Encountering A Black Bear: How To Escape Unscathed


To even the most experienced outdoor adventurers, the thought of coming face to face with a black bear is terrifying. These big, bold creatures are the most common bear in the world and they’re found throughout almost all of North America. Even though these animals have been portrayed as ferocious monsters by mainstream media, the truth is that black bears are actually quite docile, shy creatures. You should not live in fear of them.

An encounter with one of these animals is absolutely not a death sentence. In fact, the vast majority of black bear encounters resolve themselves without confrontation. In the United States, you have a much greater chance of being killed by a human than by a black bear. However, this does not mean that you should let your guard down. To ensure that you’re not one of the few people to have an ugly encounter with a black bear, you’ll need to act accordingly.

How To Identify A Black Bear

When compared to other types of bear like the grizzly, Kodiak and polar, the black bear is much more timid and less territorial. It’s important that you’re able to tell the difference between these species, as an encounter with each will require a different response from you. You can read more about grizzly/brown bear safety here.

As their name would suggest, the black bear is usually (you guessed it) black. However, they can also be brown, pale blonde or even red in some rare instances. They also sometimes have a white patch on their chest. Black bears are known for their flat back and small shoulder hump. Their snout is quite straight from the eyes to the tip of the nose without a distinct brow bump. Adults can range in weight from 90 to 500 pounds (40 to 227 kilograms) and they usually stand 2.5 to 3 feet (0.76 to 0.91 meters) tall at the shoulders. In terms of length, they range from 50 to 80 inches (127 to 203 centimeters) long.

It’s also important to become familiar with black bear tracks, which can be identified by their spread apart toes in an arch formation. They also have a very round paw pad and usually no noticeable claw marks.

Make Yourself Known In Bear Country

The last thing you want to do is surprise a black bear. For this reason, it’s important to make your presence known whenever you’re in bear territory. Don’t be afraid to talk loudly, sing, laugh or make other types of noises. Avoid high pitched screams or yelps, as this may sound like dying prey to a bear. If you’re alone- talk or sing to yourself. However, it’s always best to travel in groups. Always remain alert. Avoid walking next to loud streams for long periods of time. The noise of rushing water could drown out the sound of your presence.

Be especially cautious when walking around blind curves on a trail. If you can’t see what’s ahead, move slowly and stay alert. If you have children or a pet with you, keep them close by. If you’re mountain biking, it may be a good idea to keep a horn or bell with you so that you can sound it every 30 seconds or so. This is a great way to “announce” yourself when you’re traveling at a higher rate of speed.

You should always avoid traveling through bear country with unsealed items of food. Not only is this a direct violation of the Leave No Trace principles, but it will also attract bears and other types of wildlife. Remember: a black bear’s nose is more than 2,000 times stronger than a human’s! If you want to be extra careful in an area where bears are common, travel with bear spray.

Coming Face To Face With A Black Bear

If you ever find yourself coming face to face with a black bear, the very first thing you should remember is this: don’t panic! These animals genuinely do not want anything to do with you. As soon as a black bear is aware of your presence, it will almost certainly run away in fear.

However, there are rare circumstances in which a bear won’t run away. If a black bear notices you without fleeing, raise your hands above your head and wave them slowly back and forth. Stand tall. Be loud and yell at it with a deep, boisterous voice. Shout “GO BEAR!” or anything else you can manage to think of. If you have pots or pans, clang them together. The goal is to let the animal know that you are bigger and more powerful than it is (even if that’s not true). If you have a backpack, keep it on- it’ll make you look larger. If you’re with a group of people, cluster together and make it seem like you’re one giant person. If you have any children or pets with you, pick them up immediately.

Never run from a bear under any circumstances. Your instincts may try to convince you to flee, but this is the worst thing you can do. Once you start running, a bear’s predatory instincts will kick in. They’ll see you as prey and will almost certainly chase after you. There is absolutely no chance that any human can outrun a black bear. They can reach speeds of up to 35 mph (56 kph) in an instant. They can climb a tree in seconds and they’re excellent swimmers.

Always be sure to give the bear enough space to exit safely, because that’s usually all it wants to do. Don’t ever turn your back to a bear, as you always want to maintain control over the situation. Instead, you may start to slowly back away, moving diagonally while continuing to wave your arms and yell. If a bear stands on its hind legs and appears to sniff the air, it’s probably just curious. However, if a bear swats the ground, pops its jaw, yawns or makes a huffing sound- this is a warning. In this case, give the bear lots of space.

If you see a bear cub, stay as far back as you possibly can- especially if the cub doesn’t run away. You do not want to get in between a mama and her babies, as this will significantly increase your chances of being attacked.

If A Black Bear Does Attack

When a black bear decides to attack, it’s usually an act of defense. They are attempting to eliminate the threat (you). Most of the time, an attack will come in the form of a single swipe of its paw, which could still leave you pretty injured. However, there’s also a chance that it could escalate beyond this with multiple swipes or even bites. You may have heard that you’re supposed to play dead when being attacked by a bear, but this rule only applies to brown bears.

In the case of a black bear attack, you will unfortunately have to fight back. Punch, yell and kick the bear with all your might. Look for sticks, rocks or other hard objects which you can use as a weapon. Aim for the bear’s snout and fight back until it retreats.

If you have bear repellent with you, spray it as the bear is charging toward you. This will usually deter it from attacking. Also, sometimes bears will perform a “bluff charge.” This is where they run toward you for a short distance with no intent of actually attacking. It’s a tactic that’s meant to scare you away. Bear spray will also come in handy in a situation like this.

The Bottom Line

If all this bear talk has made you anxious, just remember that black bear attacks are super rare. They don’t want to attack you. Quite frankly, they don’t even want to see you. At the end of the day, there is no reason to fear the great outdoors, even if black bears are common in your area. If you do encounter one of these beautiful beings, staying calm and following these precautions should be enough to keep you safe.