Picture this scene: one minute you’re peacefully hiking on a beautiful wooded trail in the Northern Rockies, the next you’re fighting for your life when an angry bear charges. If you had your weapon of choice, what would it be? Do you know the best weapon to survive a bear attack in the woods? Understanding basic facts about bear behavior and survival tactics can mean the difference between life and death.
More humans than ever are playing in remote bear habitat and greatly increasing the odds of a dangerous bear encounter. In June a grizzly bear killed a mountain biker near Glacier National Park and one week later, a backpacker was attacked in Denali. Some people might believe that these two could have been saved by a .44 Magnum but the facts prove otherwise.
The Best Weapon to Survive a Bear Attack Isn’t a Gun
Fact: Rifles and guns are statistically unlikely to stop a bear attack, but bear spray will. In fact, gun-toting hikers may even increase the odds of serious injury to themselves when attempting to use lethal force on an oncoming bear.
“Bear spray [has] a better success rate under a variety of situations … than firearms,” reports a 2012 Journal of Wildlife study entitled Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska. In addition, the authors go on to say that “We found no significant difference in success rates (i.e., success being when the bear was stopped in its aggressive behavior) associated with long guns (76 percent) and handguns (84 percent). Moreover, firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not.”
The study’s conclusion? Bear spray is a more effective weapon to survive a bear attack.
Bear Spray Tips:
- Always use an EPA approved product specifically designed to stop aggressive bears.
- Never apply bear spray to your body or camping gear – bear spray is not a repellent.
- Keep bear spray handy in its belt holster when you hike, not in your pack
The Other Best Weapon to Stop a Bear Attack? Your Brain
“Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger,” says the US Fish and Wildlife Service in a “Bear Versus Bullets” report. Usually, human beings who disregard bear behavior facts are the cause of an attack. For example, a February 2016 study about carnivore attacks says these five common human behaviors can be blamed for over half of carnivore attacks:
- Parents leaving children unattended
- Walking an unleashed dog
- Searching for a wounded large carnivore during hunting
- Engaging in outdoor activities at twilight/night
- Approaching a female with cubs
When you avoid these behaviors and use your brain around bears, you increase the odds of staying safe when visiting bear habitat. Every wildlife lover needs to know these three important facts when encroaching on bear territory:
Bears prefer certain terrain
Be mindful when hiking near rivers and streams, in tall, grassy meadows or near berry bushes. All are preferred places for bears to eat and relax. When do they do it? Usually in early morning and late afternoon (but not always).
Bears don’t want human attention
Usually, they stumble into it when searching for a meal. Use extreme care when cooking and storing edibles in the outdoors. Remember that RVs are like a giant lunchbox to bears. If your campground has bear-proof storage, use it. If you encounter an animal carcass on the trail, leave immediately as bears could be keeping watch on their next meal.
Bears give warning signals before attacking
These huge creatures don’t want to meet you, they just want to be left alone. If you get in their personal space, they’ll let you know it. For example, bears stand up because they’re trying to smell you, not because an attack is imminent. If a bear looks you in the eye and has its ears pulled back, you are violating its space. Whatever you do, don’t run. As anyone with a dog knows, many animals have a prey instinct and will give chase when something runs away from it. Instead, just back away slowly from the bear calmly, while keeping your hand on the bear spray canister.
Remember, bear attacks are still a rare event when you consider that more people than ever are camping, hiking and visiting bear habitat. Be aware when you visit their home and you’ll have many opportunities to view these magnificent creatures from a safe (and far) distance.
More Ways to Stay Safe in Bear Country