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How to handle bear encounters in the wild: A simple guide

Sure, you're better off avoiding a bear attack, but you need to know what to do if it does happen

If it’s brown, lie down. If it’s black, fight back. It’s up there with phrases like ‘beer before liquor, never sicker,’ and the evergreen ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow,’ though perhaps only for those who have grown up in bear country.  But is there any truth in those wise words?

Being from the UK, you might think I have no authority on this matter. The most dangerous thing we see on the trail is a curious cow. So when I moved to British Columbia just before Covid changed the world, I spent hours scouring the internet and quizzing the locals so I could be as ready as possible for meeting my first bear on the trail. Here’s what I learned.

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Why do bears attack?

Let’s start with the reality. Most bears don’t attack. More than that, though, most bears don’t want to attack. In fact, the only bears that are known to hunt humans actively are polar bears, and they aren’t even on this list. Brown bears generally attack if they feel threatened. Black bears may be on the prowl for some food, or may just be feeling like you’re encroaching on their territory.

Once you know this, the saying starts to make some sense. If brown bears see you as a threat, taking away that threat will reduce the likelihood that they want to fight you off. With a black bear, you’re trying to prove to it that you’re not an easy meal or give them the incentive to flee, rather than fight.

An inquisitive black bear plods through a new growth of trees.

What should you do if a bear attacks?

The four f’s of survival and evolution. Fight, flee, feed, and… in fact, we’ll leave it at three. Bears want one of these, and we can respond in turn with our own three Fs — fight, flight, or freeze.

If it’s brown, lay down? Well, realistically, you aren’t about to outrun a brown bear, nor will you manage to fight it off if it decides to go for you. Your best bet, then, is to take away the threat and let it think you’re already dead. Most advice follows a rough pattern of ‘lay down in a ball with your hands on the back of your neck and your chin tucked into your chest.’ This helps to protect your vital organs if the bear does attack, or decides to test your ‘playing dead’ capabilities a little. If you have a backpack, don’t throw it away, it can help to protect your back. Remember, just because you think the bear is gone, don’t get up straight away. Stay down until you’re certain.

If it’s black, fight back? Again, good advice on the whole. Black bears run at high speeds and climb trees far better than we ever could, so you won’t escape them up there. Stand up tall, wave your arms, shout and curse at the bear, and it should get the message. Be sure to give it plenty of space to escape, though, otherwise, you’re just cornering a bear and swearing at it, which only ends one way. If you do find that it keeps coming at you, you might have to grab a stick and fight it off, or as a last resort, raise those fists.

In both instances, you’re far better off trying to avoid a bear attack altogether. Make noise on the trail, don’t leave food out overnight, and be aware of your surroundings, and you are less likely to startle a bear into attacking. Keep bear spray close at hand and know how to use it to fend off a bear before a charge becomes an attack.

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