When it comes to large and dangerous mammals, bears are among the most plentiful, and certainly the most well-known on earth.
These omnivorous ursids are spread across the globe and are quite common in some areas, even though their numbers today come nowhere close to their historic range. Much of the time bears are altogether too happy and eager to retreat from human presence, but not always.
Whether you startled a bear feeding on a carcass, accidentally woke it up from deep sleep or had the misfortune to get between a mama bear and her cubs you are now in a life-threatening encounter.
Bears are extremely powerful physically, well-armed with crushing teeth and long, sharp claws, and the endurance to make sure the job gets done with them.
It stands to reason if you are in any place where bears are a feature you’ll want to know how to defend yourself against them, either by avoiding them, catalyzing an attack or putting the bear down if worse comes to worst.
This article will serve as your primer for bear defense skills and procedures.
Know What Kind of Bear You are Dealing With
Before we go any further, I must impress upon you that it is essential you know what kind of bear you are dealing with. Though some defensive procedures, particularly ones involving lethal or less lethal force against the bear, do not change based on the species, other countermeasures will.
A tactic that works on a brown bear may be the exact opposite of what you want to do when dealing with a black bear!
Most species of bear that we are worried about have much in common. All are large and powerful mammals, though some species, particularly brown and polar bears, grow far larger and stronger than they’re smaller black cousins.
All are carnivorous, but generally subsist on an omnivorous diet consisting of all sorts of things from berries and seeds to honey, fish and other mammals.
The good news is that bears are easy to tell apart, and this is generally a simple matter because most regions in North America are only host to one or perhaps two kinds of bear.
If you are in the eastern part of the United States, particularly greater Appalachia you’ll only be dealing with black bears. To the west and northwest, you’ll have to start contending with brown and grizzly bears, and the farthest northern reaches are host to polar bears.
Any advice that is specific to one species or another I will make sure to mention throughout this article, otherwise you can assume it applies more or less equally to all species.
Common Bears of North America
A better understanding of bears will help you to make better decisions when it comes to avoiding confrontation with them or defending yourself against an attack. North America is home to three major types of bear, listed below.
American black bear
Ranging anywhere from 90 lbs. to over 550 lbs, the American black bear is smaller and slightly sleeker than other bears on the continent and can measure 6 ft tall if it stands up on its hind legs.
Despite what their name suggests, black bears can be found in a rainbow of colors, anywhere from the eponymous glossy black to various shades of tan, khaki, brown and even reddish colors.
Every now and again you’ll see a black bear that is a silver or gray color with such rarities as blonde not being out of the question.
Though these bears are smaller than their brown and polar bear cousins, these are still stocky and powerful animals found all over the North American continent, particularly through both Appalachian and Rocky mountain ranges all the way down to the American southwest and even Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest.
Pretty much anywhere you go, there is a fair chance of encountering a black bear.
Compared to their larger brethren, black bears are far more likely to be encountered in and around human habitation and they are also active around the clock much of the time.
In the middle of the day or closing in on the witching hour you could have a black bear encounter if you aren’t careful.
These active bears are also highly curious and display excellent problem solving skills, everything from opening car doors to figuring out the latching mechanisms on dumpsters and smaller containers.
Of particular concern to explorers, campers and hikers is the fact that the black bear is an excellent climber. These bears can easily clamber up trees and seemingly scale shear surfaces, including fences. This is in keeping with the black bears highly opportunistic nature.
They are omnivores, like brown bears, but they are even more likely to eat a highly varied diet. The will eat carcasses, even going so far as to run other predators off of their kills, but will also take live prey if they think the odds are with them, including young elk, deer and even moose. They’re also well known for taking eggs out of bird nests.
Black bears are responsible for more attacks than any other bear species, but this is far more likely to indicate a greater number of contacts with humanity owing to their larger population and typical behavior in and around human habitation more than any special aggressiveness or viciousness.
And they show down with a human, a black bear is likely to sound off in an attempt to intimidate with a huffing, puffing sound or by swiping at the ground or other terrain with their claws. Black bears may make false charges.
