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You're Being Charged by a Bear: Do You Know What to Do?

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you spot a bear and the bear sees you, slowly back away and leave the area
  • Do not run away from a bear, as this can trigger its predatory instinct to chase
  • If a defensive bear charges you (you surprised it or it’s protecting its cubs or food), drop to the ground and play dead
  • If a curious or predatory bear charges you (it steadily approaches with head up and ears erect), fight back aggressively

By Dr. Becker

More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, many of them in the hope of seeing a bear in the wild.1 But if you happen upon a bear at Yellowstone, or anywhere for that matter, the video above is an example of what not to do.

For starters, many of the visitors had gotten far too close to the bears, hoping to catch a photo opportunity. This isn’t a wise choice for any bear, let alone a mamma bear with her two cubs.

The fact that these cubs were a bit older (about 13 months) may have saved some of these tourists’ lives, since the mother was probably less protective of them than she might have been several months ago.

You should always stay at least 50 yards (the length of four shuttle buses parked end to end) away from a bear, according to the National Park Service, in order to protect everyone involved. As noted by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP):2

“It (the video) serves as a reminder that wildlife can be unpredictable. For your safety and theirs, respect wildlife and give them room to roam. View and photograph from established observation areas. Stay a safe distance to reduce stress on wildlife. Luckily, no one was hurt and these bears made it safely back to the forest.”

Bear Safety: How to Travel Safe in Bear Country

If you’ll be venturing into an area that’s home to bears, it’s essential to be prepared, be informed, and know what to do in the event of an encounter. At Yellowstone, there is an average of one bear attack in the park each year, and as the park’s website explains, “Your safety cannot be guaranteed.”3

However, you can certainly increase your chances of staying safe, starting with these pre-hike tips:4

  • Check with the visitor center for recent bear activity before hiking
  • Know which areas are closed for bear management
  • Be alert for bears when hiking (fresh tracks, scat, and feeding sites, such as diggings, rolled rocks, torn up logs, ripped open ant hills, etc.)
  • Report any bear encounters to a park ranger

The National Park Service (NPS) offers the following tips for reducing your risk of a bear encounter in the first place:5

  • Be alert so you see the bear before you surprise it
  • Hike in groups of three or more (91 percent of those injured by bears at Yellowstone since 1970 were hiking alone or with one hiking partner)
  • Avoid hiking at dawn, dusk, or at night, when grizzly bears are most active
  • Don’t expect the bear to notice you first; a bear feeding with its head down may not notice you as quickly as you might think
  • Make noise to alert bears to your presence; yell out “Hey Bear” on occasion, especially if you’re hiking through dense vegetation, blind spots, near loud streams, traveling upwind, or it’s a windy day; you want to avoid surprising a bear at all costs
  • Avoid carcasses, as bears will guard and defend them; report any carcasses you see to a park ranger
  • Stay with your gear; avoid leaving packs, lunches, foods, or beverages unattended at your campsite, as they may attract bears to the area
  • If you see a bear, do not run

If You Encounter a Bear, Here’s What to Do

If one minute you’re hiking through the woods, marveling at the trees and other scenery, and the next you spot a bear, don’t panic. If the bear doesn’t see you, keep out of sight and backtrack behind and downwind of the bear.

If the bear sees you, slowly back away and leave the area. If possible, walk upwind so the bear will catch your scent, and don’t react if it stands up on two legs – this is just a (non-aggressive) way for a bear to gather information.

If the bear makes the following signs, it means it’s feeling threatened or nervous:6

  • Clacks its teeth
  • Sticks out its lips
  • Huffs
  • Woofs
  • Slaps the ground with its paws

In this case, back away slowly, but do not shout, make sudden movements, or act in a way that will startle the bear. Do not run, as this may trigger an instinctual chase response in the bear (and you can’t outrun a bear).

As for climbing a tree to avoid a bear, the NPS notes:7

Climbing a tree to avoid an attack might be an option but is often impractical. Remember all black bears and most grizzly bears can climb trees (especially if there is something up the tree that the bear really wants). Running to a tree or frantically climbing a tree may provoke a nonaggressive bear to chase you.

People have been pulled from trees before they can get high enough to get away. Also, you have probably not climbed a tree since you were ten years old and it is harder than you remember. In most cases climbing a tree is a poor decision.”

If the Bear Charges You, Do This …

In most cases, slowly backing away from a surprised bear should allow you to safely get away. However, if the bear charges you, resist the urge to run, and instead stay still and stand your ground. The bear is likely bluffing and may stop charging or veer away.

If you have pepper spray, you should start to use it when the bear is about 40 feet away. NPS continues:8

If the bear continues to charge, it is important, not to drop to the ground and ‘play dead’ too early. Wait until the bear makes contact or the nano-second just before the bear makes contact. Remember, by standing your ground, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away. If the bear makes contact, this is the point where you become passive and ‘play dead.’

Drop to the ground; keep your pack on to protect your back. Lie on your stomach, face down, and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still and stay silent to convince the bear that you are not a threat to it or its cubs.

After the bear leaves, wait several minutes before moving. Listen and look around cautiously before you get up to make certain the bear is no longer nearby. If the bear is gone, get up and walk (don't run) out of the area. Remember, the sow grizzly needs time to gather up her cubs which may have climbed trees or hidden in nearby brush. If you get up too soon, before the sow has had time to gather up her cubs and leave, she may attack again.

During a surprise encounter where the bear is reacting defensively, you should not fight back. Fighting back will only prolong the attack and will likely result in more serious injuries. Since 1970, in Yellowstone National Park, those that played dead when attacked by a bear during a surprise encounter received only minor injuries 75% of the time. However, those that fought back during surprise encounters received very severe injuries 80% of the time.”

Knowing the Bear’s Mindset Can Save Your Life

While you should drop and play dead if a defensive bear charges you, this is not the case with a curious or predatory bear – which you should fight back against. A defensive bear will typically charge you with its head low and its ears laid back.

Defensive attacks are the most common bear attacks, as the bears are typically reacting to a perceived threat after being surprised by a person, or are acting to protect their cubs or food source. In these cases, the bear simply wants to neutralize the threat and leave the area. This is why playing dead is so effective; the bear quickly learns you are not a threat and leaves.

On the other hand, a curious or predatory bear will approach persistently with its head up and ears erect. It won’t give you any of the warning signals (like huffing or ground slapping) that a defensive bear will, and it will be visually locked on you.

If a predatory or curious bear approaches you, you should aggressively fight back, using anything you can to fend it off (bear spray, sticks, and rocks, etc.). According to NPS:

Fight back as if your life depends on it, because it does. Predatory attacks usually persist until the bear is scared away, overpowered, injured, or killed.”

Fortunately, bear attacks against humans are extremely rare. At Yellowstone, your chance of being injured in a defensive bear attack are about one in 3 million, while your chance of being injured by a predatory or curious bear are far lower than that.9