How to survive a bear attack

Bears don't want to attack people. We kill them far more often than they kill us, and many bears seem to be aware of that ratio. When they do attack, it's usually because they were either starved or startled.

Yet despite their hesitance, attacks have increased in many parts of the world. Yellowstone National Park has seen human-bear conflicts rise in recent years, for example, including two fatal attacks in 2011 (the park's first in 25 years) and another in 2015. In June 2016, a bicyclist was killed by a grizzly just south of Glacier National Park in Montana. Wildlife officials face similar issues around the U.S. and Canada, as well as other countries like Japan and Russia. This has been linked to a variety of factors, including habitat loss, human intrusion, food shortages and climate change.

Bear behavior is still heavily influenced by biology and upbringing, too: American black bears are relatively docile and skittish, for example, while polar bears are more aggressive and more likely to see people as prey. Yet trying to fully understand any bear attack is a daunting task, and since we can't convey our peaceful intentions to bears, it's generally safer to just stay away.

Nonetheless, occasional run-ins are inevitable. Most people are as surprised to see a bear as it is to see them, and the ensuing interactions are often rife with misunderstanding. The species, time of year and other details dictate the best response, but here's an overview of how to handle these harrowing encounters:

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Brown Bears

  • Always carry bear spray. This is a must-have in grizzly country, preferably in a holster or front pocket since you'll just have a few seconds to fire. (Bear spray can actually be more useful than a gun for grizzlies, since one or two bullets may not stop a full-grown adult quickly enough.)
  • Don't be stealthy. If you think bears are in the area, talk, sing or make other noises to let them know you're there, too — without surprising them. If you see a bear that doesn't see you, don't disturb it.
  • Don't be a tease. Unattended food and trash are surefire bear magnets, even if they're tied up. Try to produce minimal waste when camping or hiking, and secure all food and trash carefully (bear canisters are required in some parks). Bears can also be lured by dogs, so it may be wise to leave pets at home.
  • Don't run. If you do meet a grizzly, stand tall, stay calm and slowly reach for your bear spray. Don't worry if the bear stands up — that usually just means it's curious. Back away slowly if you can, still ready to spray. If the bear follows you, stop and stand your ground.
  • Aim and spray. The best distance to spray a charging bear is about 40 to 50 feet. The idea is to create a wall of pepper spray between you and the bear.
  • Hit the dirt. If the bear keeps charging, fall down and lace your fingers over the back of your neck to protect it. Guard your stomach by lying flat on the ground or by assuming a fetal position, with knees tucked under your chin. Don't move.
  • Play dead. Even if the bear starts to attack, it's likely trying to neutralize you as a threat. And since you'll never outrun or overpower it, faking death is your best bet at this point. Even if it walks away, don't get up. Grizzlies are known to linger and make sure you're dead, so stay down for at least 20 minutes.
  • Box its nose or eyes. This could feasibly thwart a grizzly attack, but only fight back as a last resort. Playing dead is the preferred strategy with grizzlies. If you can get free, though, back away slowly; still don't run.

Black Bears

  • Be bear-aware. In general, take the same precautions you would in grizzly country: Carry bear spray in areas where black bears are active, keep food and trash packed away, and make noise when walking through the woods so you don't surprise any hidden bears.
  • Stand your ground. Black bears are less aggressive than grizzlies, so as long as you demonstrate yourself to be large and loud, they'll usually leave you alone. Shout, wave your arms and create a commotion. Use sticks or other objects to make yourself look even bigger. And just like with grizzlies, never run from a black bear. They often bluff charges, and the best strategy is to stay in place with bear spray ready to fire if the bear gets too close.
  • Stay on the ground. Never climb a tree to escape a black bear. They're excellent climbers, and they tend to chase anything they think is running away, so there's a good chance it would trap you in the tree.
  • Use bear spray. It can help, but it's not as critical as with grizzlies. The same principle applies, though: Try to spray when the bear is 40 to 50 feet away, creating a wall of pepper spray in front of you.
  • Fight back. Unless you're physically unable, it's often better to defend yourself against a black bear than to curl up on the ground. Keep making noise and looking large throughout the encounter, but if you end up at close range, use any nearby object as a weapon to fend off the bear. If nothing useful is around, punch or kick the bear's nose. Do whatever is needed to scare it away, but focus on sensitive areas that are likely to get an immediate reaction. Try to create space between you and the bear, but never run away — make the bear do that.

Polar Bears

  • Good luck. Polar bears are the biggest bears on Earth, and they're much harder to scare than brown or black bears. The best strategy is to avoid meeting them in the first place.
  • Don't act like prey. This is good advice for any bear encounter, but especially so with polar bears. They're the most likely species to see you as a meal, and running away will only confirm their suspicions. Plus, they're faster than you, and much better at running on snow and ice.
  • Do act like a threat. The bear may see through this tactic, especially if it's hungry, but it's still worth a shot. Don't draw attention to yourself if the bear doesn't see you or seems uninterested, but if it approaches, stand up straight, speak loudly and act like it should be scared of you. 
  • Use bear spray. It's your best bet, since you can't count on intimidating a polar bear, and their habitat doesn't offer many hiding places. As in grizzly country, be sure the spray is easy to reach, and learn how to use it before you go. (But don't let those gusty Arctic winds blow away your protective cloud — try to anticipate the wind before you spray.)
  • Don't give up. Unfortunately, neither playing dead nor fighting back works as well against polar bears as against their smaller relatives. They're often more interested in eating you than in neutralizing you as a threat, so playing dead might just make their job easier. Fighting back is pretty useless, too, but if you find yourself rolling around the tundra with a one-ton polar bear, you don't have much to lose. As with other bears, try to injure its nose or eyes, and steer clear of those big, swinging paws. A single strike can kill a person.

Last Resort, he is alone in the wilderness