How to Stay Safe in Grizzly Country

I was fly fishing in Montana one summer when I had my first grizzly encounter. As I came through the willows, I spooked a big bruin who was foraging for berries nearby. He ran a short distance and then stood up, sniffing for my scent. I was paralyzed. I slowly backed away and he headed off in the other direction thankfully. It was a scary encounter indeed.

The scariest thing I ever read about grizzlies was when an old female, who had been prowling around a campsite in Glacier National Park, dragged away a girl in her sleeping bag. Her friend watched in horror as she said “He’s got my arm off.” and then “Oh God, I’m dead.” True story!

But as horrible as this may sound, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a bear. In her case, food in the campsite, cosmetics, poor preparation and an old, habituated bear led to the attack. The campers made some critical mistakes.

Typically, a wild grizzly will do anything to avoid an encounter with a human. I’ve heard them crash through the brush and never even saw them. This is a typical situation. However, if you do encounter a grizzly hiking and it decides to check you out, by all means do not run.

Hold your ground and act like a human. Talk in a low, calm voice and bring your arms out to your sides. Usually the bear is curious and hasn’t gotten your scent yet. Try to avoid direct eye contact and slowly back away if he refuses to leave. Don’t approach the bear and don’t continue in the direction he ran. Go the other way.

Most grizzly attacks are defensive and they’ll perceive you as a threat if they have cubs nearby, are protecting their food or feel trapped. A defensive bear will snort, stomp, woof, swing its head back and forth, or growl. In this case, you need to get clear of it.

Once again, back away while talking in a low voice. Try to maintain a calm, non aggressive presence. If the bear comes toward you, stop and wait. Usually he will stop and then you can continue backing away. These are the most dangerous situations but you need to remain calm.

If he attacks, always play dead. Cover your hands and neck and try to be still. Stay on your stomach and do not move or make noise until you are sure he has left. People survive attacks by doing just this.

If you encounter a curious predatory bear, it’s a different ballgame if he continues coming towards you. I’ve had this encounter a lot with black bears and you have to be the aggressor.

You can tell he’s curious by his mannerism. If his ears are forward and he’s not acting aggressively or agitated, then you have to show him who’s boss. Believe me, you’ll know the difference between the two.

Try holding your ground and yelling at him. This is when you look him in the eye. Pick up a big stick or throw rocks at him if he continues to approach. Usually, he will leave when you show aggression towards him. Tell him to go eat something else! If he attacks you experts are now suggesting that you fight back with all you have, focusing on the bear’s face.

Bear spray is the most effective repellent made. 50% of people who try to defend themselves with firearms are injured. Always carry bear spray in grizzly country and use it anytime you feel like a bear is a threat. It almost always works. My next article will focus on camp preparation in grizzly country.

Photo credit: Flickr CC