Yellowstone National Park is in the heart of bear country—but that doesn’t mean that bear attacks are common. About 1 in 2.7 million visits to Yellowstone end with a bear attack. Those are pretty slim odds.
But it’s still a good idea to prepare yourself when hiking or camping in bear country. The odds of attack go up if you’re traveling through the backcountry. And even if you’re planning to stay on a trail, it’s best to prepare ahead of time.
The initial reaction to danger, as dictated by your fight or flight reflexes, is to run away. But that won’t work with a bear. And panic only makes things worse.
Check out our complete guide to bear safety and avoid a bear scare.
Know Your Bears
Three species of bear make their home in North America: black bears, grizzly bears (or brown bears), and polar bears. Know what the bears look like and how they act before you venture into the woods.
Since you probably aren’t going on a hike through the arctic circle, we’ll skip polar bears for this discussion. But if you do ever encounter a great white bear, use what you learn in this article to avoid it and move on.
If you’ve ever seen a group of black bears together, you’ll understand that the name “black bear” is somewhat misleading. They aren’t always black. And grizzlies aren’t always brown.
Size is also a poor indicator. Although grizzlies are usually bigger, these animals come in a wide range of sizes. A young grizzly could easily be smaller than an adult black bear.
Best practice is to look at the shape of the bear to determine the species.
Black bears have a flat back and a rump that sticks up higher than their shoulders. They’ve got tall ears that point up. The snout on a black bear is straight from the tip of the nose up to the forehead. And they’ve got smaller paws with short claws, usually 2 inches or less.
A grizzly’s rump is lower than its shoulders. Their ears are short and rounded, like a teddy bear. There’s a distinctive scoop on the snout of a grizzly. It scoops between the tip of the nose and the eyes. Grizzlies have bigger paws with claws 2-4 inches long.
The most distinctive feature of the grizzly bear is its hump. Grizzlies have a shoulder hump that slopes down to a scoop in the middle of their back. Black bears have a flat back that slopes up from their shoulders to their butt. When you see a hump, you’re dealing with a grizzly.
Before You Hike
Check with the ranger station at the park or forest. Rangers report bear sightings daily. Never leave for your hike without getting the bear report.
It’s also a good idea to let the ranger know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Check in when your hike is over too. If anything goes awry, they’ll know where to look for you.
What to Bring
When you hike in bear country, always bring bear spray. It’s sort of like having health insurance. You hope you never have to use it, but you’ll feel much safer knowing it’s there.
And don’t bury your spray deep in your bag. Have it readily accessible. Clip it to your belt if you can. Or keep it in the water bottle holder of your backpack.
Bring your cell phone! Even if you don’t have service, you never know when it might come in handy. It’s a great navigation resource even when the cell service is shaky.
Bring a friend. Safety in numbers, after all.
A knife never hurts either. A small pocket knife or multi-use camping tool can do damage to the eyes and face of a bear if it attacks you. Keep it in your pocket so you can find it when you need it.
During Your Hike
Make noise! Sing, talk, and play music from your phone. If anything, your singing voice might scare the bear away!
No really, it’s always a good idea to keep the bear from coming near you in the first place. And the best way to do that is to make noise. Nine times out of 10, the bear will run off before you even know it was there.
Be careful with your food. Always store food inside plastic, sealable bags. And make sure you’re in a safe area before you stop for a snack. If you’re camping, bring airtight containers to store food and garbage.
Stay on the trail. The odds of meeting up with a bear are greater if you’re off the trail.
Don’t bring pets or small children on a forest hike in bear country. It’s a risk that’s not worth taking.
Pay attention. Never walk through the woods with your earbuds in. First, you’ll miss out on the wonders of nature around you. But you’ll also miss out on critical sounds that indicate a bear is nearby.
Keep your eyes open too. Look out for bear scat or food trails. Also look for paw prints and scratch marks on trees.
What to Do When You See a Bear
If you do enough backcountry hiking, you’ll inevitably see a bear at some point. When you do, view it with respect. Keep your distance. If the bear notices you, you’re too close! Yellowstone asks visitors to stay at least 100 yards away from bears. For reference, that’s the length of a football field.
If the bear is closer than you like, make noise. Let them know you’re there and that you’re not a source of food. If a bear hears you making noises, it will most likely turn around and leave you alone.
