Large Carpathian brown bear portrait in the woods

How To Survive a Bear Encounter

Sound advice to safely manage a close call with an apex predator.

So you did everything to avoid attracting a bear to camp or surprising a bear on the trail, but you still find yourself in the midst of an uncomfortably close encounter. This chance interaction can happen even when you do everything “right,” because bears are wild animals and their behavior is never 100% predictable. Here’s what to do if you encounter a bear, according to experts at the National Park Service.   

Assess the Type of Encounter

In the past, conventional wisdom said to react one way for grizzlies (play dead) and another way for black bears (fight back). That rule may still generally hold true, but researchers say the reality is more nuanced: The key difference is whether you’re dealing with a surprised bear or a predatory one. Here’s how to tell the difference and how to react accordingly.  

Surprise Encounter

A bear that’s surprised and nervous will exhibit clear signs of its anxiety. If it clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it’s warning that you are too close. These signs can look an awful lot like aggression, especially to a frightened human, but it’s really telling you to go away. Listen to the bear.

Slowly Back Away 

Make noise but do nothing to startle the bear—no fast movements. 

Do Not Run 

You cannot outrun a bear. An Olympic sprinter cannot outrun a bear. And running could trigger a chase response. 

Do Not Climb a Tree 

No matter what you’ve heard, bears can climb trees. Probably better than you. 

Prep Your Bear Spray

Experts all agree that you should carry bear spray. Keep it in a holster, where it’s accessible, and know how to use it. Now draw your bear spray, remove the safety tab, and get ready to use it if the bear charges.

Stand Your Ground 

If a surprised bear charges, remain standing tall and hold still. This is easier said than done, of course, but in most cases it’s a bluff charge; the bear is likely to stop or veer away.  

Use Your Bear Spray 

Regardless of whether it’s a bluff charge or not, this is the time to discharge your bear spray. Follow the instructions carefully and start spraying when a charging bear is 60 feet away or less (more like 30 feet for a slow-moving bear). Aim low so the spray doesn’t go over the bear. 

Play Dead 

If the bear continues its charge, wait until it makes contact (or the second before) and drop to the ground and play dead. It’s important not to do this early. The goal is to convince the bear that you’re not a threat. Keep your pack on to protect your back. Lie on your stomach, hands clasped behind your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Spread your legs to provide more stability so the bear can’t roll you over (if it does, continue rolling to get back on your stomach). Remain as still and quiet as you can.

When the bear leaves, wait patiently before moving. You want to be sure the bear has left the area before you walk (don’t run) away. A sow with cubs may linger a bit while she collects her cubs. 

Need convincing that playing dead works? Since 1970 in Yellowstone, according to National Park Service data, people who played dead when attacked by a surprised bear suffered only minor injuries 75% of the time. However, people who fought back during surprise encounters received very severe injuries 80% of the time.

Black Bear sees people walking on trail and stands up on hind feet for a better look before returning to forest

Predatory Encounter

This is a totally different situation and requires a different reaction. How can you tell the difference? Unlike a defensive bear that charges with its head low and ears laid back, a curious or predatory bear may slowly but persistently approach with its head up and ears erect. Don’t expect the threat displays—like huffing, blowing, jaw-popping, hop charging, ground slapping, or bluff charging—that defensive, surprised bears exhibit. A curious or predatory bear is looking for food.  

Gather Your Stuff 

If you can grab your things, especially food, do it. Leave food and gear that’s stored in a bear-safe storage container. 

Slowly Back Away 

Just like with a surprised bear, you want to retreat without triggering a chase. Don’t run or climb a tree. If you can take shelter in a car or building, do it.

Stay Together 

If others are around, group up and make noise. You want to convince the bear that attacking is not worth the risk. 

Ready Your Bear Spray 

Again, this is the same as with a surprised bear. Get your bear spray out and ready to deploy. The only difference is that, with a slow-moving bear, you should wait until it’s within 30 feet to spray. 

Fight Back 

If a curious or predatory bear attacks, fight back. Use whatever you have—bear spray, sticks, rocks, fists. Make no mistake: This is a fight for your life. A predatory attack will likely continue until the bear is scared away, injured, or killed. Thankfully, predatory attacks are rare.     

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.