You Come Across a Bear. Your Next Move Is Very Important. Do You Know What To Do?

You’re out for a hike on a glorious summer or fall day. Suddenly, you spot a bear. And the bear has spotted you, too. Would you know what to do next?

A wild bear is a beautiful sight to see. It’s incredible to see them in the wild. The animal usually wants to avoid the encounters.

Bears in the news

Bear attacks are rare but they do happen.

In October 2022, a couple’s unleashed dog attracted unwanted attention from a black bear as they were picnicking on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The dog ran towards the bear, barking loudly, and park officials believe the bear was likely aggravated by the dog acting defensively toward the dog and the couple. Over the next several minutes, the bear repeatedly attacked until the couple and their dog were able to retreat to the safety of their car.

A short time later, a hunter was attacked west of Cody, Wyoming by a grizzly bear. An investigation indicated the hunter was attacked after a sudden encounter at close range with an adult female grizzly bear with two cubs.

In both cases, the people survived the attacks. But in the European country of Slovakia, a man died after being attacked by a brown bear in June.

All illustrate the point that rare does not equal never.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feasts for beasts

Bears are not picky eaters. They eat everything: ants, berries, fish, flowers, nuts, roadkill, and human food not secured. Our food is very attractive to them; it’s easy calories. Combine that with the fact that national parks have been setting attendance records and turning away visitors and you have a recipe for potential trouble. If more people are using public lands and more people are in the mix, there’s more potential for encounters and conflict.

The key is being prepared.

First rule of bear encounter: Keep your distance

The best strategy is to never get in harm’s way by enticing or provoking a wild bear. Trying to give a bear food or approaching cute cubs are particularly terrible ways to start an encounter. That’s just looking for trouble.

The National Park Service (NPS) site points out each bear and each encounter is different but there are general guidelines useful in most situations.

First of all, keep your distance if you happen upon a bear. Don’t approach it and give it plenty of room to walk away from you. Yellowstone National Park tells visitors to stay at least 100 yards away; Shenandoah National Park in Virginia suggests 200 feet for its black bears.

You can run afoul of the law as well as the bears if you get too close. A 25-year-old woman was given four days in federal custody and fines for staying too close to a grizzly bear and her cubs at Yellowstone National Park. According to violation notices, the charges stemmed from an incident on May 10, 2021 at Roaring Mountain when a sow grizzly and her three cubs were sighted. Other visitors slowly backed away and got into their vehicles but she stayed and continued to take pictures as the sow charged her.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other tips

  • If a bear happens to surprise you, stay calm. Do not surprise the bear if it’s unaware of your presence.
  • Slowly stand up and speak to the bear in a calm, confident manner. This will distinguish your voice from the noise of a potential prey animal.
  • Walk with a group (we’re smellier and noisier in packs) and stay on designated trails.
  • If you have a small child or dog, pick it up.
  • Slowly back away from the bear and keep an eye on it. If you back away and the bear follows you or begins to act aggressively, be ready to stand your ground and fight.

Remember that every bear encounter is different: bears will exhibit different behaviors in different situations. Understanding the behavior of bears can make the difference between life and death.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What if a bear starts coming at you anyway?

If a bear starts making assertive moves in your direction, you have important decisions to make—and fast.

First thing is: Stand your ground with bears.

With either grizzlies (a subspecies of brown bears) or black bears, don’t run. Bears can outrun anybody. Don’t climb a tree either. They can also climb trees better than you.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife also has some tips:

  • Make loud noises by yelling, banging pots and pans, or using an airhorn to scare bears away.
  • Make yourself look as large as possible by waving your arms.

You can usually intimidate or bluff your way out of sticky bear situations depending on the bear species and the situation.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But what if a bear is about to attack?

You’re now in the rarest of situations—you’ve attracted a bear’s attention. It didn’t retreat. The bear has started to come at you aggressively and fast. You think you’re about to be attacked. What’s next?

One very crucial thing is to make a quick identification of the kind of bear since your strategy will be different.

