Bear attack

How-To with The VALiens: Surviving a bear attack

Survive a Bear Attack

So, you just woke up, and there’s a bear in your tent. Having an enormous predator looming over you is probably one of life’s most terrifying encounters, and rightly so. Surviving a bear attack is a life and death situation. Your survival depends on fast assessment of the type of bear, his attitude toward you and your willingness to do whatever it takes to live. In case you’re ever unfortunate enough to encounter a bear in a close encounter and the bear seems focused on attacking you, here are some suggestions on how to survive.


Identify the bear quickly upon your encounter. Knowing your bear has some bearing on how to approach an attack. Keep in mind that color and size are not reliable sole indicators of the species of bear––even those familiar with bears can have a difficult time determining the difference between a very large black bear and a grizzly. Common features of some species of bears include:

  • Black bears (Ursus americanus): Black bears can weigh between 125 to 660 pounds (56kg to 300kg).[1] The color of black bears tends to range from black to blond. The bear’s muzzle is usually lighter in color than the bear’s body; many black bears will also sport a white patch on their throat or chest. The black bear stands about 2-3.5 feet (60-100cm) tall to the shoulder and 4-7 feet (1.2-2.1 meters) tall when standing on his back legs. Look for such distinguishing features as a straight face, a straight back line, small head and dark-colored short claws.[1]
  • Brown bears (sub-species “Grizzly” bears) (Ursus arctos and Ursus arctos horribilis): Brown bears are distributed across Eurasia and North America. They weigh between 660 and 1500 pounds (300 to 680kg), with the Kodiak bear being the largest (rivaling the polar bear in size).[2] There is debate about the amount of sub-species of brown bears but you can generally rely on the distinguishing features noted below. Grizzly bears can weigh about 550-1000 pounds (250-450 kg) in interior areas, while coastal grizzlies can weigh up to 1500 pounds at peak.().[1] Again, the coloring can be anywhere from black to blond, with the usual giveaway being that the bear has silver-tipped fur that looks “grizzled” (or “streaked with gray hair”, hence the name “grizzly”). When standing, a grizzly can reach over 7 to 10 feet (2.2 to 3.3 meters) tall. In brown, grizzly and Kodiak bears, look for such distinguishing features as a prominent hump over his shoulders, sloping back line, a dished or concave face, large head and light-colored, long curving claws.[1]
  • Polar bears (Ursus maritimis): Male polar bears can weigh around 770-1500 pounds (350-680kg), with females being about half the size.[3] Found in the Arctic Circle, this bear has adjusted to life on snow, ice and in cold waters. The largest terrestrial carnivore, the polar bear’s shoulder height is about 51-63 inches (130-160cm). The usual color is white and the bear’s body is more elongated than that of a brown bear, with a longer skull and nose.
  • For locations of different bear species, see “Tips” below.
  1. 2

Try to quickly assess whether the bear before you is behaving defensively or is attacking you to clear her path to food (predatory). This is helpful for knowing how far you can rely on trying to convince the bear you’re not a threat so she will leave you alone (by, for example, increasing your size, being noisy, playing dead, etc.). On the other hand, if you’re viewed as prey rather than as a threat, the bear won’t stop attacking you if you play dead or shout, so you’ll need to find more effective defensive approaches that might help you to escape safely. Typical reasons for a bear to feel threatened include the need to protect her cubs, protection of hidden food or a carcass and surprise or confusion, fear, an impression that her space has been invaded and blocking of her exit way. Predatory behavior is usually brought about by hunger and an indifference to your human status. A greater percentage of attacks from black bears are predatory in nature than from brown bears but young brown bears or grizzlies can be predatory once abandoned by their mothers, as they’re learning to find food alone and it’s may be tempting to see humans as food. Remember that whatever the reason behind a bear’s attack, the bear is dangerous. Here are some general indications showing whether the bear is reacting either in a defensive or predatory way:[4]