The general prescription for dealing with a black bear that is posturing is to get loud and get big, standing close together with other people if possible. Most black bears will disengage and run for the hills when they think the odds are against them.
It is worth noting that black bears are more likely to attack humans when food motivated or starving compared to brown bears, so if you are directly attacked by a black bear you should fight back. Bear spray or a firearm are as always your best bets.
In close combat with a black bear you must fight back as they will likely kill and eat you. Don’t play dead or give up!
Brown bear, AKA grizzly bear
Weighing no less than 200 lbs., and with many examples tipping the scales at an immense 875 lbs. or more, the famous grizzly bear is a mega predator that stands well over six and a half feet tall on its hind legs.
Possessing the rough looking, coarse coat of fur that lends them their name, these bears range anywhere from a medium chestnut brown to a dark mahogany brown in color. Another noticeable physical characteristic is a large hump immediately behind the shoulders, commonly thought to be fat but what is in actuality muscle.
Speaking of muscle, these bears have plenty of it and are incredibly powerful. Hunting and gathering food at all hours prior to hibernation though not typically as active at night compared to black bears, you’ll have to be extra cautious anywhere you are where these large bears are common.
Like most bears, grizzly bears are omnivorous and eat all kinds of things from berries and fruits to nuts, flowers, mushrooms, mammals and of course delicious, delicious fish.
Compared to black bears, brown bears are far less likely to be encountered in areas of human habitation, though these intelligent mammals quickly grow accustomed to human activity, and are infamously spotted all along ingress and egress routes and national parks where human transit is common.
“Thanks” to humans feeding them regularly and the preponderance of food to be found in human refuse and at human campsites, close contact with brown bears in these specific areas is more likely than anywhere else.
As mentioned above, grizzly bears are highly curious and will thoroughly investigate all containers and campsites that they can reach, and they can reach almost anything. Though they are not climbers, these bears have been observed bending over smaller trees where food was hanged to get at it.
These bears are also highly likely to be encountered anytime humans are handling other animal remains, be it fish or mammal. Encounters of this type commonly have a bad outcome.
If you are confronted by an uncertain grizzly bear that begins making threat displays, your best bet is to stand still. though less likely to lock on to humans through food motivation compared to black bears, the prey and defense drive of a grizzly bear is strong and if you run it is likely to give chase.
Note that grizzly bears, despite their huge size and seeming clumsiness, are incredibly quick on their feet and nimble, and are capable of running uphill faster than you can run on flat land so you won’t get away from one.
Grizzly bears may false charge, but this is likely not a chance you’ll be willing to take.
In close combat with a grizzly bear, you went to ball up and protect your head and neck as best you can from the bear’s ravages then play dead. Once a grizzly bear perceives you as no longer a threat, it will likely leave you alone, but you must be cautious to not give any sign of life for some time as these big boys are known to stand off and observe to make sure that perceived threats are truly dead.
Weighing in anywhere from a whopping 770 lbs to a titanic 1500 lbs.-plus, the bear that Coca-Cola made famous is the largest of any of them, and is also the largest predatory land mammal on Earth.
Coated in a thick, insulating layer of blubber and warm fur that ranges anywhere from a clear, yellow tinted color to a brilliant, pure white, polar bears are what is known as hyper carnivorous, meaning they subsist almost entirely on a diet of meat.
This all meat diet typically comes from seals which they hunt in abundance throughout the Arctic Circle, but it sometimes comes from people.
Happily, if you are not in the very furthest northern reaches of North America you are highly unlikely to encounter a polar bear anywhere except the zoo, but if you do encounter a polar bear you must be on guard.
These bears have a noted reputation for viciousness and aggressiveness, though this is mostly undeserved. In any confrontation or when uncertain a polar bear is likely to attempt withdrawal or escape like most bears. If a polar bear isn’t hungry or starving, it is unlikely to attack humans, but if it is, you had better watch out!
