As human populations continue to grow and spread into wild lands, bear encounters are becoming more and more frequent. While these moments can be surreal and breathtaking, they can also result in injury and death if proper actions aren’t taken. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to safely maneuvering a bear encounter, as every interaction is different based on various factors out of our control. However, there are some proven methods that may help reduce the chance of a deadly bear attack. 

Recognizing Different Types of Bears

But bear-for we begin to discuss tips for a safe bear encounter (brace yourself, bear puns are coming), it’s vital to be able to recognize the difference between black bears and brown/grizzly bears. Each species of bear have their own suggested “rules” of engagement, and knowing the difference between the two is key.

Black Bears

The North American black bear has thriving populations in the mountainous regions of the west coast, central Mexico, the northwest region, most of Canada, and a large majority of the east coast as well. Black bears can range in color from black, brown and even blonde. Contrary to popular opinion, black bears are also not always smaller than their brown cousins. As black bears can occasionally grow larger than the average brown bear, the best way to identify them is by their ears, snout and claws. Black bears have more pronounced pointed ears, straight snouts, short claws. 

Brown Bears

There are approximately 55,000 known brown bears that mostly reside in the western half of Canada, Alaska and some parts of Montana. There are also about 600 brown bears living in Yellowstone National Park. Like black bears, brown bears can also range in colors, making it an unreliable identifying feature. To identify a brown bear, look for a “dished” snout that dips, in contrast to the straight black bear snout. Additionally, brown bears have smaller, rounded ears, wider faces and significantly longer claws (brown bears have 2-4 inch claws while black bears have 1-2 inch claws). However, one of the most marked features of the brown bear is the pronounced humped shoulder that can be spotted on their upper back region.

Staying Safe During a Bear Encounter

As previously mentioned, there is no guaranteed method for a safe bear encounter. The best way to keep yourself safe if by avoiding bears altogether. When you know you are going to be spending time in bear country, travel in groups, carry bear bells and practice proper food storage (we’ll touch on that in a future article). After years of collecting data from various bear-related reports, the National Park Service suggests the following advice for staying safe should you come across a bear. 

Black Bears

If you’ve successfully identified your bear as a black bear, you can thank your lucky stars. Black bears are known to be relatively timid and shy compared to brown bears. That doesn’t mean to say that they can’t present a very real danger. If approached by a black bear in the wild, stand your ground and make yourself as large as possible by standing on a rock and opening up your shirt and spreading your arms. Firmly and loudly shout things like “Go away, bear!”. 

If the black bear attacks, fight back with any objects at hand, such as a rock or sharp stick, striking the face and snout. Make sure to tuck in your chin and protect your vulnerable neck at the same time. Essentially, you want to make the bear realize you are human and not worth the fight. 

Brown Bears

You see the humped back, the dipped snout and short rounded ears. It’s a grizzly bear, for sure. You’re first going to want to identify yourself as a human with slow, deep and soft tones. Bears rarely want to interact with humans out of their own will so this usually does the trick. However, if it begins to attack, PLAY DEAD. Cover your neck with your hands and position your legs so that it’s harder for the bear to turn you over and expose your soft front side. 

If you’re wearing a backpack, keep it on as it can provide potentially life-saving protection for your back. Once the bear has decided that you are no longer the threat that it initially perceived you to be, it may leave the area. However, if the attacks continue, fight back with the same methods described for black bears (attacking the face, covering your neck, etc.). 

Another effective method for bear protection is the bear spray canister. If you are hiking or working in bear country, bear spray can be a life-saving tool that is easily carried on your hip or pack. When using bear spray, make sure the safety is turned off (usually a small tab near the trigger), wait until the bear is about 30 feet away, point down at the bear’s face and spray. However, the best way to keep yourself safe from bears is by simply avoiding them with the previously suggested methods. We encourage you to share this guide with any family or friends that frequently travel in bear country.