Saturday, September 30, 2023


What to do when encountering a bear in the woods

By Bob Difley

You’re hiking a woodland trail on a warm sunny day, the forest alive with the twitterings of songbirds, sunlight dappling the forest floor, when suddenly you come upon a bear. What should you do? 1) Throw rocks and sticks at it to scare it away, 2) Turn around and run, or 3) Faint from fright.

Answer: None of the above.

If you hike in the woods a lot, as of course I hope you do, sooner or later you may find yourself in this situation and have to make a decision that could affect your safety. Instead of the above options, take a few seconds to determine what the bear’s actions or intentions are. Did it see you? Is it moving toward you or laterally across your path? Is it feeding? Is there a cub nearby? Is it agitated? The bear’s actions – and reactions – will give you a clue as to what to do next.

In most bear encounters on trails the bear will amble off or turn and run when it sees or hears you. It’s not a bad idea to let the bear know you are there if you are not sure it has seen you. Call out in a gentle, non-threatening voice, “Hey, good looking. You are a fine-looking bear. I just wanted to let you know I was over here.” If it doesn’t run or continue on his route passing you by and instead stands up to watch you, bear experts advise: 1) Drop your head and do not make eye contact, 2) Slowly back away from the bear until you are out of sight, and 3) Take a different route.

On rare occasions, a bear may make a bluff charge at you to frighten you off. In this case, no matter what your feet are saying, DO NOT RUN! A bear can run at speeds topping 30 mph – one-third faster than a world-class sprinter. Climbing a tree doesn’t help either. Bears can also climb trees – and faster than you can.

Now, this may sound hard to accept, but bear experts suggest dropping into a fetal position, legs tucked under your body, arms and hands covering and protecting your head. The theory goes, that when the bear determines you are not a threat it will go away. Bears are not interested in eating people.

On the VERY rare occasion where the bear thinks there is a “berries here” notice printed on your T-shirt, you should fight back with whatever weapons you have available. Sticks, stones, handful of dirt in the face, kick, scream – I know, screaming would come naturally without me having to tell you.

Now that you’ve had the wits scared out of you thinking of snarling, attacking bears, remember – you are much more likely to be struck by lightning than have a bear attack you on a trail. There were 52 recorded deaths due to black bears between 1900 and 2003 – about one every two years. However, there have been twenty-five fatal black bear attacks in North America during the last 20 years – about 1.25 fatal attacks per year.

Bears should not prevent you from enjoying the great outdoors, though they are not to be taken lightly. The best protection on the trail in bear country is: 1) Don’t hike alone, 2) Make noise, talk, let bears know you are in the area, so they can avoid you, and 3) Don’t carry a smelly dead fish in your backpack.

Other methods, such as wearing bells on your shoes, have been questioned as to their effectiveness. It has been suggested that they are not loud enough to be heard or, if heard, may cause the bear to become curious and move toward the sound. (Humor writer Bill Bryson says you can tell if droppings are from a bear if it has little bells in it.)

You are much more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear, and 2,000 times more likely to be killed by a car. We all seem to be more terrified and afraid of something that we know little about – like bears – which could even deter us from hiking. If this were a rational decision, then we would long ago have avoided pet dogs and we certainly wouldn’t ride in a motor vehicle.

Consider these facts:

  • 100 human deaths occur in auto collisions annually with deer.
  • 86 deaths from lightning strikes.
  • 40 deaths from bee stings.
  • 18-20 people killed by dogs (plus bites on 200,000 people).
  • 12 deaths from rattlesnake bites.
  • 3 deaths from black widow spider bites.

But if you’re still nervous, consider carrying a canister of bear spray as an added measure of defense if needed.

Basic wildlife observation safety

No wildlife should be approached close enough that they change their behavior to concentrate on you. Just because wildlife allow you to approach closer in National Parks, where they are safe from hunters, they are still wild. No wildlife should be fed, cut off from escape routes, or separated from their babies. They can fight, stomp, claw and bite. Stay safe. Observe wildlife from a safe distance. And enjoy your hike.



0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe to comments
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

It is not likely that I will be killed in the woods by a car.

RV Staff
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeb

But then again … I have 18 acres of very remote and undeveloped property in the lower west side of the Cascade Mountains. There is only a path (easement) going up to and through it, through the woods, to the mountains beyond. However, in the middle of my parcel, between the easement and Index Creek, is what’s left of an old red car. I have no idea how it got there — but probably kids a few decades ago. I’ve also had a bear cub cross the path in front of me, as he went bawling to his mama. So, I have a very interesting (and gorgeous) parcel of mountain property. Take care, Jeb. 😀 —Diane (aka Mountain Mama) at

2 years ago

My take away:
• Stand still assuming it’s a bluff charge.
If it knocks you down, assume fetal position
• If it continues the attack,
Get up, and look for sticks and stones to fight back with

Not very useful advice. Better advice from Sam Lunt below. (Better because it matches what I’ve read elsewhere.)

I’ve had three black bear encounters while hiking. I’ve hiked remote areas with lots of fresh bear scat and foot prints on the trail.
• Saw the back end of a bear 150′ away running away
• Saw a black area 150′ away eating berries and it ignored our group of 4 hikers and a dog while we watched for 5 minutes until he ambled off.
• Saw a black bear fishing for salmon, he ignored 30 people 50′ away

Tommy Molnar
4 years ago

Sounds to me like carrying something a bit more lethal might be called for. Worry about the legal problems later if you have to save yourself. Like Ron mentioned, I don’t purposely go stomping around in heavy bear country but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

4 years ago

I don’t go into the bear’s woods the same way I don’t go into the shark’s waters. That’s their environment..not mine.

Sam Lunt
4 years ago

Grizzlies USUALLY don’t climb trees and if they do it’s seldom very high. Black bears are good tree climbers and can climb extremely fast. If a Grizzly attacks, you play dead. If a black bear attacks, you fight back with everything you can… especially go for the eyes. Playing dead does not work with them. From New Mexico bear watch site….
“If you Encounter a Bear While Hiking
DON’T RUN!. This causes the bear to instinctually chase you down
Stop, back away slowly
Speak gently
Do not make eye contact – the bear considers eye contact to be aggressive
If a bear acts aggressive, he may charge several times, snapping his jaws. Stand your ground and try to scare the bear away by using pepper spray and/or by shouting at it. Most encounters end in bluff charges. If the bear attacks, use pepper spray, rocks, sticks or your fists. Most black bears will not continue the attack Do not play dead. An attacking black bear, unlike a territorial grizzly, wants to eat you.”

4 years ago
Reply to  Sam Lunt

Grizzly’s and Polar Bears are some of the Most Aggressive Beasts on the face of the earth. They will attack un-provoked.

Playing Dead with A Grizzly usually doesn’t work. According to scientists who study these bears, a Grizzly will usually Dig a Shallow Grave and cover you up, save you for their lunch later! Once they have your scent, they can track you for miles. They are amazing Eating Machines and they don’t need any seasoning (like salt and pepper) either!

Your comment about Grizzlies not climbing trees is True! It is has been thought that While Black and Brown Bears can Climb Trees, The Grizzly will shake the Tree or Try to knock it down and if the tree you’ve climbed is small enough, the Grizzly will try to knock you out of the tree.

4 years ago

Now, if it’s a GRIZZLY, you might as well throw your ARMS up and wait to be EATEN! LOL!

GRIZZLIES don’t back down or run away!

Sign up for the

RVtravel Newsletter

Sign up and receive 3 FREE RV Checklists: Set-Up, Take-Down and Packing List.