Never Do This If You See a Bear, Experts Say
Avoid this one mistake if you ever find yourself in a close encounter with wildlife.
Spending time in the great outdoors has almost limitless perks. Whether you're taking a days-long hike through a National Park or just getting in a quick afternoon stroll, it's the perfect way to step away from the distractions of everyday life and reconnect with nature. It can also mean enjoying breathtaking scenery or even potentially spotting some wildlife. But while it's one thing to indulge in some birdwatching, being in nature also comes with the risk of coming in contact with larger, more dangerous predators, which you'll want to steer clear of as much as possible. And if you happen to come across a bear in the wild, experts say there's one thing you should never do in response. Read on to see which mistake you'll want to avoid during an encounter.
Take these precautions to avoid running into a bear in the first place.
A close brush with a bear is not the sort of experience you want on a hike. But as with shark attacks, the fear of a fatal encounter with one may be greater than the actual real-life risk. According to a study published in Scientific Reports in 2019, there were 664 attacks by bears on humans worldwide from 2000 to 2015, with 183 taking place in North America. And according to the National Park Service (NPS), there have only been two grizzly bear-caused human injuries in developed areas of Yellowstone National Park since 1980—which averages to about one every 20 years—and 34 injuries in the backcountry, averaging about one per year. In total, the park has recorded eight deaths from encounters with the mammal since 1872, compared with 121 drownings, 21 deaths related to burns after falling into hot springs, seven from falling trees, six by an avalanche, and five related to lightning strikes.
The NPS says that one of the best ways to avoid coming across a bear in the first place is to hike in larger groups. Since more people are noisier and smellier than a solo trekker, it's more likely any bear will be alerted to your presence well before your crew stumbles upon it. Bears may also be more intimidated by the number of people you have with you, making them less likely to escalate an accidental confrontation. But no matter the size of your group, experts warn it's still best to keep your distance from any bears or other animals you may come across.
"Never approach wildlife under any circumstances," Charles van Rees, PhD, conservation scientist and naturalist at the University of Georgia, tells Best Life. "Wild animals are wild animals and should be left alone. This protects both people and animals. Getting closer to a potentially dangerous or aggressive animal will only make it feel more threatened and increase the likelihood of aggression."
But if you happen to find yourself in a close encounter with a bear, there's still one way to increase your chances of walking away unscathed.
Experts say you should avoid doing one thing if you see a bear in the wild.
Coming across anything dangerous usually triggers a response in people to run away from it as fast as possible. But while this may keep you safe in specific scenarios, it's one of the worst ways you can react in a bear encounter.
"If you find yourself in a situation where you are unexpectedly close to any dangerous predator or large wild animal like a bear, you should always make sure that you can see it clearly, and not turn away," warns van Rees. "Turning away may also encourage an attack or an approach by an animal that is feeling aggressive or threatened."
In part, this has to do with a bear's natural instincts. "Running away from predatory animals will make them much more prone to give chase, even if they weren't planning on doing so," explains van Rees. "While you absolutely want to distance yourself from large wildlife of any kind for both your and the animal's safety, you don't want to do it quickly. This might alarm the animal or trigger an attack."
While you shouldn't hightail it from the scene, there are a few things you can do to deescalate the situation. "Talk in a low, calm voice and slowly back away from the bear," Natasha Nanji, a veterinary technician and outdoor hiking blogger at WheresNatasha.com, tells Best Life. "Bears can view direct eye contact as a challenge, which could possibly trigger an attack. Keep your eyes low or slightly off the bear as you slowly back away from it."
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You should also avoid using this popular distraction tactic.
As apex predators, bears are almost always looking for their next meal. Unfortunately, humans can inadvertently attract them with the smelly foods they tote along with them on the trail and into their campsites. And even if you think ditching the contents of your lunchbox will keep you safe in the heat of the moment, you could be putting yourself in greater danger.
"I have heard people say that they would drop food on the ground to distract a bear and give themselves time to escape, and nothing could be a worse idea. While this might seem intuitively appealing, it is likely to make matters much worse," van Reese tells Best Life.
"Bears especially are extremely calorie-driven and will seek out any food source they can find. If one scares you and gets a food reward for it, it will learn that behavior," he explains. "Secondly, there's no way anyone has enough food on their person to satisfy a bear. Whatever you drop will not keep the bear busy long, and it will be twice as excited to follow you and get some more."
The act could also lead to needlessly tragic consequences. "Never feed wild animals, especially predators. Having them associate people with food puts other people in danger from attacks, and means that the animal is more likely to be killed by wildlife management," van Rees says.
If you're looking to get away safely, don't look up for the solution.
Coming upon a bear on a trail in the woods is a situation that leaves you with very few escape options. In many cases, it might seem like the only solution to get out of a bear's way is to flee up a tree. But according to van Rees, this option may only end up leaving you high and dry.
"Although very large bears like grizzlies are less known for their climbing abilities, they're still capable of doing it quickly," he explains. "Any tree that is too thin or weak for them to climb, a grizzly can probably push down. Black bears, meanwhile, can climb more quickly and effectively than a person of similar weight. Our primate ancestry doesn't give us any advantages here."