampoo to help get clean and fresh smelling without adding unnatural smells.
After you’ve showered (or jumped in a nearby lake or river, without any soaps or shampoos to preserve the water’s natural chemical balance and protect the aquatic wildlife), sprinkle baking soda all over your body (especially the areas that sweat the most, such as your armpits, groin, feet, and hair). Baking soda helps kill and prevent odor causing bacteria, which leads to a more natural and neutral scent.
You don’t have to smell bad just because you’re out in the wilderness, so be sure to check out our tips for ways to smell great in the wilderness (without attracting nearby wildlife).
Keeping Bears Away From Your Campsite
Before you worry about how to survive a bear attack, it’s good to know the best ways to avoid dealing with them in the first place. One key way to minimize your risk of an encounter is to take care of your campsite and take simple steps to avoid drawing unwanted attention.
One of the best ways to keep bears away from you campsite is to choose a spot that’s not frequented by bears in the first place. That can be easier said than done, but there are several telltale signs to look for before you decide to pitch your tent or hang your hammock. If you’re hammock camping, be sure to check out the Ultimate Hammock Camping Guide for more tips on how to avoid bears and other animals.
If you notice bear tracks near where you’re planning on setting up camp, it’s a good idea to reconsider your location. Similarly, if you see scratched trees, discarded food (especially signs of kills, such as bones or animal carcasses), or bear droppings, you’re likely not too far away from some local bears.
Keeping Your Campsite Clean
Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and most species of bear can smell food up to twenty miles away. If a bear catches a whiff of your trash and leftover food scraps, there’s a chance they’ll move in to investigate. If they spot you they’ll likely keep their distance unless they’re starving, but that’s not a chance you ought to take.
If you leave trash improperly secured overnight or while you leave camp for any length of time, a bear is much more likely to wander in and feast on your garbage. This is why it’s essential to bring along bear-proof, scent-proof containers to store trash in, unless you’re at a campsite that has bearproof dumpsters you can utilize.
If you’re storing your trash, it’s important to note that bearproof does not equal scent-proof. You can opt for odor-blocking bags to store your trash in inside of your cannisters if you want to be extra cautious. Either way, it’s a good idea to store your trash away from your campsite–at least 100 feet, but up to 100 yards is even better if possible. Even better, string your trash cannister(s) up from a high, sturdy tree branch or a bear pole to make it even more difficult to get to.
Store Your Toiletries Properly
As mentioned above, bears can be interested by curious smells such as scented body soaps, shampoos, lotions, and other items. While camping, store whatever toiletries you bring with you in a airtight containers if possible. Otherwise, be sure to at least double or triple-bag these items to reduce their scents as much as possible. This include your toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soaps, body wipes, and any other items that may emit an odor (no matter how faint the smell may be to you).
While there’s no guarantee that bears may pick up on the scent of these items, it’s another case of “better safe than sorry,” and it doesn’t take much extra time or effort.
Be Mindful of Your Food
Similar to trash, bears love the smell of human food. Just like storing trash, it’s a good idea to keep your food sealed in odor-proof bags locked up tight in bearproof containers. Again, you should keep your food at least 100 feet away from your campsite, ideally 100 yards away. If possible, string your food bear canisters up next to your trash cannisters from a high, sturdy tree branch or bear pole if available. Storing food in a tree may not do much good if you don’t use an air tight container
Whatever you do, don’t store food in your tent or hammock. The last thing you want is to be woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of heavy footsteps and sniffing near where you’ve been sleeping.
If the food you’re cooking smells delicious to you, you can bet it smells delicious to any nearby bears. While they’ll likely keep their distance if they can hear or see people at your campsite, the scent will linger. If it lingers past your bedtime or while you decide to go exploring, hungry bears will have little reason to stay away.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to cook your food 100 yards away from your campsite, and upwind if possible. If you’re cooking with electric or gas-powered equipment, it’s usually fairly easy to set up a temporary kitchen away from camp. If you plan to cook over a fire and have already built a cozy campfire in your camp, it may seem like a pain to have to build a separate fire to cook over. However, it’s worth the effort to avoid any run-ins with hungry bears.
When you’re done cooking, be sure to thoroughly clean your dishes and store your gear in more bearproof containers, once again (you guessed it) near your trash and stored food. Don’t use your clothes to dry dishes; instead, use designated cloths that you can store in bear canisters along with your food and other cooking gear.
Answer Nature’s Call Far Away from Camp
When nature calls, finding the nearest semi-private area is the quickest and easiest way to take care of business. However, urine odor has been proven to attract bears, so it’s a good idea to put some distance between your campsite and your makeshift restroom.
If you would rather not stray too far from the comfort of your tent you may wish to urinate in a bottle, just be sure to seal it tight. If that’s not an option, try to head at least one hundred yards away upwind of your campsite to take care of business. If you need to do more than pee, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep to go in, and be sure to fill it in and stamp it down before heading back to camp.
Digging holes when you need to go can be inconvenient, so you may want to bring along a trowel to make quick work of the task.
Do Campfires Keep Bears Away?
While relaxing around a campfire is arguably one of the best parts of a camping trip, they aren’t great at deterring bears. In fact, a campfire may attract any that happen to be nearby. However, as mentioned before, bears would prefer to avoid humans in most situations, so being loud and having a good time while around your campfire. The main thing to remember is not to cook at your campfire if at all possible, and to instead build a separate fire for cooking away from your campsite.
For more helpful tips, learn more about how to keep animals out of your campsite.
Why Do Bears Attack?
