Hiking in Bear Country? How to Prevent an Attack

Grizzly bear
A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Image credit: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock)

Bear attacks are rare, but when news of bear aggression hits the airwaves, even avid adventurers may wonder what's the best way to escape the long and curved claws of such a wild animal.

This past weekend, a black bear mauled and killed 16-year-old Patrick Cooper during a trail race in Alaska's Chugach State Park. The next day (June 19), another black bear killed a contract worker looking for geological samples about 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Anchorage, according to news sources. In addition, a grizzly bear attacked a 63-year-old man, who was known a skilled hiker, in Yellowstone on Aug. 6, 2015.

As is typical with bear attacks, state and wildlife officials plan to find and euthanize the bears, according to news sources. To prevent this from happening in the future, experts have tips for how to come out on top after a face to face with a towering bear. [Images: Trapping Yellowstone's Grizzly Bears]

Yellowstone attack

It's unclear how Lance Crosby, who had worked five seasons with Medcor, a company that runs three urgent-care clinics in the park, died. "But the preliminary results show that he was attacked by at least one grizzly bear," according to a National Park Service (NPS) statement. "His body was found partially consumed and cached, or covered, and partial tracks at the scene indicate that an adult female grizzly and at least one cub-of-the-year were present and likely involved in the attack." 

Officials at Yellowstone National Park captured the bears on Aug. 8, 2015, and did a DNA analysis on the adult female to ensure it was the same bear that killed and partially consumed Crosby. They euthanized the female, and sent her two cubs to the Toledo Zoo in Ohio, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.

"Fortunately, these kind of incidents don’t happen that often," Yellowstone spokeswoman Julena Campbell told the Washington Post. "There's not a lot of evidence to show that it is necessarily a learned behavior, but it can be. We know they are creatures of habit and that bears get habituated pretty quickly when they learn something is a food source."

Though frightening, bear attacks are extremely rare. From 1980 to 2015, more than 104 million people visited Yellowstone. During that time, bears injured 38 people in the park, the NPS reported. Of those, 34 injuries were caused by grizzlies in the backcountry, leading to an average of about one grizzly-related attack a year.

From 1872 to 2015, bears of any species have killed a total of eight people in Yellowstone, the NPS said.

Bear attacks

The NPS offered several ways to prevent bear attacks from all kinds of bears, including grizzlies and black bears. First off, be aware of signs that bears may be nearby. Hikers can look for fresh tracks or scat, as well as feeding sites, which include diggings, torn-up logs and ripped-open anthills. Avoid carcasses and don't leave lunchboxes unattended, as a bear may find the food first.

During the summer, bears are most active during the cooler hours during dawn, dusk and nighttime. Try to avoid hiking during these times when going into bear country, the NPS said.

Once the hike is underway, periodically yell, "Hey bear" to alert animals that there are humans nearby, which will give them time to leave the area. In Yellowstone, bears spend seven months fattening up for their five months of hibernation. A feeding bear might not notice people right away, and it's best not to startle them, the NPS said.  

If a bear doesn't notice a hiker, the person still has time to get away. "Keep out of sight and detour as far as possible behind and downwind of the bear," the NPS said. "If the bear sees you, retreat slowly and leave the area."

Under no circumstances should a person run away or try to climb a tree. Both can provoke a bear to give chase, and they're fast animals and expert tree climbers, according to the NPS. [Cuddly But Powerful: See Photos of the World's Bears]

Safety in loudness and numbers can also help, according to the NPS. Since 1970, 91 percent of people injured by bears were hiking alone or with one partner, and just 9 percent of those hurt by bears were in groups of three or more people, the NPS reported.

Charging bears

If a bear sees and charges at a hiker, it's best to stay still and "stand your ground," the NPS said. 

"Most of the time, if you do this, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away," the NPS said. "This is called a bluff charge."

If the bear gets within 40 feet (12 meters), start spraying pepper or bear spray. (Bear spray is recommended because it goes farther than pepper spray.) Both contain capsaicin, a chemical that irritates the bear's eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs. But, if the bear continues to charge, it's time to play dead, the NPS said.

Timing is incredibly important. A bear can still veer off at the last moment, so a person should play dead only within a nanosecond of making contact with the bear.

"Drop to the ground; keep your pack on to protect your back," the NPS said. "Lie on your stomach, face down, and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with your elbows protecting the sides of your face. Remain still and stay silent to convince the bear that you are not a threat to it or its cubs."

Once the bear leaves, wait several minutes to make sure the bear and its cubs are no longer nearby. Then, cautiously get up and walk (don't run) away, the NPS said. The bear could still attack again.

If a bear does attack, don't fight back. Fighting will only prolong the attack, and will likely result in more severe injuries, the NPS said. Since 1970, people who encountered bears in Yellowstone and played dead received minor injuries 75 percent of the time. People who fought back received very serious injuries 80 percent of the time, the park reported.

As of 2014, between 674 and 839 grizzly bears have been spotted living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the NPS reported.

Predatory bears

The only time to pull a Rambo move is if a predatory bear — instead of a defensive bear protecting itself, its food or its cubs — is attacking. Predatory bear attacks are rare (they're less than one-half of 1 percent of all bear attacks, Bartlett said), but usually aren't preceded by warning signals, such as huffing or ground slapping, and the bear "will keep bearing in on you," the NPS said.

The black bear that mauled and killed Cooper, the runner in Alaska, was likely a predatory bear, Ken Marsh, a representative from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told National Geographic.

"During a predatory attack, you should be aggressive and fight back using any available weapon (bear spray, rocks, sticks) to stop the aggression by the bear," the NPS said. "Fight back as if your life depends on it, because it does. Predatory attacks usually persist until the bear is scared away, overpowered, injured or killed."

So, what's the take-away message?

"Play dead if a defensive bear makes contact," the NPS said. "Always fight back against a predatory bear."

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Aug. 12, 2015. It was updated on June 21, 2017, with information about black bear attacks.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.