As Erin McCloskey details in Bear Attacks in Canada, defending yourself against an attack depends on what species of bear is doing the attacking, but some basic principles can apply to encounters with all three North American species.
If a bear sees you and doesn’t run away:
- Keep your eye on the bear, but turn your head to one side and don’t make direct eye contact.
- Make sure the bear has an escape route, since leaving is probably what it wants to do.
- Speak in a calm voice to identify yourself as a human.
- If with other people, remain in a tight group.
- Try to make yourself look taller by raising your arms or standing on a rock or a log.
If it approaches you:
- Begin speaking more loudly.
- Use an air horn, bear bangers, flares or whistles.
- Use bear spray if it comes within about 12 feet.
If it charges:
- Stand your ground. Most charges are bluffs.
In all cases:
- Do not run away. Bears can run more than 40 kilometres an hour, and you probably can’t.
- Do not let your dog off its leash. A dog running amok will only make a nervous bear more agitated.
- Do not try to swim for it. Bears are great swimmers.
- Do not try to run downhill. It’s a myth that bears can’t run downhill.
- Do not cover your tent with bear spray. The smell can attract bears.
Do not climb a tree. Instead, back away slowly. If a black bear actually attacks you, it’s treating you as prey. Try to stand your ground, but if it knocks you over, protect your belly and face. Fight back with any weapons available, targeting the bear’s nose and eyes. Make as much noise as possible. Do not play dead.
If a grizzly is acting in a threatening way, back away slowly and try to climb a tree, but only if you are sure you can climb higher than 12 feet or else you’ll just be low-hanging fruit. If it attacks, protect your face and belly and play dead. Do not try to fight back (you will lose). Grizzlies usually don’t prey on humans, so the trick is to convince it you are not a threat.
If you see a polar bear, get your deterrents (bear spray, bangers, flares, gun) ready. Watch the bear and walk sideways to get upwind. Do not back away and don’t show fear. If it approaches within 150 feet and you have a firearm, prepare to shoot. If shooting proves necessary and you are using non-lethal plastic slugs, aim for the hindquarters. If you are using a lethal slug, aim for the front shoulder. If you have no deterrents and the bear attacks, assume a protective position and hope the attack is defensive and brief. Fight back with all means available if it begins to bite and chew.
According to a 20-year study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, bear spray was an effective deterrent 92 per cent of the time it was used.