Only one or two people are killed by bear attacks each year in North America on average, but fatal bear encounters seem to be on the rise. With so many contradictory and outright false “survival tips” out there, playing dead when you meet the wrong bear can quickly lead to actual death.
Although the core of this article is to cover what to do if you find yourself face to face with an irate bear, I don’t want you to even come close to being in that situation. Let’s cover the basics of avoiding a bear encounter:
Make plenty of noise while you’re in the wilderness. Bears don’t like surprises, and will generally shuffle off in another direction if they hear you coming. Traveling in a group helps to make more noise. And most importantly, pay attention to the environment. If you see or hear signs that a bear is close, stay calm, backtrack, and get away from the area. If you’re camping, hiking, or otherwise visiting “bear country,” do yourself a monumental favor by packing bear spray.
Bonus Tip: It does sound pretty cool that you’re carrying a can of bear spray for personal protection when you’re in the urban jungle, but save it for the bears. Why? Both bear spray and normal pepper spray contain oleoresin capsicum, the chemical found in chili peppers that gives a nasty burning sensation when sprayed in the faces of humans and bears, but the difference is that bear spray contains 80-90 percent less of the noxious chemical than regular pepper spray. That’s because pepper sprays aren’t intended to incapacitate a grizzly, it’s designed to surprise and scare the hulking creature away from you; using pepper spray that was made for use on human goons on a bear is overkill!
With that little refresher out of the way, what do you do if a bear still wants to pick a bone with you?
I’ve got bad news if you’re ice fishing in Alaska and a polar bear wants to rip your right arm out: I hope you’re a lefty! If you’re in the worst-worst-WORST case scenario of going toe-to-toe with a polar bear, you will literally be in the fight of your life. Polar bears are the largest land mammal on earth, can weigh over 1,500 pounds, and eat walruses for breakfast. Your best chance is to whip out your trusty bear spray, and if that doesn’t discourage the white behemoth of the North, use whatever weapon you have available in an attempt to hit the polar bear’s vulnerable nose and eyes.
Be loud! Fight hard! Avoid the enraged, starving polar bear’s powerful jaws and massive meat hook claws: Those will hurt you! Always bring a backup weapon when cruising the tundra, as polar bears who aren’t used to humans can easily end up considering them prey. Again, this is the shortest section because if a polar bear attacks someone, there isn’t too much they can do to persuade the bear to back off outside a well-placed spritz of bear spray and a lucky shot to the eye.
Grizzlies, a subspecies of brown bears, are found all over Alaska, western Canada, and a few select areas of the lower 48 states, such as Montana and Idaho. Your average grizzly bear easily weighs between 400 and 700 pounds and they are ravenous omnivores that consume a wide variety of foods to survive, including fish, berries, grasses, deer, and carrion.
If a grizzly bear wants to ruin your day by clawing your face off, your best bet for survival is to keep the bear spray handy, and blast Yogi right in his face. If a nose full of stinging chili juice didn’t stop the grizzly from charging, protect yourself by curling into a ball and wrapping your hands around the back of your neck. Unfortunately, the grizzly bear will likely bite and maul you randomly, but your chances of survival are far greater if your neck, head, and belly are protected. If it comes to this point, you’re in for a rough time, but as tempting as it is to yell, thrash about, and fight back, the best thing to do is to wait out your mauling by playing dead. If the grizzly charged you because it considered you to be a threat, you’ll want the bear to think you’ve passed on. Once the bear believes that you are a harmless corpse, the chances are really good that it’ll give up and move on.
American black bears are found throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and although they are the smallest of the American bear trio, these animals weigh in at a sturdy 200 to 600 pounds. They are easily the most common bear that people encounter as well, so if nothing else, it’s vital to understand how to deal with an attacking black bear if you’re roughing it in bear country:
If you meet an aggressive or curious black bear, you’ll want to keep your bear spray handy as you would with any other bear, but unlike dealing with grizzly bears, the best way to deal with a charging black bear is to fight back. If a black bear charges you, you will want to stand tall and yell as loud as you can; you might be surprised how often standing up to a black bear will actually scare it off. If your feeble attempt at scaring off a bear that weighs three times as much as you do didn’t work, fighting back by hitting it with rocks, sticks, a weapon, as well as punching and kicking the bear, is by far your best option. I couldn’t tell you if black bears feel insecure about being the smallest of the American bears, but it’s been shown that exchanging blows with the animal is an effective last resort.
I also want to note two bits of vital advice that apply to all bears: Never run from a bear. It is faster than you, it can climb better than you, and most importantly, running triggers a chase response in the bear, which it associates with fleeing prey.
If a bear charged you out of nowhere, you likely startled it, and all of the advice above applies. However, if a bear doggedly follows you with its ears perked up, the bear is either curious, or God forbid, predatory. If you believe that a bear is stalking you as prey, skip directly to the “fight for your life” sections, and put up a huge display of aggression to try to deter the bear from considering you as food.
Hey… since you made it this far, I’ll throw in a bonus survival tip for one more bear: If you’re being attacked by a giant panda in the United States, you’ve likely climbed into its enclosure at the zoo because you’ve had too much to alcohol. Try not to let Ming-Ming bite your femur in half, or else the critically endangered bear will have to be shot to save the idiot who decided to get a selfie with the panda, and you’ll be the most hated person in America for a week or two. Good luck!