Bear awareness: How to avoid a bear attack

By Ian Carroll
Publish Date:

Now that it’s almost spring, there are soon to be a lot of changes. Flowers will bloom, babies will be born, snow will melt, and bears will wake up from a winter of hibernation. At this time, we feel it’s good to go over the basics of bear safety just to remind everyone how to stay safe this spring. After all, even though most bears are just as scared of you as you are of them, they can be aggressive if they feel threatened. This is especially true if a bear has cubs, and hey, spring is exactly that time.


So, today we’re going to go over bear seasonal habits and the various types of bears you may have to watch out for in the United States. We’ll also cover how to properly store food and dispose of waste in bear territory. And of course, lastly, what to do if you encounter a bear in the wilderness.

Hibernation vs. torpor

Bears remain semi-alert when hibernating in the winter.
Bears remain semi-alert when hibernating in the winter.

The first thing we should mention, since we’re talking about bears coming out of hibernation here, is that bears don’t actually hibernate. That’s right. Bears actually go into a deep sleep called torpor. What’s the difference?


Well, in hibernation an animal’s body temperature will drop to as low as the surrounding air, and its heart rate will slow to nearly nothing. It will not wake up if disturbed or moved. However, bears only drop their body temperature by five degrees Celsius, at the most, during torpor. In true hibernation, some animals drop their body temperature over 30 degrees Celsius. Still, bears do enter a state of winter sleepiness, and they do spend almost the entire season in their caves. However, they remain alert to the danger and will wake up if startled. You definitely don’t want to do that.

Some examples of true hibernators are snakes, frogs, bees, snails, turtles, bats, and hummingbirds. That’s not all by any means. But it gives you a sense of just how many animals hibernate that you might not have thought of. What’s even more interesting is that pregnant bears will slowly raise their body temperature during torpor as the pregnancy progresses. Then, after they’ve had their cubs, they will often re-enter torpor until the spring comes. Spring is a very common time for bear sows to be protecting young cubs. That means hikers should take extra precautions any time that they see bear signs in the spring.

Black vs. brown bears

When it comes to bear behavior, we have to distinguish between the two main types of bears that you might encounter in the continental United States. Black bears vs. brown bears (Grizzly or Kodiak bears). However, don’t take color to be the main indicator of which type of bear you’re dealing with. Black bears can be any shade of black, brown or even white. Grizzlies are almost always a shade of brown. The main way you’ll tell the two apart is by their size and behavior. Usually, black bears are much smaller and more shy than Grizzlies.

Black bears are big, but nowhere near the size of a grizzly.
Black bears are big, but nowhere near the size of a grizzly.

Black bears evolved in wooded terrain, which may explain their smaller stature. It certainly explains why they are such adept tree climbers. If threatened, black bears are far more likely to retreat than attack. Often, they will retreat for a short distance and then quickly climb a tree. Although they inhabit wooded terrain frequently nowadays, grizzlies evolved in wide open spaces. They are therefore quite a bit larger, and far more likely to stand their ground or attack if they feel threatened. Grizzlies are definitely the more dangerous of the two types of bears you’ll find in the continental US. Fortunately, they are only found in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming and tend to stay much further from human civilization than black bears.

Bear behavior 101

The biggest misconception most people hold about bears is that they are ferocious predators, that they are naturally aggressive, or that they will go out of their way to attack humans. While on a few rare occasions, bears have demonstrated extreme aggression, this is the exception to the rule.

In general, both black and brown bears are curious and social animals in the wild. When they encounter humans, they are usually shy and tend to retreat whenever possible. If a bear stands up on its hind legs, it’s usually just trying to get a better view, better listen, or a better sniff of you or whatever’s got it confused. Standing up is not normally a sign of aggression, but a sign of curiosity. Certainly, you don’t want it to come closer and inspect you further, but you also shouldn’t panic and start acting like a threat or like prey.

Bears stand up to get a clearer view of something curious.
Bears stand up to get a clearer view of something curious.

Bears are also not territorial, contrary to popular belief. Although a bear will defend its cubs, den, or personal space, bears do not protect a territory against other bears. That’s because bear food sources are very location-based and they have evolved sharing the same streams and berry patches. In fact, bears are usually familiar with the other bears in their area and either form friendships or rivalries based on personality. Much like humans.

