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Bear dangers and how to defend yourself against a bear attack.

Brown Bear in Finland

About Bears

Forget the generic bear defense tips you read on other websites.  Although there are many common defense strategies, how you defend yourself against a bear attack depends on the species of bear.  In addition, poor wilderness etiquette can increase bear dangers for your fellow outdoorsmen so you must be aware of the extraneous factors that contribute to bear attacks in the wild.

Bear Behavior

Most bears are not naturally aggressive towards humans and tend to run away when possible.  Bears kill, on average, only around 2-3 people per year.  Compared to deaths caused by lightning, which average about 90 per year, bear attacks are infrequent occurrences. However, as with any wild animal, bear behavior is often unpredictable.  There are many known cases of Black Bears (which are relatively docile) breaking into homes and killing the occupants.

With more and more people spending time in bear country, human-bear conflicts are on the rise.  The bear’s super sensitive nose (which lets them smell food from five miles away) guides them to food sources and when intent on getting a meal, they can easily injure anyone who gets in their way.

Bear Weapons of Defense

A bear’s fur is very thick and acts as natural armor against physical attacks.  It is so thick it can even buffer the bear from firearms (which is why small-caliber weapons, .357 Mag and smaller, are nearly useless on a bear).  

Bears’ muscles are well suited for strength and power. Brown Bears have been known to kill a horse with a single blow.  They can run up to 40 mph making it impossible for a human to outrun them.  Their five-digit hands have claws up to six inches long that are strong enough to rip bark off of a tree.  Their jaws, containing teeth up to 1 1/2 inches long, are muscular and can bite through a six-inch-thick pine tree.

Bear’s senses are like that of dogs.  Their sense of smell is extraordinary – polar bears can smell a seal up to 20 miles away.  They are near-sighted but can discern movement from faraway.  If all this makes them seem like a killing machine, well, you’re getting the point.

Causes of Bear Attacks

Almost all bear attacks result from the human surprising the bear.  Suddenly appearing before a bear can startle the bear into an instinctive act of aggression.

Another dangerous situation that leads to bear attacks occurs when a bear perceives a threat to their baby cubs.  Female bears, especially Brown Bears, are very protective of their young.  Bears all alone will typically retreat but a bear protecting their cubs is more likely to attack.  Black bears are sometimes an exception and will typically encourage their young to retreat to safety away from humans rather than initiate a risky attack.

Sometimes a hungry bear will lose its natural fear of humans and invade camps, cars, and RVs if they are hungry enough.  With regards to food that the bear already “owns”, they will often camp over the food and aggressively protect their rights to it.  When in the act of killing an animal, they will become very protective of the kill and fight off anyone who attempts to stop it.

Other causes of bear attacks include curiosity, territory, hunting what they think to be a wounded human, and predatory attacks.  Most attacks occur in July, August, and September, when many humans are present in the bear’s natural territory.

General Bear Tips

Brown bear eating Salmon fish in the wild

Bears are not naturally nocturnal, but sometimes travel at night in hopes of avoiding humans. And with a nose that’s one hundred times more sensitive than ours, a bear can smell food five miles away.

Bears are very smart, and have great memories – once they find food, they come back for more. During late summer and early fall, bears need 20,000 calories a day to gain enough fat to survive the winter without eating or drinking.

Bears who have learned that people have food, routinely visit camp sites, picnic areas and resorts in hopes of finding an easy meal. If you want to avoid problems for yourself and others, make sure there’s nothing to attract bears to your camp.  Otherwise, they will become conditioned for “food rewards”. Follow these tips to avoid conditioning bears to seek out human food.

