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What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike

What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike

A walk in nature is one of the best ways to brighten your mood, relieve stress, and enjoy the great outdoors. We share this wonderful thing called nature with tons of other animals. Some are small and cute, and others, like black bears, are large and intimidating.

If you see a black bear on a hike, remain calm and assess the situation. If the bear has noticed you, talk calmly and slowly back away. If the bear hasn’t seen you, back away quietly. If a black bear charges, stand your ground and fight back.

Seeing a black bear on a hike can be an exciting time, but it’s also stressful. Knowing how to react if you encounter a black bear while hiking can make it safer for you and the bear.

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How To Identify Black Bears

What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike. How to identify a black bear.

It may seem obvious – black bears are black, right? Surprisingly, black bears commonly have brown coats and are confused with grizzly bears (brown bears).

Here are some tell-tale differences between black and brown (grizzly) bears:

  • Size: Grizzly bears are larger than black bears. Adult grizzlies typically weigh between 400 and 900 pounds, depending on the sex. Black bears weigh between 150 and 500 pounds on average.
  • Ears: Black bears have more prominent ears than grizzly bears. The ears of a brown bear are typically smaller and more rounded.
  • Hump: Grizzlies are well known for having a prominent hump on their shoulders, which is lacking in black bears.
  • Claws: Grizzly bears and black bears use their nails for different reasons. Black bear claws are shorter, which is better for climbing. Brown bear claws are more extended, which is better for digging in the soil for potential snacks.

In the United States, black and brown (grizzly) bear territories overlap in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, and southern Colorado. 

In these areas, it’s essential to tell the difference between black bears and brown bears. How to react to a black bear is not the same as a grizzly bear. Learn more about interacting with grizzly bears while hiking.

Here’s Where You’re Most Likely To See A Black Bear

Black bear outside our AirBnB in Tennessee
A black bear outside of our house in Tennessee!

There are three bear species in North America – black, brown, and polar bears. Of the three species, you’re most likely to run into a black bear because they are the most widely distributed bear in North America.

Black bear habitat covers much of the United States and Canada. According to Baylor University, black bears are found in 42 of the 51 U.S. states. The only states where you won’t find black bears are Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota.

Even in the states with no black bear populations, there’s always the chance of crossing paths with a straggler who has left the den searching for new territory.

Basically, nowhere is genuinely bear-free, so it’s best to be prepared no matter where you’re hiking. Below, we’ll review some of the more common areas where you’ll see bears.

Black Bears Follow The Food

It shouldn’t be surprising that these chunky animals go where the food is. Black bears are more likely to be found around a food source than simply walking through the woods.

The areas where black bears forage will depend on the season:

  • Spring: Black bears emerge from their dens in the spring and immediately seek food to replenish all their lost body weight. Keep an eye out in wetlands and areas with early spring blooms, such as dandelion patches and forbs.
  • Summer: Summer is a time of plentiful food for black bears. They will mostly hang out in berry patches and search for insects in old logs and beneath the soil. They’ll also consume whatever animals they can easily find and catch.
  • Fall: Black bears are most likely found in berry patches in the fall. Berries contain around 3-7% protein, which helps black bears store muscle and fat for winter.
  • Winter: In the winter, black bears hibernate in dens for varying amounts of time, depending on the bear’s location. During this time, they do not eat anything, and you are unlikely to run into them on a hike.

For a long time, scientists did not think black bears hibernated but went into a state of torpor. Recent research suggests that black bears do indeed hibernate fully during the wintertime. However, their body temperature remains slightly raised so they can react quickly if an enemy approaches their den in the winter.

Black bear outside our house in Colorado.
Black bear walking through our neighbors house in Colorado.

You May Encounter Black Bears On Trails

There’s a reason why so many animals are captured on trail cams. Animals tend to use the path of least resistance to find food and mates. Manmade trails are the perfect highway system for wild animals.

While hiking in the woods, be aware that you might share the trail with a black bear. These animals aren’t small, so it’s typically easy to hear them before seeing them. However, if they are stationary, you may come close to them without realizing they are there.

The best way to know if black bears are near the trail is to look for tracks. Black bear tracks are difficult to mistake for other animals. They are around 4-7 inches long and 3-4 inches wide, typically leaving deep claw marks in the dirt. Determine if the tracks are fresh or old to determine if a black bear is nearby.

By the way, hiking alone can make the thought of a black bear encounter even more intimidating and daunting. We have some great tips on how to hike alone safely here!

