You’re hiking through the wilderness when, all of a sudden, you come face-to-face with a snarling brown bear! Do you know what to do?
If it’s a grizzly bear, you’ve got a big problem. Grizzly bears go all out when they feel threatened. While they’re usually gentle giants, content to mind their own business, a threatened grizzly is an entirely different story. Knowing how to respond can save your life if one of these beasts sees you as dangerous.
To make things easy, this guide will cover grizzly bear attack prevention tactics, proper response techniques, and strategies for escaping unharmed. Read on to learn more about what you should do if you ever encounter an angry grizzly.
Grizzly Bear Identification Tips
First, ensure you know what type of bear you’re dealing with. Grizzly bears can be identified by their distinctive shoulder hump and long claws. Their claws can be up to four inches long, and the hump is a muscle that helps the bear dig. Their power also helps them slash prey.
Grizzly bears are much bigger than other bears. Adult males typically weigh between 300-800 pounds, while females are usually smaller in size, weighing between 200-450 pounds. Some adult males can even stand eight feet tall on their hind legs!
Where Do Grizzly Bears Live?
What are the chances of you running into a grizzly bear? Well, it depends on where you live. Grizzly bears live in Canada, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington. They may even be in parts of southern Colorado.
An estimated 55,000 grizzly bears live in North America and around 21,000 in Canada. So the chances of running into one are pretty slim. But if you plan to go hiking in the wilderness, bear safety should still be part of your outdoor preparation. Avoid areas where you know grizzlies have been spotted, and always carry bear spray with you.
How Common are Grizzly Bear Attacks?
Grizzly bear attacks on humans aren’t common, but they do happen. Roughly 44 grizzly bear attacks occur yearly, with eight fatal attacks occurring in North America between 2020-2022.
If you’re hiking in Washington, beware! Grizzly bear sightings are rising in northeast Washington’s Selkirk Mountains. There are also reports of grizzlies right by the Canadian border in northern Stevens and Ferry counties.
Wyoming Grizzly Bear Attack
An extraordinary act of bravery occurred near Yellowstone National Park when a college wrestler from Wyoming put himself in harm’s way to protect his teammate from a grizzly mauling. Brady Lowry and his teammate Kendall Cummings accidentally surprised a grizzly bear while walking through the Shoshone National Forest. The bear began attacking Lowry, and his teammate took action.
To save Lowry, Cummings yelled, kicked, pulled the bear’s fur, and hit it to distract it. Unfortunately, this made the grizzly angrier, and it began attacking Cummings instead. Miraculously the two escaped with their lives. Eventually, the bear realized they weren’t a threat and wandered off.
Montana Grizzly Bear Attacks
A terrifying encounter occurred near Glacier National Park when a nearly 700-pound grizzly bear charged out of the thick brush to attack a bird hunter. The 51-year-old man from Washington State was able to shoot the beast and escape with non-life-threatening injuries, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Another Montana attack took place when a predatory bear targeted a woman. Leah Davis was in her tent when a massive grizzly bear came to drag her out. After dragging her out of the tent, the 417-pound bear killed Leah after severely lacerating her head and neck. The bear didn’t feed on the victim but was still behaving in a predatory manner. This was likely a food-conditioned bear who had lost his fear of people.
Preventing Grizzly Bear Attacks: How to Stay Safe
Preventing an encounter with a grizzly is the best way to stay safe. If you know there are grizzlies in the area, take extra precautions. Here are some other tips.
- Stay on designated trails. Stick to well-used hiking trails. If you wander off, you increase the chance of startling a grizzly bear and triggering an attack.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid dense shrubs and bushes, as these can provide cover for bear cubs. Also, keep your eyes open for signs of recent bear activity, like tracks and scat.
- Make noise. Grizzly bears are very territorial and don’t like surprises. Let them know you’re coming by shouting, singing, or clapping your hands. Avoid using headphones while hiking, as this can impair your ability to hear approaching bears.
- Stay in groups. Never hike alone! Bears are more likely to attack if they perceive a person as vulnerable and alone. It’s always best not to wander alone in bear country, especially if the bears are hungry or trying to prepare for winter.
- Avoid hiking at dusk and dawn. Grizzlies are most active at dawn and dusk, so if you’re hiking in known grizzly territories, it’sessentialt to be especially cautious in early spring. That’s when they come out of hibernation, hungry and ready to forage after a long winter.
Lastly, be smart with your food. Never keep food inside your tent while camping in bear country. These creatures are surprisingly curious; they’re always interested in looking for snacks. Ensure all food is kept in bear-proof containers away from your sleeping area.
What to Do If You See a Grizzly Bear in the Wild
Bear attacks are rare, but if you see a grizzly in the wild, you should still give them plenty of space. Most of the time, bears will avoid humans, even massive grizzlies.
You’ll put yourself in the best position to stay safe by keeping your distance. The grizzly might not notice you; if they do, the distance can make you appear non-threatening. If you’re close to the grizzly bear, it’s an entirely different story.
Let’s say you’re walking down the hiking trail when suddenly a grizzly is blocking the path. You’re within 50 feet of the massive bear. How the grizzly behaves will tell you what to do next.
Grizzly Bear Body Language
Is the grizzly bear standing still? Good! That means the animal doesn’t perceive you as a threat yet. Back away slowly without making any sudden movements. Avoid making eye contact with the bear, and get as far away as possible.
Seeing a bear in the wild is one thing. Having one approach, you is another. The moment the grizzly takes an interest in you, escaping isn’t an option. Keep reading to learn how to respond once a grizzly starts coming your way.
