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

A Grizzly Bear On A Hike

Spotting a grizzly bear on a hike can be an adrenaline-filled moment. As you think about handling the situation, a million things run through your head. So, what should you do if you see a grizzly bear on a hike?

If you see a grizzly bear on a hike, remain calm and assess the situation. If the grizzly hasn’t seen you, slowly back away and leave the area. If the grizzly has seen you, speak calmly and back away. If a grizzly attacks, keep your pack on, lay on your stomach, and play dead.

Knowing how to react to grizzly bears and understanding their body language can make the difference between a peaceful and aggressive encounter. Below, we’ll review what to do if you see a grizzly bear on a hike.

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How To Identify Grizzly Bears

One of the most critical steps when encountering a bear is to identify which bear you are dealing with. 

Many actions you will take if you encounter a bear are the same for black and grizzly bears. However, in the rare event of an attack, your reactions will differ depending on the bear type.

There are three bear species in North America – the black, brown (grizzly), and polar bear. Black bears are the most widespread bear species, followed by grizzly bears. Polar bears are only in Alaska and Canada.

A Grizzly Bear On A Hike

In the United States, black and brown (grizzly) bear territories overlap in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, and southern Colorado. Identifying a black from a brown bear is super essential in these areas.

Here are some of the most obvious differences between black and grizzly bears:

  • Size: Grizzly bears are much larger than black bears. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the average grizzly bear weighs between 400 and 600 pounds, while the average black bear weighs 100 to 300 pounds.
  • Face: When looking at a grizzly bear from a sideways profile, its face appears concave or dish-shaped between the ears and snout. A black bear’s face will be straight.
  • Ears: Grizzly bear ears are short and rounded, while black bear’s ears are more pointed and sit taller on their head.
  • Hump: Grizzly bears are known for having a prominent hump between their shoulders. This hump is missing in black bears.
  • Claws: Grizzlies and black bears use their claws for different reasons. Whereas black bears use their nails more for climbing, grizzlies use theirs for digging. Grizzly claws are more extended than black bears, but if you’re close enough to notice this, you have some other problems on your hand!

Despite the name ‘black bear,’ the color of a black bear’s fur can be tinged brown. In these instances, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear, so use the information above to ensure you are dealing with a grizzly bear.

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

Grizzly bears used to roam all of the western states. Their historic range reached east of Missouri and stretched to the west coast. Only 2% of this range is still occupied by grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears are only found in small pockets in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington State. Grizzlies also live in Alaska and western and northern Canada.

After their first full year staying with their mother, cubs will disperse from their dens to find new territory. So, while this is the current range of grizzly bears, there’s always the chance of a dispersing grizzly finding its way into new territory.

In other words, even if you’re not in grizzly bear territory, if you’re near grizzly territory, be aware that there may be a dispersing grizzly in the area.

Now that we know which states have grizzly bears, let’s talk specifically about where you might encounter one of these massive teddies on a hike.

Grizzly Bears Love Food

Who doesn’t? Grizzly bears are chonky creatures that need a sustainable food source to survive. Grizzly bears won’t travel too far from a food source and are likelier to be in an area with plentiful food.

Grizzly bears are surprisingly versatile in their diet. They eat whatever is available and have no qualms about switching their food source from animal meat to plant matter. 

Despite being such a large carnivore, grizzly bears rely heavily on berries, grasses, sedges, nuts, and insects as food sources. Depending on the season, you’ll want to stay vigilant near certain plants as you hike through them, as a grizzly bear may be feeding nearby.

Knowing what grizzly bears eat can give you a better idea of how to avoid conflicts with these essential creatures.

  • Spring: Be cautious while hiking through dandelion and clover fields in the spring. These are essential food sources for grizzlies as they emerge from their dens and search for food. Nut trees are another food source for grizzlies as they chow down on food caches made by squirrels.
  • Summer: Grizzly bears fish for newly-spawned fish such as trout in summer. They’ll also start woofing down berries, so be cautious when hiking through wild berry patches.
  • Fall: Grizzlies will seek out nuts to build up their fat stores in the fall. They’ll also continue to eat berries that are still ripe.
  • Winter: Like black bears, grizzly bears hibernate during the winter and do not eat.

While hibernating, grizzly bears keep their body temperatures relatively high, which is unusual for a hibernating animal. However, scientists have learned that this is so that grizzly bears can wake up more quickly if their den is disturbed during the winter.

Grizzly Bears Are Encountered On Trails

A Grizzly Bear On A Hike

To us humans, seeing a wild animal on a human-made hiking trail is weird, right? Wild animals are supposed to be strolling around in the woods. The truth is, grizzly bears often travel using the path of least resistance, which includes hiking trails.