If it’s a black bear, NPS have a clear message: Do NOT run. Do NOT play dead. You want to stand your ground with black bears. Look as intimidating as possible. Throw things not at it but near it. Make that black bear intimidated by you. Let it know you are a big person. Pick something up; yell at it. If it attacks, fight back.

It’s a different situation with grizzlies.  If you’re dealing with a grizzly that won’t back off and an attack is imminent, you’re advised to do the opposite. You should play dead.

Act as unthreatening as possible with a grizzly. Play dead with a grizzly if it starts to attack. Tuck and cover. Get into a fetal position. Wrap your hands around your neck. Lay on your stomach. Once you do that, 99 percent of the time the grizzly will move on.

NPS elaborates: “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.”

Fighting back a grizzly bear is the last resort—your Hail Mary pass—when all other options are out.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you tell a black bear from a grizzly?

First off, know your area and read up on the bears there.

In North America, grizzlies have a much more limited range than black bears. In the Lower 48, they are in Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—and in Alaska, too. They also cover large parts of Western Canada.

Black bears have a much larger range. They can be found in as many as 40 U.S. states and much of Canada, the National Wildlife Federation says.

So say you’re in Quebec, the Appalachians, the Ozarks, California, or even parts of Florida, that’s going to be a black bear. But if you’re in Yellowstone or Glacier National Park or in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, for instance, that could be a black bear or a grizzly. That’s when it’s crucial to know how to make a quick visual ID.

You can’t go by the color of the fur. Black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-gray or white, according to Bear.org.

One of the best ways to tell the difference is to look for a hump at the shoulders. Grizzlies have them. Black bears don’t.

The face shapes are also different. Black bear faces are a little rounder with a straight nose. A grizzly bear face looks more like a wild predator and has a dished shape.

Black bears have a prominent rump, a straight, dog-like muzzle, pointed ears, and dark claws.

Grizzly bears have a shoulder hump, dished face, rounded ears, and long, light-colored claws.

Keep your distance from all wildlife © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other tips and cautions

  • Don’t store food in tents or pop-up campers in campgrounds or in vehicles at trailheads.
  • Don’t leave food, coolers, and dirty cookware left unattended. Park rangers may confiscate them and cite you.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters and trash cans.
  • Human-fed bears usually end up as chronic problems and need to be removed. A fed bear is a dead bear.
  • The bears are just being bears. We are way more of a threat to them. Bear attacks are rare. And fatalities are even rarer.

Worth Pondering…

Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby!

—James Rollins, Ice Hunt

Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Camping in bear country comes with gorgeous scenic views but it also comes with… bears! Here’s what you need to know to stay safe and protect yourself and your gear.

All of the authoritative books on bears seem to agree on one thing: if you’re close enough to a bear to cause it to change its activity pattern, you’re too close, and in possible danger.

―Dennis R. Blanchard

First, I want to state that bear attacks are rare; you’re much more likely to be attacked and/or killed by another human than a bear. However, your odds of not being attacked by a bear are even better if you practice bear safety.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared, not scared

Please don’t take the information in this article as fear-mongering. Wild animals are part of every nature experience.

Just remember, it always pays to be prepared.

It’s a sad fact of life that there are camping fatalities and injuries every year because of bear attacks. During peak season, at least one bear every week is put down by game officials somewhere in North America because it strayed into a campground. Unfortunately, most incidents arise because of irresponsible humans who left food out.

This article is to help protect you and the bears whose home we are visiting!

Despite the headlines and all the warning signs, bear incidents are really rare. Hundreds of thousands of hikers and campers enjoy the wilderness in bear country without even seeing a bear.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions.

When camping in bear country, you will almost always see signs advising you that bears are in the area. Heed their warnings!

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping in bear country with dogs

If you travel with dogs, there can be other problems. Dogs antagonize bears especially mother bears with cubs.

You need to have your dog on a leash whenever camping in bear country.

Even on a leash, dogs are prohibited on many trails in national parks that have bears. In fact, Bear Country or not! You can read about the national parks that do allow dogs and under which conditions at 12 Dog-Friendly National Parks.

