What to do if you see Bear!

Want to know what to do if you see a bear? Bear safety is essential for those who enjoy spending time in nature, especially in US National Parks. From casual hikers to seasoned outdoor enthusiasts, understanding how to navigate environments inhabited by bears safely is essential to ensure both human and bear welfare. 

The importance of this topic is underscored by the potentially lethal consequences of bear encounters gone wrong and our ethical responsibility towards these magnificent creatures.

In the United States alone, we find a large collection of bear species, each with its own unique habits and habitats. The most common is the American Black Bear, seen across many states and displaying a variety of subspecies and colors. 

The formidable Brown Bear, including the iconic Grizzly, roams the wilderness of Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and other areas. Further north, the Polar Bear reigns over the icy expanses of Alaska’s Arctic region. These species and the rarer sightings of wandering species like the Mexican Black Bear contribute to a diverse bear population across America.

As we venture into their territories, we must understand these species, their behavior, and how to respectfully and safely share their environment. In this article, we will journey into the world of bear safety to better equip you to know what to do if you encounter bears.

bear footprint in mud
A fresh bear print in the mud is a good sign that one may be lurking nearby. NPS Photo / Jim Peaco

Understanding Bear Behavior

Bears are generally solitary animals, preferring to spend most of their time alone, except during mating season or when a mother raises her cubs. Despite this, they are not territorial like many other large predators and have large overlapping home ranges. Their diets are omnivorous. However, plant-to-animal matter proportions can vary significantly by species and individual.

American Black Bears are often shy and will usually try to avoid humans. However, they may become aggressive if they feel threatened or if a mother bear is protecting her cubs. Signs of aggression in black bears include a lowered head, laid-back ears, and snapping of jaws. If a black bear stands on its hind legs, it’s usually trying to get a better view or catch a scent, not to threaten.

Brown Bears, including grizzlies, are larger and can be more aggressive. They often use body language to communicate. A grizzly might “bluff charge” to intimidate, rushing toward you but breaking off the attack at the last second. Brown bears may also clack their teeth together, lower their heads, raise their rump, or stomp their feet, all signs of potential aggression. Suppose a grizzly bear stands on its hind legs, similar to black bears. In that case, it’s generally a sign of curiosity rather than aggression.

Polar Bears are typically more aggressive than their southern relatives due to their lack of interaction with humans and their place at the top of the Arctic food chain. They are curious, and due to their reliance on fat-rich prey like seals, they can view humans as potential food sources. Signs of aggression or hunting interest in polar bears include a direct, focused approach, a lowered head, and ears pointed forward.

Additional signs of aggression include moaning or clacking their teeth, swatting the ground, bluff charging, or huffing (a forceful, often repetitive, expulsion of air, sounding similar to a pig snort). They may also lay their ears back or lower their head.

Recognizing and correctly interpreting these behaviors is a crucial aspect of bear safety, helping to prevent unnecessary encounters or escalations with these powerful animals. Knowledge of their behaviors not only enhances our safety but also contributes to the overall well-being of these magnificent creatures by reducing stress-induced behaviors caused by human interactions.

Prevention is the Best Measure to Avoid Bears

bears rummaging through a campsite for food
Bears can wreak havoc on campsites when food and waste aren’t properly disposed of. USDA Forest Service photo.

First, it is vital to avoid encountering a bear in the first place. Therefore, here are seven steps you can take to avoid encounters:

1. Store Food and Dispose of Waste Properly: 

Bears have an excellent sense of smell and can be attracted to food from miles away. When camping, store your food in bear-resistant containers or hang it at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from tree trunks. Dispose of waste properly in designated bear-resistant trash containers, if available, or pack it out. Never leave food scraps or litter behind, as these can attract bears and habituate them to human food, often leading to behavioral problems.

2. Make Noise: 

While hiking, it’s important to make noise, especially when moving through dense vegetation or near the sound of running water, as these sounds can mask your presence. The idea is to avoid surprising a bear, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Speak loudly, sing, or use noisemakers like bells or whistles.

3. Stay Alert and Aware of Your Surroundings: 

Pay attention to signs of bears such as tracks, scat, or claw marks on trees. Fresh indications of such activity might mean a bear is nearby. Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk when bears are most active.

4. Hike in Groups: 

Bears are less likely to approach larger groups of people, so hiking in groups of four or more can significantly reduce the risk of a bear encounter.

5. Keep Pets on a Leash:

Dogs can provoke defensive behavior in bears, especially if they’re off-leash. They may also chase after a bear and bring it back to you. Always keep pets under control and never allow them to approach or harass wildlife.

6. Use Bear Spray:

Carry bear spray and know how to use it. This can deter a bear if it does approach you.