Since grizzly bears are enormous, it’s unlikely you’ll be surprised by one on a hiking trail. You can probably hear it from quite a distance. However, if a grizzly is stationary because it’s resting or feeding, you may come across it on a trail a little closer than what’s comfortable.

If you’re heading to a national park, check out the national park service website to see if there are any warnings about grizzly bears on certain trails.

While hiking in grizzly (or any bear) territory, avoid wearing headphones so that you can hear any nearby bears. Clap your hands, speak loudly, or make noise occasionally to alert a nearby bear that you are there.

The last thing you want to do is startle a grizzly bear! You can read more great tips about hiking alone here!

Grizzlies Use Roads And ATV Trails

Like hiking trails, logging roads, regular roads, and ATV trails are other easy paths that grizzly bears use to travel. 

Grizzly bears are typically most active at dawn, dusk, and night. Try to avoid hiking at these times of the day. If you must do a sunrise hike in grizzly territory, don’t wear headphones and make as much noise as possible while hiking.

Even when hiking on a regular paved road, you can experience grizzly bear encounters, so always stay vigilant in bear country!

You Can find Grizzly Bears Near Water Sources

You’ve probably seen the serene pictures of brown bears feeding on salmon in rushing water. While grizzly bears do eat fish, these photos are mainly of Kodiak bears, which are colossal salmon eaters!

Grizzly bears are attracted to water for two main reasons:

  • Food: Fish are a significant portion of a grizzly bear’s diet in certain regions. According to the University of Washington, 80-90% of a grizzly bear’s diet in Yellowstone consists of four sources – moths, ungulates, pine nuts, and fish!
  • Temperature Regulation: Grizzlies might visit a stream or river to cool off. Grizzly bears cannot sweat, so they depend on panting and water sources to reduce their body temperature on hot summer days.

Whether for food or to go for a swim, you can find grizzly bears near water sources, so stay vigilant around these areas while hiking in bear territory.

You May attract Grizzly Bears To Your Campsite

Grizzly bears do not generally like coming close to people. They know that the closer they are to people, the more danger they are in. However, a hungry bear can’t ignore the sweet smell of a campfire meal.

You may encounter grizzlies at your campsite. Whether car camping, backpacking, or spending a weekend in a tent, you may inadvertently attract grizzlies to your camp.

Here are a few tips to keep grizzlies away from your campsite:

  • Use bear bags: If you’re backpacking, use a bear bag to store all your food and toiletries to avoid attracting grizzlies. Ursack Major XL Bear Sack can hold 15 liters of gear and be slung in a tree.

To properly hang a bear bag, it should be 10 feet from the tree trunk and 15 feet above the ground. You can hoist the bag with any cord, such as PMI’s 3mm Utility Cord.

  • Use a bear canister: A bear canister is an alternative to a bear bag. The BearVault BV475 Trek Bear Canister can hold 9.3 liters worth of gear. You should store bear canisters at least 100 feet downwind of your campsite or tent. 

Bear canisters work by creating a bear-proof container for your food and scented toiletries. A grizzly might interact with the canister, but once they realize they can’t open it, they’ll get bored and leave it alone.

  • Store food properly: If you can’t already tell, grizzlies are attracted to food! Never store food or scented toiletries in your tent. Dump all food scraps and grease at least 100 yards downwind of your campsite.
  • Never feed a bear: As soon as a grizzly gets hold of some food, it will keep coming back and become bold and possibly aggressive. If a grizzly approaches your campsite, keep all food away from it if safely possible.
  • Try to camp in groups: The more people, the more noise. Grizzly bears are less likely to approach groups of people rather than lone backpackers. 
  • Choose wisely: When setting up camp, avoid areas where carrion birds are near and avoid fields of plants that grizzlies commonly eat, such as clover, dandelion, and berries.

Grizzly bears do not usually come around people, but if you have something enticing in your camp, they may trundle close to try to get a snack. Follow the above guidelines to avoid attracting grizzlies to your campsite.

A Grizzly Bear On A Hike

Will A Grizzly Bear Attack You?

If you’re hiking in grizzly territory and spot one of these enormous creatures, will it automatically attack you? Not likely. Only under specific circumstances will a grizzly bear attack.

Fatal grizzly bear attacks are rare. According to an article in the Journal of Yellowstone Science, only six deadly grizzly bear attacks occurred in Yellowstone between 1872 to 2014, a 143-year period. 

You’re far more likely to be attacked by a domestic dog than a grizzly bear. That said, there are a few instances where a grizzly bear may attack. Grizzlies are considered the most aggressive bears compared to black and polar bears. 

