There are few things better in life than the great outdoors, and any place known as bear country tends to be especially beautiful. But that also means there is some accepted potential danger just from that term “bear country.”
Surviving a Bear Attack
The chances of surviving a bear attack change based on preparation and knowledge. While bear attacks are relatively rare, you want to make sure you’re prepared for those worst case scenarios.
The chances of surviving a bear attack vary greatly based on preparation, use of bear spray or firearms training, and understanding of how each type of bear acts. Generally you should fight back against black bears, play dead for brown bears, and avoid polar bears at all costs.
|Bear Attack Type:||Black Bears||Brown Bears||Polar Bears|
|Aggressiveness Towards People||Very Low||Potentially High||Highest|
|Part in Bear Rhyme||Bear is black, fight back.||Bear is brown, get down.||Bear is white, good night.|
|Recorded Bear Fatalities Since 2000-2019||23||28||2|
|Avg Danger Level||Very Low||Generally Low, but high when in close proximity||Very High|
|Where Are They Found?||Wide habitat thru North America.||Tend to be more heavy wilderness and more western or far north.||Extreme north in Tundra territories.|
Most bear attacks are defensive in nature, meaning the bear is startled or running someone off from cubs. This also means most attacks aren’t fatal, but that’s often due to people close by able to render first aid and call for medical assistance.
While these are good general rules for surviving bear attack, there are several reasons that it is important to understand natural bear behavior before heading out to bear country.
Because while these “rules of thumb” for dealing with aggressive bears are good basic guidelines for the majority of situations, preparing yourself helps you survive the other situations where they don’t apply.
How Dangerous Are Bears Really?
There have been 53 fatal bear attacks from 2000-2019, and it looks likely that 2020 will add four more as of this typing (two black, two brown). This isn’t a huge amount as it basically comes out to just short of two fatal bear attacks a year in North America.
Generally, there are 11 reported wild bear attacks on people a year in North America, so it’s not a very common occurrence.
The overwhelming majority of these attacks will take place in a small number of places like Alaska, British Columbia, and western U.S. National Parks in states like Montana, Wyoming, or the west coast.
You can find a recording of fatal bear attacks on this bear attack map.
While that table gives some down and dirty information on bear attacks, it can be easy to misinterpret the data.
Bears tend to be skittish of humans by nature. However, in areas where bears have become used to people or are starving, those natural instincts don’t apply.
Yes, bear attacks are very uncommon, but they also need to be taken seriously. You don’t fear shark attacks in the middle of a wheat field in Kansas but they are legit during a feeding frenzy in a surf zone.
If you’re going into bear country, or spending time in areas where bears have been spotted in neighborhoods or parks, you need to take the threat of a bear attack seriously.
Prevention Is Key
Being prepared for a worst case scenarios is important. If you’re visiting an area, learn what type of bears are found locally. Learn when the local timetables for mating season or coming out of hibernation are.
These can be times where bears are even more active and confrontations are more likely to happen.
There are three really common causes of bear attacks. By avoiding these situations you have a better chance of staying out of trouble. Those causes are:
- A dog picks a fight with a bear and runs back to the person, who is then mauled by the pursuing bear
- Food is kept in easy to reach areas and not properly stored (or cooked) from a campsite
- Surprising the bears while in the wild, causing a mom to charge to protect the cubs
Avoiding bears is ideal whenever possible. Be careful with dogs. In their rush to protect they may pick a fight they can’t handle, and then lead the bear right back to you.
Tips for avoiding bears:
- Don’t walk around with open food or camp with coolers
- Use bear cannisters or bags when camping – keep cooking area away from your sleeping area
- Make sure to talk or make noise while walking to avoid surprising bears you are upwind of
- Keep dogs leash or be weary of taking excitable or untrained dogs out in bear country
- Never approach a bear from a distance
- Watch for signs of bears like bear scat, claw marks, trees with all low hanging branches torn off
- Be prepared with bear spray and/or guns, or preferably both when allowed
Bear Spray vs. Guns
There’s been some debate at whether guns are the best defense against a charging bear or bear spray is. There is a pretty clear answer for an optimal scenario, which is bear spray.
