A bear stands in the water. Photo courtesy of Pexels

How To Be Safe Around Bears


According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado is home to a large population of black bears, with numbers estimated at 17,000-20,000 in the state. As humans venture into Colorado’s great outdoors to spend quality time in nature, it is important to remember that bears and humans can and do live in harmony in our shared outdoor spaces when humans take proactive steps to avoid conflicts with bears.

Wildlife experts agree that bears are not naturally aggressive towards humans; in fact, most bears are naturally wary of people. Most conflicts between people and bears can be traced to easily accessible human food, trash, or other attractants with strong odors as a bear’s natural drive to eat can overcome its fear of humans. When bears become too comfortable around humans, they can destroy property or even become a threat to human safety.

“The majority of the time, bears are not after you, they are after food,” said Colorado Parks & Wildlife area wildlife manager Mark Lamb. “Understanding bear behaviors and being aware of what steps you can take to avoid bears from approaching you is an important part of recreating responsibly in bear country. Being smart about how you store your food, using bear boxes and bear-resistant canisters, and locking your property keeps you safe and can save a bear’s life.”

If you’ve ever been to any national park, then you’ve likely seen the wooden bear cutout with a hat and shovel, welcoming you to the park. Even though this may be your first sighting of a bear, it is possible to meet a real bear while you’re hiking in the park.

This is, unfortunately, quite dangerous for both parties. It is no secret that a grizzly bear can easily kill a human and there have been many cases where humans were killed by bears. Any bear that has hurt a human is also typically killed.

With that said, it is best to avoid any bears while you’re out hiking. We will look at a couple of tips for you to do just that, however, these tips won’t completely guarantee that you won’t meet a bear. These tips should also help you to prevent a bad or violent situation if you do see a bear so that everyone can be kept alive.

Know the Difference Between Black & Grizzly Bears

Black Bears

Generally speaking, black bears have a straighter face, ears that sit a bit taller and no hump on their shoulder. There are also more black bears that grizzly bears in the country.

The vast majority of human encounters with black bears is due to the bears simply looking for food. These bears are not very aggressive and they aren’t typically fearful of humans. The mother black bears don’t usually attack humans to protect her cubs and in the event that she does, it’s not a vicious attack like those grizzly bear mothers.

  1. Color – Black bears are, of course, black in color but they can also be brown, blonde and even cinnamon-colored.
  2. Size – Males can become as large as 400 lbs but these bears typically weigh between 110 to 300 lbs.
  3. Shape – As mentioned before, black bears don’t have humps on their back
  4. Height – When standing they can be 5 ft tall and about 2.5 to 3 feet by the shoulder.
  5. Claws – Black bears have short claws that are only about 1.5 inches long
  6. Face – They have pointed ears and there is a line running down the forehead to the nose.
  7. Prints – Black bear prints don’t typically leave imprints on the ground and they have a toe arc which is a bit larger.

It is challenging to identify grizzlies and black bears apart according to their color since these two different bears have similar colors that can be between blonde and black. However, with that said, black bears that are in the eastern part of the United States, are usually only black.

A mother bear and her two cubs. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Grizzly Bears

There are many grizzly bears in western Canada and Alaska. However, beyond those areas, you can only find grizzly bears in areas such as Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Montana.

Grizzly bears can be easily identified by their flat face, hump on their shoulder as well as small ears which are rounded.

It is important to note that grizzly bears are very protective and the majority of encounters are defensive. For example, the majority of attacks are from mother grizzly bears protecting her cubs or those who are trying to protect their food source or against a threat.

  1. Color – Grizzlies come in a variety of colors such as brown, red, blonde, silver tipped, etc. They also have long hairs where the tip is a bit light colored which gives them their famous grizzled appearance.
  2. Height – The are around 3.3 feet at the shoulder and 6.5 feet when they stand.
  3. Size – There are very large grizzly bears that can weigh as much as 800 lbs. However, the average is between 350 to 500 lbs.
  4. Claws – They have much longer claws that are between 2 to 4 inches long
  5. Shape – They have a very notable shoulder hump
  6. Prints – They leave clear imprints on the ground due to long claws. Their arc between the toes is quite small.
  7. Face – They have rounded ears that are short. There is also a depression between the nose and eyes.

