Most bears would like to avoid you as much as you’d like to avoid them. Bears don’t want to attack people. We kill them far more often than they kill us, and many bears seem to be aware of that ratio. When they do attack, it’s usually because they were either starved or startled.
Yet despite their hesitance, attacks have increased in many parts of the world. Yellowstone National Park has seen human-bear conflicts rise in recent years, for example, including two fatal attacks in 2011 (the park’s first in 25 years) and another in 2015. In June 2016, a bicyclist was killed by a grizzly just south of Glacier National Park in Montana. Wildlife officials face similar issues around the U.S. and Canada, as well as other countries like Japan and Russia. This has been linked to a variety of factors, including habitat loss, human intrusion, food shortages and climate change.
If you encounter a brown bear, keep these tips in mind:
- Always carry bear spray. This is a must-have in grizzly country, preferably in a holster or front pocket since you’ll just have a few seconds to fire. (Bear spray can actually be more useful than a gun for grizzlies, since one or two bullets may not stop a full-grown adult quickly enough.)
- Don’t be stealthy. If you think bears are in the area, talk, sing or make other noises to let them know you’re there, too — without surprising them. If you see a bear that doesn’t see you, don’t disturb it.
- Don’t be a tease. Unattended food and trash are surefire bear magnets, even if they’re tied up. Try to produce minimal waste when camping or hiking, and secure all food and trash carefully (bear canisters are required in some parks). Bears can also be lured by dogs, so it may be wise to leave pets at home.
- Don’t run. If you do meet a grizzly, stand tall, stay calm and slowly reach for your bear spray. Don’t worry if the bear stands up — that usually just means it’s curious. Back away slowly if you can, still ready to spray. If the bear follows you, stop and stand your ground.
- Aim and spray. The best distance to spray a charging bear is about 40 to 50 feet. The idea is to create a wall of pepper spray between you and the bear.
- Hit the dirt. If the bear keeps charging, fall down and lace your fingers over the back of your neck to protect it. Guard your stomach by lying flat on the ground or by assuming a fetal position, with knees tucked under your chin. Don’t move.
- Play dead. Even if the bear starts to attack, it’s likely trying to neutralize you as a threat. And since you’ll never outrun or overpower it, faking death is your best bet at this point. Even if it walks away, don’t get up. Grizzlies are known to linger and make sure you’re dead, so stay down for at least 20 minutes.
- Box its nose or eyes. This could feasibly thwart a grizzly attack, but only fight back as a last resort. Playing dead is the preferred strategy with grizzlies. If you can get free, though, back away slowly; still don’t run.