If you spend a decent amount of time outdoors, it is inevitable that you will have an encounter with a bear. Most people would like to avoid bear encounters, but it’s not always possible. In order to stay safe in bear country, there are some simple safety tips we need to follow.

In this article, we will discuss the different kinds of bear, bear behavior to look out for, how to keep bears from wanting to venture into your camp, how to handle a bear encounter, and what to do in the event of a bear attack.

what to do if you see a grizzly bear

Types of Bears

Let’s first take a look at the different kinds of bears you’re likely to encounter in North America. Although we do have polar bears in the far north of the continent, most people will not be dealing with them. For the most part, it will be the grizzly bear (or brown bear) and black bear that people will see when adventuring.

Black Bear

The name Black Bear can be deceiving. They can range in color from light golden to cinnamon to dark brown as well as black. The specific color depends on a range of things, from the individual bear to the location they live in. To properly identify a black bear, look for a combination of these features.

  • Shoulders are relatively level without a shoulder hump.
  • The distance from between the eyes to the tip of the muzzle is straight.
  • Their rump is usually higher than the front shoulders.
  • Ears are tall and oval-shaped, usually very prominent on the top of the head.
  • The front claws are about 2 inches in length and curved.

When looking at black bear tracks, their toes are separated and arced. You can draw a line from the big toe across the top of the pad that runs through the top half of the little toe. And you don’t always see claw marks in the track.

Black bears stand only about 2 – 3.5 feet at the shoulder when on all fours.

Grizzly Bear or Brown Bear

Brown Bears and Grizzly Bears are often thought of as different when in fact, they are the same species, Ursus arctos; the major difference between them is where they live, which has an influence on diet, size, and behavior. The bear that live in coastal areas of Alaska are referred to as brown bears, while those inland ranging from western Canada down to the US are often smaller and called grizzlies. Both, however, have the same distinctive body shape.

  • They have a distinctive shoulder hump.
  • Their rump is lower than the shoulder hump.
  • The profile of their face appears to dip in between the eyes and the tip of the snout.
  • Ears are short, rounded, and not easily separated from the head.
  • Front claws are slightly curved and 2-4 inches long, depending on how much digging the individual bear does.
  • Toes are close together and form a straight line. You can draw a line under the big toe across the top of the pad that runs through or below the bottom half of the little toe on grizzly/brown bear tracks. Claw marks are often visible on the tracks.

Brown bears are larger than black bears, standing 3-5 feet at the shoulder on all fours.

The truth about bears

Bear attacks are relatively uncommon and, most of the time, are avoidable. Most bears prefer to avoid people whenever possible. The most dangerous encounters occur when you get between a mother bear and her cubs. It’s good to remember that these creatures are as individual as people. A bear that is used to humans may become very bold when around people and in search of food.

What attracts a bear to your camp

Both black bears and brown bears are scavengers. They know that campsites and trash cans are great food source. National parks such as Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Flathead National Park, and Great Smokey Mountain National Park are notorious for having a lot of bear activity. As such, they provided a lot of information on how to stay safe while visiting. When visiting any national park, go to the nearest visitor center or backcountry office, where a park ranger will have the latest bear safety information for you.

Safety Tips

Here are some safety tips to avoid bear encounters around camp:

Keep all pets on a leash: Dogs are notorious for provoking bear attacks and bringing them into camp.

Don’t sleep in the clothes that you were cooking in. The smell of the food will linger and may attract a bear when you’re sleeping. If you’re in bear country, place that clothing in a sealed plastic bag, or use a smell-proof backpack. If that’s not an option for you, store your stuff in a location at least 100 yards from where you sleep.

Sleep 100 yards from food storage, garbage, and cooking area: This will put you at a safer distance if a bear is lured into your camp by the smell of food or garbage. It’s easier to make a safe retreat when there is distance between you and a hungry bear.

Do not store any food inside of your tent, including pet food. It’s very important to keep all things that attract bears away from the area you sleep in at night. There have been some incidences where campers have awoken to discover that a bear had been through their camp while they slept but did not bother them inside the tent. Bears are usually loud and clumsy, but some are stealthy and can grab the goodies or go through the garbage without you knowing about it until the next morning.

