If you’re heading into grizzly country, you’d be crazy not to brush up on some brown-bear etiquette before you go. When you find yourself face-to-face with a grizzly, you don’t have much time to think. If you have a grizzly bear encounter, here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
Grizzly bears are beautiful, powerful creatures that typically do their best to avoid bumping into people. They will almost never seek out a human as prey; if you do come across one, the bear is probably just as surprised as you are.
Get Up to Speed
Before you head into grizzly bear territory, check in with rangers to see if any sightings have been reported in the area recently. As with any backcountry mission, notify someone at home about your plans and the route you will be taking.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
The safest option is to avoid a rendezvous with a grizzly altogether. Keep your eyes open for signs that a grizzly bear is in the area, and change your course if that’s the case.
Spotting fresh tracks along a trail is a dead giveaway that there’s a grizzly nearby, and so is finding large piles of scat (a diameter larger than two inches means you’ve likely got a grizzly nearby). Watch out for the partially eaten carcasses of small animals and for torn-up areas in the ground where a grizzly might have been scavenging.
If you’re somewhere where you might encounter a grizzly bear, don’t hike alone. Make lots of noise with your hiking partners to avoid startling the beast. Stay alert, and always be aware of your surroundings.
You See a Grizzly—Now What?!
If you spot a grizzly in the distance and it doesn’t seem to notice you, stop. Don’t move any closer for that once-in-a-lifetime photo op. Your best bet is to quietly back away and leave the way you came. If you must go around the bear, give it plenty of room. Make as wide a detour as you can.
Making Eye Contact
If you see a grizzly and it sees you, but it’s still a good ways away from you (350 feet or more), let the bear know that you’re a human and that you’re not a threat. Speak calmly and back away, and keep your eye on the grizzly without making eye contact. Wave your arms and ensure that the bear has an escape route.
Getting Up Close and Personal
If a grizzly is behaving aggressively, repeat the steps described above (walking away, speaking calmly, avoiding eye contact). Grizzly bears sometimes make a false charge to see how threatening you are. So if a grizzly bear is charging you, it isn’t always a death sentence.
If the grizzly does start to attack you, it’s most likely trying to defend itself. If you have bear spray, use it when the bear is close to you—be careful not to get it in your own eyes.
Most of the time, you can minimize injuries by playing dead, which sends the signal that you are not a threat. Roll facedown into a tight fetal position and tuck your head into your legs. Protect the back of your neck with your hands. Keep your backpack on, as this can offer extra protection.
Don’t try to outrun a grizzly bear; it can run faster than you. Fighting back isn’t a great idea either; you won’t win in a fight against a grizzly. The one exception is if a bear is attacking you predatorily (versus defensively): if the bear seems to have been stalking you or seeking you out, you might have no choice but to fight back.