How to Avoid & Survive Bear Attacks

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Escape a Backwoods Ambush!

If you hike, ride a trail bike or simply like to spend time outdoors, you’re at risk for a potentially fatal bear encounter. Smaller and more numerous than grizzlies, black bears can also be a serious threat to life and limb. How you react to this threat can make a real difference to your longevity. Bear encounters are occurring with increased frequency. Every year, joggers and hikers in wilderness areas are maimed or killed by these apex predators. A young boy camping with his family in the mountains of Utah was dragged from his tent and killed by a black bear. Urban encroachment into once “wild” country” also contributes to bear-human encounters. Knowing how to avoid and survive bear attacks is a critical part of outdoor safety.

A Close Encounter

I’ve hunted in Alaska several times. Giant brown bears (oversized grizzlies) are numerous, but it was a large black bear that dogged my bootprints for more than a mile in deep snow. I wasn’t aware of its presence 10 feet behind me until my guide, Ed Stevenson, met me on the trail, carrying a lantern to show the way. When he dropped the lantern and unslung his rifle, I heard a commotion behind me. I looked back in time to see a large bear disappear into the underbrush.

“He was getting up his nerve to attack,” Ed said. “You were lucky I showed up when I did.” Ed, who has been fortunate to survive three separate brown bear attacks, then told me black bears are more likely to kill you.

“Brown bears simply want to make sure you’re no longer a threat,” he said. “Remain motionless and the animal will usually walk away. But be sure it’s gone before you move again. A black bear will continue the attack until it’s sure you’re dead. Then it may eat you.”

Worst-Case Scenario

That underscores two tactics that may leave you bruised, bleeding, and battered—but alive—when a bear attacks. Most experts advise lying facedown on the ground with your hands clasped behind your head and neck when attacked by a grizzly. If you don’t attempt to fight back, the attack may be short-lived. If you’re wearing a pack, don’t take it off. A pack on your back can minimize injuries during a mauling. 

If a black bear attacks, you’re advised to kick, punch, and do whatever you can to fight back. You’re literally fighting for your life. If you simply lie motionless, you’re liable to become the bear’s dinner. If a grizzly bear attacks, lie facedown on the ground with your hands locked behind your neck and head. Remain motionless and the bear may walk away after mauling you.

You don’t have to be in the wild to have problems with bears. As homes continue to encroach on what was once bear territory, your chances of meeting one face-to-face continue to escalate. Bears that have become habituated to human contact are particularly dangerous.

Different Ways to Avoid & Survive Bear Attacks

What can you do to discourage an attack? Maulings are most likely to occur when you surprise a bear. The danger is particularly intense if you encounter a sow with cubs or if the bear has an animal carcass stashed nearby. Be aware of your surroundings: You won’t see a bear if you concentrate only on the trail before you. Survive bear attacks by staying alert!

Get Loud

Many experts advise singing, periodically clapping your hands, or hollering “Bear! Hey, bear!” If a bear knows you’re in the area, chances are good that the animal will leave without confrontation. “Bear bells” tied to your backpack or hiking staff also make a continuous noise. Be noisy, but don’t scream—that’s an indication you’re prey.

Bear Spray

The best protection against bear attacks is a can of capsaicin (pepper) spray designed specifically to repel bears. Such sprays are more potent than those intended for use against human attackers. Be sure you’re familiar with the safety switch your spray comes equipped with, and that you can operate it instantaneously.

Firearms

A large-caliber rifle or slug-loaded shotgun can also protect you from bears, but it may not be legal to carry a gun in the area you’re hiking. Accuracy is difficult with magnum revolvers when a bear charges you, and a wounded bear is an angry one. Most bear hunting guides recommend a .338 Winchester Magnum or larger caliber. It’s illegal to shoot bears in some areas, so this may be only a last resort.

Stay Still

If you encounter a bear, whatever you do, don’t run! Running tells the bear that you’re prey and triggers the animal’s instinct to chase you down and likely kill you. Bears can run 30 miles per hour or more—faster than a horse, and a lot faster than a man!

Get Big

Your best bet to survive bear attacks is to spread your arms high and wide to try to look tall, all while standing your ground and talking to the bear in a calm voice. Back up slowly or move to one side. Make sure the bear knows you’re not a threat. If other hikers are with you, cluster together to give the impression of a larger size.

Don’t Make Eye Contact

Try not to look the bear in the eye as it may see this as a sign of aggression. Casting your eyes down or to one side signals submission and that you’re not a threat to the animal.

Forget About Climbing a Tree

Climbing a tree is usually a bad idea. Black bears climb like scalded cats, and grizzlies have been known to climb 30 feet or more to drag a fleeing hiker out of a tree.

Don’t Become Bear Bait

If you’re camping, be sure to store your food in a bear-proof container at least 100 yards from your tent. The scent of food is a big attraction. Portable electric fences will keep bears at a safe distance. These fences don’t require much battery power and bears tend to bite single-strand fences erected 3 or 4 feet above the ground. The resulting shock should cure bruins from approaching your tent. These fences work! I’ve spent time at Ed Stevenson’s camp deep in the Alaskan bush. Many brown bears visit the log cabin camp, but the solar-powered electric fence keeps them safely at bay. The fence didn’t enclose the outhouse, which was 40 yards from the camp. If a bear investigated while you were using the outhouse, the loaded .350 Remington Magnum carbine resting against the wall was your insurance against nosy bruins. 

Lastly, if you see a bear in the distance, give it a wide berth and walk around it. One way to survive bear attacks is to never get near one in the first place.

Be on the Lookout for Bear Signs

Many areas across the U.S. have bear populations. From black bears to the grizzly, they should all be treated as dangerous. Ranging in size from 150 pounds to almost 800 pounds, bears are well-equipped for hunting and defense. Strong jaws full of teeth accompanied by powerful claws make the bear a serious predator. Beyond the knowledge that bears inhabit most heavily wooded areas in the northern part of the U.S., we can also look for signs of their presence:

  • Tracks: Bear tracks are recognized by the heavy impression of the ball of the foot. Five toes and claw prints on each. 
  • Scat: The polite terminology for animal waste. Similar in appearance to most other meat eaters, it can also have grass and fiber present.
  • Carcasses: If you are in a bear area and see large numbers of crows or vultures, it may be a carcass. This is one of the major alerts you should heed as a warning to leave the area immediately. An animal that’s feeding can be very dangerous. 
  • Territory markings: Many times bears will claw into trees in order to mark their territory.

Essential Bear Deterrents

Bear Sprays

EPA-registered bear sprays contain active ingredients of 1.0 to 2.0 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids and have a minimum content of 7.9 ounces. EPA-registered bear sprays will be specifically labeled for use on bears. EPA-registeredEffective bear sprays include: 

UDAP Pepper Power Bear Spray (udap.com, 800-232-7941)

Sabre Frontiersman Bear Attack Deterrent (sabrered.com, 800-325-9568)

Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray (counterassault.com, 800-965-3394)

Bear Fences

Bear Shock Electric Fence (udap.com, 800-232-7941)

Electro Bear Guard Fences (electrobearguard.com, 907-562-2331)

High-Caliber Firearms

Handguns: Ideally carry handguns that are chambered in .454 Casull or .475 Linebaugh with penetrating bullets. 

Rifles: I recommend .300 magnum, .338 magnum, .45-70 (with penetrating bullets) or .375 H&H magnum.

Shotguns: I recommend a Remington (remington.com), Mossberg (mossberg.com), Ithaca (ithacagun.com), or other 12-gauge pump-action shotgun loaded with rifled slugs.

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