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What To Do If You See A Bear When Hiking Or Camping

If you enjoy hiking or camping in wilderness areas, whether developed or completely wild, chances are you may one day encounter a bear.

This can be a very scary proposition to say the least, especially if you have no idea what to do should this situation present itself.

So, just what are you supposed to do if you see a bear?

Even more importantly, what are you supposed to do and or say if a bear actually decides to attack you?

These questions—and more just like them—are what we will cover in some detail in the article below.

About Bears In The Wild

bear in the wild approaching hiker

With the current droughts that some areas in the United States are facing, encounters with bears have become much more common.

And we are not just talking about encounters in the wild.

Some people in developed tract houses have begun reporting many more bear sightings, with some of the animals coming right into their yards and walking down neighborhood streets.

These encounters, while still fairly rare in the general sense, have sometimes resulted in a lot of chaos, from overturned trash cans, to injury and death of pets and some livestock, to even a few attacks on humans.

And while seeing a bear out in the wild can be both exciting and ultra-frightening, knowing what to do—and what not to do—can make the encounter much less scary and reduce the chance of any injury or worse.

According to the website of one of America’s favorite national parks (Yosemite National Park), which is located in the Northern California mountains where droughts are common, most of the time you will NOT see a bear because the animals have a natural instinct to avoid humans, as we are seen as a threat to them.

However, that does not mean you WON’T see a bear, and how you act when that time comes should depend on the situation—not just in Yosemite, but in any like wilderness area.

Bear Sightings in a Developed to Semi-Developed Area

If you are camping in a developed area, such as in a dedicated campground, a lodging area or even a parking lot, bear sightings tend to be extremely rare because there are always plenty of people around.

In fact, if you do have a bear sighting in a developed area, chances are it will be at night when the campground goes quiet for the evening.

If this happens to you—if a bear approaches your campsite—experts suggest you make as much noise as possible in an attempt to scare the bear away.

If you are with a group, try standing together and make a lot of noise.

This will have a better chance of intimidating the bear and it will probably just saunter away.

Never leave your garbage or any food out when you retire to your tents for the night.

Bears have a great sense of smell and may come looking for a midnight snack.

All food should be locked away in your car, truck or RV, and if need be, you can always hang it up in a tree.

These bear sightings in developed areas are rare, and the goal is to merely scare it away rather than harm it, and to always be vigil and aware of your surroundings.

Bear Sightings in Undeveloped Areas

If you plan to wilderness camp, hike or even set out on an extended backpacking trek, the rules on how to deal with bear sightings may differ slightly.

Wilderness experts say you should always try to keep your distance from bears—at least 50-60 yards away.

The last thing park rangers want is for the local bears to become accustomed to people, as this will lead to more encounters in the developed areas.

Moreover, bears that lose their instinct to steer clear of people can become very dangerous indeed.

They tend to lose their natural fear and may become aggressive, perhaps leading to the destruction of that bear.

If you cannot avoid an interaction with a bear, again the best thing to do is to make as much noise as possible by slowing retreating.

DO NOT run, as this may cause the bear to get aggressive, and there is no way you are going outrun a bear on their turf.

If you are a frequent wilderness camper or hiker, you may want to invest in some dedicated bear spray.

This concoction, which is very similar to pepper spray only a bit stronger, can and should only be used in cases where a bear is charging you.

Most bear sprays can spray up to 20-25 feet, allowing you enough time to get a shot off so you can escape the situation.

When camping in National Forests, do not be surprised to see forest rangers patrolling the wilderness areas after dark.

They do this as a way to keep the bears away from developed areas, scaring them with noise makers and rubber bullet guns.

Again, the intent here is not to harm the bear, just to keep it from trying to interact with the human campers.

Black Bears vs. Brown Bears

While trying to scare a bear away is always the best strategy, learning some of the key differences between brown bears and black bears may help you remain safer when camping and hiking.

Black bears can be found across the United States—in 40 states or more.

Conversely, brown bears, which include the grizzly bear, mostly live in the Northwestern mountains and are very prevalent in Alaska.

Understanding this—and always knowing where you are—can help you avoid accidentally wandering into bear country unnecessarily, which in turn can save your life.

As we said (and what’s important to reiterate here), the strategy for what to do if you see either of these two categories of bears is very similar.

This includes:

  • Keep your distance. Spotting a black bear or brown bear in the wild, whether you are in a developed or non-developed region, is not a good time to practice your Dr. Doolittle impression and try to make friends with the beast. No, the strategy here is to keep your distance. This will be made easier by always knowing your surroundings, staying on the common trail, listening, and keeping your head on a swivel.
  • Never panic. Believe it or not, most bears are very shy and timid animals. This is especially true of the black bear—the type you are most likely to come into contact with in the U.S. unless you’re camping in Alaska. Therefore, when you spot a bear, the last thing you want to do is panic. While most bear attacks on people are very rare, the majority happen when the bear is surprised or when you pose a threat to the animal. This goes for all bears, black and brown, including the grizzly bear. Grizzly bear attacks on humans are very rare and only tend to happen when that bear has been surprised.
  • Slowly Retreat. Just to be clear, sudden movements like running after seeing a bear is definitely considered panicking and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, you should slowly and calmly retreat from the animal, while simultaneously keeping an eye on his location. Don’t lose track of just where that bear is, or you just might end up surprising it and provoking an attack.
  • Make Your Presence Known. If you encounter any type of bear within that 50-foot range of distance, such as when bears invade campsites and the surrounding area, there may be no time to slowly retreat, and you certainly do not want to trigger the animal’s flight or fight response by trying to run (the bear always wins that race). No, instead you should loudly and proudly make your presence known, regardless of the time (staying alive is more important than not waking your neighbors). Make lots of noise and try to make yourself look as big and tall as you can. If you are with a group, stand together for the reasons we explained earlier. In 99 percent of the cases this will cause the bear to retreat.
  • Carry Bear Spray. If you intend to wilderness camp or hike in undeveloped areas, we highly suggest you bring along a can of bear spray and keep it handy on your person. Bear spray will temporarily blind and disorient the animal, giving you ample time to make a slow and measured escape.

We have talked about what you should do if you see or encounter either a black bear or brown bear, but what are you supposed to do when either type actually attacks you.

Although highly unlikely, if you are an avid outdoorsperson, there may come a time when a bear charges and attacks you, and the strategy you employ with each type of bear will give you the best chance of survival.

Black Bear Attacks

If a black bear charges and attacks you, the best thing to do is fight back—with everything you have in you.

Being very docile and timid, the black bear does not respond well when its potential victims fight back, and often times the animal will stop the attack if you do this.

Keep shouting and making noise as you fight back the animal.

Brown Bear Attacks

If a brown bear charges and attacks you, DO NOT try to fight back.

This will only further enrage the animal and make the attack much worse, even fatal.

No, instead you should simply lie down and play dead.

When doing so, be sure to tuck your arms underneath you and lie face down while also protecting your ears.

Try to lay as still as possible. In many cases, this will cause the brown bear, including the grizzly, to abandon the attack and go on its way.

Make sure the bear is gone before sitting up by listening intently for any sounds of its nearby presence.

This is your best chance to stay alive during a brown bear attack.

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