How to store food and waste

The most important thing about traveling in bear country is proper food and waste storage. The number one rule is never to sleep where you keep the goods. Bears have an excellent sense of smell and are liable to come sniffing around your camp or tent in the night. Proper technique is to use a bear hang, or bear box somewhere no less than fifty yards from your campsite.

A bear hang is when you put all of your food and waste that might attract a bear into a bag and hang it in a tree. In order to do this, you’ll first have to find a suitable tree. Remember, black bears are excellent climbers, so you need a sturdy, horizontal limb that has enough free space around it in every direction so that a climbing bear couldn’t reach out and swat your bag. Bears are clever, so you have to be more so. Bear hanging is a skill, and you’ll get better at it over time. Just don’t get discouraged when you spend thirty minutes trying to throw your rope through a little notch high up in the trees.

Bears get curious about campsites left messy.
Bears get curious about campsites left messy.

Bear boxes are much simpler, and more cumbersome. They are frequently used in places where bear risk is extra high, or grizzly bears are common. They are smell proof plastic containers that can withstand a bear’s attempts to break in. At night you just put your food into them and store them far from camp. No need to throw ropes up into trees. However, you have to carry the thing with you all along the way. Just don’t forget to put your extra granola bars in your box or bag before you stash it. There’s nothing worse than getting a bear hang all set up just to realize you have more food in your pack.

How to travel in bear country

Believe it or not, bears are not always the most aware of where they’re going. They are big, and rarely have to deal with any real threats in the wild. For the most part, they are free to pay attention to what they will and don’t have eyes or ears as keen as many other animals. For that reason, bears don’t always hear hikers coming.

Sometimes bears wind up where they don’t belong.
Sometimes bears wind up where they don’t belong.

This is probably the number one cause of bear attacks in the United States – hikers coming around a corner, finding themselves face to face with an unsuspecting bear and frightening it. For that reason, it’s never a bad idea to make a bit of noise when you’re hiking deep in bear country. Hanging a metal cup and spoon on the outside of your bag, whistling while you walk, or talking on the trail are great ways to alert bears to your presence. That way, you’ll give them time to slink off the trail before they come face to face with you.

Contrary to popular belief, bear spray is far more effective than a firearm if a bear is attacking you. Unless you are a skilled marksman, you are unlikely to halt a bear with a single or even a couple of shots and will only enrage the bear more. Bear spray, on the other hand, confuses and disorients the bear making it more likely to retreat. Bear spray has been shown to shorten bear attacks and reduce harm to victims under almost all circumstances compared to firearms.

If you do encounter a bear

Don’t panic, and don’t run away. In almost all situations, the bear will be equally frightened of you and have a similar reaction. Or, if you are at a farther distance, sometimes bears will display curiosity by standing up to check you out or circling around you at a safe distance.

Now is not the time to run away.
Now is not the time to run away.

Mother black bears will rarely attack in defense of her cubs, but instead, send them up a tree and stand guard. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are more likely to attack in defense of cubs. Grizzlies will often perform false charges to scare off threats. It is best not to panic and run for your life as if you were prey. Bears can run more than twice as fast as humans. They can even run down racehorses over short distances. You won’t stand a chance.

Show the bear you are not a threat by remaining calm, submissive, and slowly moving away without taking your eyes off of it. Do not act threatening, do not wave things in the air or make loud, strange noises.

What to do if a bear attacks you

If a bear attacks you and makes physical contact, one of two things is happening. If it’s a mother grizzly protecting cubs, she might stop when she thinks you’re dead. After all, she’s probably just concerned with her cubs’ safety. However, if a bear attacks you under just about any other circumstance, chances are it’s going for the kill. Fight back in any way you possibly can. Aim for the eyes, ears, snout, and throat with rocks, sticks, your hands, or anything else you’ve got.

If a full-grown grizzly attacks you, you’re chances aren’t great.
If a full-grown grizzly attacks you, you’re chances aren’t great.

It’s very rare that bears actually attack in a predatory manner. When they do, they’ll usually do it from behind with their head low to the ground before the charge. If you see these signs, look the bear directly in the eyes and try your best to show it that you are a formidable foe and are not afraid. Even if you’re actually shitting your pants.

As a final word though, remember that bear attacks are few and far between. Really, most bears are lovely animals with a heart as soft as their fluffy fur. They are usually just as scared of humans as humans are of them. Exercise proper precautions when traveling in bear country and you’ll be just fine.

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