As people are drawn to the great outdoors, encountering one of nature’s formidable creatures is a possibility. Knowing how to respond to a bear encounter can save a life.
Tom Smith, plant and wildlife sciences professor and former national parks research biologist, has studied North American bears for decades and offers advice on what to do to avoid and survive encounters.
Tip #1: Prepare and prevent
The best way to survive a bear encounter is to never have one. Follow these simple steps to minimize the chance of crossing paths with a bear.
• Never enter bear country without a deterrent
According to Smith, a firearm may seem like the strongest deterrent; however, “most humans are not good with guns under extreme stress.” His research states that 24 percent of people who defended themselves with a firearm were injured in bear attacks, but less than 2% had injuries when they used bear spray.
• Make appropriate noise
Telegraph your presence. Talking among peers is often all that is needed to warn bears in high-visibility areas. Raise your voice and clap in dense backcountry. “If you give bears half the chance, they’ll get out of your way,” Smith said.
• Stay Alert — pay attention to your surroundings
An animal’s sensory system is always running, so should yours. Continually scan the area to keep your eyes out for bears and ears attuned to rustling foliage.
Tip #2: De-escalate and deter
Turning and running may alarm a bear and trigger it to run after you. Instead, simultaneously group together while readying deterrents and back away slowly. Never take your eyes off the threat.
“A mother with cubs basically wants you out of their space ... so get out,” Smith said. “A bear on a carcass or other concentrated food resource will aggressively defend it ... so move away and let it have its prize.” However, if a bear follows you, use your spray only when the bear is within 20 feet or use a firearm.
Tip #3: If attacked, know your bear
If you are attacked, you need to know whether you are dealing with a brown or a black bear. “With brown bears, playing dead is a profitable ‘last resort’,” Smith said, “whereas, with black bears, it is NEVER an option.”
If a brown bear knocks you down, assume a defensive posture with your face down, hands interlocked to protect the neck, and legs spread so the bear can’t roll you over. Lie still! “Premature movement has triggered bears to attack again ... and again ... and again, until the person figures out they had best stop moving,” Smith said.
However, if a black bear knocks you down, get up and fight with anything you can to convince the bear that you are not easy prey.
Bottom line: If you hike as a group, carry deterrents and make noise, you shouldn’t have to worry.