Surviving a Black Bear: How to Prevent Encounters and Deter an Attack

by Jon D. B.

As potentially dangerous black bear sightings continue to rise, knowing how to successfully prevent an encounter – and deter an attack – can save your life.

Much has changed in 2020. For starters, the “new normal” of social distancing during a pandemic has many people returning to the outdoors – or visiting them for the first time. At the same time, protected species of bears are seeing their numbers increasing in populated areas. When you combine these two happenings, the likelihood of bear encounters increases dramatically.

Such is the case for hikers and campers, with black bear encounters rising drastically in 2020. Some have proven fatal. Most, thankfully, have only served as intense reminders that these wild animals are exactly that – wild. And unpredictable.

Black bears can – and do – kill people. Fatalities from native American black bears are rare, but any encounter holds the potential to be dangerous. As a result, knowing how to successfully navigate such an encounter – and prevent one entirely – can save your life.

Research ahead of time, especially in Spring & Fall

While black bears are the smallest of their kin in the U.S., the typical individual vastly outweighs any human. Some can weigh a whopping 700 pounds, and all are equipped with five two-inch claws on each paw. All of this suffices to say that no person, no matter how experienced, can hope to overpower a black bear in a one-on-one confrontation.

As such, preventative knowledge becomes an outdoorsman’s best weapon against wild encounters.

For starters, black bears are most active in fall when they’re in full-on feeding mode. Many find themselves in nature during this beautiful season due to the incredible colors on display. Fall is also, however, when black bears are feeding intensely to put on the pounds before winter hibernation. This can make them overly aggressive toward potential meals – which includes humans and their food.

Spring, too, sees an uptick in black bear activity. As nature comes out of its own hibernation, the bears are doing the same – and are very hungry. As a result, your chances of a black bear attack or encounter drastically increase during the season.

Ask your park’s rangers about local black bear sightings

An American black bear fishing for salmon (Photo credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In turn, if you’re planning to enjoy the outdoors during any season, know if you’re in bear territory. And if you are, the best thing you can do is ask a park ranger in the location you’re visiting if any black bears are in the area. If any aggressive bears have been spotted recently, it is best to put up camp (or hike) somewhere else. Rangers will always be more than happy to help accommodate this.

The prior holds true especially during the spring, when mother bears are birthing and rearing cubs. Mother bears, of all animals, are overly protective of their young. The majority of attacks are due to people coming too close to cubs, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time near a mother bear.

Starting by researching each locale you plan to visit online is a great preventative measure, too. Some parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Appalachian mountains, are black bear hotspots.

Control all waste – especially foods

As with any predatory wild animal, avoiding an encounter in the first place is the best case scenario. By principle, however, wild animals are unpredictable. While this makes any “fool proof” planning impossible, one big rule of thumb will drastically decrease your chances of attracting a black bear.

For these notoriously curious bears, food is the name of the game. For campers, especially, this causes all sorts of trouble.

If you’re going to be eating at your campsite, never leave food – food wrappers – scraps – or food waste in the wild. Don’t even chance it by throwing a bit of uneaten anything around your campsite. This means no apple cores, no banana peels, and never meat scraps or grease.

The same goes for any pans or dishes used to consume food, too. And if you’ve had meat drip grease onto a fire or grill, scrub it clean, then douse it with soil from nearby ground to mask any scent. Once everything is spick & span, disposing of waste at least 200 feet from your campsite is recommended by the U.S. National Parks Service.

The most effective way to accomplish this? Bear-bagging (continued on Page 2)