7. Keep a Clean Campsite: 

In addition to proper food storage, keep your campsite clean and free of items with strong odors (like scented toiletries). Clean cooking utensils thoroughly and change your clothes after cooking or preparing food.

These measures can significantly reduce your chances of a bear encounter, ensuring a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience.

What to Do if You See Bear

A hiker calmy observes a bear as it walks toward them
A hiker calmy observes a bear as it walks down a dirt road. NPS Photo / Jake Bortscheller

1. Identify Yourself and Stay Calm: 

Speak in a calm, assertive, and low voice. Do not scream or make high-pitched sounds, which could be interpreted as the sound of distressed prey. Do not make sudden movements.

2. Assess the Situation and Do Not Approach: 

Is the bear unaware of your presence, or does it see you? Bears that stand on their hind legs are not usually threatening; they are just trying to identify you. Never approach a bear. If it changes its behavior because of your presence, you’re too close.

3. Back Away Slowly: 

If you notice a bear before it notices you, quietly and slowly back away while keeping your eyes on the bear. Avoid direct eye contact, which could be interpreted as a challenge.

4. Do Not Run: 

Bears can run much faster than humans. Running could trigger a chase response. 

If the bear sees you:

American Black Bears: Here is what to do if you see a black bear: If the bear is standing its ground, try to appear larger by standing on your toes and lifting your arms and jacket (if you have one). Speak in a firm, loud voice. If the bear approaches, use bear spray when it’s within range (usually 30-60 feet). If a black bear makes contact, fight back with everything you have.

Brown/Grizzly Bears: Again, do not make direct eye contact. If the bear does not approach, slowly back away. If it closes in, stand your ground, speak firmly, and use bear spray if it gets within range. If a grizzly makes contact, play dead: lie flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck, or curl up in a ball with your knees drawn to your chest and hands over the back of your neck. Stay quiet and still until the bear leaves.

Polar Bears: Encounters are less common but more dangerous, as polar bears are more likely to see humans as prey. If you see a polar bear, get indoors or in a vehicle if possible. If not, group together, make yourself look larger and use bear spray if the bear approaches. Fight back if the bear makes contact.

Remember, every bear encounter is unique, and these are general guidelines. Always alert wildlife authorities if you encounter a bear for your and the bear’s safety. Prevention is always the best strategy.

bear safety sign
Be aware of when you are entering bear country, and know what type of habitat may be home to bears where you are hiking. NPS Photo / David Restivo

Bear Spray and Other Deterrents

Bear Spray: This is a type of pepper spray specifically designed to deter aggressive or charging bears. It’s an aerosol spray that creates a large cloud, providing a barrier between you and the bear. It should be used only when a bear approaches you within a 30 to 60 feet distance. Direct the spray towards the bear, adjusting for wind, and aim slightly downwards as the cloud will rise. Remember, bear spray is a last resort and is not a substitute for practicing good bear safety habits.

Noise Makers: These can include air horns, bear bells, or loud human voices. Noise can deter a bear by startling it or making it aware of human presence. These should be used as soon as you’re aware of a bear’s presence to dissuade it from coming closer. However, it’s important to note that noisemakers should be used sensibly. Excessive noise can confuse a bear and may not have the desired effect.

Bear-Resistant Food Containers: While not a deterrent in the traditional sense, using these can prevent a bear from associating humans with food, reducing the likelihood of encounters. Food, toiletries, and trash should be stored in these containers or hung out of reach when in bear country.

Bear Flares: Some outdoor enthusiasts carry bear flares, which can scare off bears with bright light and loud noise. These should be used with caution and according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Firearms: Although sometimes carried for protection in bear country, it’s important to note that firearms should be considered a last resort. Using a firearm requires a high degree of skill to stop a charging bear and could result in serious legal consequences, especially if used in a national park or other protected area. Studies have shown that bear spray is often more effective in deterring bears than firearms.

Always remember that these tools are not substitutes for practicing bear-aware behavior. Proper food storage, making noise while hiking, and maintaining awareness of your surroundings are the most effective ways to avoid an unwanted bear encounter.

black bear in yellowstone national park
A mother black bear and her cub stand in a grassy meadow in Yellowstone National Park. Never approach bear cubs, and never get between a mother and her cubs. If you encounter a mother with cubs, slowly and calmly leave the area while watching the mother bear. NPS Photo / Neal Herbert

If a Bear Attack is Imminent

In the unfortunate and rare event that a bear attack seems imminent, your reaction should depend on the species of bear and the nature of the encounter. Here are some guidelines to follow based on the bear species:

American Black Bears: These bears are generally more timid and less likely to attack humans. However, if a black bear does attack, you should not play dead. Instead, try to escape to a secure place, or if that’s impossible, fight back using any available objects. Aim for the bear’s face, particularly the eyes and nose.