Keep a flashlight handy at all times during the night, and have bear spray on hand to repel them.

Bear behavior

Before discussing what to do in a bear encounter, we must talk about how they behave.

Although grizzly bears and black bears are different, they share similar behavior. Understanding bear behavior is very important before encountering a bear, as some beautiful places we like to recreate are right in the middle of prime bear habitat.

Most attacks occur for one of two reasons. They’re either protecting food or cubs. If you see a bear, keep an eye out for any cubs.

Black bears tend to be less aggressive than brown bears. But depending on the situation, they will exhibit similar behavior.

What to do if a bear enters your camp

The most important things to do when encountering a bear are to remain calm and use common sense. Remember, the bear is not there to hurt you; it’s most likely curious or hungry. Here are some things to do in the event of a bear encounter.

Don’t challenge the bear. You want to act calmly and non-threatening. This may cause the bear to react defensively if you seem like a threat.

Avoid direct eye contact. This may seem like a threat.

Always carry bear spray when in bear country.

Avoid sudden movements, as this may cause the bear to react.

Making noise. Loud noises like banging pots and pans together can help to scare off the intruder.

If the bear approaches, stand your ground. Stand tall and slowly wave your arms above your head to make yourself appear larger.

Use an appeasing voice with firm, low tones while slowly backing up.

Once the bear leaves, retreat to a secure place and contact the park ranger.

What to do in the event of a bear attack

Although rare, bear attacks do happen, so it’s important to be prepared in the event of an attack. The first thing to know is what kind of bear it is. Black and brown bears respond differently when attacking, and it’s important to know which one you’re dealing with.

Black Bear Attack

Black bear attacks are not common. More often than not, when you encounter a bear, especially a black bear, they will run away or climb trees. If you find yourself fighting with a black bear, it is most likely just trying to get away from you. In the beginning stages of the attack, as the bear charges, you’ll want to use your bear spray.

Bear spray

When traveling in bear country, you should always carry bear spray with you. Bear spray is like pepper spray but is specifically designed for use on a bear, as it is far stronger than traditional pepper spray. Bear spray often has a much longer range than traditional pepper spray. To use your bear spray, you’ll first need to remove the safety lock which covers the trigger. Once this is gone, you’ll be able to use it. You’ll want to spray it directly in the bear’s face for maximum effectiveness.

Stand your ground and fight back if the attack persists after using bear spray. The nose and the eyes are the most vulnerable parts of a bear, and once the black bear knows he’s likely to get injured, he will probably opt to stop the attack and retreat.

Grizzly Bear Attack

Encounters with grizzly bears are more likely to lead to an attack than they are with black bears. Grizzlies are simply much larger and, thus, less afraid of humans. Such attacks often result in serious injuries and even death.

A grizzly can reach up to eight feet tall when standing on its hind legs. Making noise can help to alert a bear of your arrival, giving them time to leave before you even see them.

As the bear approaches, stand your ground with your arms above your head, making loud noises. This alone will deter most bears. It’s important to remember that a grizzly will often bluff charge to see if you will run away.

However, if nothing works and you are mauled, playing dead is the best thing to do. Curl into a ball to protect your vital organs with your hands clasped above your head and play dead. If the bear thinks you’re dead, he will likely stop the assault.


When venturing into the outdoors, knowledge is the most important skill. The National Park Service is a great resource when seeking information on bears. There’s no single strategy when it comes to bear encounters.

If you see a bear, remember to remain calm, stand your ground, make noise, and wave your arms above your head as you slowly walk backward. Always keep an eye on small children. Store your food away from your camp and dispose of all trash in bear-safe garbage cans.

If you see a cub walk out from the woods because there’s probably a mother close behind. Remember the differences between black bears and grizzlies; just because you see a brown bear doesn’t mean is a brown bear. If you keep all these tips in mind the next time you’re out, you will have a safe trip.

Josh Blaski

Josh is a writer, photographer, and outdoorsman based in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When not on assignment, he spends all of his time in the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, hunting, and fly fishing.

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