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How to Survive a Bear Attack

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Would you know how to survive a bear attack?

I think it would be prudent for anyone planning to hike in western Canada, parts of the western USA, the Yukon Territory or Alaska to know exactly what to do if you are ever attacked by a bear. Fortunately, in most of the rest of the world you will never even have to think about them. (This blog IS NOT dealing with polar bears.)

First, get to know your bears.

"Grizzly bear"

Grizzly bear

Do you know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear?

Size and colour can vary greatly in both types so those features in themselves will not help you. However, grizzly bears are usually medium to dark brown and the average size is 160 kg (350 lbs) to 225 kg (500 lbs) though a male grizzly can weigh up to 360 kg (800 lbs). If you see an enormous bear, it’s a grizzly. Black bears only average 50-140 kg (110-300 pounds). From afar the biggest distinguishing characteristic is the distinct shoulder hump found in the grizzly bear. It is entirely absent in the black bear. Also, the claws of a grizzly are much bigger and can be seen in most grizzly bear tracks.

"One of Vancouver Island's black bears"

One of Vancouver Island’s black bears

The basic principles when you happen upon a bear are as follows:

  • If a bear sees you but doesn’t run away then a) keep an eye on the bear but don’t make direct eye contact b) provide the bear with an escape route c) speak in a calm voice (easier said than done and it could be up an octave or two) d) remain in a tight group with four people being the magic number to avoid an attack and e) make yourself look taller.
  • If it heads in your direction then a) use bear bangers, flares or whatever noisemaker you have b) yell and speak loudly and c) use bear spray if it gets within 4 metres (12 feet) but make sure the wind isn’t blowing in your direction or you will become incapacitated.
"Bear Spray"

Bear Spray

  • If it charges stand your ground as it is usually a bluff.
  • Never a) run away as a bear can run 40 km/hour (25 mph) b) swim for it, as bears are better swimmers than you are and c) let your dog off the leash as it will make the bear more agitated if it is running around barking.

And as for what you should do if it continues towards you or if the bear attacks –

If it is a black bear then: a) DO NOT CLIMB A TREE but back away slowly b) if it attacks you, fight back with anything you might have and target it’s nose and eyes while doing your best to protect your face and stomach area and c) DO NOT PLAY DEAD!

If it is a grizzly bear then:

a) back away slowly and TRY to CLIMB a tree but it is extremely important that you get up higher than 4 metres(12 feet) or you will likely be pulled down by your feet and b) if it attacks protect your head and stomach area BUT THIS TIME PLAY DEAD!!

There are some hikes in Banff National Park where you are required to hike as a group of four, even if it means waiting to collect random people to form the group, as the park’s research has indicated that there has never been an attack on a group with at least four people. Also, use some common sense and make noise in areas frequented by bears. If you see a steaming pile of bear scat or some young cubs then make a ton of noise and leave the area as fast as you can. And, if you want a reason never to hike in bear country then look no further than the book, The Bear’s Embrace. It is a thoughtful and very well written book written by Patricia Van Tighem who writes about her attack by a grizzly bear.

September 2012 Update

Signs I’ve come across lately in bear country suggest two more things you can do for safety: avoid hiking on avalanche slopes and hike between late morning and early afternoon when bears aren’t as active. And read the latest on the bear bell issue here. Happy, safe hiking.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Laura Carter says:

    Great advice! Being from the states I knew most of these tips and was just trying to explain to some folks (from other parts of the world) the difference between black and grizzly bears. Most were surprised to find such a difference between the two kinds. I wasn’t able to help with what to do for a grizzly bear attack…good to have somewhere to send them to for reference!

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