How to Escape from a Bear
How to Escape from a Bear
Bears are among nature's most majestic creatures, and seeing one in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Get too close, however, and your encounter with a bear can be more terrifying than awe-inspiring. Fortunately, despite humans' continued encroachment into “bear country," attacks on people are rare, and fatalities are even rarer. Still, bears are immense, powerful animals, and any meeting between bears and humans can potentially turn deadly if you're unprepared.
Things You Should Know
  • Make noise regularly, avoid bear tracks, stay away from dying or decaying animals, leave pets at home, bring bear spray, and ask the park ranger for information.
  • If you see a bear, calmly side-step away with your eye on the animal, make yourself big, and try to understand the bear's motivation (so you can act accordingly).[1]
  • If the bear attacks, consider playing dead, fighting back, or using your bear spray, depending on its species and behavior.

Preventing Close Encounters

Ward bears off by making regular noise, either with a bear bell or by traveling as a group. If you can prevent an encounter with a bear, the rest of the steps are unnecessary. Bears are reclusive creatures, and they generally prefer to steer clear of humans. You can help them to do so by announcing your presence when you're exploring their home environment: talk loudly, sing, or carry "bear bells" so bears have time to escape you. There are very few records of bears ever attacking a group of people, so stick together. When alone, making noise or having a bear bell is a near essential, especially if there have been reports of bears nearby.

Keep your eyes up for signs of bears, taking detours as needed. If you see bear tracks, make a detour or leave the area. Avoid surprising bears -- if you see one in the distance, keep your ground and stay away. Let the bear move on before proceeding. If a bear changes its behavior because of you, then you are too close. When you actually see a bear, you want to reduce your noise. Be calm and quiet, letting it stay about its business. This is especially important with young, "harmless" bears. A mother may be nearby, which can spell big trouble. Even if bears seem sick or hurt, stay clear and call a ranger.

Stay away from "kill sites" or carcasses. Bears will defend two things -- their young, and their most recent meal. If you find any carcasses, especially fresh ones, give them a wide berth and immediately leave the area.

Leave the pets at home. Bears know a lot better than to mess with humans, and they will rarely see you as a food source. But your dogs may not be so fortunate, especially if they regard the bear as a threat. No matter how well you think your dog is trained, leave it at home when traveling in bear country. If you must have your pet with you, make sure they are leashed -- no exceptions.

Purchase necessary bear repellents, such as pepper spray and bear proof canisters. Come prepared to both avoid bears and deal with them in the rare case that they become agitated. Remember that, when camping, both food and food waste need to be contained, as the smell of wrappers and remains can attract the animals.

Understand the basics of bear behavior to know when situations are escalating. Bears are not quite as unpredictable as everyone claims they are. Like humans, they have a variety of maneuvers and body language ticks that can help you read the situations and react appropriately. Standing on its back two legs is a sign of curiosity, not aggression. Bears generally want to retreat -- they are known to posture and feign aggression to avoid a fight. Stay calm. Bears are not always hyper aware -- they can get distracted, which makes it doubly important to announce your presence with noise as you hike.

Know your bears. The steps you take to survive an encounter with a bear will depend in part on the type of bear. North America has three kinds of bears: brown bears, black bears, and polar bears. Polar bears, of course, are easily recognizable, and their range is limited to the far northern latitudes. Grizzlies and black bears cannot necessarily be differentiated by their colors. Grizzly bears can weigh up to and over 800 lbs., and they are distinguished by a prominent shoulder hump and a rump lower than the shoulder. Black bears are typically smaller (up to 400 lbs.), and have a rump higher than or at roughly the same level as the shoulder. If you see tracks, grizzly bears have claw marks well separated from the paw imprints, while black bears' claw marks will be quite close to the paw imprint.

Check into the office or park ranger station for the latest news and updates. Has their been a recent bear sighting, or an increase in bear activity around campgrounds? The rangers will know exactly what's been going on in the park, and can give you up to date advice about avoiding any confrontations. Be sure to check in as you arrive to ensure you're up to date. Be sure to heed local bear advisories and practice proper food storage techniques while camping. Each park is different -- some require bear canisters, some raised bear bags, and some just want the food locked in the car.

Preventing Escalation or Aggression

Stay calm, and do not ever run. Running signals to the bear that you are prey worth chasing, and they are incredibly fast animals. Screaming or yelling will spook the bear into believing it is threatened. As hard as it may seem, keeping cool, calm, and collected will always be your best bet to avoid a bear attack.

Keep your distance, stepping sideways away and keeping your eyes on the bear. If you see a bear from a long distance (greater than 300 feet), leave the area. If you need to continue on, make a wide detour around the bear. If the bear has not seen you, do not disturb it: retreat calmly and quietly, and then make ample noise when you are well away to prevent future chance encounters. But if you're up close and the bear notices you, stay calm and keep your distance, shuffling sideways to avoid tripping and keeping your eyes up.