  • Black bear defensive attack: The bear that is defending herself will tend to swat at you and try to bite. However, she is less likely to target your head or neck (the kill bite).
  • Black bear predatory attack: The bear that is hungry will often “find you” and may have stalked you. She will go for biting your neck and head. She will grasp you with a “bear hug” while she bites you. She won’t be deterred from continuing to attack you.
  • Brown/grizzly bear defensive attack: The bear may flee or she may make a series of bluff charges to test your threat. The intended ferocity of her attack can be determined by looking at the position of her ears. The more her ears slope backwards, the more serious her intention to attack. Other indicators of an attack about to occur include hair rising on the back of her neck and back and growls. Be aware that if she runs downwind, it may signal her need to get a better smell of the intruder.
  • Brown/grizzly bear predatory attack: The same indicators as the defensive attack, with increased seriousness of her intention (for example, bluff charges turn into standing her ground and trying to swipe or bite you). If she is on all four legs, aggression will be shown in the form of swinging her head from side to side and clacking her teeth while opening and closing her mouth.
  • Polar bear: Polar bears are usually hungry and are dangerous. It has been known for centuries that they attack humans and they can stalk a human being for ages.[5] Assume the attack is predatory and that the bear won’t stop attacking you.
  • Any species of bear in your camp or worse, in your tent: This bear, regardless of species, is most likely predatory and you need to act fast to defend yourself physically. Do not act like prey––stay calm and fight back with everything (and everyone) in the tent. If you notice a bear watching your campsite, contact the relevant authorities immediately.
  1. 3

Regardless of whether you’re being attacked for predatory or defensive reasons, a bear is dangerous when he decides to attack. However, the number one coping mechanism is to keep a clear head, so above all, don’t panic. If you panic, your mind will go blank and you may react like a prey animal, purely from fear, which can endanger your life. Some key things to help you initially include:

  • Try to make yourself appear bigger than you really are. Hold your arms up above your head and perhaps spread your legs a little more widely apart (but not so as to unbalance yourself). You could also raise your jacket above your head to give the impression of greater height but decide realize that this may mean less protection on your body should the bear suddenly attack you and you can’t put it back on quickly enough. Don’t use your jacket if it means removing a backpack (see next).
  • If wearing a backpack, leave it on. It’s slightly more protection than without one, especially if you need to “play dead” (see next step).
  • Avoid making any eye contact––eye contact can be perceived by a bear as a threat and can provoke a charge or repeated attacks. By the same token, never take your eyes off the bear in general––know what he is doing at all times.
  • Noise may or may not make things worse. Small bears, including black bears, can be scared away with noise. Some people believe metallic noise scares off bears because it’s “not natural” and there are documented examples of bears running away from clanging metallic sounds.[6] However, any noise may be effective if it’s going to work at all. Be aware that larger bears, including large black bears and polar bears, are often simply made more curious by noise in this situation and could well come towards the noise (i.e., you) to check it out.
  • At night, use a strong flashlight or headlamp to shine lights in the bear’s eyes, especially if a bear surprises you in your camp or tent. Even a camera flash can temporarily blind a bear in poor light or the dark.
  • Avoid any sudden movements and never run. Animals that chase prey for a living react to movement and running trips an innate reaction to give chase until caught. A bear is able to run over 30mph, so don’t harbor notions of outrunning the bear!
  • Equally, never hide in something as flimsy as a tent. The bear won’t be fooled into thinking you’ve disappeared and scuttling off to hide may well trigger the predator instinct to keep foraging for you.
  • The common advice about climbing a tree is––don’t. This is because bears (especially black bears) can climb trees very fast. Climbing a tree though, might increase your chances of survival if fighting a larger bear, like a grizzly bear. It can also be useful where a bear is bluff charging, as it can indicate to the bear that you’re not a threat. But if you do climb a tree, make sure the bear is not strong enough to make the tree fall over, and that you have sufficient time to climb high enough that the bear cannot get to you if he stands on his hind legs (which he can do rapidly). However, if you’re attacked by a black bear (unless he’s very big) or a smaller bear, don’t climb a tree, as they can climb very easily. In this latter case, if you do find yourself forced to climb a tree, climb very high to a point where even a small 300 pound bear cannot go without snapping the branches.
  • Try to create some distance between you and the bear––distance is your ally while you defend yourself. Barehanded, you lack a safe enough reach to harm the bear without him harming you even more rapidly. Do your best to put something large in between you and the bear, like a tree or a rock.
  1. 4

Deal with a bear charge as calmly as possible. Some charges are tests or bluffs to see what you’ll do, if anything.[1] Even though it’s hard, try to stand perfectly still and stand your ground when a bear is charging you.[6] Some bears will be nonplussed by the lack of movement and stop considering you as a threat. However, do be readying yourself for an attack, such as preparing pepper spray or sticks, etc. during the charge. Don’t use the spray or hit the bear unless you are sure the bear is attacking––some bears make several bluff charges before deciding you’re not worth the effort and you wouldn’t want to unnecessarily arouse the bear’s wrath when she might just simply grow bored and wander off again.