Unlike the other bears listed above, polar bears have had a historically quite limited interaction with humans and have almost no learned fear of them except in individual examples.
A hungry polar bear is bold, fast and fearless and virtually all polar bear attacks on people are fatal with victims usually being eaten.
Even more worryingly, the polar bear is a hunter that takes prey by stealth using its superb natural camouflage in its native environment to take prey unawares.
If you are attacked by a polar bear your only hope is to fight back or make good fast, certain escape, as even sheltering from these phenomenally powerful mammals is all but impossible if you aren’t in a hardened structure.
Comparatively recent attacks have shown polar bears ripping open common structures with ease, and even peeling the doors right off of vehicles.
The Basics of Bear Attacks on Humans
If you have a decided bear-phobia, I have good news for you: Bear attacks on humans are quite rare in all circumstances and across all domains.
Though naturally they are more likely to occur in areas where bears are plentiful and where close contact between bears and humans is more likely.
If you live in the middle of the desert, you really don’t need to worry about bears, but if you live in the Appalachian Mountains or the northern reaches of the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, you’ll need to keep an eye out for bear encounters, especially if you are in their territory.
Any enterprise or activity that takes you into remote country, particularly deep woods near rivers or other major sources of water, are dramatically more likely to result in close or near contact with bears.
However, even if you make it a point to avoid these places you won’t necessarily be able to go without seeing them, as greatly rebounding bear populations throughout the country are increasingly seeing these adaptable mega predators, particularly black bears, make more and more forays into human settlements.
Anyone who lives throughout the Carolinas or eastern Tennessee will happily tell you that black bears are quite the menace, even in suburban zones.
These curious creatures break into cars, forage through trash cans and dumpsters looking for food, grab a quick drink out of bird baths, and even cool off in pools, sometimes with cubs in tow.
Though this makes for supremely entertaining video on the internet, it can be troubling or even harrowing if it happens to you!
Wherever you encounter them, whatever the circumstances, the vast majority of bear attacks on humans result because of one factor more than any other: A human draws too close to a bear, or allows a bear unaware of human presence to come too close to them!
If you can keep your distance from a bear you are unlikely to have any issues.
Understanding Bear Senses for Avoidance and Deterrence
Aside from excellent strength and power, bears are also possessed of excellent senses. Hearing, vision and especially their sense of smell are all keen, well in excess of dogs.
That being said, the single best thing we can do to exploit a bear’s senses in order to prevent a close encounter is to utilize their sense of hearing.
If a bear can hear you coming, it is far, far more likely to withdraw or attempt escape than close in and investigate. You don’t want to tiptoe through the area wherever you are. Make some noise, break some brush, talk, whistle, sing out.
Professional guides and explorers operating in areas where bears are common regularly make clients where jingly, jangly bells on their person so that they will constantly make a unique noise that will let bears know something odd is coming around the turnpike.
No matter what sort of situation you are in, there is something you can do or rig up in order to make noise regularly to give bears early warning that you are moving in the area. Also, you want to act in such a way that you minimize enticing a bear’s sense of smell.
First things first, never, ever stop or set up camp near a known bear trail, near fresh bear tracks, bear droppings or any carcass that looks like it has been worked over by a bear. Or actually any carcass at all, for that matter, since it is highly likely to attract a bear.
Wherever you camp, take the old timers’ advice of bagging or containing all food and trash in a sealed vessel that will cut down on drifting odors and then hang it from a tree well, well away from your camp.
This will dramatically cut down on the chances that a bear will be following his nose right into the middle of your camp. The same goes for any used cutlery or cookware, dirty clothing, waste and so forth.
What to do when You Spot a Bear in the Wild
If you spot a bear in the wild, it is important that you don’t take your eyes off of it so that you may monitor what it is doing and which way it is heading in order to inform your follow-on decisions. Bears can blend into the background surprisingly well, so don’t lose sight of it!
With that being said, make it a point to avoid locking eyes with a bear if it is looking at you. Direct eye contact is a challenge among many mammals, and it is definitely a challenge to a bear that is unsure about its next move.
