Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Okay, maybe just bears.

Having spent the last month in Yosemite and Denali National Parks, I certainly have learned plenty about bears, which are actually common in most of the United States. (Check out The National Park Service interactive bear map.)

Whether you are a weekend car camper, solo backcountry enthusiast, or anything in between, it is good to have a basic knowledge of bear safety.

Preventing Bear Interactions
The best way to prevent a bear mishap is to avoid them completely. In most cases this can be done with some simple prevention techniques.

  • Bears will avoid humans if they can, so hike loudly by singing, talking, and hiking in groups. This will let them know you are coming. You never want to surprise a bear.
  • Stay away from bear food like berry bushes and other dead animals.
  • Leave pets at home – pets and bears are not friends.
  • If you do see a bear, keep your distance (at least 300 yards, or 3 football fields). Bears can run over 35mph so do not intentionally get any closer.
  • Store your food and waste properly in bear boxes, bear canisters, hung from trees, or in bear proof waste disposals.  Sometimes storage in your car is appropriate but in some areas like Yosemite bears have been known to break into cars. Check local information.
  • Store any clothes you wore while cooking and other scented items (toiletries, sunscreen, baby wipes, canned items, items used for meal prep, etc.) in bear proof containers

What to if you Encounter a Bear
Despite your efforts, you have encountered a bear and it notices you as well. What should you do?

The advice is the same for any type of bear:

  • Make it clear you are a human. Wave your arms around and speak calmly in low tones. Don’t scream or move suddenly as this may be seen as a threat.
  • Pick up small children (and pets)
  • Stay in your group and make yourselves appear large! Wave trekking poles around, shake a nearby tent if there is one or get to higher ground.
  • Leave your pack on. It makes you appear larger, prevents access to your food, and may protect your head and neck in the event of an attack.
  • Do not run. Back away or move off to the side slowly while keeping an eye on the bear. If it follows, hold your ground. Bears can also climb trees and swim so don’t do that either.
  • Do not corner the bear and do not get between a mother and her cubs.

Bear Attack
Bear attacks are rare but they do happen. Bears generally attack to protect food, territory, or their cubs.

This is where the advice differs depending on the type of bear. See the picture below to help you identify different bear species. Remember: black bears are not always black and can range in color from blonde to black.

  • Bear spray: If you have it, use it. I won’t detail bear spray techniques (see bear spray guidelines) but if you have bear spray you should review them. Always have your bear spray accessible on your waist belt, not buried in your pack.
  • Grizzly/Brown bears: Play dead. Lie on your stomach and cover your head and neck. However, if the attack progresses to scratching or biting, start fighting back by hitting the bear in the face with anything.
  • Black bears: Do NOT play dead. Escape to a safe area or fight back, again aiming for the face.

Seeing a bear can be a beautiful experience but they are powerful animals and should be treated with great respect. Humans have been sharing territory with bears for many years and encounters are bound to happen. Do your best to be prepared and knowledgeable when in bear country. Much of this information is available in an excellent video by Denali National Park and Preserve which is a great refresher any time you are in bear territory. (Scroll down  to Chapter 5 of the Video.)


Images from the Center for Wildlife information, which has excellent information and outreach programs.


Looking to be better prepared for wilderness adventures?  AWLS offers online wilderness medical courses on topics including dive medicine, ebola, mosquito borne illnesses,  lightning and ticks.  Medical professionals receive CME credit for these courses, but you don’t have to be a medical professional to take the courses.

Medical professionals can also take our one-week hands-on Wilderness Medicine CME courses at locations around the globe.  Check them out, and invite a friend.


Alana Hawley, M.D.
Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, University of Utah
PGY-5 Emergency Medicine, McMaster University