What To Do if You See a Bear

Humans are encountering bears much more often than they used to. Although the risk of an attack remains very low, the number of fatal encounters is rising.

With the bear population increasing and with more hikers on the trails post-pandemic, it’s essential to know the latest advice on what to do if you see a bear.

Bears (photo: Francisco Cornellana Castells)
Bears (photo: Francisco Cornellana Castells)

Much of what you think you know may be outdated. This article is the only thing you need to read to get yourself up to date.

It draws together the latest academic research and expert advice, condensing all of this into simple, practical steps so you can keep safe.

Chart of fatal bear attacks in North America
Fatal bear attacks in North America

Forget What You Thought You Knew

Society passes on a great deal of bad advice about what to do if a bear approaches you.

Perhaps the most famous is the adage: “If it’s brown, lie down; if it’s black, fight back.” Many bear experts have urged hikers not to follow this blindly.

Lying down or playing dead when you run into a brown bear is particularly dangerous. It will not reliably deter a confrontation, leaving you utterly defenseless.

Other courses of action are far more effective at repelling a potential attack. Bear spray, in particular, is handy for keeping bears at bay (see tip #5 below).

You’ll feel more at ease if you know that you can reliably defend yourself with it.

NOTE: Are you sure you know how to bear-proof your camp? You won’t be able to rely on bear spray when you’re asleep, so this list of tips on how to avoid bears while camping is a must-read.

Make sure you can get back to your camp before dark. Bears can still smell you at night, but you won't see them!
Make sure you can get back to your camp before dark. Bears can still smell you at night, but you won’t see them!

The second piece of advice—“if it’s black, fight back”—is also problematic.

Black bear experts like Janet Scharhag do indeed recommend fighting back by throwing rocks and wood, for instance. But they advise that you should only do so if a black bear is being aggressive.

When a bear is attacking defensively (if you are near its cubs, for instance), you should instead keep quiet and avoid threatening it.

This is all very well, but it’s not always so easy to tell apart a defensive from an aggressive attack in the heat of an encounter.

When the stakes are so high, it can be hard to trust yourself on such an important decision.

For this reason, all the advice given below will work with any bear, black or brown, in any situation.

What To Do in an Encounter

1. Keep Food Safely Packed Away

This is a preparatory tip and critical advice on what to do if you see a bear on the trail.

Some hikers recommend distracting the bear by throwing your food supplies at it, and the US National Parks Service strongly advises against this—it’s a bad idea for several reasons.

First, far from distracting the bear, it may, in fact, only serve to encourage it. Throwing a tasty morsel at a bear can tell it that there’s more where that came from.

Secondly, rather than distracting the bear, throwing food may only distract you. You won’t have much time to decide what to do during a bear encounter.

If you spend precious seconds fumbling in your backpack for your food stash, you may not notice shifts in the bear’s behavior.

You will also have less time to follow the important steps outlined below.

NOTE: Food containers should be sealed and kept clean. If you want to keep your camp clean with less effort, check out this list of seven easy camping dishwashing hacks.

A bear on the prowl (photo: Elias Strale)
A bear on the prowl (photo: Elias Strale)

2. Keep Your Distance

Discussing what to do if you see a bear, experts ranging from academics to the National Park Service highly recommend putting at least 75 yards between yourself and the bear as soon as possible.

But under no circumstances should you run. Like dogs, bears tend to chase things that flee. Given that they are much faster than humans, attempting to outrun one of them would be a bad idea.

A better strategy for handling a bear encounter is to walk sideways away from the bear. This allows you to maintain visual contact, enabling you to respond to changes in its behavior.

Walking sideways is also less risky than walking backward, which some people recommend.

It’s much easier to watch where you’re treading, saving you from worsening your situation by noisily crashing to the ground.

Just be careful not to come between a mother and her cubs while you are making your escape. Unwitting provocation of a mother in this way has been a significant factor in recent fatal bear attacks.

It’s also a good idea to leave your dog at home. Will a bear attack a dog? Generally, bears will not attack a dog, but your dog may run too close to a cub and provoke a response.

Fuzzy bear face (photo: Rasmus Svinding)
Fuzzy bear face (photo: Rasmus Svinding)

3. Speak Low and Loud

If you’re considering what to do if a bear approaches you, remember that bears do not consider humans prey.

Bears in general, particularly black bears (which are by far the most common species in North America), seek to avoid encounters with humans, except in exceptional circumstances such as extreme hunger.

For this reason, it’s often more than enough to speak loudly and clap your hands when a bear approaches you.

This will immediately make it aware that you are not its typical prey, and in the vast majority of cases, it will make a hasty exit.

Bears associate high-pitched sounds with prey, so it’s crucial not to shriek or scream but instead to speak in a low, loud voice when you are attempting to deter a bear.

4. Wave Your Arms Slowly

Waving your arms will make you appear larger to the bear. The larger you appear, the less likely it is to attack you.

By waving your arms slowly, you avoid surprising or inadvertently threatening it. As with the previous step, this is essentially a means of making the bear aware that you are not its prey.

Another way of making yourself appear larger to the bear is getting to higher ground.