Dogs are usually allowed in campgrounds and on most paved areas near stores but always check first before planning your visit and day’s activities.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to store food when camping in bear country

Almost all campgrounds in bear country provide bear-proof food storage canisters at each site.

We don’t want to see bears get put down. And we don’t want bears to put people in danger. So, be sure to use these bear-proof food storage containers!

National Parks Service and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department list the following rules and suggestions for RVing in bear country.

Food rules:

  • Never store food outside or near your RV. After cooking and eating, bring all food inside.
  • Keep your area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables.
  • Keep all items with strong odors (i.e., toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) inside the RV and out of reach of bears or the bear-proof containers available at most campsites in bear country.
  • Hanging food in trees is the traditional method of storing food while camping in the backcountry. The better alternative is a bear canister—a portable, hard-sided food locker.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping in bear country safety tips

Here are some additional tips that I strongly suggest you follow if bears live in the region.

  • Keep your dog on a leash or rope at all times. Never leave your dog outside at night while you sleep in the RV.
  • Close windows and lock your vehicle and RV when you leave your campsite and at night before you go to sleep.
  • If a bear does come near your campsite and no rangers are around, get in your RV or vehicle. Yell at the bear. Honk the horn. Play loud music, bang pots, and pans. Do not try to approach it.
  • If you will be spending time in bear country, get a can of bear spray. Bear spray is a super-concentrated, highly irritating pepper spray proven to be more effective than firearms at deterring bears.

General hiking precautions in bear country

  • Most bear encounters do not happen in campgrounds. They occur in the backcountry while people are hiking.
  • Never hike alone. Two or three people are best. Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make plenty of noise to make them aware of your presence.
  • Most bells are not enough to warn a bear away. Calling out and clapping hands loudly at regular intervals are better ways to make your presence known. Hiking quietly endangers you, the bear, and other hikers.
  • A bear consistently surprised by quiet hikers may become habituated to close human contact and less likely to avoid people. This sets up a dangerous situation for both visitors and bears.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional tips when hiking

  • Bear tracks, bear scat, and shredded logs are all signs you’re in bear country.
  • Be alert at all times and leave your headphones at home. Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk when the wind is in your face, visibility is limited, or you’re walking by a noisy stream. A firm clap or quick shout warns bears that humans are in the area.
  • In late summer and fall, bears need to forage up to 20 hours a day, so avoid trails that go through berry patches, oak brush, and other natural food sources.
  • Keep dogs leashed, exploring canines can surprise a bear. Your dog could be injured or come running back to you with an irritated bear on its heels.
  • Keep children between adults and teach them what to do if they see a bear. Don’t let them run ahead or lag behind.
  • Double bag food and never leave any trash or leftovers behind. Finding treats teaches bears to associate trails with food.
  • Never approach bears or offer food. If you see a bear, watch from a safe distance and enjoy this very special experience. If your presence causes the bear to look up or change its behavior in any way, you’re too close.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you encounter a bear

  • Stand still, stay calm, and quietly back away and leave. Do not make aggressive eye contact. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route.
  • Never run or climb a tree.
  • If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.
  • If a bear stands up, it is just trying to identify what you are by getting a better look and smell.
  • Wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly. If the bear huffs, pops its jaws or stomps a paw, it wants you to give it space.
  • Step off the trail to the downhill side, keep looking at the bear, and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.

What to do if the bear approaches

A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. If you are approached, do the following:

  • Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.
  • Get out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about 40 feet away.
  • If the bear attacks, don’t play dead! Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended themselves with penknives, trekking poles, and even bare hands.

Best bear spray

Chuck Bartlebaugh is perhaps the top expert in bear safety and bear/human interactions in North America and founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign. Chuck says bear spray is the best choice for stopping a charging, attacking, or threatening bear. The bear spray he recommends is called Counter Assault.

He said it works because it’s powerful and able to shoot 25-30 feet—something to keep in mind considering bears can move at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.

If hiking in a group, every person should have their own can.

Worth Pondering…

Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby!

—James Rollins, Ice Hunt