Surviving a Grizzly Bear Confrontation
All of the information on the previous page should
help hikers, whether hiking alone or in a group, avoid most unpleasant
bear confrontations. However, from time to time, even large groups come
across grizzly bears right on the trail. What to do when you come across
a grizzly bear when hiking in Glacier National Park is covered in this
section. It is worth noting that bears are wild creatures and thus do
not behave predictably. While the tactics below should work for most
bear encounters, they won't always work!
Never Run Away
First, and by far the most important, is to never, ever run
away from a grizzly bear. Period. If you happen across a grizzly
bear on a hiking trail, turn your back on it and start running away
like a track star, you will only be inviting trouble to follow. By
running away, you will almost certainly trigger the grizzly bears chase
response. Moreover, running away is a useless gesture anyway. At best,
you can probably run no more than 15 miles per hour, far less if uphill
or through brush or when wearing a pack. A grizzly bear can hit speeds
of 40 miles per hour. Thus, no matter how hard you run, a grizzly bear
can out-run you and will most likely catch you before you get a hundred
feet. Thus, never run away from a grizzly bear. Doing so only invites
trouble to follow.
Measure the Mood of the Grizzly Bear
Attempt to measure the grizzly bears mood. By this I mean notice how
the bear looks and how it reacts to your presence. Does the bear have
its' ears laid back - sort of like an upset dog? If so, then you have
an aggressive and angry bear on your hands, which is not good news. On
the other hand, does the bear stand up on its' rear legs or perk its'
ears up? If so, that is good news, as you only have a curious bear on
your hands. Noticing the grizzly bears mood is very important as it goes
along way in determining how to react.
Curious Grizzly Bears
For curious grizzly bears, what has worked for me on two occasions is
to do nothing at all. By this, I mean don't approach the bear, but don't
run away or even back away from it. Instead, just stand there and see
what the bear does, doing your best to show absolutely no fear at all.
Most likely, the bear will do one of two things - it will either ignore
you or it will go away - at least getting off the trail.
It seems less than logical to not back slowly away from a curious grizzly
bear. However, I had an experience that made the "back away slowly" approach
work less than spectacularly. While hiking the Numa Lookout Trail, near Bowman
Lake, I came across a grizzly bear about 30 yards away. The bear
noticed me at the same time I noticed it. I just stood there while the
bear curiously looked me over. The grizzly bear than slowly began to
make its way off the trail, satisfied that I posed it no threat. I then
made the mistake of backing away from the grizzly bear, on the assumption
that I should give the bear more "space". And guess what? The
grizzly bear got back on the trail and began to follow! As I continued
to back away, the bear continued to follow, keeping an equal distance
between us. After a hundred yards of this, I had enough. I stopped backing
away, held my place on the trail, and started talking to the grizzly
bear like a long lost friend. Almost immediately, the grizzly bear immediately
vacated the trail. I stood there till the bear got about 30 yards off
the trail and then continued on my way.
Looking back on this incident, I suspect this is what happened. The
grizzly bear saw I posed no threat, so it went back to doing what it
was doing. When I started backing away, it aroused the curiosity in the
bear - it probably was wondering why I was backing away since it made
no aggressive movements towards me (after all, this bear was curious,
not aggressive). So, the bear decided to follow to see what was up. When
I stopped in the trail and started talking to it, it must have satisfied
its curiosity and decided to go about its business. This incident could
also have ended much differently. I believe that if I would have continued
backing up, or would have played dead, climbed a tree or ran away, the
bears instinct to investigate further or to give chase may have been
triggered, leading to an ugly confrontation.
Charging Grizzly Bears
All of this is fine and good for curious grizzly bears. However, what
do you do if you have an aggressive grizzly bear on your hands? You'll
know if you have an aggressive bear on your hands if it has its ears
laid back or if it starts chomping its jaws. For aggressive bears, it
is highly recommended by most people who study bears to gradually back
away from the bear. Holding your ground against an aggressive grizzly
bear, at least before it decides to charge, is probably a good way to
invite a charge. After all, the bear is aggressive. If you decide to
hold your ground the grizzly bear may consider that a challenge and charge.