Walk up any slope that is nearby while waving your arms. This will have a psychological effect on the bear’s perception of the risk of attacking you.

Similarly, if you have an umbrella with you, open it up and point it toward the bear to give the impression that you are bigger than you are.

Bathing bear (photo: Francisco Cornellana Castells)
Bathing bear (photo: Francisco Cornellana Castells)

5. Use Bear Spray

Carrying bear spray is our single most important advice on what to do if you see a bear.

Bear spray is the best defense against a bear, and it’s a must-have tool if you’re hiking in bear territory—or even if bears have a habit of breaking into your backyard.

Although bear spray contains the same chemicals as pepper spray, it’s far more potent and releases a much larger quantity of gas. This means that it’s tough to misuse it!

Even if you do not fire it directly at the bear’s face (the best spot to aim for), it will still have a powerful effect.

For this reason, bear spray has been shown in recent studies to be far more powerful than a gun at deterring a potential bear attack.

Research has shown that it prevents more than 90% of attacks, while guns only successfully deterred bears in 50% of cases.

In the heat of an encounter, it’s easy to miss the bear—or hit a limb and make it more aggressive.

With bear spray, you need to point it in the direction of the bear’s nose and spray. Unlike a gun, it won’t kill the bear; it will simply give you enough time to get out of there.

You survive, and the bear survives; it’s a win-win. The best advice on what to do if you see a bear is simply this: always carry bear spray.

NOTE: Only use bear spray to defend yourself against a bear approaching you. Do NOT spray it on your tent or yourself to ward off a potential attack.

In cases where hikers have done this, it has been known to have attracted curious bears.

Big bear (photo: Brett Sayles)
Big bear (photo: Brett Sayles)

Just keep in mind our three simple steps when using bear spray:

  • Store It Right: Don’t put it in direct sunlight, and always check the expiration date.
  • Keep It Nearby: Clip it to your belt when walking, and keep it close at night.
  • Check The Wind: Never spray into a headwind; it can blind you instead.

That last tip also applies to your hiking buddies. You don’t want the bear spray to blow back and blind one of them either.

As it’s more powerful than pepper spray, it can cause a very severe reaction in humans.

(Some have asked: is it legal to use bear spray on humans? While it won’t cause permanent injury, you’d best stick to pepper spray for protection in cities and only use it if someone directly threatens you.)

6. Lie Face Down (Only If Knocked Down)

This step is a last resort, and you should only follow it in the unlikely event that steps 1 to 4 fail. Perhaps your bear spray (your best defense) was faulty, or you forgot to bring it.

If a bear approaches you and manages to knock you to the ground, you should always lie face down and cover your neck with your hands.

NOTE: Remember, only do this if you are knocked down. You should get to your feet as soon as possible and then attempt to push the bear away from you while shouting. Being on your feet gives you more options to escape, and you are more likely to be able to deter the bear from continuing with the attack.

By lying face down, you will better withstand any scratches or blows from the bear. Your back is much less vulnerable than your front and face.

If you’re wearing a backpack, this will give more protection, shielding you from the bear’s aggression.

Your neck, however, is the most exposed and vulnerable part of you when you’re lying face down. That’s why it’s vital to protect your neck with your hands if a bear attacks.

Keep in mind that having functioning bear spray with you at all times is your best means of avoiding this worst-case scenario.

It will give you many more defensive options when considering what to do if you see a bear.

Key facts!

How Likely Am I To Encounter A Bear?

Humans are running into bears more often because of a convergence of two unrelated trends. On the one hand, the bear population is rising.

In 2000, there were an estimated 600,000 bears (black bears and grizzlies) in North America.

By 2020, that figure had passed 800,000. This sizable rise is mainly due to effective reintroduction programs and careful environmental stewardship in recent years.

At the same time, there has been a significant increase in hiking and camping. National park data shows that visits were increasing even before the pandemic hit.

Once it did, they skyrocketed still further. With everyone cooped up indoors during the lockdown, we were desperate to get out into the great outdoors. When things calmed down, more of us than ever before did just that.

In Yellowstone National Park alone, visitors went from around 4 million in 2019 to almost 5 million in 2021.

That’s a more significant jump than at any point in the last 20 years, despite steady increases since 2000.

Given these trends, it’s no wonder that people are running into bears more often:

Chart of annual bear encounters
Chart of annual bear encounters

Regarding the graph above, “encounters” refers to non-violent human/bear interactions and sightings. Data is estimated and based on U.S. national park figures.

This increased human/bear interaction has resulted in a recent rise in fatal attacks, from 1 in 2019 to 6 in 2021. But don’t worry!

This number is tiny compared to the total number of hikers and bears in the wild.

See also: Panda Bears in Chengdu (China)

A bear stretching

Be Prepared, And Have Fun

So, if you’re asking yourself what to do if you see a bear while running or hiking, remember this essential advice: always bring bear spray.

If you’ve got your bear spray and follow the five other tips in this article, you’re bound to have a safe and fun trip.

For more hiking safety tips, check out this list of essential safety tips for your next trip. See you on the trails!

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