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What to Do if You Encounter a Bear: Experts’ Life-Saving Tips for Wilderness and Yard Interactions

Learn how to respond in different scenarios with varying bear types 


Imagine you’re enjoying a day gardening in your backyard or taking a long walk on your favorite hiking trail when you look up and spot a bear staring right out you! Do you run away, scream or just stand still? Experts agree that knowing how to react is key to keeping you safe. Below, the pros share what to do if you see a bear and offer ways to minimize your chances of an encounter in the first place.

What types of bears could you encounter

A brown bear in the woods

Three types of bears call North America home: black bears, brown bears (which include Grizzly and Kodiak) and polar bears. Most people won’t encounter a polar bear in the wild, but black and brown bears are a pretty common sight. And since they both behave a bit differently, the appropriate reaction differs for each.

Generally speaking, black bears are very passive animals,” says Jamey Emmert of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “Our biologists commonly refer to them as overgrown raccoons. They just simply don’t know how big they are because they tend to be very fearful of humans.” Because they’re more timid, they’ll often run and flee before you ever have a chance to see it.

Brown bears will also generally avoid people, but they can be a bit more unpredictable. This is especially true if they feel threatened or get scared unexpectedly.

What to do if you see a bear in the woods

A black bear in the woods

A hike can quickly become stressful if you encounter a bear on or near the trail. The first thing to do: “You always want to make sure that you look around your surroundings and make sure that there’s not another bear or some cubs behind you,” explains Jonathan Trudeau, game mammal section leader with the Wildlife & Heritage Services at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Next, look around and see if there is a place for the bear to get away so that once you start reacting, you know he has a place to flee from you. Chances are that on a hike in the woods, there are plenty of ways for the bear to make his exit.

It’s also important to not flee in the other direction or not move towards the bear. Adds Trudeau. “You don’t want to try to charge a bear to scare it away.”

What you should do: Start making some noise, but nothing sudden or startling — a startled bear is not what you want! “Use a strong, stern voice to say things like, ‘Get away bear. Go away bear,’” advises Joe Bassett, founder, lead guide and survival instructor at Valiant Outfitters, LLC. “Avoid yelling at the bear. This can be seen as threatening. And don’t run! That will trigger the bear’s predatory instinct. Slowly back away while still speaking in a loud, but not shouting, voice.”

It’s also a good idea to make yourself appear larger. Stretching your arms up can do the trick, but a hiking backpack can come in handy too! “Grab the shoulder straps of your pack and slowly lift it above your head,” suggests Bassett. “This makes you look like an even bigger bear.”

See more on how this works in the video below:

In some cases, the bear may also try to make himself look bigger to intimate you. This may include hunching its back, pounding its front paws, snorting, growling or making a short lunge forward.

“The good news is that a bluff charge usually comes right before the bear wanders off,” says Bassett. “Keep backing away talking to the bear with a stern, calm voice.” It’s important to not turn around and run — keeping an eye on the animal is key!  

Continue to back away toward the direction from which you came until you’re certain the bear isn’t around anymore. Then continue to repeat for another several hundred feet to guarantee there’s a safe distance/buffer for you, just in case.

What to do if you see a bear in your yard

A black bear in a yard

“The reality is if they’re coming into your yard, they’re there for a reason,” says Trudeau. This is usually due to “attractants” on your property, specifically food sources. Bird feeders, vegetable gardens or plants with fruit can all be popular options for a hungry bear. “If you’re inside your home, just appreciate the beauty of that bear,” says Trudeau.

The first thing to do if you see a bear while you’re out in your yard? It’s no different than if you see one in the woods, however, there may be fewer ways for the bear to exit your yard. So if it seems like the bear doesn’t have an out, try to slowly back away to give him the space to leave.

“You don’t want to make any big dramatic movements,” says Trudeau. “You just want to slowly back away. Speak to the bear calmly and just put your hands up above your shoulders, making yourself look as big as possible.” This will allow you to safely get inside your home, or encourage the bear to leave your property peacefully.

What to do if a bear charges you

Following the steps above can help keep you safe in the event of a bear encounter. However, it’s still important to know what to do in a rare instance the bear is persistent and aggressive. “A lowered head accompanied by bared or gnashing teeth, ‘yawning,’ and flattened ears are warning signs that it’s not a bluff, but an aggressive or attacking charge,” cautions Bassett. In this case, you need to know how to defend yourself.

What to do if a black bear charges you

For black bears, you want to fight back with all of your strength and use anything you can to defend yourself. This could be trekking poles, sticks, rocks or even your backpack. “Just flail your fists or “weapons” around hitting the bear as hard and often as you can,” says Bassett. “Kick, bite, scratch…you get the idea.”

What to do if a brown bear charges you

The key to brown bear attacks, Bassett says, is to start by playing dead. This means laying as flat as you can on your stomach with your pack still on (if you’re wearing one) to protect your back. You’ll also want to cover the back of your neck and head with your hands.

An angry brown bear will try and flip you over, but you’ll want to keep pressing yourself into the ground. “If it manages to flip you over or the attack continues, then it’s time to fight back while trying to roll back onto your stomach,” adds Bassett.

After an attack, lay still and don’t move for several minutes to ensure the bear leaves. For any type of injury (even minor), seek medical attention as soon as possible and report the aggressive bear encounter to the authorities.

How to keep bears away at home

“If people are having bears come into their yard on a regular basis and going to the bird feeder, you take that bird feeder down completely,” says Trudeau. “Don’t just bring it in at night because all that’s going to do is change when the bear comes to visit.”

It’s also important to avoid leaving trash scraps accessible. If you’re in an area populated with bears, consider waiting to put your trash at the curb until pick-up day. Also smart: “Even keeping a clean grill will help ensure that bears don’t come into the area,” adds Trudeau.

If a visiting bear does cause repeated problems, contact your state department of natural resources who can provide help.

Related: The Genius Castor Oil Spray That Keeps Moles From Ruining Your Lawn and Garden

How to keep bears away in the woods

A whistle to be used to scare away bears
Liudmila Chernetska/Getty

Bear encounters can certainly be frightening, but thankfully there are steps you can take to help minimize your chances of one happening.  One way to do so: Be noisy on your hike, even if it’s just by chatting with your group or hiking partner.

“If you’re making noise as you hike the a bear is much less likely to be on a trail,” says Trudeau. “You’re much less likely to see one because they’re going to know you’re coming before you get there, so they kind of have a warning.”

What can also help: Have a whistle with you! “It’s a very sharp high pitched noise that often will startle them enough that they go off,” says Trudeau, adding that it’s not going to scare them and cause them to react poorly. Some hikers also like to use bear bells on trekking poles for this reason. If you’re very concerned about bears in the area, you can carry bear spray with you too.

Finally, if you’re carrying a pack with you on your hike, ensure any food inside is well contained. The last thing you want is for a hungry bear to smell whatever goodies you’re carrying along with you and come to investigate!

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