Thus, when confronted by an aggressive grizzly bear, attempt to slowly
retreat away, never turning your back to the bear and also avoiding eye
contact if possible.
Generally, the back away approach usually works for aggressive bears.
However, from time to time, the grizzly bear may decide to charge anyway.
Having first hand experience, I can tell you that seeing a very large
grizzly bear storming at you is not a real pleasant sensation - although
you won't soon forget it! There are a number of things you can do. Which
one you do really depends on your personality, your surroundings and
how far away the grizzly bear is. Here are several methods you can use
to thwart a charging grizzly bear.
First, drop something, not food, on the trail between
you and your charging grizzly bear. Frequently, the grizzly bear will
stop to investigate what you just dropped on the trail.
A second method is to just drop and play dead. This sound easier
than it really is. Unlike in cartoons, grizzly bears usually do much
more than just sniff you when playing dead. It is quite common for them
to pick you up, turn you over as well as bite you. It takes a lot of
courage to remain perfectly motionless and quiet when a grizzly bear
is handling you in a physical and painful way. However, many people have
survived grizzly bear charges this way so it is a method that is time
A third method is to hold your ground. Many if not most grizzly
bear charges are bluff charges. They are charging you to get you to run
away or to get you to react. By holding your ground and hiding all fear,
the grizzly bear is likely to stop their charge - sometimes just a few
However, just because they stop their charge and retreat does not mean
the confrontation is over. It is common for grizzly bears to charge a
person two or more times before the grizzly bear becomes satisfied that
you pose no threat to it and that the grizzly bear can't get you to react
in a way that the bear wants. Holding your ground against a charging
grizzly bear is not any easier than playing dead. However, if you don't
want to experience the sensation of a grizzly bear sniffing you over
(which is what would happen if you played dead), holding your ground
is a good method to use.
A fourth method is to climb a tree. Problem is, of course, is
that just the right tree needs to be handy nearby and within easy reach.
You're likely to have just seconds to find a tree and get up at least
fifteen feet in it before a charging grizzly bear is upon you. There
have been many cases of charging grizzly bears dragging down people from
trees. If you can't climb trees well or if there is no suitable tree
nearby, this is not an option.
A fifth method that I've heard about to is to simply get off
the trail. Many times the grizzly bear is not entirely upset at you as
much as that you are on the trail. By getting a couple of feet off the
trail, the grizzly bear may just pass you buy. If you do this method,
though, make sure you either decide to hold your ground or play dead.
Weapons against Bears
There are two primary weapons people use against charging grizzly bears.
The first weapon, which is not allowed in Glacier National Park, are
of course guns. I know very little about guns, but do know that most
side arms are completely useless against a charging grizzly bear unless
you hit them in specific spots. If you do not have excellent aim with
a gun or will not be able to calmly aim and fire a gun against a charging
bear, than a side arm may not be a wise choice of a weapon - although
the noise a gun makes will frequently deter a grizzly bear. As one person
in the forum on this site said about actually shooting bears with a handgun...use
5 shots on the bear and save the sixth for yourself since the bear will
The second weapon, and one which is very common in Glacier National
Park, is bear spray. Bear spray is essentially a much larger and more
potent mix of the pepper spray that police officers use. The goal with
bear spray is to spray it at a charging bear, hitting them in the face.
The pain the bear spray causes generally suffices to halt a charging
grizzly bear in its tracks - usually. There are many stories of people
surviving charging bears by unloading pepper spray on them.
However, bear spray does have some limitations due to weather conditions.
While the bear spray does come out of the bottle very quickly (it is
highly compressed) and has a spray range of about 20 feet in normal weather
conditions, if you have a strong head wind (like 40 mph), most of the
bear spray will end up back in your face and not on the grizzly bear.
Having bear spray get on your face and into your eyes is a very painful
event - one you won't soon forget. Thus, before firing bear spray, first
notice if you have a strong headwind. Also be sure to close your eyes
right after your fire it to avoid having the bear spray getting in your
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