What to Do When a Grizzly Bear Approaches
A grizzly bear is heading your way. Now what? Pick up any small children immediately. Remain calm. Don’t look the bear in the eyes or make any loud noises.
When a grizzly bear sees you and begins approaching, escaping is no longer an option. You’ll have to stand your ground and remain calm. Talk in a soft, monotone voice, and slowly wave your arms. This helps the bear know you’re human and not prey.
Avoid throwing anything at the grizzly; this will agitate them. Your best bet is to stand your ground and stay calm. The bear might be bluffing. If they start displaying defensive behavior like growling, continue standing your ground. Often, bears will bluff their way out of encounters, pretending like they’re going to attack and running at the last second.
If you were dealing with a black bear, you could try intimidating them. But you’re not dealing with a black bear; this is a grizzly! Don’t try to scare the grizzly away.
When a grizzly bear approaches you, stay calm, and wait it out. Keep talking in a monotone voice to remind the bear you’re human. There’s a good chance the bear will leave once it’s done making some noise. But if the grizzly bear attacks, it’s time to change your strategy.
How to Handle Predatory Bears
So far, we’ve been talking about encounters where you startle a grizzly. But what if the grizzly goes out of its way to come and find you? This would be an example of a predatory bear, a rare but terrifying situation.
Predatory bears are very different than surprised or defensive ones. Stalking predatory bears are in attack mode, so seek shelter in a car or building if possible. If there isn’t shelter nearby, prepare for a fight. Get your bear spray out, and get ready to use it.
Throw rocks and sticks at the bear, and look around for potential weapons. If the bear makes contact, use your fists and anything else you have.
Predatory attacks usually occur with black bears at night when they mistake humans for prey. However, the encounter can happen with a grizzly. No matter the species of a predatory bear attacking you, don’t stop fighting back.
What to Do When a Grizzly Bear Attacks: Play Dead
Play dead. That’s what you should do if a grizzly bear attacks. Making yourself as non-threatening as possible will increase the odds of the bear leaving you alone.
Here’s how to play dead:
- Leave your pack on.
- Lie flat on your stomach with your hands clasped at the back of your neck.
- Spread your legs apart, making it harder for the bear to turn you over.
- Remain still until the bear leaves the area.
The second the grizzly charges you, leave your pack on and play dead. If it’s not a predatory bear, the grizzly is charging because you’re a threat. Playing dead will help the bear realize you don’t pose any danger.
Never Run From a Grizzly Bear
It can be a terrifying experience to encounter one of these infamous predators. But whatever you do, never run from any bear. You won’t escape by running; you’ll make things worse. Running triggers their predator-prey instinct. This can make the bear even more aggressive, and you could end up in a deadly situation.
Bears are fast, especially when they’re charging prey. Grizzly bears have the quickest forelegs, reaching speeds up to 35 miles per hour. They’re marginally faster than the American black bear — the nation’s most prevalent bear species.
Does Bear Spray Work on a Grizzly?
Bear spray is one of the only effective weapons against a grizzly bear. But it would be best if you only used it as a last resort. For instance, use bear spray if the animal charges.
When shopping for bear spray, double-check the label. Does the label say the spray can stop or prevent attacks? Is it EPA-registered? What are the ingredients? These are all important things to look for. If you can’t find any of this information on the label, look for a better supplier.
Quality bear spray contains a minimum of 7.9 ounces of spray, with the ability to spray 25 feet in six seconds. The spray must also have 1-2% capsaicin to be effective. Don’t buy the cheapest spray; invest in a quality brand. That can of bear spray might save your life.
How to Use Bear Spray on a Charging Grizzly
The basics of using bear spray are simple. First, fire a warning shot when the bear is within 50 feet. Is the bear within 30 feet? Then fire off quick two-second blasts, one after another.
Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the canister for storage and disposal. The label will also include important information on using your specific type of bear spray.
Will a Gunshot Kill a Grizzly?
When dealing with a grizzly attack, reach for your bear spray, not your firearm. Bear spray is your best bet for getting out alive.
If you carry a gun and don’t have any other options, you can try to use it. Theoretically, a gun can kill a grizzly bear, but it will not be easy. When 600 pounds of angry bear is charging at you, making a kill shot can be near impossible.
You’d have to get your gun out instantly, aim accurately, and fire with perfect timing. Even if you hit it, the danger isn’t gone. It will take more than one bullet to kill a grizzly bear. It could take several rounds to bring such a large bear down.
Is the firearm your only option? Aim for the bear’s chest or upper head if you have to use a gun. The lungs and heart are also effective points. However, grizzlies tend to put their heads down when they charge, so chances are you won’t have a good shot.
Know How to Survive a Grizzly Bear Attack
Thinking about a grizzly bear attack is enough to send chills down your spine, but it’s important to remember that grizzlies don’t wake up in the morning looking for a fight. Bears don’t want to hurt humans, unless they think you’re a threat.
In an encounter with a grizzly bear, it’s essential to stay calm and not run away. Running could trigger the bear’s predator-prey instinct, making the situation worse than if you had remained still. It is possible to use bear spray as a last resort if the grizzly charges, provided it’s an EPA-registered spray with the right ingredients. And remember, firearms should be avoided unless you have no other option.
Playing dead or standing your ground could help you survive a grizzly bear attack, but it’s best to avoid confrontation altogether. Prepare yourself before venturing out into the wilderness. Along with following the tips in this article, check the local recommendations on bear activity and how to respond to an encounter. Find out what park officials in your area say about recent bear activity and the best preventative measures. Stay safe out there and happy hiking!
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.