Are These Bears Aggressive?

As shown by the information above, both of these types of bears are much bigger and stronger than humans. The question you may be asking yourself is if they are gentle?

Naturally, most bears are not aggressive, however, they typically become quite aggressive when they are threatened or at least, feel threatened. For the most part, if they see a person, they’ll leave. However, this behavior depends a great deal on the species and the particular situation.

The majority of animals, bears included are territorial. Basically, if you go into a bear’s territory, they will usually act. They may either choose to leave and run or attack you.

In the event that they have chosen to attack, this is most likely due to you being near to their food, a kill, or its cubs.

Protecting Cubs

Bears are very protective of their cubs and will defend them as violently as they need to. In particular, if a bear has cubs that are 1 year old or younger, they will be more likely to attack, even if the cubs ran away or went up a tree.

However, if the bear has cubs that are 2 years old, then both the bear and the cubs may be aggressive and attack which is very dangerous. This occurs especially if you are near to a kill site.

Grizzly bear. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Kill Sites & Food Protection

If you want to figure out how angry and protective a bear can be about its food, remember how angry you get when a friend quickly steals some of your food at a restaurant. However, take that feeling and multiply it many hundreds of times!

Now, you need to think from the perspective of the bear and the fact that they spend quite a long time sleeping in the winter. Then, when it is summer, they have to work hard to gain weight that they lost in order to prepare for winter once again. Grizzly bears can actually gain 3lbs every day and they take eating and putting on that weight, very seriously. As a result, they are very protective of kill sites and food that they have.

So, if while hiking you find yourself next to a dead animal or even berry bushes that they enjoy, then you should know that any bears there would attack as opposed to run away.

Which Bear Is More Aggressive?

Generally speaking, black bears are much more likely to attack but their attacks in most cases, won’t result in death. However, when a grizzly bear attacks, it is a lot more vicious. Polar bear attacks don’t occur very often and usually happen in captivity. In all of recorded history, there are only 20 attacks by polar bears that resulted in death.

Black bear. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Is It Possible for Humans to Outrun A Bear?

Unfortunately, many people believe that they can run faster than a bear and outrun them. However, this is not true since bears can run at double the speed of most humans. They can run at an astounding 50 feet per second. Bears can also outrun racehorses over short distances.

Additionally, if you see a bear and try to outrun it, then this will probably make the bear want to chase you even more. So, we definitely don’t recommend you try to do so.

Can Bears Run Downhill?

Yes, bears can definitely run downhill.

Can Bears Climb Trees?

Many hikers were told that if they see a bear to simply climb up a tree to escape them. However, this is terrible advice since both types of bears can climb trees.

Grizzlies aren’t such great climbers in comparison to black bears and cubs are naturally better at climbing than adults. Typically, when there is a threat, cubs climb up trees to hide while the mother fights.

So, you should definitely avoid climbing any trees if you are in contact with an aggressive bear.


Next, many people believe that bears can’t see well and again, this is untrue. Black bears have great eyesight and can also see colors. However, they don’t have such great long-distance eyesight and their up-close eyesight is much better.

Black bear. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

When Are They Active?

By being aware of when bears are active, this will go a long way in helping you avoid meeting them while hiking.

Due to the fact that they hibernate, you won’t likely meet one during the winter. During this time they usually stay in hollow tree stumps, cavities, or other dens. With that said, it is still not impossible to see a bear during the winter.

The majority of bear cubs are born in January and February and the mothers and cubs typically come out of the den in March and April. These cubs typically stay with the mother for as many as 18 months.

So, if you plan to be out hiking during the non-hibernation months, then it is worth knowing that most bears are most active in the late evening and early morning. They are particularly more active during the summer and spring as well as mating season which happens in July.

Find Out About the Regulations in the Park

Find out about the regulations associated with the area you are planning to visit. These regulations will differ from one park to the next.

In Glacier National Park or Grand Teton, you are advised to carry a bear spray in the parks where the grizzlies live. While in Yosemite, they only have black bears living there and using bear sprays is prohibited.

There are also different regulations when it comes to food storage and camping. Some of the parks offer bear caches or metal enclosures to store food, while others won’t. If you have plans to go camping, a bear-cache will have an impact on your choice of gear.