Brown/Grizzly Bears: In the case of brown bears or grizzlies, your response should depend on the nature of the attack. If you surprise a bear or get between a female and her cubs, she may attack in defense. In such a case, you should play dead. Lie flat on your stomach, or curl up in a ball with your hands behind your neck for protection. Stay as quiet and still as possible. Usually, once the bear feels you’re not a threat, it will leave. If the bear doesn’t leave or if it starts to eat you (a predatory attack), fight back vigorously, aiming at the face.

Polar Bears: Polar bear attacks are rare but are usually predatory and very serious since polar bears view humans as potential prey. Do not play dead with a polar bear. Try to escape to a safe place or use bear spray to deter the bear. If an attack is inevitable, fight back as aggressively as possible.

In all these situations, use bear spray if you have it and the bear is within range (typically 30-60 feet). 

Remember that every bear encounter is unique, and there are no guaranteed methods of deterring a bear attack. 

a group of hikers hiking through bear territory
A group of hikers crosses through bear country in Yellowstone National Park. Always try to hike in a group, if possible. It will lessen the chances of a bear encounter. NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank

Final Thoughts  

So, to recap what to do if you see a bear:

  1. Bear Behavior and Recognition: Understanding the general behavior of bears and recognizing signs of aggression or fear are crucial first steps in ensuring safety during potential encounters. This knowledge can help inform your reactions and prevent unnecessary escalation.
  1. Prevention Measures: Avoiding an encounter is the best strategy. Proper food storage, making adequate noise while hiking, staying alert to your surroundings, and keeping a clean campsite can significantly reduce the likelihood of attracting a bear.
  1. Tools for Deterrence: Carrying and knowing how to effectively use tools like bear spray and noise makers can be instrumental in deterring a bear during an encounter.
  1. Reacting to Encounters: Responses should be tailored to the specific species of bear. In general, maintain distance, do not run, and avoid direct eye contact. If a bear attack seems imminent, playing dead or fighting back might be necessary, depending on the species and nature of the encounter.

While these points focus primarily on human safety, it’s equally important to consider our broader relationship with bears. We share the environment with these magnificent creatures, and our actions can significantly impact their habitats and survival. 

As such, you should always remember that coexistence is key. As we venture into bear territory, we must respect these animals, understand their behavior, and reduce potential conflicts. By doing so, we can ensure our safety and contribute to a harmonious relationship with these integral parts of our natural world.

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What is the bear safety rhyme?

The bear safety rhyme that helps people remember what to do during an encounter is: “If it’s brown, lie down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s white, good night.” This rhyme is a simplified way to remember some general guidelines, but it’s crucial to know the nuances for each bear species and situation.

Do you lay down when you see a brown bear?

If you encounter a brown bear (often called a grizzly bear in North America) and it charges you, the generally accepted advice is to lay down and play dead. Lay flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck and spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over. Remain as still as possible until the bear leaves the area.

What is the safest bear?

There is no “safest” bear, as all wild bears are potentially dangerous. However, the American black bear is often considered less aggressive compared to brown bears and polar bears. Even so, a black bear can still pose a threat, especially if cornered, provoked, or protecting its young.

Which bear do you fight back?

You should generally fight back if you are attacked by a black bear. Use anything you have at your disposal — rocks, sticks, or even your bare hands — to hit the bear in the face, nose, or eyes. Try to deter the bear rather than kill it.

What is the saying for different bears?

The saying often used to remember how to handle bear encounters is: “If it’s brown, lie down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s white, good night.” Again, this is a general guideline and should not replace proper education and preparation for bear encounters.

Are you supposed to look a bear in the eye?

Avoid direct eye contact with bears. Many animals, including bears, may perceive eye contact as a threat or a challenge.

Why do you fight back against a black bear?

Fighting back against a black bear is often recommended because black bears are more likely to be deterred by resistance. Unlike brown bears, who may interpret lying down as a sign of submission and leave, black bears may see it as a sign of weakness and continue their attack.

Where do you hit a bear if attacked?

If a bear attacks you, aim for the most sensitive areas: the eyes, nose, and ears. Use any available objects or your own hands to strike these areas as forcefully as possible to deter the bear from continuing the attack.

Which bear do you scare away?

Both black and brown bears may be scared away by making yourself look larger and making loud noises. However, it’s generally easier to scare away a black bear. If you encounter a black bear, raise your arms to make yourself look bigger and make loud noises like shouting or banging pots and pans together. Always assess the bear’s behavior and your surroundings before taking any action.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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