Pssssst. Hey, you. Over here. No! Over here. Shhhhhhhh. Quiet, goddammit. They’ll hear us. They can smell us. They’re probably stalking us right now. We gotta move. Leave the kids. They’ll only slow us down. On second thought, get the kids. They’ll get eaten first. This is survival of the fittest. These are deadly animals. And this is how to survive an attack.
The worst part about a bear encounter is anything you do to escape, the bear can do better. He can outclimb you, outswim you, and should you try to run, the bear tops out at 40 mph, which at a short distance is fast enough to catch and kill American Pharoah.
In fact, the strategy that will save your life during a grizzly attack will make you an easy meal for a hungry black bear. Therefore, the first step to surviving any bear encounter is to quickly and accurately identify the bear.
Identifying North American Bears: The Grizzly vs the Black Bear
Surprisingly, you can’t use fur color to differentiate a black bear from a grizzly (also known as a brown bear). A grizzly’s coat ranges from light tan to dark brown, while black bears can be black, brown, tan, cinnamon, or gray. The two species can look so similar that the state of Montana requires hunters to pass a bear identification course before obtaining a license.
There are, however, physical differences between the two species. The infographic below provides everything you need to effectively identify a bear. I just used it to ace the shit out of Montana’s bear ID test.
General Preparation and Precaution
Before we get into species specific survival, here are 5 tips that, if followed, should virtually eliminate any threat of a bear encounter, regardless of species.
Pack bear spray. Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance discovered that of a documented 40 bear encounters where bear spray was administered, only three resulted in human injury, and none resulted in death. Also, know how to use the spray beforehand. You don’t wanna be popping your bear spray cherry with a 500 pound grizzly at your throat.
Travel in numbers. Of all fatal black bear attacks in North America over the last 100 years, 91% occurred in groups of 1 or 2 people. The more people in your party, the more intimidating you are to a hungry bear.
Leave food at home. In just under 40% of fatal attacks, human food or garbage likely attracted the bear. The presence of food is also likely to make the bear more aggressive.
Make noise. The last thing you want is to startle a bear. Noise warns the bear of your presence and is the best bet against spooking him into a defensive attack.
Avoid the bear. If you see the bear before he sees you, don’t continue being noisy and just leave. However, if he does see you and doesn’t run in the opposite direction, that is when you should ID the bear and plan your next move based on the species you’ve identified.
The Grizzly Bear
Why do grizzlies kill? Well, a century’s worth of fatal grizzly bear attack data reveals the following:
- In half of the documented attacks the victim was a hiker.
- 83% of these attacks were classified as a sudden encounter, where the victim was unaware of the bear until within 55 yards.
- Over half of the attacks classified as sudden encounters ended in less than two minutes, and no attack was longer than ten.
- During sudden encounter attacks, victims who ‘played dead’ fared much better than those who fought back. People who played dead received minor injuries 75% of the time. Those who fought back received serious injuries 80% of the time.
- Grizzly bear mothers were responsible for 74% of these attacks.
This information leads researchers to believe that grizzly attacks are usually defensive. Rarely do you see a grizzly actively hunting campers or hikers. The attacks are short and end as soon as the bear feels she has neutralized the threat. So if you find yourself face to face with a grizzly, take the following steps to prove you’re non-threatening.
1. If Encountered, Back Away, Remain Non-Threatening
Calmly back away, and avoid eye contact. Talk softly to identify yourself as a human, and pray the bear doesn’t charge.
2. If Charged, Don’t Run, Equip Bear Spray
Never run from a bear as it will ignite her predatory instinct and trigger a chase, one which will end poorly for you. If the bear continues to approach, wait until she gets within 20 feet, target her eyes, and unleash your bear spray. And while dousing a bear in pepper spray isn’t exactly non-threatening behavior, data shows bear spray is incredibly effective.
3. If Attacked, Protect Vital Organs, Play Dead
You only want to play dead when an attack is inevitable. So once the bear makes contact, it’s time to hit the ground. Protect your vital organs. Lie on your stomach, and cover your head and neck with your arms. If you have a pack, put it between you and the bear.
4. If Still Alive, Wait, Escape
To avoid a second attack, ensure the bear is out of sight before getting up and heading for help.
The Black Bear
While life saving during a grizzly encounter, playing dead for a black bear will make you an easy lunch. Unlike grizzlies, black bears don’t attack to neutralize threats. Surprisingly agile and expert-level tree climbers, they simply escape anything they deem threatening. So what drives a black bear to kill?
- Data shows of the 63 black bear attacks documented in North America since 1990, male bears were responsible for 92%.
- In 88%, the killer was acting as a predator (non-defensive).
- Victims were often discovered partially consumed.
- Attacks most often occurred in the months before hibernation.
Based on this data, researchers believe they have a clear picture of the black bear’s motive: he’s hungry. So should you come face to face with a black bear, show him that you are not a free lunch.
1. If Encountered, Stand Tall, Talk Mad Shit
Intimidate the bear. Wave your arms. Yell, scream, hoot, holler, and chuck rocks. Show this dumbass bear that you are not to be messed with, not today.
2. If Charged, Stand Ground, Equip Bear Spray
Don’t back down. If he plans to eat you, make him work for it. Ready your bear spray and administer it if he gets close.
3. If Attacked, Fight for Your Life
Punch and kick with everything you have. Target his eyes and snout. Use a weapon if you can.
We covered a lot of information here, so as a quick recap here are 3 things to remember anytime you go stomping through bear country.
- Know your bear territories. Before you head out, know the bears you might encounter.
- Pack and prepare. Pack bear spray, leave food at home, travel with a group, and do your best to avoid sudden encounters.
- Know your bears. Bear attack data tells us different bears want different things. The grizzly wants to eliminate threats. The black bear wants a meal. And Smokey Bear? He just wants you to prevent forest fires. Be safe out there.
Bear Attack Statistics
Bear attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Dr. Stephen Herrero