Hike in a Group

Noise is one of the first lines of defense when it comes to bears, and humans are known for making a lot of noise. In fact, people are not known for stealth, especially when they start clunking up trails in their hiking boots along with backpacks filled with gear. If you want to hike while in “bear country”, make sure you do so in a group. The bigger the group the better, as larger groups will intimidate the bears.

Keep in mind that the majority of the bears are very wary when it comes to humans. But at the same time, you need to alert them of your presence with lots of noise and making sure you always travel in a group. Make even more noise when you approach any of the blind bends along a trail.

Bear bells are very popular purchase in most of the general stores located throughout bear country. These small, jingling bells are made to alert bears that you are approaching. However, an Alaskan biologist researched bear bells among black bears that live in Katmai National Park. He picked up that the bears took more notice of sounds like a pencil snapping rather than paying much attention to small jingling bells.

Watch Out for Signs of Bears

Unlike Smokey, the real signs of a bear are not 6 feet in height and made out of wood. However, they are relatively easy to detect once you know what you are looking for. You can identify bear tracks by the deep impressions and claw marks that these animals leave behind. A grizzly has a curved claw mark that is around 2 to 4 inches in length, while a black bear has straighter claw marks that measure between 1 to 2 inches.

Tracks are just one of the signs to look out for when you on a trail. You can also detect a bear by its droppings. Bears will leave tubular and large droppings. Deer droppings are a more common sight and are usually more pellet-like. Fresh droppings and tracks are an indication that you may want to think about using another trail.

Keep Your Campsite Clean

In 2017, a teenager from Colorado was dragged away at night from his camp by a vicious black bear. The attack was apparently unprovoked. A year before this event, a man from California was pulled out of the tent he was sleeping in by another black bear. Both survived these traumatic encounters, yet both incidents link back to the importance of keeping your campsite clean.

The bears that stick around campgrounds are experienced in finding easy meals. They are known for breaking into cars along with raiding campsites.

Biologists have estimated that in the U.S, the black and grizzly bear is the most common. They can detect animal carcasses from up to 20 miles away. Polar bears, which you most probably won’t encounter outside remote and cold regions of Alaska, can smell seal’s from as far as 40 miles away. This means that any leftovers are easy to detect, especially when a bear is hungry.

  1. When choosing your campsite look for open areas that are far from forest cover, dense vegetation, natural pathways, or natural spots for food. Avoid the campsites that are messy or with signs that bears have been there. This could include tracks, torn logs, scat, or claw marks on the surrounding trees.
  2. Secure any of your scented items by keeping them at least 5 feet away from trees and hang them 10 feet from the ground.
  3. Restrict all eating, cooking, food storage, and cleaning activities to at least 100-feet downwind from your tents.
  4. Avoid sleeping out of your tent or keep anything “smellable” in the tent such as an empty food wrapper.
  5. Never leave garbage or food scraps out.
  6. Wash dishes and utensils immediately after use, and throw the waste-water 100-feet downward from your sleeping area.
  7. Always use flashlights and take extra precautions when you move around after dark.
  8. Store all odorous attractants and food (including cooking clothes and garbage) in an airtight canister or sealed bags.

What to Do When You Encounter a Bear

If a bear notices you and then starts focusing his/her attention on what you are doing, there are a few strategies you can use to stop this situation from turning into a disaster.

