6 Wilderness Survival Skills for Bear Attack

Wilderness Survival Skills Bear AttackAblestock.com/photos.com

Do you have the wilderness survival skills to survive a bear attack?

Many of us go our entire lives without ever encountering a bear. This is as it should be. Until recently, there was an understanding among humans and bears. We agreed not to venture into the woods and they agreed to be shot at with very large guns if they came into town.

But as our cities expanded and our gun laws became more restrictive (What do you mean I can’t skeet shoot off the fire escape?), the bear population grew and our habitats began to overlap.

Bear Encounters in North America

Let me stress now that it is very unlikely you’ll ever experience a bear encounter, much less die from one.

Every year bears kill, on average, 3 people in North America. No offense to the deceased, but this is not exactly an overwhelming public nuisance. Experts point out that you’re far more likely to be killed by drugs, cancer, cars, swimming pools, hammers, dogs, lightening, and ham sandwiches than from bear attacks.

So why do we remain so terrified of bears despite such underwhelming statistics?

Simply, bears are enormous, strong and startlingly fast. Grizzlies can weigh 1,500 pounds or more. You may say that’s not that impressive; every time you go to Walmart there’s at least one person who is a White Castle slider shy of the three-quarter ton mark. But when was the last time you saw Fast Food Freddy rumble toward you on all fours at 35 mph? Except when they bring out a new tray of chicken wings at Golden Corral, I mean.

You’re far more likely to encounter a black bear in the lower 48. Because black bears are smaller, anywhere from 150-500 pounds, they don’t need as much habitat as a grizzly to survive. Which means your local state or national park may already contain a number of the grizzlies’ smaller cousins. But let’s face it, that’s still crap-your-pants big when seen up close and personal. 

So what wilderness survival skills do you need when you meet a bear? Climb a tree without gear? Sprint over rough terrain?  Strip naked and spin in circles?

Truth is that it really doesn’t matter. Well, more accurately, there is no real clear answer. Apparently, you should adjust your actions based on whether the bear is accustomed to humans or not. How one determines this, I have no idea. (Excuse me Mr. Bear, have we met before?)

Ostensibly, one could assume that bears found in the middle of nowhere would be wary of humans, but as you constantly hear of well-meaning biologists trapping “city” bears and dropping them into remote areas, this may not always be the case. Or just because you’re enjoying nature from the comfort of a popular campground, doesn’t mean every animal will be relaxed and groovy. Bears are wild animals after all.

6 Wilderness Survival Skills for Bear Attack

So follow, or ignore, these wilderness survival skills to live, or die from, your next bear encounter:

  1. Climb a Tree: Grizzlies have straight claws, making them poor climbers, so some experts suggest you shinny up a tree. But make sure you pick wisely. A grizzly’s bite is so strong that they’ve been observed gnawing their way through trees up to 12 inches in diameter to get to their prey. One grizzly was recorded snapping off a 4” diameter tree in one bite.

    Black bears on the other hand, being more agile and equipped with curved claws, are very astute climbers. So scurrying up a tree will only work if you can perch yourself higher than your pudgiest hiking buddy.

  2. Stand Your Ground: Let’s set the scene: After a long day on the lake, you begin cleaning the day’s catch in preparation for a well-earned supper. All of a sudden you see the brush rustle and out pops a bear looking to take your meal. Lousy free-loader. You, probably after having had a few beers, decide to stand your ground (This is my sunfish, dammit!) and advance towards the bear, banging on an aluminum pot and shouting obscenities.

    If this is a male black bear, odds are he’ll be intimidated by your posturing and the noise will scare/confuse him into retreat. Success! You keep your catch and get a story to tell your girlfriend. (He was 8, no, 900 pounds!)  However, if you draw a female with cubs in tow, and she thinks you’re threatening her brood, she’ll charge, making a meal of your fish and you. Bear: 1, Your Super Duper Wilderness Survival Skills: 0.

    But if you have the true misfortune to attract a grizzly, he’ll try to scare you off with posturing, growling and rearing up to show off his full ten-foot height. This is pointless because you’re screwed no matter what you do. In addition to being immensely strong, grizzlies are deceptively fast; they can sprint upwards of 35 mph, remember. So your choices are to either stand your ground (you die) or you can run away (you live for 5 more seconds, then you die).

  3. Capsaicin spray: Just like muggers and insurance salesmen, both black and grizzly bears can be deterred by a shot of pepper spray to the eyes. That is assuming of course that your hands aren’t shaking so badly that you can actually aim that pathetic stream of spiced water into the puny ocular sockets of a charging bear. You might as well carry a taser, or better yet, a .44 magnum. Ya feelin’ lucky, you ursine punk?

  4. Make Noise: Wilderness survival skills experts advise hikers, especially those traveling through heavily wooded areas, to make noise in order to avoid surprising a bear, thus provoking an attack.

    The problem is that this may actually alert a hungry predator to your whereabouts, especially if there isn’t much food and the bear doesn’t know it’s supposed to be scared of humans. And if the bear doesn’t know from where the sound is coming, which is entirely possible in a thick forest, you could have the extreme misfortune of scaring the bear directly toward you.  

  5. Keep Your Camp Clean: Bears have exceptional senses of smell and can be attracted from miles away by a sizzling grill or a mound of garbage. To make your camp as unappealing as possible to a bear, Charles Fergus recommends that you prepare and cook your food at least 100 yards downwind of camp. Afterwards, be sure to wrap leftovers in multiple layers of plastic and suspend them in a tree.

    This would work, except that even if you manage to clean, cook and eat your food a mile outside of camp, the smell will still linger on your skin, clothing and in your hair, making you, for all intents and purposes, a large walking, enticingly odoriferous cut of meat. And since black bears are excellent climbers, your suspended food bag becomes nothing but a fully-stocked piñata to an enterprising bear. Though, better it than you.

  6. Travel in a Large Group: This is one of the only tips so far that seems to hold any credence, as there are no documented grizzly bear attacks on groups of 4 or more people.

    However, this safety-in-numbers technique presumably works only when you’re all together, all the time. No wandering off on your own to fish, explore a trail or to tinkle in the privacy of the woods. Nor do your numbers protect you if you sleep alone. Black bears have been known to meander through a maze of tents containing dozens of sleeping campers. And in one unfortunate case, dragged a boy scout from his tent off into the woods, never to be seen alive again.

The fact is that bears are extremely unpredictable. It’s just a crap shoot whether you’ll survive an encounter, regardless of your wilderness survival skills chops.

So you might want to think twice about venturing into the woods. Even if the chances of encountering a bear are remote at best, there are tons of other ways for nature to do you in, poisonous snakes for instance.

Related Articles:

Outdoor Survival - America's Most Poisonous Snakes

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