This is especially true if you aren’t thoroughly trained in shooting with high caliber handguns. It’s also worth noting that many real life scenarios have had hunters (aka experienced shooters) rushed by bears who fired and still had problems with jamming their weapon, missing the shot under pressure, or even wounding but not killing the bear before it reached them.
I will bluntly say from firsthand experience in Alaska that I would recommend carrying both when possible, but ONLY for those who are experienced shooters with big calibar handguns.
I’ll dive into why on all parts of this thought process, as well as the pros and cons of each.
The Case for Bear Spray
Multiple studies have shown that when properly used in ideal conditions bear spray results in less incidents of injury in confrontations with bears as opposed to firearms.
Studies done by a variety of sources show that bear spray is more effective in deterring overly curious or even aggressive bears as opposed to guns. Both in driving off a bear before injury as well as minimizing any injury that occurred.
There have been studies out there for decades about the efficacy of bear spray. The original tests have even been replicated and compared to real life instances and the results seem to hold up.
Depending on how you read the results, success rates with bear spray in deterring further bear-human conflict than firearms do.
Just a small samples of various studies or reports include:
The State of Montana has an excellent page on what you need to know about bear spray and learning how to use it.
So if bear spray is so good, that’s a slam dunk? A done deal, right?
Well, the problem are the words “ideal conditions” and “proper use.” Many people don’t take the time to practice using bear spray properly. This is important!
There’s also the issue of wind. If there is a strong wind coming straight at you, from the direction the bear is charging, bear spray is not a good idea and not nearly as effective.
That’s a problem.
That being said, bear spray is usually the best option by not even close, especially if you’re someone without a high marksmanship level with the type of powerful firearms you would need to have a chance and putting down a charging bear.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure that you only use an EPA approved bear spray. These are brands that have actually been tested. Any others have not – which brings into question their capability.
EPA approved bear sprays
The Case for Guns
Guns seem to be the “common sense” answer for defending yourself against bears, what counts as “common sense” doesn’t always answer for reality.
For one thing, if a hunter is charged while he/she has a rifle out, it doesn’t make sense to sling the rifle over the shoulder, pull a can of bear spray off the belt, pull the pin, and then properly use it in the time it would take a charging bear to close the gap.
Situationally, using the rifle already loaded and ready to go makes sense there.
Then there’s a major key point:
Guns are only effective if you are an excellent shot with high caliber weapons.
In many places unless you’re hunting or in a very isolated wilderness camp, the high powered rifle isn’t an option. That leaves you with handguns. While living in Alaska I carried most places I went, but was told in no uncertain terms that a .44 Magnum was the minimum handgun to deal with brown bears (this was what I carried), though a .357 could work for black bears.
If you are an expert marksman who is used to firing handguns this powerful then they are much more viable an option as a way for you to defend yourself.
Spotting A Predatory Attitude Bear
While a bear acting with a predatory attitude towards people is quite rare, sometimes this does happen and it changes the rules on how to deal with a situation. Even if playing dead is usually the right answer, if a bear is looking at you like prey, then playing dead goes out the window.
The main signs of this before a charge are a bear that seems not curious, but intensely interested in you. If the ears are perked up, this is another sign of interest in finding food versus curiosity or defense.
A bear showing these signs might tense the shoulders, or stomp the ground. In those situations it’s important to talk in a loud, firm voice, trying to warn it off, and preparing whatever you have on hand to defend yourself.
If a predatory bear charges, regardless of color or species, it’s time to fight for your life because that’s the situation you’re in.
The Bear Attack Survival Rhyme
The bear survival rhyme is a great rule of thumb. Easy to learn, catchy, and in a hot minute when everything else blanks out of your head it can be a life saver.
