You’re Confronted By a Bear … What Should You Do Next?

Bear attacks certainly generate headlines and create fear, but if you are confronted by a black or grizzly bear, don't panic, run, or try to climb a tree. Here's how to react if you ever see a bear in the wild.


Today, Marc Alabanza, an eight-year veteran of the Ventura County Sheriffs Search and Rescue Team 3 in Los Angeles, knows precisely what to do if he or any hiker or camper is confronted by a black or grizzly bear.

But this wasn’t always the case. When Alabanza was a novice teenage hiker visiting California’s Yosemite National Park more than 30 years ago, he chased a black bear through a camping site to take photos of it. “The bear looked me dead in the eye, reached his huge paw up in the air and slammed it down on a massive log, cracking it in half,” he recalls. “It was such a show of strength.”

It was a warning—and Alabanza didn’t need to be warned twice. He slowly backed away and managed to escape unscathed. Still, it was an “aha” moment and one that encouraged Alabanza to learn as much as he could about grizzly bear attacks and black bear attacks.

Now the trainer and program director at GroundSea Fitness in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Alabanza helps people avoid this type of situation and get out alive it if it does.

Bear attacks certainly generate headlines when they do occur. According to a 2011 study, 63 people were killed in 59 incidents by black bears from 1990 to 2009, and it seems that black bear attacks and grizzly bear attacks are, in fact, on the rise.

“Aggressive encounters with brown (grizzly) and black bears are occurring more frequently in Canada and the United States,” says bear biologist Stephen Herrero, EVDS, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the lead study author on the 2011 study. “Scientific research regarding bear attacks suggests, but does not prove, that the main causes of more aggressive encounters are more people recreating and working in areas where bears live,” says Herrero, who is also the author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. Other factors contributing to more aggressive encounters in some areas are expanding bear populations and people attracting bears with edibles such as garbage, dog food, bird feeders, and home-grown fruits such as apples, he says.

So what should
you do if you see a black bear or a grizzly bear?

  • Don’t run away. If you see a bear and the bear sees you, don’t run. “Bears are very fast and can run about 30 miles per hour. Even though they look like they lumber around, they cover distance really fast,” Alabanza says. Instead, pick up small children immediately, remain calm, stand upright, and avoid direct eye contact, which is a sign of aggression, he says. “Continue facing the bear and slowly back away if the bear is not approaching.” Climbing trees is also not advised as both brown and black bears are deft climbers.
  • Know the difference between brown bears and black bears. “Brown and grizzlies will be more aggressive and are significantly larger. They are also more rare,” Alabanza says. Color is a non-starter. Black bears can be black, blue-black, dark brown, brown, or even white, and grizzlies can range in color from black to blond. When compared with black bears, grizzlies have a pronounced shoulder hump, a concave profile, and smaller ears.
  • In a grizzly bear attack, play dead. “Protect your vital organs and the back of your neck and head,” Alabanza says.
  • What to do if you see a black bear is different. Don’t play dead unless it is a mother protecting her cubs. Instead “try to escape to a secure place or fight back.” Black bears are more likely to see playing dead as an opportunity for a chase-free meal.
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Bear spray (red pepper repellent) works. In one study bear spray stopped undesirable encounters 92 percent of time when used in a grizzly bear attack, and 90 percent for black ones. Ninety-eight percent of people carrying bear spray were not hurt by bears in close-range encounters, according to the research which appears in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Bear spray is sold at outdoor stores, sporting good stores, and shops inside National Parks as well as in local communities, according to the National Park Service (NPS). The group suggests always choosing a US Environmental Protection Agency-approved product that is specifically designed to stop bears.

Of course, the best thing to do is avoid such a run-in with a bear in the first place. This starts by:

  • Know if you are in or near bear country. Make phone calls in advance or check in with the welcome center or a local forest ranger to find out what type of wildlife lives in the proximity during the time of year of your visit including black or grizzly bears. Nearly a third of all national parks have bears, according to the NPS. “Most popular hiking trails and camping grounds are bear-free zones,” Alabanza says. “The risk of an encounter is much greater if you are hiking or camping in the back country.” Look out for bear droppings and or paw prints while hiking or camping.
  • Keep food and garbage far away. “Managing attractants is the core of minimizing aggressive encounters with bears,” Herrero says. Human food and garbage attracts bears and may increase the likelihood of serious attacks. Never cook or store food in or near your tent, he warns.
  • Don’t hiking or camp alone. Parties of more than two people are much less likely to be attacked by a black or grizzly bear, according to Herrero’s study. There is safety in numbers, and groups also tend to make more noise. “Bears don’t want to have anything to do with people so if they hear sounds, they will stay away,” Alabanza says. If you sense a bear, “talk loudly, stamp your feet, or bang on pots and pans to announce your presence.” Don’t wear headphones when hiking, he says. “Your hearing is one of your first defenses against a possible bear attack.”

Read on for more survival skills that just may save your life one day.

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Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in Reader’s Digest. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors; and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu, and rescue chihuahua-pitbull, Thomas.