Black bear attacks happen about once per year, while there are an average of 44 grizzly bear attacks each year.

A Startled Grizzly Can Be An Aggressive Grizzly

Hiking in the wilderness is a calming experience – trees and brush surround you, and you can barely see anything or anyone around you.

While it may be peaceful walking amongst dense vegetation, these areas can become a disaster zone if you accidentally sneak up on a grizzly bear. If a grizzly bear can’t see you, it may lash out to try to defend itself.

It’s hard to avoid low-visibility areas in dense forests, but this is an excellent opportunity to use some of the other tactics we’ve discussed, such as clapping, hiking in groups, or making a loud noise occasionally as you walk. This will let a grizzly bear know you are nearby.

By the way, letting a grizzly bear know where you are may sound counterproductive, but this is the BEST-case scenario. Healthy grizzly bears will likely scamper away from humans.

Grizzly bears are not the only animal you might see while exploring. Discover how to handle encounters with wildlife such as Moose, Black Bear, Mountain Lion, Wolves, Bob Cat, Alligator, Wild Boars, Snake, skunk, or Coyote! Be prepared for every encounter.

Grizzly Bears Stand Up To See You

It can be scary, no, downright terrifying, to see a grizzly bear stand up on its hind legs. Despite their appearance, a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs isn’t planning to attack you.

Grizzly and black bears may stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you. This is a great opportunity to make yourself look big and to talk calmly to the bear to let it know you are a human.

Grizzlies May Charge To Intimidate You

If standing on their hind legs wasn’t terrifying enough, grizzly bears may also charge to try to scare you. Not all charges are bluff charges, so treat every charge as if the grizzly will make contact. If you have bear pepper spray, prepare to use it, just in case.

We don’t expect you to notice the minute differences between a bluff and an actual charge, but typically a bear’s ears and head will be up during a bluff charge. They will also bound toward you in leaps as opposed to running straight at you.

If a grizzly bear bluff charges you, wait until they veer off or stop and slowly back away, speaking calmly. Avoid direct eye contact with grizzlies, as this may indicate aggression.

Grizzly Bears May Lash Out To Protect Their Cubs

We’ve all heard about not getting between a mother bear and her cubs. This isn’t as dangerous for black bears as it’s made out to be. However, this type of situation can quickly turn serious for grizzly bears.

Many grizzly bear attacks happen by mothers defending their cubs from a perceived threat, aka – you! If you see a mama bear with cubs, back away slowly and speak calmly.

Grizzly Bears Attack If They Feel Cornered Or Threatened

Depending on where you are hiking, there may be instances where you encounter a bear in a somewhat enclosed area, such as a thick stand of trees, a rock structure, or even a cave.

It’s important always to give a grizzly bear an escape route. If it feels cornered, it may attack because it feels like it has no choice. If you think you may have accidentally cornered a grizzly bear, back away slowly until the bear has an escape route.

Grizzlies In Dens Are Grumpy

Another reason why a grizzly bear might decide to attack is if it is startled or harassed while it is in its den. Hibernating bears keep their body temperatures high so that they can become awake faster when their dens are disturbed.

However, while they’re still sleepy, grizzly bears may lash out to defend themselves or their cubs inside the den. Never approach a sleeping grizzly bear, especially inside its cave.

Grizzly Bears Are Protective Of Carcasses

For the most part, grizzly bears do not take down full-grown elk or bison. They go after the calves in the spring or wait for winter to take its toll and harvest the benefits.

If you are hiking and stumble on a carcass, get away as soon as possible. A grizzly bear may be feeding on it or will quickly find it. Keep a lookout for carrion birds and steer clear of where they congregate.

Grizzly bears will get aggressive if they think they need to compete with you for a food source. If they catch you standing over a carcass they took down, it can become dangerous.

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

A bear encounter does not always result in an attack. Only a specific set of circumstances would cause the incident to escalate to a full-blown bear attack.

So, what do you do if you see a grizzly bear on a hike? What can you do to minimize the chances of a grizzly attack?

Check If The Grizzly Bear Has Seen You

A grizzly bear may not have noticed you in areas with dense vegetation or loud running water. This situation can be tenuous because you don’t want to startle the bear.

  • If the bear hasn’t seen you: If the grizzly bear is unaware of your presence, wait until it looks away from you and slowly back away. 
  • If the bear has seen you: If you think the grizzly bear has seen you, speak calmly to the bear as you back away. Do not turn and run.

Grizzly bears have an excellent sense of smell and will usually smell or hear you before you come close. However, if the bear is asleep or occupied, it may not notice you. 

