What Should You Do If You Stumble Upon a Bear?

Nowadays, it’s more common than ever to encounter a bear when you’re out in the wilderness. You might be camping, hiking, or fishing when you see a bear. But do you know what to do if you see a bear?

The most important thing is to stay calm. Bears will sense you’re panic and it will only aggravate them. 

You want to slowly walk sideways away from the bear while talking in a firm voice. Large jumping movements or waving your arms will potentially anger the bear, so staying calm and slowly moving away is your best bet. 

If you are charged or stumble right across a bear while in the woods, stand your ground. Use bear spray only as a last resort, and then escape the scene as fast as possible once the bear is incapacitated. 

There are a few other tips you should know about when it comes to how to defend yourself against bears. Your tactics should change based on what kind of bear it is and the scenario you’re in.

Keep reading to get the full scoop on how to protect yourself from bears. 

How to Protect Yourself From a Bear

A lot of people assume that if they happen upon a bear, the chances of them getting mauled and eaten are very high. However, the statistics show that the chances of getting mauled by a bear are about 1 in 2.1 million.

You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to be mauled by a bear!

That being said, there are still some critical measures you need to take if you see a bear because antagonizing one of these beasts can pretty much secure you a hospital bed–or worse.

  • If you see a bear while hiking or camping, stay calm and try to back away slowly. Make sure you are not between the bear and its escape route.
  • If you cannot back away safely, make yourself as big as possible by standing tall and waving your arms. Speak in a firm voice, but don’t shout. Shouting can aggravate the bear.
  • If the bear starts to approach and you have no means of escape, throw stones, branches, or whatever you can find at it.
  • Do not run away! The bear may see you as prey, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to outrun a bear.
  • If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively with whatever you have. Aim for the bear’s head and face. Try to stay on your feet and do not play dead.

What To Do If A Bear Charges You

Rarely will a bear you meet in the wild charge you. Bears aren’t inherently violent creatures, it’s mainly their size that scares us.

Even when a bear stands on its hind legs, that doesn’t mean it’s planning on attacking you. Most bears will stand up to get a better look at their surroundings or to smell the air from a higher vantage point.

It’s also an assertion of dominance. While the bear doesn’t intend to attack you, it very much recognizes that if it can scare you off, it will end better for everyone.

But, if you happen across an angry bear or a mother trying to protect her cubs, you might run the risk of getting charged.

There are two kinds of charges–the bluff charge and the attack charge.

The bluff charge is meant to scare you off. The bear will raise its ears and bound toward you, often veering off to the side at the last second or stopping a few feet away.

It’s important to stand your ground during a bluff charge because the bear will usually recognize you’re not going anywhere and will back off naturally.

But, if that’s not the case, the attack charge is coming next, and you can identify it by whether or not the bear roars, snaps its teeth, or puts its head down.

if you’re in the forest or an area with some sturdy trees, you can use them as cover for a bear charge. Don’t run away, but sidestepping a bear and using a tree as a barrier is a good idea.

The other options are to use a bear spray or play dead, which will change depending on what kind of bear you’re up against.

Types of Bears You Might Encounter

There are a few kinds of bears in North America that you might encounter, and these include:

  • Black Bears
  • Grizzly or Brown Bears
  • Polar Bears

While the approach to each kind of bear is relatively the same, here are some additional tips for each type of bear.

What to Do if You See a Black Bear

Black bears are by far the most common kind of bear you might come across. Their natural habitat range stretches from the farthest reaches of the Canadian North into parts of Mexico.

In the United States, black bears are most common in the far west (California, Washington, Oregon) and the far east (New England, New York, Pennsylvania).

Black bears can be identified by their rounded ears and pale brown snout. A lot of times, black bears can have brownish fur, and grizzly bears can have darker fur, so trying to identify them by color can be a challenge.

Generally, black bears are not violent creatures. They are only really protective of their young and are easily frightened most other times.

You want to abide by the slow walk away strategy when you meet a black bear. If they happen to charge you as if to attack you, standing your ground and fighting is your best defense. Aim for the face and the nose, as shots there will likely stun them.

What to Do If You See a Grizzly Bear

Also known as the brown bear, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) is probably the most widely recognizable bear. They’ve made appearances in almost every kid’s cartoon, but they’re far from warm and fluffy.

Grizzly bears are mainly found in the Northwestern US, especially in the following states:

  • Montana
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Washington

Plus, grizzly bears are a big part of the Canadian wildlife, making appearances in British Colombia, Alberta, and other cold-climate areas.