  • Stash Your Trash. Use bear-proof containers when available. If they’re full, double bag trash and lock it in your trunk or RV. Never leave trash outside.
  • Store Attractants Safely. Store food, beverages and toiletries in airtight containers and lock in your trunk. Many bears have discovered that coolers, bags and boxes are full of food; never leave them in your tent or anywhere a bear could see, smell or reach.
  • Keep a Clean Camp. Bears are attracted to odors of all kinds and will investigate anything interesting in hopes of finding food.
  • Keep a Clean Tent. Don’t bring anything with an odor into your tent—that includes all foods, bever­ages, scented toiletries, gum, toothpaste, sunscreen, candles, and insect repellent. Don’t sleep in the clothes you cooked in; store them with your food.
  • Lock RVs and Vehicles. Close windows and lock your vehicle and RV when you leave your camp site and at night before you go to sleep.
Bear tracks

If a black bear comes into camp, try to chase it away (see details on black bear defense below). Yell, toss small stones in the direction of (not directly at) the bear, bang pots and pans, or blow your car horn, air horn, or whistle. But make sure the bear has an escape route.

When you are backpacking or camping in an undeveloped area, set up a bear-safe camp to protect your food and avoid attracting bears. If there are signs a bear has visited the area recently, leave and choose another camp site.

Bear spray is a super-concentrated, highly irritating pepper spray proven to be more effective than firearms (even large caliber firearms) at deterring bears, but it’s no substitute for taking all the proper precautions to prevent problems in bear country.

Bears will usually smell or hear you and leave the area long before you see them. Understanding bears’ natural behavior can help you avoid surprising a bear.

  • Tracks, bear scat, and shredded logs are all signs you’re in bear country.
  • Stay alert 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 (“hey bear”) 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 fall behind.
  • Double bag food, and never leave any trash or leftovers behind. Finding treats trains bears to associate trails with food.
  • Never approach bears or offer food. If you’re lucky enough to see a bear, watch from a safe distance and enjoy this special experience. If your presence causes the bear to look up or change its behavior in any way, you’re too close.

Black Bears

Black is a species, not a color. Black bear color varies between blonde, cinnamon, brown, or a mixture of colors. With their bulky fur coats, bears can look bigger than they are. Males average 275 lbs.; females average 175 lbs. Over 90% of a bear’s natural diet is grasses, berries, fruits, nuts and plants. The rest is primarily insects and scavenged carcasses.

Black Bear Behavior

Black bears are very wary of people and are rarely considered a danger. Their normal response to any perceived danger is to run away or climb a tree (black bears are small and have claws well suited to climbing trees for escape).  Their acts of mock charges, emitting blowing noises, or swatting the ground are typically bluffs.

The higher number of Black Bear attacks vs. attacks by other species (e.g., Brown Bear) is because the Black Bear population is much higher than the Brown Bear population and not because they are more aggressive.  Compared to Brown Bear attacks, violent encounters with Black Bears rarely lead to life-threatening injury.

Black Bears are active during the spring, summer, and fall seasons.  When food sources dwindle, they head for winter dens.  During their hunting season, the primary motivator for attacks is hunger and not related to territory.  Hence, victims have a higher probability of surviving by fighting back rather than submitting.

Most Black Bear attacks occur near campgrounds where tourists purposely or inadvertently provide food for the animals and as a result, the bears have been conditioned to human contact for food.

Black Bear Attacks

Black bear (Ursus americanus)

Black bears are highly intelligent, with individual responses to people and situations. Wild black bears seldom attack unless they feel threatened, cornered, or provoked.  First, keep your distance from the bear.

If you see a bear from a distance, talk aloud so the bear will become aware of you.  If you are in a group, stand together to make the group look larger.

If you surprise a bear on a trail, stand still, stay calm and let the bear identify you and leave. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route. Never run or climb a tree.  Slowly and calmly leave the area.  If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.

A bear standing up 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 its 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.

A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.  Take out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about forty feet away (10-15 yards).  Do not throw food to distract the bear as this only conditions the bear to approach people for food.

If a Black Bear attacks, don’t play dead. Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended them­selves against black bears with pen knives, trekking poles, tree branches, sticks, rocks, and even bare hands.

