How to Scare a Bear: Surviving a Grizzly Encounter

A man photographing a brown bear
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

If you have seen The Revenant, then you most likely have thought about what you would do if a bear suddenly decided to have you for lunch. After all, that was a vicious bear attack. It would leave anyone wondering how to scare a bear enough to escape, especially if taken by surprise.

But knowing how to scare off a bear depends on a lot of variables. The kind of bear you are facing, why the bear is near you, and what tools are available for defense all factor into your plan. Deciding your best course of action requires knowing a little about your big furry adversary and taking the proper precautionary steps to avoid interaction in the first place.

Lightning Kills More People Every Year Than Bears

Fortunately, bear attacks are rare, and humans are not killed by bears often. Each year only three people die in North America due to bear attacks, where the largest bears roam. By comparison, 26 are killed by dogs and lightning ends 90 lives.

Bears not that dangerous

Still, even these low odds are significant if you are the one staring down a thousand-pound animal and wondering what to do next.

What to do When in Bear Country

The majority of bear attacks are brought on by inappropriate human behavior. Experts recommend following these rules when in an area inhabited by bears to reduce the possibility of encounter or attack.

  • Never Feed or Approach a Bear: Bears are naturally afraid of humans. They do not know people can be an excellent source of food unless you teach them this fact. Feeding bears diminishes the animal’s natural aversion to people and increases the likelihood of encounters and ultimately attacks.
  • Leave Your Dog at Home: Bears are not afraid of most dogs; they see them as annoying and possibly as a food source. Unless you own a breed that is capable of hunting a bear, leave your dog at home when planning a trip to bear country and you will be less likely to instigate an encounter.
  • Make Noise While You Walk: Bears have excellent hearing and will know you are coming long before you see them. Give them as much warning as possible by making sound on the trail. A surprised bear is usually an unhappy bear, especially if it is feeding or escorting cubs through the forest.
  • Keep Your Children Close: Bears are more likely to attack smaller animals, such as children. Kids also have a way of being inquisitive and coming too close to wildlife.  Educate your child about bear behavior and make sure they are close to you on the trail.
  • Camp in Open Areas: Keeping open sight lines around your camp is a good idea.You can see what’s coming and the bears can see you.
  • Limit Your Scent: Bears have a powerful sense of smell so limit how many scented products you carry and use around camp.  Leave the smelly hand soap or detergent at home, especially the floral varieties. These are homing beacons for bears.
  • Keep Food Away from Your Tent: It is a good idea to establish a separate cooking camp, away from your sleeping area. Make sure all food and trash are kept at least 100 feet from your tent. Hanging food from trees can help, as long as it is more than fifteen feet off the ground and away from the main trunk. For more tips on how to keep bears away from campsite, see our article for more information.
  • Keep a Clean Camp: Make sure your area is clean before turning in for the night. All garbage and food scraps should be removed from camp immediately. See our list of the top bear canister to ensure bears don’t get your supplies.
  • Avoid Camping Where Bears Have Been: Before pitching your tent, scour the area for signs of bears. Look for trash, discarded food, or scat that is evidence bears have been in the area. If you think bears were at your site recently, find a new area to camp.
  • Carry Bear Spray: Bear spray, or bear mace, is a proven deterrent.  It is even more effective than firearms. In fact, less injuries occur during bear attacks when spray is used than when firearms are deployed.

Bear Spray

What to do If You See a Bear

Not all encounters can be avoided. Bears are naturally curious creatures and highly territorial.  But just because you see a bear does not mean an attack is imminent. Follow these guidelines if you encounter a bear and your odds of survival will increase dramatically.

  • Do Not Run: You cannot outrun a bear. Bears can move up to 40 miles per hour in short bursts, and that is fast enough to catch you in a hurry.
  • Do Not Overreact: A bear will not just come for a look and then disappear again into the brush. This is the largest land carnivore in the area: they will make sure you know they are there. If the bear rears up on two legs, do not panic. This is not a sign of imminent attack; it is just getting a better look at you.
  • Be as Large as Possible: Do not cower or shrink in front of the bear. Be as large as possible. If you are in a group, stand close together to present one large object. Groups are rarely attacked.
  • Be Aware of Your Surroundings: Fear causes tunnel vision, but you cannot afford to fall into this trap. Make sure to take in your surroundings and understand what you are seeing. Are there cubs? Is there a carcass the bear is feeding on? These are details you need to observe and understand in order to plan your response.
  • Make Noise: Banging pots and pans, hitting a tree with a large stick, or even an air horn or whistle might be enough to scare off a bear.
  • Fire: It sounds like a medieval strategy, but waving a flaming torch will present an obstacle most animals will not want to tangle with.

Different Bears Require Different Responses

A bear might ignore all your careful preparation and choose to invade your space regardless. In order to react appropriately, it is critical to identify the type of bear you are engaging.

Black Bears account for twice as many deaths than do Brown Bears, despite their smaller size and less sinister reputation. This is due to the eating habits of both bears and their natural response to threats.

Must read: How to Scare a Bear: Surviving a Grizzly Encounter

Black Bears are pure omnivores; opportunists looking for an easy meal. They also are far more likely to stalk people when hungry and other food sources are scarce. The majority of fatal bear attacks are the result of a hungry male Black Bear looking for a meal.

Black Bear

Brown Bears rarely attack humans for a meal. They prefer other food and will be patient in their approach. It is unlikely that a Brown Bear will finish off an injured camper solely for the purpose of eating.