Grizzly bears are some of the most terrifying animals you can encounter. Because of their size, reputation, and scraggly nature, many people can’t fight the urge to run when they see a brown bear.

But, the most important thing to remember is that grizzly bears, like black bears, will often wander away on their own if you’re within a reasonable distance. Mind your own business, and walk away slowly while talking in a firm voice.

If the bear charges you, the best way to defend yourself against a grizzly bear is by playing dead. Yup, you read that right.

When grizzly bears charge you, let them brush past you or touch you in some way. After that, fall dramatically to the ground and cover your head and neck with your arms. Keep your face on the ground with your legs spread out.

Grizzly bears like to play with their prey, so if the bear flips you over, allow them to do so, but continue rolling until you’re face-down again. Eventually, the bear will lose interest and wander off.

What to Do If You See a Polar Bear

Contrary to popular belief, not all polar bears live at the North Pole, eating cookies with Santa Claus. Most polar bears live in or around the Arctic Circle, which includes territories in:

  • Alaska
  • Canada
  • Russia
  • Norway
  • Greenland

So, unless you plan on traveling to one of those places, you can rest assured you probably won’t see a polar bear outside of a zoo.

But, in these territories, polar bears are becoming increasingly brazen, namely because climate change is driving them from their traditional hunting grounds. As such, they’re venturing into human settlements to look for food, and you’ve probably seen videos of skinny polar bears raiding dumpsters.

This is usually how most people will chance upon a polar bear, and it’s important to note that this is when the polar bear is on the highest alert. It knows that it’s ventured outside of its territory, and it’s desperate.

That means that if you see a polar bear, you should get to safety as quickly as possible, like inside a building or a car. But don’t run, because just like other kinds of bears, polar bears can – and will – outrun you.

If you do see a polar bear in the wild, your best bet is to slowly back away while making as much noise as possible. Don’t try to run, as they can outrun you. And no matter what you do, don’t turn your back on a bear as that’s how most attacks happen.

The Best Protection from Bears

Before we recommend our top bear protection products, it’s important to note that the best protection from bears is avoidance.

By this, we mean that if you’re planning on going hiking, camping, mountain biking, or any other kind of outdoor activity, you should brush up on your bear lore.

Know what areas are bear hotspots. You can contact your local park ranger to ask where there have been bear sightings, and if you’re concerned about encountering a bear, avoid those areas.

You can also take your own measures to learn about what areas bears like to frequent. Like most mammals, bears are driven by a few key instincts, and those include finding drinking water, food, and shelter.

Bears can often be found near streams or creeks that are well-stocked with fish. Plus, they like to find wild berries, apples, and other fruit that they can munch on. If you know your favorite hiking trail runs right through a blackberry patch, just be on the lookout!

Also, learn how to identify signs of bears. Look for scat, prints, and tufts of fur. Sometimes, trees with claw marks on them can indicate that a black bear and her cubs are around. Cubs will climb trees if they feel threatened, so always look up once in a while!

Tools For Bear Protection

Bear spray is the best way to protect yourself from a bear attack. Bear spray is a type of pepper spray that will cause temporary blindness, difficulty breathing, and an intense burning sensation if it comes in contact with skin.

It’s important to remember that bear spray is only effective if you’re close enough to the bear for the spray to reach its face.

If you’re camping or hiking, it’s a good idea to have bear spray on your person, as well as in your camping gear. You can also buy bear bells, which are little bells that you wear on your clothes. The sound of the bells will alert bears to your presence and hopefully scare them off.

Related Post: Does Bear Spray Work on Mountain Lions?

If you’re in an area where there are grizzly bears, it’s also a good idea to carry a gun. If you do choose to go this route, make sure you know how to use the gun before heading into bear territory.

The last thing you want is to be fumbling with your gun in the middle of a bear attack!

When it comes to bear protection, avoidance is the best policy. But, if you do find yourself in close quarters with a bear, bear spray and bells are your best bet. And, if you’re in grizzly territory, don’t forget to pack a gun.


All-in-all, you probably won’t need to spend hours memorizing this information, because very few bear encounters end in an attack. Bears are respectful creatures, and if you’re respectful of their territory and boundaries, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But, always remember that running away from a bear is your last-ditch effort. Bears have the natural predator instinct, so they will chase after you, whether they plan on eating you or not.