In 2006, I had the great chance to tour California with a Japanese friend. We started in LA and went north up to Monterrey, San Francisco, and Sacramento. On the way back we went via Yosemite National Park and there a bear jumped in front of our car.
We stared at each other. Cars came up behind us but sensed there was a good reason for us not moving. The black bear, maybe a young adult of medium size, dripped water from the river to our right. Then it turned bounded up into the hills on the other side.
We were lucky to be in a car, but what if we weren’t? What should we do?
If you see a bear in your garden, while hiking, or in your campsite, you should stop what you are doing immediately. Take a deep breath, calmly understand what is going on around you – where are people, what is the bear doing. Back away slowly, keep facing the bear, and don’t lose sight of it.
You are highly unlikely to see a bear. They are shy animals who like to keep their distance. However, you need to be prepared. Here’s my take on what you should and should not do.
Where do bears live?
Bears range around much of the northern world. There are three main types – black, brown and polar.
They are clustered across Canada and dipping down into the west and east of America with small, more isolated populations as far south as Texas and into Mexico.
In Eurasia bears can be found across Siberia, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. This includes strong populations in Anatolia, the Levant, and Iran. They can also be found in China, Japan, the Subcontinent, and Korea.
In terms of habitats, bears can be found in dense forests, arctic tundra, open plains, meadows, and so on. This means within their range they could be anywhere in the wild.
How to prepare for a bear encounter
Prevention is the best solution to bear encounters. As an individual, group, or family, do the best you can to minimize your chances of running into one or more of them.
Luckily for you, the feeling is mutual. Bears do not want to be around humans for the most part and avoid us where possible. So much so most people do not realize there’s a bear near them.
However, you should consider some of the following tips:
- Seal your food in airtight containers
- Stay in big groups and make a lot of noise
- Pack bear sprays
- Or consider other deterrents
- Have emergency contact information
- Carry a medical kit (should be standard for any wild hike)
Furthermore, you need to understand bear signs and tracks. This will tell you if there’s a chance of a nearby bear encounter.
For example, look out for fresh tracks, fresh scat, day beds, clawed or chewed trees, and so on. Lastly, stay alert.
What should you do if you see a bear
If you follow the tips above, you have a good chance of avoiding bears and being prepared for them. However, most encounters are unplanned. This means you and/or the bear are not prepared for it happening.
Here’s what you should do if you encounter one while hiking:
- Calm yourself. If you panic, others may panic, and the bear may panic. Use deep breaths to calm your heart.
- Observe the situation and evaluate the risk.
- Determine where everyone is around you.
- How many bears are there, how old do they look, and what type are they?
- Are there cubs present?
- Can you see any animal carcass that the bear(s) may be defending?
- Not the distance between you and the bear(s) and maintain it.
- If the bear is blocking your path, back off slowly while facing the bear.
- If it is in the distance to the side, maintain the distance, keep an eye on it and veer away from it if possible.
- Consider if you can reroute away from the bear to give it a wide berth.
- Communicate with the bear – speak calmly and firmly. This tells the bear you are human and not prey.
- Slowly wave your arms.
- Make yourself look as large as possible.
- Do not drop your packs.
- Do not offer food.
Much of the above is true for a static situation such as when camping or if you find one in your garden. There are a few more things to bear in mind though:
- Consider where your food is stored and if the bear can access it.
- Does the bear have an escape route?
- Do you have an escape route?
- If you are in your house looking out, go make sure everyone is indoors and that all doors are locked.
- If the bear is a black bear, you can stand tall and tell it to leave.
- Never, ever try to out psyche or move a grizzly.
Understanding the bear language
Familiarize yourself with bear sounds and body language. There is a big difference between black bears and grizzly bears. The latter are typically more aggressive and more difficult.
- Walking and running away, sitting down or lying down suggest the bear is subordinate to a human or another bear.
- Standing still or on its hind legs can indicate the bear is curious.
- Approaching you means it wants to show its dominance.
- Bears prefer ritualized threats to real violence.
- Black bears may climb trees to show submission. Mothers may tree their cubs to protect them.
- Bears can feign disinterest by ignoring you, looking away, or yawning.
- Black bears may try bluff attacks by charging a short distance or slapping the ground to get you to back off. Do it.
- Grizzly bears don’t bluff – if one of them charges it really is gunning for you.
- Ears flattened against the head could indicate a bear is about to lunge.
- Black bears may message bite or slap you if you’re too close.
- Bears spar in similar ways to dogs including jawing with open mouths – this is a form of play. They also wrestle.
- Bears, especially grizzlies, make less sounds than you’ll hear in a movie.
- They tend to communicate via grunts and by expelling air.
- Their communication methods are the same for us as they are for other bears.
- Black bears use sounds to indicate they feel threatened or to diffuse situations.
- Tongue clicks and grunts are used for friendly situations – with a mate, cubs, and or play. Sometimes black bears use these for people.
- Expelling air is a sign of fear and apprehension.
- Chomping and a clacking of teeth also shows nervousness – they do it if they lose their grip while climbing a tree (a bit like us going “woah! That was close”).
- Huffing can be a way for them to say something scared them.
- Using their resonant, almost human-like voice, can express many emotions – usually males fighting over females.
- Screams can show distress.
- The deep throated pulsing sound shows they feel threatened.
- Grizzlies make less sounds but a female might make popping sounds to show she’s agitated.
What should you do if a black bear attacks?
Black bear attacks are a lot less likely than a grizzly one. Even then, they’re rare. They’re the just leave me alone kind of bear.
As you would have noticed above, black bears use far more verbal and physical communication than other bears. This means you’ll have plenty more opportunities to get out of their way.
If the worst happens and somehow a black bear attacks, fight back. Playing dead won’t cut it. You’ll have to shout and brawl with them in order to get them to back off.
What should you do if a brown bear attacks?
Grizzlies, on the other hand, are the get off my lawn type of bear. Attacks are still rare but they are bigger and far more aggressive.
An attack is still rare. However, you can’t fight back during a grizzly attack. If you can, get down on your belly with your pack on, and your hands behind your neck. Play dead and hope.
What things should you never do with any kind of bear?
Here are a few things you should never do around bears:
Don’t run away: If you run, the bear might chase you.
Photography: Don’t take a selfie with a bear. That should be obvious, right? Yet people do it. The same goes for getting too close in order to get a photo. Just don’t risk it.
Food: Bears have amazing noses. They can smell a carcass from up to 20 miles away. This means they can also smell your food. Be careful with it. Hang it 10 meters up when camping and store them in airtight containers.
Don’t feed them: Continuing with food. Do not feed a bear. If you feed them you might be ok, but they are going to be more likely to harass other humans and potentially put them in danger.
A bear encounter is a wonderful experience, if you survive. They are magnificent beasts – intelligent, powerful, and mystical. However, they are deadly when they need to be. Be calm, keep your distance, and don’t mix it up with them.
Lastly, here’s an ironic fact for you Winnie the Pooh fans. Far more people are killed by bees each year than by bears.