Black Bears use Logging Roads

Similar to how black bears will use human-made hiking trails, they will also use old logging roads to get around.

If your hike takes you along logging roads or you are using them for ATV trails, be aware that black bears also use them. The same goes for old game trails.

You Can Encounter Black Bears Near Water Sources

Water is a critical resource for black bears. It provides fresh drinking water, and black bears use water to regulate their body temperature.

When humans get hot, we sweat. As the sweat evaporates, it cools our bodies down. Black bears cannot sweat and must either pant or use water sources to cool their body down. And we’ve all seen how chonky these teddies can get, so of course, they need to cool down!

According to an article in the Ursus Journal, black bear activity in water peaks at the end of summer. This is when you are most likely to encounter a black bear near a water source, but it’s always good to stay vigilant anytime the weather is warm.

Black bears are not the only animal you might see while exploring. You can read more about what to do if you encounter a Moose, Grizzly Bear, Mountain Lion, Wolves, Bob Cat, Alligator, Wild Boars, Snake, skunk, or Coyote! Be prepared for every encounter.

Will A Black Bear Attack You?

There’s a lot of information out there about black bear encounters, but most of the “well-known” data isn’t accurate.

For example, many people say the most dangerous black bears are mothers with cubs, but according to an article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, between the years 1900 to 2009, 92% of fatal black bear attacks were done by male bears. So, are bears dangerous?

In the United States, fatal black bear attacks happen about once every three years. If Canada is included in the statistics, that number jumps to about one every two years. The point is you’re far more likely to have a fatal encounter with a spider, snake, bee, or lightning than a black bear. 

Let’s look at some scenarios that make it more likely that a black bear will pay attention to you and possibly try to attack you.

Black Bears May Lash Out If Startled

One of the worst scenarios you can be in with a black bear is to come upon one and startle it. There’s a reason why many national park rangers recommend putting bells on your dog in bear country.

If you notice a bear and it hasn’t seen you, your best bet is to back away slowly and quietly. Do not try to continue forward. If the bear is startled, it may lash out from fear rather than wanting to cause you harm.

Food Motivates Black Bears To Get Close

Let’s be honest, food is a good motivator for anyone, including black bears! These beasties may come closer than what’s comfortable if they smell food and their regular food sources are scarce. 

Here are a few tips to avoid luring black bears with your food:

  • If backpacking, hang your bear bag out of reach of any black bears or use a bear canister.
  • Do not leave food or toiletries out where black bears can access them.
  • Do not cook food over a campfire if it can spill into the fire.
  • Never keep food or scented toiletries inside your tent or car.
  • Dispose of all cooking grease and scraps 100 yards downwind of your camp.
  • Be extra vigilant while traveling through berry patches or other bear food sources.

Bear bags are a great way to keep your food out of reach of any hungry black bears. Ursack’s Major XL Bear Sack comes in 15-liter and 30-liter sizes. 

Another option is to use a bear canister such as the BearVault BV500 Journey Bear Canister. The bear canisters’ smooth and slick surface makes it difficult for bears to get their jaws and paws around it. This baby can hold 11.5 liters worth of gear and weighs 2 lbs, 8 ounces.

These items are a great addition to any hiking bag, especially if you plan to hike overnight. If you’re only going for a day hike, you can read about what to pack in your hiking bag to ensure you have everything you need.

Most Black Bear Attacks Are Predatory

If you see a black bear and it’s doing its everyday black bear things – trudging around, sniffing things, and eating berries – there are usually no problems. When bears hunker down, get quiet, and start following you, it’s time to raise the alarm.

According to the same Journal of Wildlife Management discussed above, 88% of fatal black bear attacks occurred by bears that were acting predatory. In other words, the black bears were actively hunting the person as opposed to protecting their cubs or defending themselves.

If you notice a black bear is following you and trying to act quiet while following, this is a cause for concern and possibly the most dangerous black bear encounter situation.

What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike

What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike

Like most wild animals, black bears aren’t out to get you. They just want to be left alone to do their bear things, eat food, and sleep. Who else can relate?

If you see a black bear on a hike, there’s no reason to panic and think that the bear will automatically attack you. The black bear will likely scurry off on its own once it sees you.

Let’s review a few scenarios of black bear encounters and discuss what to do in each situation.

You See The Bear, But The Bear Doesn’t See You

This may sound like the preferred way to see a black bear, but it can get a little hairy if you’re too close to the bear and it gets startled.

If you see a black bear but it hasn’t noticed you yet, back away from the bear, making as little noise as possible. If you can, retreat to your vehicle or a safe place. It’s never recommended to try to ‘sneak’ past a bear. 