  • After a bluff charge, talk softly, wave your hands slowly above your head and back away slowly.[1]
  • If the brown bear or grizzly roughs you up a bit, stay flat and silent. However, if he starts to lick your wounds, stop playing dead; the bear is getting serious about harming (eating) you and you’ll need to fight back.
  1. 5

Exploit possible bear weaknesses. There are a few things that you can try to do that might lessen the bear’s chances of successfully attacking you. First, try to defend yourself on a steep slope or grade; in doing so, you can ensure that any bear will at least have a difficult time standing erect, thereby reducing his full weight force (from a standing position, a bear can benefit merely from using his own weight to harm you). Note that attacks from the side may be difficult for the bear to see well (bears’ neck muscles and jaw structure make it difficult for them to rotate their necks easily, limiting their viewing range from the side), so you might be able to take advantage of this if it comes to blows. However, be aware that a bear will likely attack horizontally as well, which can inhibit your own horizontal strikes.

  • Bears, as far as scientists can determine, have as good eyesight as humans. While this may deteriorate with age (as with humans), don’t rely on alleged poor eyesight as a defense method (namely, don’t play hide and seek in full view of the bear).[1]
  1. 6

Fight with whatever you have. If you’ve tried everything else and the bear is still bearing down on you, your life is in severe danger and you’ll need to do whatever you can to survive. Reach for whatever you can to fight with. Sticks, dirt, rocks, etc. can be thrown into the bear’s eyes, poked into his eyes, or can be used to hit him across the snout (a very sensitive part of a bear). Just take care when retrieving such objects, as you will probably be tempted to squat or bend over, which can make you appear even smaller and you might lose sight of the bear’s actions as you’re picking up the items. When defending yourself, keep in your head that for any defense against the bear to work, you must be quick, you must try to increase your distance, be aggressive and you must try to avoid the bear’s strength (the power of the bear’s strike), in that order of importance.

  • Do a straight-line/gut kick if you have to/can. Straight line kicks can be effective––this is the kind of kick performed by police when breaching a door. Strike quickly and draw your leg back fast before the bear has a chance to swipe your inner thigh (if the bear manages to do so, you’re effectively disarmed). If on a hill though, realize that if the bear is lower than you, he will lead his attack with his head because of the difficulties of standing, so you’ll need to aim the kick accordingly.
  • A bear’s neck, skull and rigid jaw muscles can be used as resistance. If done correctly, a kick landed on the face may cause hemorrhage due to the bear’s resistance, potentially causing whiplash.
  • If punching a bear, be aware of how useless this can be and how it can endanger you a great deal. A punch usually only works when landed squarely on the bear’s nose.[6] Where possible, avoid punching because it exposes your very vulnerable arms and hands.
  • Where you can, strike and move uphill, strike and move uphill. Staying uphill may give you more of a chance to inflict enough damage to the bear to give you a chance to escape.
  • Protect yourself above all. Be aware that you can’t take a strike. The large swipes from a bear have been known to kill elk and deer in one movement; you will likely fare no differently. Use your backpack as a shield, throw things at the bear, like your pack, camera, books, shoes and drink bottle; preferably aim for sensitive areas of the bear’s face.
  • If you have hit the bear or caused him pain, recognize that the bear will see you as a continuing threat. He will either run away or continue his assault until he has removed his perceived threat.
  1. 7

Pull out your pepper spray and use it. This step is set apart from the previous one because you may not have any spray (not everyone agrees with lugging around what is effectively a chemical weapon requiring careful handling and that comes with a hefty price and deteriorates quickly) and also because you do need to know how to use it properly for it to be effective. The first thing is to understand that pepper spray is a deterrent only and may increase a bear’s anger, so don’t treat it as your only response to an attacking bear. Second, pepper spray needs to be accessible. If it’s tucked at the base of your backpack, you won’t have time to retrieve it. Only use it if you can get it quickly and easily––the speed of your reaction matters when using pepper spray.

