Are you heading to a national park this summer? Worried about what to do if a bear attacks?
In this blog, we’ll take you through all the most important tips if you encounter a bear, and most importantly, if the bear attacks!
Let’s get started.
1. What should you do if you see a bear?
Seeing a bear may sound terrifying, but it’s actually a special occurrence in a natural park.
Remember that you’re a visitor to the bear’s home.
They’re wild animals, and sometimes their behavior can be unpredictable because they’re not used to seeing humans where they live and roam.
While bear attacks on humans are fairly rare, you still want to treat every bear with caution.
Each encounter is unique, so there’s no single strategy that will work in every instance.
Your safety often depends on remaining as calm as possible.
Before heading into the park, head to the nearest visitor center or backcountry office.
They’ll be able to give you the latest bear safety information, which can help you feel updated and knowledgeable in any situation.
Once you’re in the park or on the trails, remain as calm as possible regardless of what you see.
When in doubt, remember these words, “Never startle a bear!”
2. How can you best avoid a bear encounter?
The National Park Service recommends “viewing etiquette” to avoid a bear encounter that could escalate into a bear attack.
Here’s the etiquette you can learn to help you avoid any dangerous situations.
Respect a bear’s space. Don’t ever get too close to a bear, even if you’re excited to see it.
You should use binoculars and spotting scopes to help you see from a distance.
Never approach, crowd, pursue, or displace bears. Each park will have viewing distance regulations that you should heed.
It varies with each park due to the species and terrain.
For example, Yellowstone National Park requires visitors to keep a distance of 100 yards (or more), but Shenandoah mandates 200 feet (or more).
A good rule of thumb is to always stay far enough away that your behavior never impacts a bear’s next movements.
If a bear is altering its behavior because of your presence, you’re too close.
Stay in groups while minimizing noise and movement. Don’t go off on your own and don’t make loud noises that may start a bear.
If you’re in an area of low visibility or out on a trail, stay alert.
You should also talk calmly to the others in your group and identify yourself when needed as a human (not an animal), so no one becomes unnecessarily startled.
Stay on designated trails. Stick to the trail whenever possible.
Going off-trail only increases your chances of encountering a bear and having a potential bear attack.
Leave “orphaned” or sick bears alone. You may think that a bear is alone, sick, or abandoned and want to help.
However, young animals that appear alone may have a mother waiting nearby.
It’s best to leave these animals be.
Getting between a mother and her cub is an incredibly dangerous situation.
Do not bring pets. For your safety and the safety of your pets, it’s best to leave them at home.
No need to add unpredictable variables to the situation!
Give bears room to pass. Never run from a bear but allow them the space to pass.
Let bears eat their natural foods. Do not allow a bear to reach your (human) food that you brought to the park.
Understanding proper food storage is critical.
Always remember that YOU are responsible for your safety and the safety of wildlife in the park.
If a bear approaches you, move away and continue to maintain a safe distance.
3. What should you do when you encounter a bear?
Oh no…you’ve encountered a bear. What do you do now?
Fortunately, encountering a bear is far different than a bear attack.
A bear encounter simply occurs when a bear has noticed you.
They’re now paying attention to you, and you want to prevent the situation from escalating further.
Here are a few tips that can help you keep this situation at simply a bear encounter.
Talk calmly to the bear.
It sounds silly, but it lets them know you’re a human and not an animal for them to prey on.
While you do this, remain still.
Stand on the ground while slowly waving your arms.
As you do this, the bear may come closer or stand on its hind legs.
Its goal is likely to get a better look or smell.
You want to help the bear recognize that you’re human as fast as possible.
To calm your nerves, remember that a standing bear is normally just curious (not threatening).
Most bears don’t want to attack.
They just want to be left alone.
In some cases, bears will bluff when they have an encounter with a human.
They’ll charge toward you before they turn away at the last second.
This is likely to make your heart stop, but this behavior doesn’t necessarily mean a bear attack is about to occur.
Other common defensive behavior includes woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back.
These behaviors indicate that they’re scared.
You can help de-escalate the situation by speaking to the bear in low tones.
This way, you won’t be threatening the bear but (hopefully) continuing to indicate that you’re human.
Avoid screaming or making any sudden movements as this could trigger a bear attack.
Pick up children
Small children can move suddenly or make loud noises as they react to the bear.
This could make the bear think that they’re hearing a prey animal.
To avoid this, pick up any small children immediately.
Hike and travel in groups
Groups are intimidating to bears, and they’re less likely to engage.
Groups are also noisier and smellier than a single person, which means bears can identify them at a greater distance and move to avoid them without ever engaging.
Make yourself appear large
You’ve probably heard this advice before.
Waving your arms slowly or moving to higher ground can help you look visually intimidating to a bear.
4. What should you not do during a bear encounter?
Above, we gave you a list of tips when you encounter a bear in the wild.
However, there are just as many tips for what not to do!
Do not allow access to food
If a bear gets your food, it will encourage them to return and make the problems worse for others in the area.
