Hiking and Wildlife Safety in the United States: Bear Encounters

Bear Encounter Image Source: The WIldlife Society

What To Do When You See a Bear

If you are hiking in the wilderness and cross paths with a bear, it can be pretty frightening! With a history of deadly attacks and occasionally enormous stature, bears are some of the most intimidating wildlife in the United States. However, the reality is that most bears are not interested in human interaction and if left alone, will not put you in any real danger.

The three most important things to know if you see a bear are to keep your distance, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Continue to hike forward only once the bear is a very safe distance from the trail. Although rare, bear attacks can happen. More often than not, it is the result of a female trying to protect her young. In the event of an attack, it is very important to know the difference between species.

There are four types of bears in the United States: Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Polar Bears and Glacier Bears. You’ll only have to worry about polar bears and glacier bears if you are hiking in Alaska.

In the mainland of the United States, there are an estimated 1,200 grizzlies in the states of Montana and Wyoming. Many can be found in National Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier. There are an estimated 600,000 black bears living in many different parts of the country including the Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and even Florida.

What are the differences between grizzly bears and black bears?

Grizzly Bears (aka Brown Bears)
  • Appearance: Have a distinct “shoulder-hump”, a dish shaped face, and long claws
  • If a grizzly bear approaches you: Play dead. Lay on the ground flat on your stomach with your hands holding your neck. Keep you pack on. Spread your legs to make it hard for the bear to turn you over. Only get back up once you know the bear is gone from the area.
Black Bears
  • Appearance: Smaller in size, long dog like face, smaller claws, less intimidating.
  • If a black bear approaches you: Stand your ground. Act as big as you can by holding your arms up. Get to higher ground by backing away slowly. In the event of an attack, use objects around you to hit the bear in the face and muzzle.

If you are hiking in an area where there are bears, it is highly recommended to bring along a can of bear spray. Hikers, especially in small groups, should also consider bear bells, which create sound as you walk, said to deter bears from approaching. If camping overnight, a bear-resistant food container may be required.

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