  • Use pepper spray at the moment of the attack.
  • Know the range of the pepper spray you have (it’s usually 20 to 30 feet/6-9 meters). Hopefully you’ve got a big container with a good range, to help keep distance between you and the bear.
  • Check the wind direction. It won’t do you any good to spray the bear only to have the spray fog you instead. If the wind is blowing toward you, you’ll need to get to a better position, carefully. Also, if it’s raining heavily, the spray may not be effective as it’ll wash off quickly.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You need to read the instructions before you go into bear country. You will not have time to be reading them with a bear dancing around you. Different spray brands may work differently, or new containers may have different requirements from what you’re used to, and you need to know this in advance.
  • Aim the pepper spray at the bear so that it will form a fog or cone cloud in the precise place where the bear is aiming to attack. Spray as soon as the bear charging you is about 40 feet (12 meters) toward you, in expectation of the bear’s arrival and yell at the same time.[4]
  • Expect a reaction––the bear will experience immediate, intense pain from stinging eyes and will probably experience breathing difficulties. An angry disoriented bear will probably still come after you, so don’t delay if the spray has given you a chance to get away.
  • If you forgot the pepper spray, use any repellent you have; even insect repellent might cause stinging eyes in a pinch. However, don’t rely on any other form of repellent than pepper spray as your anti-bear arsenal because they generally do not make any impact at all; use of them is a last ditch desperate act.
  1. 8

Consider the involvement of those accompanying you. Dealing with an attacking bear when in a group deserves mention. Choosing to hike, jog or run, camp or spend time in bear country alone isn’t necessarily wise because there is often safety in numbers. This is why many national/state/provincial park authorities in both the USA and Canada recommend that some trails can only be taken when in a group of six or more people. If you’re confronted by a bear that wants to attack you and you’re with companions, they can play a vital role in scaring off the bear. More people means more noise and an impression of too many attackers versus the bear will often put an end to any thoughts of an attack. If there are only a few of you together, say two or three, the bear may not be as intimidated and may still seek to attack. However, the advantage of being with companions is that you can defend each other. For example, if you all drop down and play dead and the bear paws one of you, the other companion can start poking the bear’s eyes and spraying the bear to get him to move away. If a bear is attacking you and you’re with other people able to help responsibly, try the following:

  • Keep communicating clearly with companions when attacked by a bear. Tell each other what you’re about to do as both reassurance and certainty of actions. Stay calm and try not to shout unless it’s part of your noise strategy.
  • Avoid leaving any person alone with the bear. The strategy should be to stick together as much as possibly, to help increase the impression of a group that is hard to part. Avoid leaving alone any individual who could be singled out for attacking.
  • One person can collect sticks, dirt, etc. while the other person shouts at the bear to distract him.
  • In particular, protect young or vulnerable people. Do your best to shield children or panicking persons who form part of your group. Keep them close so that the bear doesn’t perceive them as an easy pick and do your best to reassure them to dampen down fear or panic reactions.
  1. 9

Escape as soon as it’s safe to do so. As stated earlier, don’t ever run. If you’ve wounded a bear enough to stop her in her tracks temporarily, walk away as fast as you can, heading in a direction away from her and toward safety. Keep something defensive in your hands, such as dirt, pepper spray, sticks, etc., in case you need to resort to defending yourself again in an instant. Try to move away noiselessly so as not to attract any more attention. It’s probable that you will be in shock but do what you can to get back to a safe place.

  • Whenever backing away from a bear, do so facing the bear so that you can continue to watch the bear. Speak in a low monotone, as if to reassure the bear (and probably yourself).
  • If you’re in the Arctic, try to get back to a vehicle or shelter where possible. Unfortunately, you remain a clear target while exposed against the vast tracts of snow. Moreover, a polar bear has a keen sense of smell (they can find a buried seal pup up to 2 kilometers away!).
  1. 10

Be realistic. The suggestions in this article are just that––suggestions. There is no one checklist for surviving a bear attack and what is provided here are generalizations drawn from a variety of sources based on people’s own bear encounter experiences. None of these approaches are guarantees of survival in a future bear encounter, as how a bear will react depends largely on the context, on how you (and any companions with you) react and the bear’s own reasons, which will only become apparent as your personal bear encounter unfolds. Moreover, bears are very strong. Nevertheless, knowing how other people have survived informs you that it is possible to survive a bear encounter. Above all, always be prepared and seek to stay calm; being in bear country carries responsibilities of which you should be aware before entering.

  • Keep bear fear in perspective; after reading an article like this, you might think bears are out to get you. On the whole, they are not, testified to by the fact that bears have ample opportunities to attack human beings that they don’t choose to act upon. Bears co-exist peacefully in most areas and the few rogue bears that cause problems are usually swiftly dealt with by the relevant authorities. You can help peaceful coexistence with bears by not feeding them (to avoid food-conditioning), not encouraging them into your living space, not provoking them and by spreading the message about how to stay safe around bears. Prevention works better than cure––always follow the ways of avoiding encounters with bears or backing down well before it turns into an attack. Remember that most bears will avoid confrontation where possible.

— article and pictures

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