If you should spot the bear at quite a distance, just hold your position and keep an eye on it to make sure it is moving away from you or out of your path.
Generally you want to give the bear at least a half hour to move well away from your intended line of travel.
If the bear is moving obliquely in your direction or isn’t moving away, you can reroute around the bear by backtracking and then detouring giving it a wide, wide berth, making sure to make plenty of noise the entire time as mentioned above.
If the bear is moving towards you and you can’t get away from it, or you are charged you’ll have to take defensive measures. More on that in a bit.
Defending Yourself Against a Bear Attack
Sometimes despite your best efforts you might be confronted with a large, powerful and viciously angry bear quite literally bearing down on you.
Any bear attack is a life-threatening ordeal, and you must be prepared to take immediate, correct action and if necessary fight back. You have a couple of defensive options for dealing with bears, but to summarize what you should do against a given species, see below.
- Black bear: If confronted, appear as tall, large and threatening as you can. Make plenty of noise. Try to scare the bear off. If directly attacked, fight back with everything you have, do not play dead.
- Brown bear: If confronted, stand still, look small, do not make eye contact. Back away slowly if you can but do not bolt as this will trigger pursuit. If attacked, protect your head and neck and play dead. Do not move after attack stops, as bear may be observing for signs of life.
- Polar Bear: If a polar bear is closing in or an attack is underway you can only fight for your life or take shelter in a hardened structure. Playing dead and posturing is of no use.
As far as weapons go, you really only have two dependable choices to use against bears that have a high probability of stopping an attack: Bear spray and firearms.
- Bear spray: Little more than a super-sized can of super strong pepper spray, bear spray is highly preferred in most cases because of its wide area of effect and proven history of affecting a stop during an attack. Bear spray can be preemptively laid down ahead of an advancing bear to give them incentive to break off. The choice of many guides and professionals working in bear country, it nonetheless has no lethal effect whatsoever and may not deter the most motivated or enraged animals.
- Firearms: Firearms are the weapon of choice for dealing with bears, allowing a combination of excellent range, power and the ability to make quick follow-up shots compared to other ranged weapons. The rule of thumb for any firearm to be considered suitable for bear defense is that it must be capable of deep penetration and preferably pushing a projectile which will not deform very much or break up in the target animal. Less capable firearms might be enough to give bears a disincentive, but are rarely capable of inflicting lethal damage.
When considering a firing solution on a bear, you must keep in mind that even a black bear is a large, burly tough animal with plenty of muscle and sturdy bones which can impede or even stop lesser projectiles.
There are recorded cases of people attacked by bears halting an attack and even killing the bear with smaller calibers like .22LR and 9mm, but seasoned shooters and other professionals know that bigger is better in this case.
Most folks who are knowingly or willingly going into bear country desire long guns capable of firing hard, deep penetrating projectiles. 12 gauge shotguns firing slugs are extremely popular, as are .30 caliber (and up) rifles.
Rifles might be best served with a hard cast projectile that will not deform upon striking heavy bone.
The trick when shooting a bear is, as always, shot placement but getting the projectile deep enough to reach the vitals is just as dependent on bullet selection as anything else.
Another particular challenge with shooting a charging bear, aside from keeping your nerves and not crapping your pants, is in placing the shot. The skull of a bear is thick, sloping and strong and has been known to deflect gunfire, particularly smaller caliber rounds.
Don’t assume that just because you have shot the bear in the head you have inflicted a fatal injury to say nothing of an instantly fatal one. As always, when your life is on the line shoot and keep shooting for the mark until your target drops or catches fire!
Bears are impressive, magnificent and culturally significant animals, but no matter what kind of bear you are facing down know that you are facing one of the most powerfully capable predators on Earth.
A showdown with any bear is liable to make you lose your nerve, but you don’t need to lose your life in the exchange if you know how to handle yourself in bear territory.
Understanding the differences between bear species, their behavior, typical attack patterns and how best to shut down an attack could mean the difference between life and death.
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