Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Generally, bears won’t attack humans unless they are protecting young, starving, or habituated. We end up killing more bears than they do us and they are well aware of our destructive capabilities.
However, attacks do happen, and as bears migrate and our city centers sprawl ever further, they will happen more often. Uneducated people will make mistakes when dealing with a bear and that can have catastrophic ramifications for both them and the bear.
Understanding bear behavior is imperative in avoiding a confrontation, but if you find yourself in a scenario where you have to defend yourself, it’s best to learn some best practices. The nice thing is that these tactics apply to the major categories of bears and you’ll find that you can even exercise these in encounters with other animals.
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Bears Are Not Naturally Aggressive
You’ve probably come across someone that’s said “People scare me more than animals”, and that is strangely true when it comes to bear encounters. They are not complex animals, often being more predictable than most humans; you just have to pay attention to the warning signs.
Bears can be quite social, but not in the way that you think. Instead of being drawn to us, they become familiar with other bears within their territory. Think of it as a local social circle where some become close and others avoid each other for one reason or another. Older bears will often teach younger one’s skills, such as climbing, either in pairs or small groups.
A Bear’s First Defense is to Retreat
Encounters with bears are usually quick and the same, you become big and looming, make a lot of noise, and the animal will lope away in another direction. It might be some deep-seated genetic warning ingrained in their brains or the fact that they don’t enjoy confrontation.
Why Would Bears Attack Humans?
There are a few reasons why a bear would attack a human but they fall under specific behaviors which experienced outdoor enthusiasts use to their advantage.
Bear mothers protecting their cubs
Probably the number one reason why people get attacked in the spring months is due to an altercation between a mother and her cubs. If you see a family of bears it is best to give them space until they are out of sight.
These bears are used to being around humans, and as such, will have increased interactions with us. Find a bear in the wild and it’ll run away from you, just because you are unfamiliar and it likes to stay on the safe side. These are the bears that typically get put down because they will encroach on people’s properties with little regard for the owners.
Starving and Diseased Bears
The odd time you’ll find a starving bear that has no inhibitions and will do anything for food. Often these are mistaken for bears that have a disease that makes them more aggressive than normal. It is best to avoid these creatures and let the local wildlife officers know so they can deal with them.
Predicting Bear Behavior
Luckily, most bears react alike in situations that involve interaction with us so it’s easy to learn how to avoid further confrontation.
Bears are not territorial creatures, contrary to popular belief. To be considered territorial you have to drive out members of your species. These are traits found in wolves, not bears. Bears will have home ranges that they share with other bears, painting a new picture of a society of creatures living together.
Bears Are Curious Creatures
One of the common misconceptions about bears is that they are being aggressive when they stand on their hind legs, this is simply not true. You’ll notice as a bear stands on its hind legs that its ears are angled forward and they are sniffing/tasting the air. This is their curious nature taking over and they are getting a better vantage point for their observations.
How to Survive a Bear Attack
In the worst-case scenario, the bear will attack you and you will be forced to defend yourself. For the most part, you can handle all types of bears the same, being big and loud, but here are some specific tips for specific species that may help you in a pinch.
A common tactic that bears may use on us is called bluff charging. This is where the bear will seemingly run at you full tilt and then bounce away at the last moment. They use this technique to gauge how serious you are and if you’ll run away. If you become very loud and aggressive the bluff part happens quicker than if you just stood there.
The main thing to remember about any bear attack is to not run away. Never turn your back on an aggressive bear as they will see it as a chance to charge you and take you down. Instead, back away slowly while still maintaining an aggressive nature.
There are black bears all over the world with two major types dominating the board. The American Black bear is found all across North America with the Asiatic located in Asian countries.
Black bears will seldom attack humans, often running away at the sight of us. They are less aggressive and back down with minimal retaliation. Here is what you should be aware of with a black bear attack.
- Make yourself big and loud by shouting, waving your arms, and throwing rocks at the bear.
- Bang a metal cup with a rock or stick to make a metallic sound they are scared of.
- Do NOT climb trees as these bears are very avid climbers, learning right from the cub stage.
- Use bear spray if the bear decides to bluff charge you.
This is a black bear attack caught on video. In it, the bear charges the man and tackles him to the ground. He was able to get away but had to be aggressive to do so. This is a great example of standing your ground and not turning your back on the bear.
Grizzlies (Brown bears) are typically more aggressive than their black bear cousins, and with that aggression comes incredible power in the form of a massive body. You’ll know you’re around a grizzly if you see a distinct hump on its back. Here are some tips on how to deal with an encounter with grizzly bears.
- Do not try to be stealthy, making as much noise as possible while you’re walking through the woods in suspected bear country is recommended. Bears are not always aware of your presence.
- Do not run away from a grizzly. They are slow to pace animals but they will catch you eventually.
- Fall to the ground if the bear charges you and keeps charging. Use the fetal position with your hands on your neck (fingers laced) to protect it. Your chin should be tucked under your knees so that you protect all of your vital organs.
- If the bear starts attacking it is trying to kill you and will stop once it doesn’t sense movement. Playing dead is the best opportunity and if the bear gets up and walks away, be sure to wait extra time.
- The last resort is to fight the bear and you should use all of the weak points at your disposal, and aim for the eyes and ears. Once you get out, back away slowly.
Todd Orr, a hiker, had a life-or-death encounter with a grizzly bear and lived to tell about it. This is a prime example of how you should play dead, even if a bear comes back. Check out his retelling of the scenario here.
Polar bears will mainly eat meat, contrary to their counterparts who are more of the omnivorous variety. Their diet usually includes seals, otters, and fish. Polar bears have been around humans for a long time, which makes them easier to think of us as prey as opposed to their relatives down south.
- Polar bears are the largest on the planet and they are not easy to scare. The best way to fight a polar bear is to not encounter one at all. Otherwise, good luck to you.
- Acting like a predator is the best advice you could get for any bear. Do not run away; instead make yourself the loudest, most aggressive creature you can think of.
- Use bear spray or a firearm for the best defense.
- Playing dead or fighting back are both terrible options but with Polar Bears, you’ll never want to give up. Aim for the nose and eyes and see if you can get away.
The Importance of Bear Spray
Bear spray is one of the best deterrents to use in defense against an attack. They spray a long distance, last for about 8 seconds, and pack a powerful punch.
Remember not to spray it into the wind or you’ll have it blast back into your eyes. Ensure that you use the bear spray by the best-before date or it will lose effectiveness. For more information on how to use bear spray, check out this video.
As you can tell, the best strategy against a bear attack is to avoid them altogether. Practicing awareness in the backcountry and making sure you are creating plenty of noise should protect you from most bad outcomes.
Failing to do that, act aggressively and be the predator they will be afraid of. Never run away from a bear and if you have to play dead then protect your vital organs. As a last resort, you want to fight back and make sure that you hit the sensitive points on the bear, mainly the snout and eyes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still, need more information? Here are some of the most common questions we see about bear attacks and how to avoid them.
What is the best way to fight a bear?
The best way to fight a bear is with bear spray, a firearm, or a large blade. Of course, avoidance is the best strategy in any bear encounter.
Will punching a bear in the nose help?
Yes, sometimes it will knock them just enough that they back away and even turn tail and run.
Why do you stand still when a bear sees you?
Standing still lets the bear get a sense of what you are as they are usually just curious. Not moving also indicates no aggression which keeps the bear calmer and less likely to attack.
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