Reacting to a Bear Encounter

Two grizzlies feed on a snowy hillside.
How to React to a Bear Encounter at a Distance

If a bear doesn't see you, keep out of sight and detour as far as possible behind and downwind of the bear. If the bear sees you, retreat slowly and leave the area. If possible slowly walk upwind to let your scent reach the bear. Regardless of the distance, never approach the bear.

If a bear stands up on two legs, it is most likely trying to gather information and not being aggressive. In this situation, don't panic and slowly back away.

A grizzly bear strolls away from a stream.


Reacting to a Surprise Encounter With a Bear

If the bear clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that you are too close and are making it nervous. Heed this warning and slowly back away. Do not run, shout, or make sudden movements: you don't want to startle the bear. Running may trigger a chase response in the bear and you can't outrun a bear. Bears in Yellowstone chase down elk calves all the time. You do not want to look like a slow elk calf.

Often times, slowly putting distance between yourself and the bear will defuse the situation. Draw your bear spray from the holster, remove the safety tab, and prepare to use it if the bear charges.

Should you climb a tree? Climbing a tree to avoid an attack might be an option but is often impractical. Remember all black bears and most grizzly bears can climb trees (especially if there is something up the tree that the bear really wants). Running to a tree or frantically climbing a tree may provoke a nonaggressive bear to chase you. People have been pulled from trees before they can get high enough to get away. Also, you have probably not climbed a tree since you were ten years old and it is harder than you remember. In most cases climbing a tree is a poor decision.

A sow grizzly and her cub graze in a spring meadow.


How to React to a Charging Bear

If a bear charges you after a surprise encounter, stay still and stand your ground. Most of the time, if you do this, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away. This is called a bluff charge. If you run it is likely to trigger a chase response from the bear.

If you are charged by a bear and have bear pepper spray, this is the time to use it. Start spraying the charging bear when it is about 40 feet away.

If the bear continues to charge, it is important, not to drop to the ground and "play dead" too early. Wait until the bear makes contact or the nano-second just before the bear makes contact. Remember, by standing your ground, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away. If the bear makes contact, this is the point where you become passive and "play dead." Drop to the ground; keep your pack on to protect your back. Lie on your stomach, face down and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still and stay silent to convince the bear that you are not a threat to it or its cubs.

After the bear leaves, wait several minutes before moving. Listen and look around cautiously before you get up to make certain the bear is no longer nearby. If the bear is gone, get up and walk (don't run) out of the area. Remember, the sow grizzly needs time to gather up her cubs which may have climbed trees or hidden in nearby brush. If you get up too soon, before the sow has had time to gather up her cubs and leave, she may attack again.

During a surprise encounter where the bear is reacting defensively, you should not fight back. Fighting back will only prolong the attack and will likely result in more serious injuries. Since 1970, in Yellowstone National Park, those that played dead when attacked by a bear during a surprise encounter received only minor injuries 75% of the time. However, those that fought back during surprise encounters received very severe injuries 80% of the time.

If a bear has not reacted aggressively, and has not initiated a charge or otherwise acted defensively, you should back away. Never drop to the ground and "play dead" with a bear that has not been aggressive or defensive.

A black bear glances up from grazing in the long, green grass.
How to React to a Curious or Predatory Bear

Being submissive or "playing dead" with a curious bear could cause the bear to become predatory. A defensive bear will charge almost immediately during a surprise encounter, and will charge with its head low and ears laid back. A curious or predatory bear will persistently approach with its head up and ears erect. When approached by a curious or predatory bear you should be aggressive and fight back.

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