If a bear is brown, get down. If a a bear is black, fight back. If a bear white, good night.
This is a rule of thumb rhyme for dealing with an actual bear attack if you are unarmed. As a rule of thumb it’s good to memorize and fall back on if you have nothing else but it is important to learn more so you can accurately assess any real life run-ins with bears.
The more you know, the better your chance of surviving. The better your chance of coming out of a bear encounter unharmed.
Surviving a Black Bear Attack
Black bears aren’t nearly as aggressive as their brown cousins. As the rhyme states, fighting back during a black bear attack is the best action. Black bears tend to be curious. An attack usually means they were startled or defending a cub you didn’t see nearby.
“If the bear’s black, fight back.”
Black bears aren’t generally hunting people for food or as a challenge.
Because of this they’re not looking for a fight. You need to treat a black bear like a mountain lion. Fight back. Fight as hard as possible.
While the odds might not be good with an aggressive black bear, they like the easy meal. If you play dead, a black bear is more likely to try to eat you.
Fighting back at least gives you a chance that the bear will decide enough is enough and back off.
Surviving a Brown Bear (Grizzly) Attack
Brown bears are big, they can be aggressive, and they are responsible for the majority of bear attacks on humans. As well as fatal bear attacks. Brown bears or grizzly bears are most responsible for bear attacks in North America.
Curious by nature, big and strong, and apex predator enough to sometimes get too curious around people, brown bears need to be respected. Whether in Wyoming, Canada, or Kodiak Alaska these bears are the most feared when it comes to bear attacks.
If you’re unarmed and a brown bear charges, this is the time to play dead. Brown bears may bat you around a bit, and chances are they will move away. Don’t get up right away if you aren’t too badly hurt!
There are many times where a brown bear will go a short distance away and watch to see if you’re hurt, dead, or still a threat. If you get up right away it may charge again, even more aggressively.
Stay down for a couple minutes, then get up, look around, and get to a safe spot for medical attention and help.
ALWAYS report a bear attack to local authorities. They need to be aware of aggressive bears for the safety of locals and visitors alike.
“If the bear’s brown, get down!”
You want to avoid brown bear encounters if at all possible and if you have bear spray, definitely use it as you move yourself out of harm’s way and to a safe spot.
Surviving a Polar Bear Attack
There aren’t many human inhabited areas on earth that are in “polar bear country.” The truth is that as cute as old Coca-Cola commercials may have made them look, you don’t want anything to do with these bears up close.
Polar bears are carnivores. They don’t eat tons of berries and fruit in addition to fish and meat, they straight out hunt animals and eat them. Polar bears are big, strong, and aggressive. They have no fear at all of people.
If the bear’s white, good night!
Admittedly, the bear survival rhyme doesn’t give much helpful advice if you are unarmed and charged by a polar bear.
Truth be told if you somehow got yourself into that situation, there might not be much you can do to save yourself.
The best way to survive an aggressive polar bear is by always being a long distance away, carrying a high powered rifle you’re a marksman with.
Seriously. In communities that co-exist with these amazing but also terrifying animals, such as many in Alaska, there are armed bear patrols to keep people safe. If you’re going out into the wild when visiting one of these faraway places, it’s going to be with armed local guides.
While polar bear attacks and fatalities are very rare, that’s more due to lack of contact than anything else. These attacks do happen and are bad news for people as stories like this, this, and this all show.
There are many different potential scenarios where you may find yourself in a very scary confrontation with a bear. By being prepared, carrying proper defense tools, and knowing the information in this article you will put yourself in the best position to avoid these encounters and survive those that go bad.
Bears are amazing animals that generally want to stay away from people. But they are also apex predators in the wild and need to be treated with the respect they deserve in their natural habitat.
Do your research ahead of time, always go in prepared, and take the proper precautions and chances are overwhelmingly good that you will have a lovely time in a naturally beautiful place.
However, in bear country it is always good to follow the Scout Motto and “Be Prepared.”