What To Do During A Black Bear Encounter

Last Updated on April 6, 2022

Black bear sightings in the wild can be an unforgettable experience but it can also be a frightening one. It is normal to become alarmed when you come face-to-face with a black bear. Luckily, black bears are rarely aggressive and attacks by them are rare too.

We share our local, provincial, and national parks with them, so knowing how to behave when encountering black bears in their home can help to keep you safe. Learning what to do will give you peace of mind when adventuring in bear country so that you can recreate with confidence.

Table Of Contents

Black Bear Encounter Prevention

The best way to not get yourself in a situation with a black bear is to take all the precautions you can to prevent meeting a bear, to begin with.

Bears are large and powerful animals, but are usually shy and scared of people, leaving the area before you even realize they were there. Even bears that are two to three times heavier than an average person will prefer to stay far away from humans.

Though black bear attacks are rare, when they do happen, it is usually when a bear gets surprised, making the attack a defensive one.

The best way to prevent a bear encounter is to make noise while you are hiking. This is easiest when you are hiking with a group, as more people will make more noise. However, it is also possible to make enough noise if you are hiking alone. Make yourself noticeable by talking, singing, and clapping to make any wildlife aware of your presence.

It is also important to not keep yourself oblivious to your surroundings. Do not hike with earphones in; if you cannot hear what is around you, you will be more likely to run into a bear, like what happened to this lady in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Having your headphones in means that you will be removing your ability to hear nature around you, such as branches breaking, leaves rustling, or the pounding of the ground. Making yourself oblivious could end up being extremely costly.

Being loud is especially important when you are near streams, areas with low visibility, or around a food source.

There are several things you can do to ensure the bear will be aware of a human presence and opt to stay away:

  • Make continual noise
  • Stay aware of your surroundings
  • Hike in a group and do not let anyone go off alone
  • Keep your dog on a leash at all times
  • Hike during daylight hours, and stay on marked trails

Black Bear or Grizzly Bear?

The best way to react when you encounter a bear in the wild depends on which species of bear it is. Black bears and grizzly bears react differently when encountering people. This makes it extremely important to be able to determine what kind of bear you have met.

Determining what kind of bear you have encountered is not as easy as you would hope. Black bears can range in color from black to blue-black, dark brown, cinnamon, or white. Grizzlies can range from black to blonde. Coat color is the least reliable characteristic to use when identifying bears. Even though grizzlies are usually significantly larger than black bears, they cannot be used as a definite indicator of which bear you have met.

Courtesy of Center for Wildlife Information – Graphic Art Fund

Black Bears

Black bears are the smallest of the three (the others being polar bears and grizzly bears). They are extremely adaptable, with a presence all over North America.

A black bear has a straight face profile, large protruding ears, small claws, and a lack of shoulder hump. The rump of black bears is also higher than their front shoulders.
As mentioned above, a “black” bear can exist in a variety of colors from black, to blue-black, dark brown, cinnamon, or white.

Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bears are some of the most loved, feared, and misunderstood animals of the backcountry. Grizzly bears are often stereotyped as abusing their size and power upon anyone who crosses their path. However, while they certainly have the potential to be dangerous, the last thing they want to do is start a fight. Plus, grizzly bears are hardly the blood-thirsty beast they are made out to be since 70% of a grizzly bear’s diet comes from berries, wildflowers, grasses; anything growing that has nutritional value.

At first glance, an average grizzly bear is much bigger than a black bear. They have short, rounded ears, a shoulder hump, and large paws and claws.

During a Black Bear Encounter

If you see a bear on your adventure, immediately stop and assess the situation. Usually, you can easily scare off a black bear and they rarely attack.

Keep in mind that just because a black bear goes on its hind legs, it does not mean it is being aggressive. It could just be curious. You should be able to get a good sense of the level of aggression, or lack thereof, as you assess the situation.

Our Zero Aggression Black Bear Encounter

For example, when I was hiking with my four young kids, we were surprised by a black bear. With four young kids, we were LOUD on the trail. However, we were walking along the rushing water, probably making it harder for the bear to be aware of our presence. Walking along the trail, I could hear rustling in the bushes. I stopped several times to look around and each time I saw nothing. We continued up the trail and something drew me to turn around; finding a black bear leisurely following us along the trail.

Assessing the situation, I could immediately tell that the black bear had zero aggression. It could have cared less we were there. We started backing away, talking calmly as it followed us down the trail until we came to his swimming spot, where he veered off the trail and jumped extremely clumsily into the water. It was quite the sight.

Defensive Black Bear Encounter

Usually, when bears become defensive, they are surprised as they did not become aware of your presence until you were too close. The behavior is meant to intimidate and scare away the threat. Some ways the bear will show its displeasure with you are by popping its jaw, swatting the ground while blowing or snorting, or bluff charging at you.

Even when on the defensive, if there are not any bear cubs involved, a black bear will usually not attack. However, the opposite is true when considering a defensive grizzly bear.

In this situation of a defensive black bear, you should:

  • Speak calmly and in a low and monotone voice.
  • Back away slowly. NEVER run and NEVER turn your back to a bear.
  • Face the bear and make yourself as large as possible, while you wave your arms around and try to get to higher ground.
  • If you have small children with you, pick them up.
  • Have your bear spray within easy reach and if needed, remove the safety, point it towards the bear and spray once the bear is at 25 to 30 feet away. It is also important to note, however, that bear spray is more of a last resort. Only use if you feel threatened and the bear is legitimately aggressive (charging).
  • Do not make any sudden movements.
  • Once the bear backs off, leave the area immediately.

Aggressive Black Bear Encounter

A black bear will rarely attack, but if it does, you will need to fight back! Do not mistake this with a grizzly attack, DO NOT PLAY DEAD with a black bear.

Use anything you can around you to help you fight back and hit the bear in its face and nose. Once the bear realizes that you are putting up a big fight, it will usually back off.

Once again, with a black bear attack, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. You MUST FIGHT BACK!

Bear Spray

The first defense you should try with an aggressive charging bear, before resorting to having to fight back, is using your bear spray.

Bear spray will cause the bear some temporary and minor discomfort, but it will not harm the bear. It can reduce the number of bears that need to be put down after a physical attack, and helps to reduce and prevent human injuries.

What to Know About Bear Spray

  • It is made specifically for defense against bears. Bear spray is nothing like pepper spray that is used for personal human defense.
  • Spray directly into its face when the bear is about to attack.
  • The purpose of bear spray is to cause temporary discomfort in its eyes, nostrils, and throat, but will never permanently injure the bear.
  • Bear spray has a lower concentration of capsaicin, sprays farther, and sprays in a widening cone.
  • It will not make the bear aggressive; it will make them want to retreat.
  • Bear spray is more effective than a gun. A gun will anger the bear and add to the aggression.
  • Never use bear spray except against an aggressive bear. For example, if you spray some around your campsite before going to sleep, it could do the opposite and attract wildlife to you.

Good Bear Spray Practices

  • Know how to use your bear spray.
  • Pay attention to the expiry date as the bear spray can become less effective or ineffective.
  • Always keep bear spray easily accessible. You could need to spray it at a moment’s notice.
  • Do not stress about perfect aim. Putting a barrier of spray between you and the bear is enough.

Bear Bells: Are They Effective?

Bear bells do not work as well as some people think. Usually, the bear will not hear the sound until the bear is already aware that you are there.

We find it more effective to not have the constant jingle of the bear bell on our bags and instead focus on noise and sounds that will better alert the bear to our presence.


Love it? Pin it for later!