Encountered bears?! What to do?

Want to enjoy the nature but terrified of bear attacks? Well, you are not alone.

Terrifying moment when a grizzly bear walking toward a backpacker in Alaska

National and state parks are home to thousands of species of wild animals. When we are having a get-away weekend in the forrest, we are, in a sense, intruding the animals’ territories. Among all the wild animals, bears are the most terrifying for many and they are also around in every state of the U.S. So, if you go outdoors often enough, you may encounter them. Below is a close encounter we had with a cute black bear on the trail in North Cascade National Park. In this article, let’s discuss how dangerous are bears, how to avoid them and what should you do if you actually encounter one.

A black bear we encountered in North Cascade National Park

It depends on what types of bear and in what situation you encounter the bear.

Grizzly bears are EXTREMELY dangerous. They are among the most lethal creatures seen in the wild. They not only have superhuman physical strength, but they also have a powerful biting force (1,000 psi) that can split your body in half in a matter of seconds. If their pups are in danger, female grizzly bears will not hesitate to attack you.

On the other hand, black bears are usually very timid and shy. Fatal black bear attacks on humans are so rare that they occur on average of once per year across North America. In fact, in Washington, the only known case of fatal black bear attack is recorded in 1974. Just look at how black bears react to your fur baby.

Cute and timid black bears

So how to distinguish black bears from Grizzly bear then?

Despite apparent differences in size and color, grizzly vs black bear are often difficult to tell apart. Why is this important? It is also extremely important to know which species is which when you encounter as grizzly bears are much more dangerous and aggressive than black bears.

Black bears can be black, blue-black, dark brown, brown, cinnamon and even white. Grizzlies, likewise, may range in color, from black to blond. Although grizzly bears are, on average, significantly larger than black bears, size is not a good indicator of which species is which. Male black bears in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, for instance, can weigh up to 800 pounds in the fall, and female grizzly bears on Alberta’s Eastern Slopes can weigh as little as 250 pounds in the spring.

The BEST indicators are the size of the shoulders, the profile of the face and the length of the claws.

  1. The grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks.
  2. Grizzlies have a concave or “dished” facial profile, and smaller ears. Black bears have a flatter, “Roman-nose” profile, and larger ears.
  3. Grizzlies have much larger claws than the black bear. Due to the long and arched claws, the nails and the paws on grizzlies’ foot prints are much more separated than the black bears’. So if you saw the foot print shown on the left of the following picture, please stay high alert and we advise to leave the trail as soon as possible.
Grizzly vs Black bears

Luckily in Washington, we do NOT have grizzlies :).

As we mentioned, it is hard to never see a bear if you go out to the forrest often. But there is something you can do to reduce the chances for unpleasant encounters.

Bears, especially black bears are very timid creatures. But they are also known for being extreme foodies. What’s more, bears are thought to have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth. A bear’s sense of smell is 21 times better than a dog and 2,100 times better than a human’s. So most of the time, if they come to you, that is because you brought some gourmets that caught their eyes (or nose). Check out a bear cannot wait to have a taste of a camper’s gourmet in the following video.

So we recommend the following guidelines to reduce chances of bear encounters.

  1. Carry and store food with bear resistant containers (or bear canisters).Carrying food in back pack or plastic bag will leave strong odors of food for bears to track. So after you finish eating, clean up all crumbs and store the garbages and leftovers in a bear canister.
  2. Wash your hands before you tough your clothes or tents after eating. Yes, even simple touch on your clothes after eating can catch a bear’s nose who is miles away. Build a habit of wash your hands before you go to sleep in the night.
  3. If you put your food in backpack or your clothes touched the food, put the items away from tent in the night. Or best, you can hang them on a tree where bear cannot reach four feet away from the tree and 12 feet above the ground.
Hanging food on the tree to avoid bears

4. Do NOT dispose of food waste in the wilderness. Pack out all uneaten food and food particles. Treat food wrappers and other garbage the same as food.

5. When you are hiking, make loud noise by talking or singing. If you are afraid your singing will scary away other humans as well, then keep talking to your hiking partners while hiking :). We recommend you not hike by yourself if encountering bears really concerns you.

The LAST thing you should do is running away. Bears can get to 30 miles per hour (that is the speed limit in the city) on a mountain road. They also have the instinct to chase moving targets. Please follow the guidelines below for you and your friends’ safety.

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly and very loudly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. If you have a walking stick, you can use it to pounce the tree or ground to make you look more intimidating. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Pick up small children immediately. Do not make any loud noises or screams — the bear may think it’s the sound of a prey animal. Slowly wave your arms above your head and tell the bear to back off. Do NOT run or make any sudden movements. Do not make any loud noises or screams — the bear may think it’s the sound of a prey animal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • Make yourselves look as large as possible. For example, move to higher ground or open your arms to the sky.
  • Do NOT allow the bear access to your food. Getting your food will only encourage the bear and make the problem worse for others.
  • Do NOT drop your pack as it can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears.
  • Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals.
  • Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.
  • Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
  • Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
  • If a bear actually are getting aggressive and trying to attack you, get behind a tree and it is time to use you bear spray. Remember to aim bear spray toward the eyes of the bear.

In conclusion, bears are not scary and fatal bear encounters are extremely rare. In Washington, since we don’t have grizzlies, fatal bear encounter is even rarer than winning a lottery. So if you follow the guidelines we provided here, you should be able to enjoy your outdoor adventures without worries! Enjoy hiking and enjoy camping! And of course check out our service at Lazy Camper for your next adventure in Washington!



Machine Learning Scientist @FANG. Entrepreneur. Seeking new adventures

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Chong Sun

Machine Learning Scientist @FANG. Entrepreneur. Seeking new adventures