In a previous article we talk about the different bear species and how to avoid running into them when you’re hiking or camping. This time we will dive a little deeper and see what are your best options if, despite your best intentions, you find yourself face to face with such a beast.

Among the first things to assess is what species of bear are you confronting. This is important, because different species have different behaviors and attack patters. The second thing to identify ASAP is whether the bear before you is behaving defensively or offensively (predatory). Here’s how you can tell:

Black bears   

Defense attack: The bear that is defending itself will tend to swat at you and try to bite. However, it is less likely to target your head or neck (the kill bite).

Predatory attack: The bear that is hungry will often “find you” and may have stalked you. It will go for the nape and the top of your head. It will grasp you with a “bear hug” while it bites you. It won’t be deterred from continuing to attack you.

Brown/grizzly bears

Defensive attack: The bear may flee or it may make a series of bluff charges to test your threat. The intended ferocity of the attack can be determined by looking at the position of the ears. The more the ears slope backwards, the more serious its intention to attack. Other indicators of an attack about to occur include hair rising on the back of the animal’s neck and back and growls. Be aware that if it runs downwind, it may signal that the bear need to get a better smell of the intruder. When she attacks you, it will bite the top of your head and the nape and smash your spinal cord with a powerful paw swipe.

Predatory attack: The same indicators as the defensive attack, with increased seriousness of the bear’s intention (for example, bluff charges turn into standing its ground and trying to swipe or bite you). If the bear is on all four legs, aggression will be shown in the form of swinging the head from side to side and clacking its teeth while opening and closing the mouth.

It’s important to understand that bluff charges are meant to assess you as a threat and the way you manage those charges could prove to be the different from walking away in one piece or having to fight for your life. Here are some tips:

  • Although it will prove extremely hard, try standing perfectly still. Some bears will be nonplussed by the lack of movement and stop considering you as a threat.
  • This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared for an actual attack, so keep a stick, rock or pepper spray ready.

  • Don’t hit or spray the beat unless you are 100% sure that it will attack you for real. Making him angry isn’t a good idea.
  • After a bluff charge, talk softly, wave your hands slowly above your head and back away slowly
  • Note that if a bear rears up on its hind legs––this is often an attempt to see what is happening rather than an immediate launch into an attack. Stay still and let it assess you. The beast may find you unworthy of further interest.
  • A grizzly will tend to make a direct charge, while a black bear may zig zag charge to attack from undercover. Above all, do not run or you will trigger the animal’s instincts to give chase. And don’t think you can outrun it, as bear can run over 40 mph.

Now I would like to address the “play dead” ploy. Among the most important advice I can give you is that you should never attempt to “play dead” when facing a black bear. They will think you’re an easy meal and proceed accordingly.

To properly play dead you should simply drop to the ground and lie flat on your stomach. Spread your legs out (to prevent the bear from rolling you over easily) and cover the nape with your hands, locking your fingers together. Use your elbows to cover your face. Stay very still and silent. If by chance the bear does manage to roll you over, roll back onto your stomach again, each time.

If the bear roughs you up a bit, stay flat and silent. However, if he starts to lick your wounds, stop playing dead as this means the beast is getting serious about harming you and you’ll need to fight back.

Before we get to what to do if the bear decides to actually attack you, I will like to share several other tips on how to handle a bear encounter:

  • If wearing a backpack, leave it on. It’s slightly more protection than without one, especially if you need to “play dead”
  • Avoid making any eye contact as it 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 animal in general.
  • 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 the animal in poor light or the dark.

There is a chance that no matter what you do, the bear is intent on hurting you. SO you need to know what to do in order to escape it one piece:

  • Grab anything you can get your hands on : sticks, stones, dirt or other things that you can poke the bear’s eyes with, or throw it in their face
  • If you have a stick, hit the animal across the snout as it is one of the most sensitive places.
  • Keep in mind that for any type of defense to work, you need to be quicker than the bear
  • 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.
  • If you don’t have anything that can be used as a weapon try kicking the bear’s noes. 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. Do this only if it’s your last resort and you’re sure you can hit the mark.
  • If you have pepper spray on hand use it when the bear attacks. The most important things to take into account when using this method are: the range of the spray and the direction of the wind.

If you managed to inflict enough pain to the bear that it stopped attacking you, get out of the area immediately, but DO NOT RUN. Walk away as fast as you can without taking your eyes off the bear. Speak loudly and keep a stick or rock in your hand if the bear decides he wants to go another round.

I strongly recommend that you rehearse what you need to do before venturing into bear country. Rehearsal allows the human mind to recognize that there is a set of things to repeat without thinking (for example, stay calm, avoid making eye contact, make yourself appear larger, gently step back without running, etc.). Get some of your friends or the other members of the group you’re planning to go with to do this.

What other methods of surviving bear attacks you know of? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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