How to survive a bear encounter

There is no sure way to survive a bear attack, but there are certain things that can be done to limit the risk.
A black bear and her cub walk through the grass on a ski run on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, B.C., on June 26, 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The first thing to know about bears is they are unpredictable. There is no sure way to survive a bear attack, whether it's a grizzly or a black bear, although the lighter-coloured, humped grizzly is bigger and generally more aggressive.

The safest option, of course, is avoiding an attack altogether. Making noise when you're hiking in the wilderness is a good start, whether you talk loudly, clap your hands or call out, giving a bear you haven't yet seen a chance to retreat.

"Bears are extremely sensitive to the stress of human activity," Parks Canada says in a trail safety and conservation guide for Banff National Park. "You can actually help protect these animals by avoiding encounters with them."

Keep an eye out for signs of bears, such as tracks, droppings or dug-up areas, and leave if any of those look recent.

If you spot a bear at a distance and can get away without it noticing you, do it. Quietly. Shouting at or attempting to scare away a bear that is unaware of you could provoke an attack.

Bear behaviour

Sometimes, despite even the most careful precautions, bears and people come face to face. When this happens, it's important to understand some basics about how bears generally behave.

Most bears try to avoid people, but as noted above, their behaviour can be unpredictable. Old or wounded bears can be desperate, either in pain or starving. And bears used to the proximity of people, those that show no fear of humans, can be especially dangerous. Female bears with cubs aggressively defend their young.

Bears try to scare intruders by huffing, panting, hissing, growling and jaw-popping. They will stare at you with their heads lowered and ears laid back. They will slap their feet on the ground.

Bears standing on their hind legs swinging their heads from side to side are trying to pick up scents to determine who you are. Bears do not charge on their hind legs.

A hunting bear shows no fear and does not bother with displays. It approaches its prey at a fast walk, or follows or circles the prey.

If you spot a bear at a distance and can't leave the area without the bear spotting you, alert the bear to your presence and do what you can to show it that you're human. Most bears have encountered humans at some point and know what we look and sound like.

Speak to the bear in a calm and firm voice and wave your arms slowly. Back away slowly, and don't run. That could prompt the bear to chase you, and they are good runners, rivalling racehorses over short distances.

Climbing a tree no guarantee of safety

If you're within 15 metres of the bear when you encounter it, forget about identifying yourself as a human. It knows. Just back away slowly. If it's a grizzly bear, climbing a tree is sometimes an option, but it doesn't guarantee safety, as was seen in Canmore, Alta., in June 2005. Isabelle Dube climbed a tree to get away from a bear she encountered on a trail. The bear pulled Dube out of the tree and she was killed.

Do not try to outswim a bear.

If a bear begins to approach you or charge you, stand your ground. Bears often will bluff a charge, stopping abruptly or veering off.

If the bear attacks you because it sees you as a threat — when it's feeding, protecting its young or because you've surprised it — use bear spray and play dead if it makes contact with you. If you do need to play dead, the recommended position to minimize injury is to:

  • Lie flat on the ground, face down, hands clasped behind your neck and with your legs apart. This provides some protection and makes it harder for the bear to flip you over if it does approach.
  • Remain in this position for several minutes, even if you think the bear has gone away.

According to Parks Canada, if a bear is acting defensively then an attack should last no more than a couple of minutes.

But if the attack continues and turns from defensive to predatory, or if the bear's behaviour shows it clearly regards you as prey, don't play dead. Instead, the best thing to do is fight back.

Recommended ways to fight back with a black bear or a grizzly that regards you as prey:

  • Use bear spray.
  • Act aggressively.
  • Defend yourself with whatever is available — a baseball bat, rake, tent pole, axe, anything.
  • Try to appear dominant.
  • Shout, jump up and down, wave your arms, hold up your jacket or backpack to make yourself look bigger.