Black Bears do not normally attack to defend their cubs. Their response to threats is to climb a tree and leave the cubs high up in the canopy while they return to the ground to investigate.

Brown Bears do not tree their young. They confront the perceived threat head on until it is neutralized. This is a major difference in behavior between subspecies and misreading the specific bear’s intent leads to many unfortunate encounters every year.

What to Do if Attacked by a Black Bear

  • Do not run
  • Use bear spray if available
  • Yell and make as much noise as possible.
  • Be aggressive toward the bear.
  • Throw rocks, sticks, or anything available.
  • Fight as hard as you can. Do not play dead with a Black Bear. It will eat you.

What to Do if Attacked by a Brown Bear

  • Do not run
  • Use bear spray if available
  • Be as large as possible and assemble in a tight group
  • Play dead if the bear makes contact

Vulnerable Areas to Target When Attacked by a Bear

If the bear is on you and you have a weapon, it is possible to do some real damage, although killing a bear outright is not easy.   They are thick boned and heavily muscled. Target these areas to inflict the most damage.

  • Lungs: Position your shot in the forward third of the torso, halfway up the body.  Placement should be made by tracing the rear of the front leg about one-third into the chest
  • Shoulder/Heart: Trace the front of the front leg about one-third of the way into the body

Man Survived with Bear Attack

Do not waste time with a head shot as the oversized skull makes penetration unreliable. Bears have a thick coat which makes locating the spine difficult at best. Stick with the shoulder, heart, or lungs to ensure stopping the animal.

The Eight Bears of the World

Knowing what type of bear you might encounter is important when developing a game plan for surviving an incident. There are eight recognized types of bears in the world. Unless you are a global traveler who spends a lot of time in the woods, the odds of you encountering all eight in your lifetime are low. The species are very similar but also differ in important ways.

North American Black Bear

The most common bear in North America, this animal can be found from Florida to Alaska and most points in between. They vary in color from black to dark brown with a few rare types appearing almost white.  This bear is omnivorous but mostly vegetarian. Full grown at eight years of age, you can expect males to weigh in close to 600 pounds.

North American Black Bear

Black Bears live up to 25 years old and produce cubs annually after their first five to seven years.

Brown Bear

This species is found in Western Canada, Alaska, the Northern and Northwestern United States, Russia, and parts of Europe. Several subspecies exist. The largest inhabit coastal Alaska and Russia. These monsters can grow to 1500 pounds.

Brown Bear

The most famous subspecies is the Grizzly, found in the North American Rocky Mountains, so named due to the silvery tips to their fur. Brown Bears are known to be dark brown, light brown, and almost blonde.

Polar Bears

Topping out over 1700 pounds, male Polar Bears are the largest bears in the world. They dine almost exclusively on ringed and bearded seals but have been known to munch on the occasional walrus or beluga whale. Found only in the Arctic, Polar Bears will travel hundreds of miles while stalking prey.

Asiatic Black Bear

The easiest way to discern an Asiatic Black Bear from its North American cousin is the distinct white blaze usually found on its chest. They are also smaller in stature and weigh less. Their diet is more carnivorous, relying on small mammals, birds, and fish. Asiatic Black Bears have a widespread habitat and can be found in Southeast Asia, China, India, and the Middle East.

Andean (Spectacled) Bear

Found only in the Andes Mountains of South America, this bear is easily recognized by its black fur, tan facial markings, and rounded head. The last of the short-faced bears, this subspecies is thought to have evolved with a different jaw structure to eat flesh more easily. It is the largest land carnivore in South America although only about 5% of its diet is meat.

Andean (Spectacled) Bear

Andean Bears are regarded as mid-size and rarely weigh more than 400 pounds.

Panda Bear

Despite its perception as a lovable and friendly pacifist, the Panda is a true bear and will become violent if provoked. Small by bear standards, adult males weigh only 250 pounds, and females are slightly smaller. Pandas are limited to living in only six separate mountain ranges in China, due to habitat loss through deforestation. They feed primarily on bamboo and have thick splinter resistant skin and an extra digit on their hands to help navigate the dense forests they call home.

Sloth Bear

This native of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal subsists almost exclusively on a diet of termites and ants. Still, they reach weights of well over 300 pounds.  Sloth Bears readily share territory with other males and seldom establish a range of more than 5 miles, much smaller than other bears.

Sloth Bear

A nocturnal feeder, Sloth Bears, are adapted for their diet with large lips, a long tongue, and claws designed to rip through earth and wood in search of their next meal.

Sun Bear

The smallest known bear, Sun Bears are found mostly in Southeast Asia. They are black bears with a distinct crescent-shaped mark on their chest. Males rarely reach more than 120 pounds but boast the largest canines of any bear subspecies relative to their size. Although these impressive teeth are perfect for a predatory diet, Sun Bears are content to survive primarily on ants and termites.

Wrapping Up

Any time you see a bear there is a possibility the encounter will go bad. Knowing and understanding the type of bear you are seeing and why it is making contact will inform your actions and help you survive the situation.

Woman and Bear

By keeping a clean camp, traveling in groups, and being aware of your surroundings, you can prevent most bear encounters. But, if the situation escalates stand your ground, make noise, and be as big as possible to drive off the inquisitive intruder. These techniques, along with a little luck, should help make your next trip to the wilderness bear free.

To avoid animal attacks, do read our piece on this topic to help you.

Have you ever had a bear wander into camp? Do you have a favorite technique for scaring away bears? If so, share them with our readers and us in the comments section.


Sean Nelson

Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.