While bear attacks do happen, they’re given a bad wrap by popular culture. Often portrayed as mean, vicious killing machines, most species of bear are actually very docile when it comes to humans. They generally only attack when they feel threatened, or they’re starving and are desperate for food.
With that said, it’s best to avoid bears as best as possible when out in bear country, because you don’t want to risk the chances of encountering a bear that thinks you’re a threat or a starving bear that’s looking for its next meal.
Black Bear Attacks
Black bears are the least likely to attack humans, and are just as afraid of you as you are of them–their only interest (usually) in encounters with humans is their own safety and survival.
With that said, black bears have attacked and killed people, but it’s very rare and usually when a person surprises and startles them in close quarters where they feel trapped.
Brown & Grizzly Bear Attacks
Brown bears & grizzlies, on the other hand, are extremely territorial and protective of their cubs, so they’re most likely to attack if they feel their territory or young are in danger.
That said, grizzlies typically only attack and fight if they feel threatened, so they likely won’t actively hunt down a person. However, if you’re too close to their territory, you may be perceived as a threat, so it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of bears in the area and act appropriately.
Polar Bear Attacks
While most bear species are scared of humans, polar bears are not. Polar bears are the most aggressive species, but it’s not because they’re out to get humans in particular. It’s because they are often lacking the food they need to stay satiated, so they’ll take a meal whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In face, polar bears don’t differentiate humans from any other potential prey–we look just as appetizing as seals and other creatures that consist of their diet, and actually probably look much easier to catch and eat than the walruses and other giant creatures they feast on.
They’re unique in this way–most man-eaters (such as lions) understand that humans are dangerous and treat us differently than other prey.
What to Do During a Bear Encounter
If all of your efforts to avoid and deter bears don’t prevent you from coming face to face with one of these mighty creatures, it’s important to stay as calm as possible and act appropriately.
There’s a very good chance you will be afraid (who wouldn’t be?), but fortunately bears don’t attack because they sense fear. In fact, with the exception of polar bears, most bears will only attack when they feel threatened, you’ve invaded their space, or they’re extremely hungry. Otherwise, they would much rather avoid humans in just about any scenario.
However, bear attacks do happen (rare as they may be), and if you find yourself staring down a hostile bear it’s good to be prepared and know how to survive a bear attack and minimize risk of injury or death.
A bear may approach you or stand on its hind legs to better inspect you, but this isn’t necessarily a sign of aggression–the bear is likely trying to determine what, exactly, you are.
Act Like a Large Human
Ensure the bear knows that you’re a person by talking calmly in a deep tone and slowly waving your arms. Make yourself look as large as possible–open your jacket or button-down shirt and spread it to appear bigger, and slowly work your way to higher ground if possible. Avoid screaming, making loud noises, or sudden movements as you may provoke the bear into attacking.
Make Your Exit, But Don’t Run
If you’re with small children, pick them up. Instead of running, if the bear is stationary, slowly walk sideways to try and exit the area. Moving sideways allows you to keep an eye on the bear without risking falling down if you were to walk backwards. If the bear follows, stop and stand your ground–you won’t be able to outrun it, and bears will chase animals that run from them. Don’t try to climb trees, either–bears are excellent climbers.
When trying to leave the area, always give the bear a way out. If you block their only escape route, they’re more likely to feel threatened. If it’s not possible to make a clean getaway, stay where you are until the bear decides to leave. If you stumbled upon the bear and are blocking its only way out, slowly move out of the way of the exit.
If the bear is a female with cubs do not, under any circumstances, get between the mom and the cubs, and don’t make any movements that would indicate you’re moving towards the cubs. Doing so can make you seem like a threat to her cubs, and she will be much more likely to attack.
Protect Your Belongings
Don’t allow the bear to get at your food, as that may excite it and escalate the situation. Also, don’t drop your backpack if you have one–you can use it as a shield if things worsen and the bear gets too close. Their claws may be able to tear through the bag, but you can slow them down while you counter.
Use Bear Spray if Necessary
Bring bear pepper spray along on your hikes if you’re hiking through a potential bear habitat if pepper spray is allowed (if you’re unsure, contact the local wildlife authorities in the area you’ll be visiting).
Bear spray can be very effective in deterring a bear that intends on attacking you. If the bear is charging, or gets ahold of you, a burst of spray to the face and eyes of the bear can repel it. However, it’s important to use a spray that is designed specifically for bears to avoid long-term damage (always avoid ammonia sprays as they can permanently damage a bear’s nose, which is its most important tool for finding food).
Does Playing Dead Work?
If your attempts at deterring the bear or getting away have not proven successful, you may find yourself in physical combat with a bear. You may have heard the old adage that you should play dead to avoid serious harm or death.
This advice is partially true, but it depends on what type of bear you’re face to face with. If you’re up against a brown bear or facing a grizzly bear attack, playing dead is a good idea when it comes to your survival. Get down on your stomach, laying flat, and cover the back of your head with your hands. Spread your elbows and legs wide to make it more difficult to be flipped over, and lay as still as possible until the bear gets bored and wanders off. If the bear becomes more violent, your best option is to fight back. You’ll need to give it everything you’ve got, and focus your efforts on the bears most sensitive areas–namely, their face (nose and eyes). A few good hits can end a grizzly attack by causing them to retreat, but you’ll need to swing as hard as you can and connect in the right spots, which is easier said than done.
If you’re about to engage in a black bear attack, playing dead is a bad idea. Instead, go straight into attack mode if the bear wants to fight.
How to Survive a Bear Attack: Wrap-Up
If you follow the information outline above, you’ll be well-equipped with the knowledge you need to survive a bear attack in the event you have a run-in during your outing.