For most people, pleasant thoughts don’t generally come to mind when bears are mentioned. At best they are pests that try to steal our food, and at worst they can be vicious killers. In reality, bears have an undeserved reputation. Of all the millions of people who visit the wilderness in North America every year, only a handful of them are actually killed by bears. You’re far more likely to be killed while driving to a state or national park, than you are to be eaten by a bear after you arrive. Even the grizzly bear, which is notorious for its viciousness and aggressive tendencies, is most likely completely uninterested in killing you.
But as we all know, not all bear encounters are that adorable. On occasion they do get violent with humans either because they are provoked, or because their victim accidentally surprised them while eating, or because they have cubs and are more protective than usual. Here’s what you can do to prevent such an encounter, as well as what to do if the situation turns ugly:
Make noise while you walk. Talk, sing, whistle, fill your pockets with change. For the most part, bears are afraid of humans and they will usually run if they hear you coming. Some people even wear bear bells that are purpose-built for this reason.
Don’t travel in bear country alone. The more people there are, the less likely you are to be attacked. If you are with 3 or more people, the odds that any of you will be attacked is practically nil.
Regardless, if you run into an aggressive bear, don’t flee. They’ll view you as prey if you do, and they can run twice as fast as the average human. Don’t think you can climb up a tree either, as they are very good climbers.
Try not to make eye contact, as this will only convince the bear that you want to fight. Instead, you should slowly walk backward and without letting the bear out of your sight.
If this doesn’t work, then the bear will probably charge at you. You should always stand your ground because most of the time, the bear is bluffing. It will probably charge and circle around, perhaps with the intent of bluff charging you again.
Throughout your encounter you should talk calmly to the bear. This not only shows that you’re human (and thus, not a part of its typical diet) but it also shows that you’re not a threat.
Now here’s where the rules change, and there’s some debate among experts as to what you should do. If at this point the bear intends to go on the attack, you have several choices to make. If it’s a black bear, which aren’t as aggressive, you should fight back. There’s a good chance that they’ll back off at some point. If it’s a brown bear, it’s usually recommended that you play dead since the odds of you winning that fight are very low, and fighting them will only increase their aggression. Lay down on your stomach, keep your backpack on, cover the back of your neck with your hands, and spread your legs so it’s harder for the bear to turn you over. The bear will most likely leave you alone once it realizes that you’re not a threat.
Of course, this is only a good idea 99% of the time. On extremely rare occasions, the bear fully intends to eat you from the start. If that’s the case, you should always fight back. So how can you tell the difference between a bear that wants to scare you away/disable you, and a bear that wants to eat you?
As a rule of thumb if you stumble onto a bear, it just wants to scare you away. This especially applies to female bears with cubs, and bears that are in the process of eating prey when you found them. However, if it stumbles onto you so to speak, you’re it’s lunch. If a bear tries attacking you while you’re in a tent, or is trying to stalk you, then you must fight back.
Obviously, anything you can use as a weapon is fair game. Knives, large sticks, rocks, and even your backpack can be swung at the bear. The most vulnerable spots are on its head. Aim for the eyes and the snout with whatever weapon you have. And unlike my previous advice, now is the time to scream and yell as loud as you can and make eye contact, which should intimidate the bear. Stamp your feet and make yourself look big by standing tall and holding your jacket open. And as horrifying as this might sound, if you’re out of options, you can always try to reach down the bear’s throat with your fist. Last year, a man who was being attacked by a grizzly did just that, and it managed to scare the bear off.
Now here’s where many of you might be thinking that if you were carrying a gun, you could just shoot the bear and it would never come to this. You may be right. It’s certainly possible to shoot and kill a bear, but ask yourself, are you a really really good shot with whatever you’re carrying? Are you still a good shot when you’re quaking with fear? Even if you hit the bear, it might not do you any good. If the shot doesn’t instantly kill or incapacitate the bear, it’s going to shrug it off and maul you.
Joshua Krause was born and raised in the Bay Area. He is a writer and researcher focused on principles of self-sufficiency and liberty at Ready Nutrition. You can follow Joshua’s work at our Facebook page or on his personal Twitter.
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