  1. Identify yourself as a human by talking in a calm tone to let the bear know you are not an animal. Stay still, and start slowly waving your arms. This will help the bear to know that you are a human.
  2. It may start approaching you or standing up to see you better or gain a better smell. When a bear stands up they are usually not threatening but rather curious. Keep as calm as you can and keep in mind that the majority of bears are not interested in attacking you.
  3. Bears are known for bluffing when it comes to encounters. They may charge and then turn away just before they reach you. They are also known for reacting defensively by growling, yawning, their ears lay back, they woof, or even snap their jaws.
  4. Carry on talking in a very low tone, this will also help you to remain calmer, and it won’t threaten the bear. Sudden movements or screaming can trigger the bear to attack you. Avoid making high-pitched squeals or imitating bear sounds.
  5. Pick small children up immediately.
  6. Travel and hike in a group. A group of people is usually smellier and noisier than one or two people. For this reason, bears will usually know about a group of people from a greater distance. Due to the size of a group, bears usually feel intimidated.
  7. Try and make yourself look bigger. An example of this is moving to a higher spot when possible.
  8. Don’t allow a bear to gain access to any of your food. Allowing the bear to take food only encourages the animal, which makes this issue worse for future campers and hikers.
  9. Also, avoid dropping your backpack, as it can protect your back and stop the bear from getting to your food.
  10. If the bear remains stationary, start moving away slowly in a sideways direction. This will stop you from tripping and you can watch the bear at all times. Moving sideways is also a non-threatening action to a bear.
  11. Never run, and if the bear starts to follow you, rather stop and remain in the same position. Bears are able to run like a racehorse, whether it is uphill or down. Similar to a dog, bears will chase an animal that flees.
  12. Also, avoid trying to climb up a tree. Black bears and grizzlies are both excellent tree climbers. Decide on a detour and vacate the area. When this is not possible, you may have to wait for the bear to move away.
  13. Make sure that the bear has a clear space to escape.
  14. Be extremely cautious when there is a female bear with her cubs. Never approach them or get between the cub and its mother. The likelihood of her attacking you will increase significantly if she feels that you are a danger to either her or her cubs.

What You Need to Know About Bear Attacks

Bear attacks may be rare as most of the bears are more interested in protecting their space, cubs, or food. However, when you mentally prepare yourself, it can help you when reacting to the situation.

Every situation will be different, but here are a few guidelines on how black bears attack differently to brown bears.

You can help to protect future hikers or campers by reporting any incident involving a bear immediately to the park rangers. The most important thing to remember is to stay as far away from bears as possible.

Grizzly/Brown Bears

When a grizzly/brown bear attacks you, play dead and keep your backpack on.

If possible lay as flat as you can with your face into the ground and clasp your hands around the back of your neck. Keep your legs apart as this will make it more difficult for the bear if he/she is trying to turn you onto your back. Keep as still as you can until the bear has left the area.

If you try and fight back, it will usually intensify the attack. However, should the bear continue to attack you, fight back as hard as you can. Try and find whatever you can to use as a weapon, focusing on the face of the bear.

Black Bears

If possible try and run to a place of safety such a car or a building. Never try to play dead with a black bear. If you are unable to escape, try your best to fight the bear using any object you can find. Concentrate blows and kicks to the muzzle and face of the bear.

If a black or grizzly bear attacks while you are inside your tent, or he/she stalks you followed by an attack, avoid playing dead and rather fight back. This form of attack is usually rare but could be very serious since it means that the bear wants to eat you.

Bear Spray

Before you do anything else, bear spray is regarded as your best defense if you encounter a black bear.

Bear spray is still the most effective method to drive off or stop an aggressive bear. The spray is non-lethal and lowers the bears that have to be killed and injuries to humans. Using a bear spray ensures your safety and the bear’s safety.

Come Prepared

  1. Make sure you know the right way to use bear spray’s before you head out into the backcountry.
  2. Practice how to use the spray using a can that is empty. Also, learn how to remove the safety using your thumb and then how to spray.
  3. Make sure your bear spray is easy to access in something like a quick-draw holster. It will be useless if you store it in a backpack.
  4. It is not always necessary that you need to aim the spray perfectly. When you spray it creates a screen between the bear and you, which is in most cases enough.
  5. Make sure you use a bear spray that is EPA-approved and that the product hasn’t expired.
  6. Never use a bear spray as a repellent around your camp before you go to sleep. The product is not intended for these uses and could even attract unwanted wild animals.

The Correct Way to Use Bear Spray

If you would like to deter a black bear that has decided to chase you, a bear spray is usually enough. However, you need to know the correct way to use it.

A bear attack is usually a split-second event, which means you need to know how to use the spray immediately. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Remove the safety
  2. Aim the spray towards the face of the bear
  3. Spray when the bear is around 25-30 feet away
  4. If the bear is charging spray when the animal is 30 to 60 feet away
  5. Continue to spray until the animal changes direction or leaves
  6. Spray the bear directly in the face if you are about to be attacked
  7. Leave the area immediately, but try not to run

This story originally appeared on OutsideHow.com.

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