Bad News Bears

The following list includes the worst case scenarios for bear encounters. These are situations that all hikers and mountain bikers would like to avoid. 

  • Grizzly Bear - Click for more informationBears that have become addicted to garbage and human food. Once bears become accustomed to human food and garbage, they become drawn to areas of human occupation. This may include backcountry campsites far from urban centres. A history of poor backcountry garbage management by backpackers can add backcountry campsites to a bears regular forays.

  • Bears that have first year cubs which go up a tree. In this situation, the female may not leave the area, but rather will defend the cubs. The sow may attack quickly if you are within its comfort zone. Be ready with your bear spray, and be prepared to climb a tree if possible. 

  • Bears with second year cubs that may participate in a bluff charge. Again, this can be a very dangerous situation as you are now dealing with multiple bears. While this is very rare, it would allow the family to protect a kill site more effectively. 

  • Bears defending a kill site. Bears are very aggressive when protecting a kill site. Learn to watch for signs of kill sites such as large accumulations of ravens and other scavenging birds or animals.

  • Predatory Encounters. While this is a rare situation, and generally refers to predatory attacks by black bears, this can be a very serious encounter. Since the bear is hunting you as prey, you must be prepared for an imminent attack. The bear may circle you, slowly moving in closer and closer until it decides whether to attack or not. 

What do you do when you meet a bear?

Whenever you travel in bear country, you have to accept the basic reality that you may encounter a bear. The tips on these pages will help reduce the likelihood of meeting Master Bruin, but at the same time, you need to be prepared for what to do when the unexpected occurs.

If you are in open country, use binoculars to scan the horizon to look for bears. In more forested landscapes, be sure to make lots of noise and keep a mental inventory of climbable trees (just in case). Remember, black bears are agile climbers, and grizzlies have also been known to climb short distances up trees. To be safe, you should look for trees that will allow you to get at least 10 m (33 ft) above the ground. Don't forget that bears can charge at 50 km/hr (30 m.p.h.). You'll need some time to climb that tree.

Situation 1 - Bear has not detected your presence and is more than 100 m (350 ft) distant. 

Don't announce your presence if the bear has not seen you. If possible, retreat slowly and give the bear plenty of space. If you have the opportunity, you should retreat and leave the trail to the bear. If you must continue, back off a short distance, and give the bear time to leave the area. You should also do a wide detour quietly and quickly downwind to avoid problems.  

Situation 2 - Bear has detected your presence, but is more than 100 m (350 ft) distant. 

Your goal here is to act in such a way as to allow the bear to identify you, but to also let it know that you are no threat. Speak calmly so that it knows you are a human (their eyesight is quite poor). They will often quickly give ground to you once they identify you as human. If the situation permits, back away slowly, keeping a close eye on the bear. Otherwise, you may wish to detour around the bear, but in this case, detour upwind so that the bear can get your scent. Keep talking calmly. Waving your arms may help it identify you as a human. 

Situation 3 - Bear has detected you and shows signs of aggression

If you have followed the advice listed above, hopefully you have a bit of distance between the bear and yourself. You'll need to 

  • Assess the situation.  Are you dealing with a black bear or a grizzly? Are there cubs involved? Are there climbable trees nearby (and do you have sufficient time to climb them)? 

  • Do Not Run. You can't outrun a bear so don't even try. Despite rumours to the contrary, black and grizzly bears can outrun a human on ANY terrain, uphill or down. People will tell you that you should run downhill when chased by a grizzly. This is simply a myth - don't try it!

  • Try to retreat slowly. Back up slowly and try to put more space between you and the bear. Talk calmly so that it can identify you as human, and slowly back up. Keep your backpack on as it can provide protection if necessary. Don't make direct eye contact, but keep a close look at the bear as you back away.

  • Climb a tree if available. If you have enough time, and the bear continues to move closer, take advantage of a tall tree to climb. Remember, black bears are strong climbers as well. Grizzlies have also climbed short distances up trees after people. You want to get at least 10 m (33 feet) high to reduce the chance of being pulled out of the tree. Even though some bears can come up the tree after you, the hope is that they will feel less threatened, and thus less likely to chase you up the tree. 

  • If the bear charges you. Bears will often bluff charge before attacking. This is designed to allow enemies to back down before the bear needs to actually make contact. It evolved as a way to prevent encounters with enemies and it may provide you with an opportunity to back away. 

  • Use your pepper spray.  This is a last resort. Pepper spray is only good at very close range (5 m or 15 ft). Wind will reduce this effective range even farther (and may blow the spray back into your face). If the bear approaches within this range, point the spray at its eyes and discharge the contents. Hopefully, this will either disorient the bear to allow you to escape, or at the very least deter it from attacking. Once you have partially discharged a canister of bear spray it should be discarded. While the spray may deter attacks, the smell of pepper can act as an attractor.

  • Black Bear - click for more informationIf a black  bear (or any bear that is stalking you) makes contact. If the attack escalates and a black bear (or any bear that appears to have been stalking you) physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. Black bears tend to be more timid than grizzlies and fighting back may scare the bear off. In addition, if a bear is stalking you than you are in a predatory situation and fighting back is your only option. This also applies to any attack at night as these may also be considered predatory in nature.

  • If a grizzly makes contact. As above, if you believe the bear to be stalking you, fight back with everything you have. In general though, playing dead in a daytime grizzly encounter tends to reduce the level of injury sustained by most attack victims. Many grizzly attacks are defensive in nature, and playing dead may show the bear that you are not a threat. Keep your backpack on as it will provide added protection. The best position is to lie on your side in a fetal position. Bring your legs up to your chest and bury your head into your legs. Wrap your arms around your legs and hold on tight. You may also lie on your stomach, backpack on, and place your hands behind your neck to protect that vulnerable area. Do not play dead until the last moment. Staying on your feet may allow you to dodge, or divert an attack.

  • After the attack. Once the attack has ended, remain patient. After a few minutes, try to determine if the bear is still in the area. If the bear has moved on, you should make your way towards assistance as quickly as possible.

Bears in you backyard?

Much of the focus in the literature is on bear attacks in wild settings. Don't forget that living in bear country comes with a responsibility to help reduce natural attractants in townsites. Click here for more details on living safely in bear country


All Material Ward Cameron 2005