How to Survive a Bear Attack in America

Close-Up Portrait of a Grizzly Bear

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?

Snarling Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) close-up of head, lower canines bared. (Getty Images)

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.