You See The Bear, And The Bear Sees You

A black bear will usually hear or smell you long before you notice it. A black bear’s sense of smell is its most powerful sense, followed by its hearing. They don’t rely on their vision anywhere near as much as humans do.

If you’re hiking along and notice a black bear and it has seen you, this is probably the best-case scenario. Healthy black bears will most likely skedaddle in this situation. 

Your job is to simply back away from the bear in a non-threatening way and retreat to your vehicle or a safe place.

Sometimes, even if the bear has noticed you, it may not run away. This isn’t a cause for concern. Black bears are curious animals and may want to get a closer look at you to assess if you’re something to be afraid of.

If a black bear starts smelling the air or slowly approaching you, try to talk calmly and back away from the bear. You can say things like “hey bear” or “hey buddy” as you back out. This will let the bear know that you aren’t a threat.

Black Bears That Act Aggressively Might Just Be Scared

Sometimes what appears to be aggressive black bear behavior is just the bear’s way of saying, ‘hey, you’re getting too close.’ In these situations, it’s essential to remain calm to avoid escalating the situation.

If you see any of the below behaviors, just know that these are signs that a black bear feels threatened:

  • Lowering the head
  • Ears pinned back
  • Swaying back and forth
  • Huffing or other vocalizations
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Swiping at a tree
  • Climbing up a tree

When a black bear shows these signs, you should speak calmly and leave the area by backing away. Never run from a black bear. You can use ‘hey bear’ or ‘hey buddy’ to speak to the bear.

We suggest talking calmly because you don’t want to startle the bear or make sudden moves or sounds. It’s better to appear calm than aggressive when dealing with a black bear (under most circumstances).

Another vital thing to think about is giving the bear an escape route. If the bear feels cornered or threatened, it may escalate the situation into a full-blown attack.

Fight Back If The Bear Approaches Or Stalks You

In a worst-case scenario, you may have to yell, throw things, and even fight back when a bear approaches or attacks.

Bears that attack humans usually only do so for three reasons:

  • They are starving and can’t find their regular food sources
  • They see you as a threat that needs to be dealt with
  • More rarely, a mother black bear may attack to protect her cubs.

If a black bear shows signs of trying to pursue you while staying out of sight, they are scoping you out as a potential meal. In this situation, standing your ground, appearing as big as possible, yelling, and making noise with whatever you have on hand is vital. 

Do not play dead with a black bear. If it comes down to it, protect your face and try to hit the black bear in the snout.

Bear spray is an excellent way to protect yourself against black bears in the rare cases where they attack. Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray comes in two sizes – 8.1-ounce and 10.2-ounce. The significant difference between the two is the spray distance and length of time you can spray it.

Read all directions carefully before you go on your hike. There’s nothing worse than being in a black bear attack and having to take the time to read the directions.

What To Do If You See A Black Bear On A Hike

What To Do If You Encounter A Bear With Your Dog

We all love our four-legged pals and hate leaving them at home. If you bring your dog on your hike and encounter a black bear, you must keep your dog under control. Never let your dog run after or interact with a black bear.

In most cases, black bears will run from dogs. However, in certain situations, black bears may attack an off-leash dog. If a black bear attacks your dog, try using bear spray if possible. Wave your hands, make loud noises, yell at the bear, and throw things.

You want to do everything you can to make the black bear run away and leave your precious pet alone. Packing your hiking bag correctly when you hike with your dog is just one way to protect your pet from danger on a hike – you can read all about what to bring on a hike with your dog here!

Bringing It All Together

Bears are feared by some and loved by others. These trundling mammals are found in many places in the United States, with only a few exceptions. Knowing how to handle a black bear encounter can save a life, so be prepared and be bear aware!

To recap, there are a few things to do if you see a black bear on a hike:

  • Remain calm
  • Say ‘hey bear’ in a quiet voice
  • Back away slowly from the bear
  • Never run from a black bear
  • Do not turn your back on the bear
  • Never give a black bear food
  • Fight back if the black bear makes contact
  • Make yourself appear as big as possible if a black bear charges or approaches
  • Use bear spray when necessary

Most national parks and state parks will have notices up when bears are around, so keep an eye out for signs at the trailhead. If you have a black bear encounter, report it to the national park service or to a local wildlife office.

We hope our bear safety tips help you on your next hike! Remember, keep the mindset that black bears aren’t out to harm you. They mostly just want to be left alone to enjoy nature as much as we do.


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