Do not drop your pack
A pack on your back can provide much-needed protection in the event of a bear attack.
Additionally, it can prevent a bear from accessing food (if you’re carrying it), which will further engage them.
Do not climb a tree
Both grizzly bears and black bears can climb trees.
You’re not making yourself any safer by climbing a tree.
5. What do you do if a grizzly bear attacks?
Once again, bear attacks are rare, but it doesn’t hurt to be knowledgeable about what should be done if the situation arises.
We’ll differentiate brown grizzly bears from black bears as they attack differently.
If you’re attacked by a brown bear, follow these steps:
Leave your pack on
Lay flat on your stomach
Clasp your hands behind your neck
Spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over
Remain still until the bear leaves the area
While your initial instinct may be to fight back, this will only increase the intensity of the attack.
It’s best to attempt playing dead first to see if the bear will leave you alone, so you can get help ASAP.
If the “play dead” approach is not working and the bear continues to attack, change tactics.
Fight back aggressively by using whatever you have to hit the bear in the face.
Note: If a bear attacks you in your tent or stalks you before attacking, then you should not play dead initially.
You must fight back immediately.
It’s uncommon for bear attacks to occur this way, but when they do, it means the bear is searching for food and sees you as prey.
6. What do you do if a black bear attacks?
The advice for a black bear attack is different.
You should not play dead in this case.
You should escape to a secure place like a car or building.
If this is not possible, you must fight back immediately using whatever object you have available.
You should concentrate your blows to the bear’s face and muzzle.
7. Can bear spray help during a bear attack?
Yes, bear spray is a critical tool when exploring the backcountry and national parks.
You can think of bear spray like mace or pepper spray (although they are NOT the same product).
You spray it when a bear is charging aggressively at you, and it deters them by causing an inflammatory response in the mouth, nose, eyes, nasal passage, throat, and lungs.
While it doesn’t harm it long-term, it does keep the bear from being able to inhale and exhale deeply to support its charge.
That said, bear spray is NOT bear repellant.
You should not apply it to yourself or your belongings.
Bear spray can cause the same inflammatory response in human eyes, nose, lungs, etc.
So, if you don’t want to have a temporary loss of eyesight or difficulty breathing, be careful while using it!
8. Why is food storage so important in preventing a bear attack?
All the advice is the same.
If you want to prevent a bear attack, make sure you’re properly storing your food and disposing of your garbage.
Otherwise, a bear may come to associate you (as a human) with resources, and this can put you in a dangerous situation.
Bears are quick learners, and they’ll return to areas where they know they can find food.
9. Is human food bad for bears?
Human food isn’t necessarily bad for bears, but it’s bad for bears to become acclimated to eating human food.
Bears innately prefer natural food sources and fear humans.
If they adjust to ravaging human camps in search of food, this can become incredibly problematic.
Humans will need to deal with their aggressive and unpredictable behavior much more often.
Additionally, bears will also be at risk of getting euthanized to protect humans, being hit by cars, or becoming an easy target for poachers.
It’s up to you to protect bears (as well as yourself) and allow them to live in their homes.
Learning how to properly store your food is a must for camping in national parks or the backcountry!
Also, please note that “food” is a loose term where a bear is concerned.
They have an incredible sense of smell and an insatiable appetite.
A bear can consider all of the following “food:” canned goods, bottles, drinks, soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, trash, ice chests, sunscreen, bug repellant, fuel, food prep materials, etc.
Make sure all of these items are stored properly.
10. What are food storage requirements that can prevent bear attacks?
The regulations will vary depending on which national park you visit.
The regulations also change based on which types of bears are present as well as the best food storage method.
In some parks, you’ll find bear-resistant food lockers called bear canisters.
Other parks allow visitors to hang food from a tree in a food bag.
Please make sure you follow the rules of the specific park you’re in to protect the visitor, property, and bears.
Here are some additional food storage tips that can also help you on your next camping trip.
In Picnic Areas and Campgrounds
Keep your food within arm’s reach
Don’t turn your back to your food
Secure your food, garbage, and other scented items immediately upon arrival
Don’t store food in your tent or backpack
Wash dishes immediately after use
Don’t attempt to burn excess food, tea bags, or coffee grounds in a fire because it can leave partially burned matter behind
In Hotel Rooms and Cabins
Keep all food inside your room
Keep all windows and doors closed to prevent a bear from breaking in
Choose compact, compressible, high-calorie food that lacks a strong odor
Take food out of its original packaging so you can fit more in bear canisters
Carry food and garbage only in plastic bags to contain crumbs and grease
Keep your bear canister closed and locked at all times
Don’t dispose of any food waste in the wildness — always pack out uneaten food and food particles
Treat food wrappers and other garbage the same as you would food
Bear attacks are uncommon — let’s keep them that way.
Following the above tips when camping, hiking, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors in the backcountry or one of our national parks will help keep the bear at a distance during your next encounter.
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