Slowly Back Away From The Grizzly Bear

In most instances, you’ll want to start slowly backing away from a grizzly bear as soon as you notice it. More than likely, it has already seen you.

Do not run. You can’t outrun a grizzly bear, and running may activate its predator instinct to chase. By slowly backing away, you are telling the bear you are not a threat. This helps de-escalate the situation.

Speak In A Calm Voice

Upon seeing a grizzly bear, your first reaction might be to yell, scream, and possibly soil your pants a little. We totally get that. However, remaining calm when confronted with a possible grizzly bear interaction is essential.

Grizzlies are smart. They know the difference between a deer and a mountain lion, and they know the difference between a human and a fellow predator. Speaking calmly lets the grizzly bear know you are not a threat and helps them identify you as a human.

Grizzlies will usually do whatever they can to avoid interacting with a human. Speaking calmly is just one way to de-escalate a grizzly bear interaction.

Stand Your Ground During A Charge

It’s asking a lot, but if a grizzly bear charges you, it’s super important to stand your ground. If you turn and run, the grizzly bear is likely to give chase.

There are two types of charges:

  • Bluff charges: The grizzly bear will leap toward you with its head and ears up. It will either stop short of you or veer off at the last minute. After, it may make noises to try to intimidate you.
  • Real charges: If a grizzly bear is coming at you like a freight train with head down and ears back, this is an actual charge. Prepare and deploy your bear pepper spray as needed.

Counter Assault’s Bear Deterrent Spray comes in two sizes – 8.1-ounce and 10.2-ounce. The larger the size, the further it can spray and the longer it will last. The 8.1-ounce spray will reach 32 feet. For the 10.2-ounce spray, it will reach 40 feet.

With this spray, you won’t have to wait until the last second to deploy the spray. Pair the spray with Counter Assault’s Spray Holster to keep the bear spray readily accessible in grizzly bear territory.

If A Grizzly Bear Attacks, Play Dead

There’s a lot we can learn from our friendly neighborhood opossums! Play dead if a Grizzly bear makes contact with you or gets too close for comfort.

While playing dead, keep these few things in mind to stay safe:

  • Lay on your stomach
  • Spread your legs (this makes it harder for the grizzly to turn you over)
  • Keep your pack on to protect your back
  • Place your hands on the back of your neck

When a grizzly bear attacks, it is sometimes because they see you as a threat. They may claw at you, but eventually, the grizzly bear will usually leave the area. Playing dead lets them know that you are not a threat.

Remain on the ground until the grizzly has left the area. If you get up and the bear is still near, it may attack again.

A decent backpack can help protect your back and spine from a grizzly bear attack. If you’re hiking anywhere in grizzly territory, it’s always a good idea to wear a daypack, even for short hikes. The Cotopaxi Luzon 24L Pack is perfect for a day hike and covers your entire back.

You can read more about what to pack in your hiking bag here!

If The Attack Continues, Fight Back!

In rare instances, grizzly bears are not just attacking because they feel threatened. They are striking because they see you as prey. 

If you have played dead and the grizzly bear continues to attack you, fight back with anything you have on hand. If you haven’t already deployed your bear pepper spray, do so. 

Fight back with a stick, a rock, a trekking pole, or whatever you have. Aim for the snout if you can. Grizzlies rely most heavily on their sense of smell; if their nose is damaged, they may scamper off.

Report All Interactions To Local Agencies

If you interact with a grizzly bear, peaceful or not, report them to the local wildlife agency or to the park’s ranger station.

This helps authorities know when grizzly bears are on specific trails. They will use this information to warn park visitors and hikers of the potential for a bear interaction in that area. This can help keep people safe.

Wildlife authorities will not do anything to a grizzly bear that is acting normal, so don’t keep quiet about your interactions with these amazing animals, especially if it can help someone else stay safe!

That’s All, Folks!

Many of the most beautiful hikes in the country share a territory with grizzly bears. Yellowstone national park and the grand teton national park just to name a few. Knowing how to identify and react to seeing a grizzly bear can save your life!

To recap, if you see a grizzly bear on a hike, keep the following in mind:

  • Remain calm
  • Speak calmly to the bear
  • Back away slowly
  • Stand your ground if charged and then back away from the area
  • If attacked, play dead
  • If playing dead doesn’t deter the bear, fight back

Bear pepper spray is an excellent tool to deter bears. It’s effective, yet it does not permanently affect the bear. Always follow the directions and practice using the pepper spray before you need it.

With a few bear safety tips, you can enjoy wildlife on your hike without worrying about making the wrong decision if you encounter a grizzly bear. By the way, you can find related content about hiking on our blog!

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