Announce that you're human by speaking in a low, calm voice. It doesn't matter what you say, but say something as you retreat to the sides, keeping an eye on the bear. Your goal is to communicate to the bear that you are human (i.e. that you can defend yourself and are not frightened) while also letting it know that you are non-threatening, and that you are leaving its territory. Never yell, scream, or make high-pitched noises! Pick one phrase or mantra and just repeat it calmly: "There is nothing to fear, I am not here to cause harm," or something similarly calm and simple. It's not the words that matter, of course, but the tone and the fact that you keep saying them.

Make yourself as big as possible with hands, clothes, and high ground. Again, you must do this calmly and slowly. If the bear sees you and is closer than 300 feet (91.4 m), or if the bear is approaching you, remain calm and try to look as large as possible. Stand your ground and try not to look frightened. Some things to do include: Open and spread your jacket wide at your sides. Slowly raise and wave your arms, indicating that you are human and not prey. Continue talking in a low, calm voice.

Give the bear an escape route, always. If you've cornered the animal, get out of the way quickly but calmly. Remember that most bears are posturing and don't actually want to fight, but if the only way out is through you, they're going to take their chances. Immediately provide a pathway allowing them to escape.

Understand the bear's motivations. A little bear psychology can go a long way—your response to an attack should be shaped by the bear's motivations. First, if a bear appears to be stalking you (disappearing and reappearing, for example), or if a bear attacks at night, it most likely sees you as food, and any attack will be predatory. If you surprise a bear on the trail, if the bear has cubs, or if the bear is eating from or protecting a carcass, the bear will most likely be acting in self-defense. A bear attacking as a predator, no matter what type of bear, should be fought off. These bears are often desperate, but know that these attacks are extremely rare.

If the bear seems to escalate and get aggressive, get aggressive in response. If you are sure this attack is meant to see if you're prey (and only then), you should get louder and bigger. Stamp your feet, wave a walking stick menacingly, and or bang some pots and pans. Let it see that you aren't worth the effort. That said, don't hit it until it comes after you and makes contact. Never forget that their first charge is frequently a bluff-- hold your ground, but don't look meek. Again -- this is not the norm. Predatory bear attacks are extremely rare, and you must read the situation appropriately.

Handling a Charge or Attack

Stand tall, even if the bear charges you. Running cues the bear to chase you, and it will always be fast enough to catch up. Do not be aggressive, but do not crouch down, play dead or otherwise show fear or vulnerability. If the bear charges you, muster all your courage and stay where you are: the charge is most likely a bluff, and if you stand your ground the bear will turn away.

Sidestep advances if they're closing in within a relatively short distance (<8 feet). Bears and other 4 legged animals have a wider center of gravity, and hence can't make turns quite as sharp as you or me. Don't just run in circles however, but if engaged in an open area (plains or field), do not run directly away from the bear as they're generally faster. Move left and right where applicable to force the bear to change direction. Do not abuse the bear, however, as it drains vital energy.

Only play dead with brown bears or grizzly bears after they've made contact. If the bear (other than a black bear) is attacking you in self-defense, you can put it at ease by playing dead and lying completely flat on the ground. Do so only after the bear makes contact with you or tries to do so. To play dead, lie flat on the ground protecting your vital parts with the ground, and your arms protecting your neck with your hands laced behind the neck. If you have a backpack on, keep it on to defend your back. Keep your legs together and do not struggle. Once the bear leaves your immediate vicinity, wait 10-15 minutes before carefully looking to see if the bear is still around. A bear may look back and may return if it sees you moving. Remember -- if you believe this is a predatory encounter, as the bear has approached you or been following, you'll need to change course and fight back.

Fight back against black bears if they start to attack and make contact. Remember, this is not if they charge alone -- this may be a bluff. If a bear charges and makes contact with you, however, you need to fight back with whatever you can. Focus on kicks and strikes to the face and muzzle in particular to scare it off. The odds may seem against you in a fight, but bears generally do not see humans as prey, and a bear that makes a predatory attacks is usually immature, starving, or wounded, and may easily be scared away if you hit it. If you believe any attack is predatory, such as an attack at night or if you've been "stalked" throughout the hike, fight back immediately -- this is usually a bear desperate for food.

Know how and when to use bear spray. If you get charged by bear, stand your ground and unclip the safety clip and put a cloud of spray in between you and the bear. Squint and hold your breath. Good aim doesn't matter so much as a layer of protection, giving you plenty of time to escape. Begin spraying when the bear is 10-20 yards away for the greatest effectiveness. Keep spraying until the bear changes direction. If the cloud doesn't work, hit it right in the face. You should practice quickly and easily getting your spray out of its holster before hiking.

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