Keep your voice low. No screaming! High pitches are threatening to the bear and might even provoke an attack. Another great reason to keep young children out of the backcountry.
Whatever you do, don’t feed a bear. Ever. The national parks have a saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” If you feed the bear, it will associate you with food. And that’s not a good idea if you plan to get out of the situation unscathed.
Some Important Questions to Ask Yourself
Is it a grizzly or black bear? See the first point in this article. Knowing the species can help you decide what to do. Grizzly bears are more likely to leave you alone if you play dead. Black bears don’t always fall for the dead act. More on this later.
What is the bear doing? Contrary to popular belief, a bear standing on its back legs is usually curious, not aggressive. Signs of aggression include snapping teeth, huffing, snorting, or laid-back ears.
Does she have cubs? If you run into a bear with cubs, that’s the most dangerous scenario. So make sure to assess the situation and find the cubs if there are any. You’ll want to avoid the cubs at all cost and get out of there as soon as possible.
Did you venture into a food source? Berry trees or a nearby carcass are bad news. If the bear is protecting food, back away from the food source and leave the area.
Are you near water? Bears need water too. And they eat fish. Keep your guard up when you’re near a stream or lake. Be prepared to leave immediately if the bear comes closer.
Is the bear sick? If a bear looks thin, shaggy, or ill, you need to get away immediately. They’re more likely to be desperate for food if they’re sick or orphaned.
What to Do If a Bear Gets Close to You
Get your bear spray ready. Take the safety latch out and have your hand on the trigger.
Never run if you surprise a bear in the woods. Bears are like dogs. They will chase you if they think you’re prey. You should only consider running if the bear is attacking you.
Don’t climb a tree. Note, grizzly bears don’t climb as well as black bears. That doesn’t mean they won’t climb to get you if they really want to.
Make yourself big. Stand together with your hiking mates and hold out your arms. The bear sees you as more dominant that way.
Move away slowly and to the side. Never turn your back on the bear. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. If you have to, wait until the bear leaves the area on its own.
Most important: stay calm. Bear attacks rarely happen. Avoid panic and you’ll avoid a bear attack 99% of the time.
What to Do If a Bear Attacks
You’ve got your bear spray ready in your hand and the bear is charging you. Now what?
Remember, bear spray is not lethal to the bear. So it won’t hurt the bear if you use it.
Aim toward the ground, but not right at the ground. You don’t want to spray up so that the bear can run under your cloud of spray.
Spray when the bear is 10-20 yards away. It emits a cloud of fog that the bear must run through. Keep spraying until the bear stops and changes direction. If the bear is on you, spray it in the bear’s face.
Then get the heck out of there! The bear spray should buy you enough time to get out. You don’t want to inhale the bear spray. It’s a super strong form of pepper spray that can hurt you if you wander into the cloud.
Don’t Have Bear Spray? Here’s What To Do
Shout, stamp your feet, and look the bear in the eye. These are aggressive tactics only to be used if the bear is charging at you. More times than not, the attack is a bluff. The bear doesn’t want to fight you any more than you want to fight it. And it will back away if it senses that you will stand your ground.
If you’re dealing with a grizzly bear, play dead. Drop down, keep your backpack on, and face down. Spread your legs to keep it from rolling you over and cover your head with your hands. Lay there until the bear is gone. Even if you have to wait a long time, make sure the bear is gone before you get up.
If it’s a black bear, playing dead won’t work. Try to escape if you can. Remember that bears are fast. So running might not always work. If you can’t escape, fight back.
Use anything you can to fight. Sticks, rocks, or a knife will work as a weapon. Kick and punch to the face. Aim for the eyes.
Seek help immediately. Use your cell phone. If that’s not available, call out for help. Get to safety as soon as possible.
Respect the Bear and Avoid a Scare
The most important things to remember are to prepare and stay calm. If you’re planning a trip into bear country, make sure you’ve got a plan in place. Let the local rangers know where you’ll be and when you’ll come back.
Bring the right gear. This includes bear spray. It’s not the type of thing you want to use, but it’ll give you peace of mind to know you have it.
Ask yourself a few key questions if you meet up with a bear. This helps you stay calm and figure out what to do next. Be prepared to fight back if you need to.
At Gander Outdoors, we’ve got the gear you need to have a safe trip camping and hiking in bear country. Shop our website or visit one of our stores to talk with an expert. Have fun and be safe while enjoying bear country!