You can read about black bear tracks and signs here.

Grizzly Bears and Brown Bears

The Grizzly Bear and Brown Bear are essentially the same (most consider the Grizzly a sub-species of the Brown Bear).  Even experts have a tough time telling them apart.  Their behavior is identical too.  Brown Bears have very thick fur and a moderately long mane on the back of their neck.  Their heads are large in proportion to their bodies and can weigh between 300 and 1,400 pounds and reach heights of 9 feet tall.

Grizzly and Brown Bear Behavior

Brown Bear in Finland

As a rule, Grizzly Bears and Brown Bears seldom attack humans on sight and usually attempt to avoid people.  They are very unpredictable though and will attack if surprised or if they feel threatened.  In addition, their size and inadequate claw structure makes climbing a tree for escape an impossible attempt.  Hence, they may fight rather than flee.  Also, Brown Bears are very protective of their cubs and most attacks and fatalities result from the victim coming near Grizzly or Brown Bear cubs.

Brown Bears are especially dangerous if they have been conditioned to obtain food from humans.  This behavior leads them to associate humans with food.

Large groups of people are rarely attacked.  In fact, there are no recorded attacks against groups of seven people or larger.  Brown Bears also tend to veer away from noisy parties that have alerted the bears to their presence.

Brown and Grizzly Bear Attacks

Grizzly bear rear paw print

Injuries from Brown Bear attacks are usually much more severe than injuries from Black Bear attacks (which usually result in minor injuries).

Brown Bears almost always preface their attack with a growl or huffing sound.  They tend to attack while standing upright and grasp the victim’s head in their hands or mouth.

Brown Bears also tend to attack humans who run.  People who stand their ground are less likely to be attacked.

The defense against a Brown Bear attack differs from the defense against a Black Bear attack.  Violent attacks usually only last a few minutes but can be prolonged if the victim fights back.  If a Brown Bear attacks you, cover your head and curl up into a fetal position.  If you are wearing a backpack, lay face down to allow protection from the backpack.  Stay still and quiet and wait it out.  If the bear does not cease the attack after a minute or two, fight back with everything you’ve got.

Easy to Remember Bear Attack Rule

Brown bear paw print

Two simply rhymes explain the basic principles to follow.  Remember, “If it’s brown, lay down.  If it’s black, fight back” and “a fed bear is a dead bear” (bears conditioned to human contact often attack and are almost always hunted down and killed by authorities).

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Grizzly Bear Sow and cubs via Wikimedia Commons by Denali National Park and Preserve with usage type - Creative Commons License. 9/17/2009
Kodiak bear via Wikimedia Commons by Yathin Sl Krishnappa with usage type - Creative Commons License. July 21, 2010
Black bear in Yellowstone park via Wikimedia Commons by Jim Martin with usage type - Public Domain. June 14, 2008
Bear tracks via Wikimedia Commons by Superior National Forest with usage type - Creative Commons License. July 16, 2001
Brown Bear in Finland via Wikimedia Commons by Fran Vassen with usage type - Creative Commons License. June 16, 2018
Black bear (Ursus americanus) via Wikimedia Commons by Mike Bender - US Fish and Wildlife Service with usage type - Public Domain. April 18, 2008
Grizzly bear rear paw print via Wikimedia Commons by Craig Morgan with usage type - Creative Commons License. May 13, 2008
Brown bear paw print via Wikimedia Commons by Gunnar Ries with usage type - Creative Commons License. January 2008
Brown bear eating Salmon fish in the wild via Wikimedia Commons by Steve Hillebrand - US Fish and Wildlife Service with usage type - Public Domain. July 2005
Brown bear paws and claws closeup via Wikimedia Commons by NPS - Kaiti Critz with usage type - Public Domain. July 7, 2015

Featured Image Credit

Brown Bear in Finland via Wikimedia Commons by Fran Vassen with usage type - Creative Commons License. June 16, 2018


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