How to survive a bear encounter


After another perfect day hiking Philmont’s trails, you’re fast asleep. Suddenly, you hear one of your Scouts screaming at the sight of an enormous black bear pawing at his tent. Apparently the Scout forgot to hang the dinner leftovers in your crew’s bear bag. What should you do? SCMayJune13_SurviveBear


ABOUT ONE-THIRD OF PHILMONT treks include some type of unplanned bear encounter, though dry conditions have increased those odds in recent years. So your chances of seeing one on your next trek are decent. The good news, though, is that bears prefer to dine on plants, berries, and bugs—not human flesh. But that doesn’t mean a prowling bear won’t seriously injure you if its smells food nearby. Just something to, um, chew on.

Since 1985, bears have caused just 10 injuries at Philmont—two that were serious. Most incidents were the result of Scouts or Scouters bringing food into their tents and suffering puncture or scratch wounds. That’s a good reminder for you and your Scouts to keep “smellables” out of your tents in bear country—a lesson covered in the bear-safety course you take prior to every Philmont trek.

At Philmont or not, bears rarely attack Scout units. Encounters, though, happen all the time. So learn the best actions to take when you see one. First, do not run. A bear is the linebacker of the animal kingdom: big, tough, and fast. Bears can run up to 35 miles per hour for short bursts. They also have a highly developed sense of smell. So hiding isn’t a good option, either.

Second, do not climb a tree. Black bears make excellent climbers (interestingly, most grizzlies do not). In fact, a mother bear might chase her cubs up a tree just to defend them.

Speaking of, next you should determine whether there are cubs present. If so, you’ve likely encountered a mama bear (fathers never care for cubs). React by slowly and quietly backing away, giving the mother her space. She might paw at the ground and even pretend to charge, but—statistically, at least—you’re less likely to be attacked during such behavior. Continue backing away until the bear loses interest.

Male bears typically grow larger than females, and they hunt alone. If you’ve encountered a so-called “predatory” male bear that is searching for food, do not back away. Instead, stand tall and hold your ground. If you’re with a group, gather together to appear larger and make a lot of noise.

Next, pick up rocks, sticks, or anything else you can find and throw them at the bear, continuously. This may seem like odd advice—why anger a bear, right? But research suggests that the message you’re sending the bear means it hasn’t encountered a defenseless deer or other prey. This might increase the possibility that the bear will lose interest in you and go poking around for a beehive to ransack.

If the bear does attack, your approach would vary based on the type of bear you’re dealing with. Against black bears, fight back—hitting the animal’s eyes and snout. With grizzlies, play dead. Get into a fetal position, and the grizzly should give up. I hope so.

After any encounter—when your pulse returns to normal—report it to the proper authorities.


  • Bears that have been habituated to the presence of humans (such as those near campgrounds) may be less fearful of people and more likely to approach tents or garbage areas in search of food
  • A majority of bear attacks in North America have occurred in National Parks 
  • Grizzly bears are not good tree climbers, and it’s hypothesized that this lack of a potential escape route makes them more aggressive
  • It never pays to surprise a bear. When hiking in bear country, experts recommend wearing bear bells, which will alert bears to your presence
  • An unleashed dog may attract a bear
  • Bears are extremely strong: they have been observed moving hundreds of pounds with a single fore leg
  •  Never approach a bear near its fresh kill




  1. Oh, sure, you’re not about to be afraid of the bears. But what about the Webelos? Those guys are _SCARY_!!!

  2. The last bit about grizzlies and the fetal position is NOT the current advice. Yes, play dead. But lay on your stomach, face down, with your legs spread in a wide “V” and cover the back of your neck with both hands. This prevents the bear from turning you over, and protects your neck. Also, always carry bear spray (and know how to use it) when venturing into known bear habitat.

  3. The primary tool to avoid a bear attach is Counter Assault Bear Deterrent bear pepper spray. A study of documented bear attacks was done by Tom Smith at Brigham Young University and showed that using bear spray to is 98% effective in deterring bear attacks and avoiding human injury and resulted in Zero Human Fatalities in aggressive bear attacks. Firearms on the contrary were only 76% effective in avoiding human injuries with 17 human fatalities even though the bear was shot or shot at.

    I have been a Scouter for more than 25 years and 12 years as a Cub, Boy Scout or Explorer and never once in those years, until I moved to Montana, was I even aware that such a tool for my protection existed. Now I never leave the trail head or vehicle without it.

  4. when i was at philmont, (a LONG time ago), one of the scouts from our excursion had a candy bar in his sleeping bag, 2 nights before going out on trail. that night, a bear slid him out from under his leanto tent and took a swipe at his sleeping bag, (with him in it)! he ended up with a nice, deep 7″ scratch in the middle of his chest, which i’m sure left a scar that he can tell his grandkids about. you can’t be too careful.

  5. I avoided being killed by a black bear by climbing a tree. A 44 mag will have 100% effectiveness against any bear attack if you know how to place a deadly shot or 2 in a life threatening circumstance. But these are skills that you have to practice to be good at.

    • P.S. I have experience in the “outdoors” hunting trapping, fishing, camping, hiking, backpacking for 40 years.

  6. SERIOUS: You can get a police size container of pepper spray at most sporting goods store. I got mine at Bass Pro Shops. Don’t spray your campsite before going to bed because that attracts bears but use it on a charging bear. Aim for the eyes and mouth. Be sure the wind is at your back. I don’t think any grizzlies have made it as far south as New Mexico, yet. NOT SERIOUS: Bear Bells and Pepper Spray? You can tell type of bear in your area by examining its scat (animal droppings). Black Bear scat is black, watery and is full of berries. Grizzly Bear scat smells like pepper spray and has little bells in it. 🙂

  7. Playing dead is ONLY recommended when you are being attacked by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The theory is that once you remove the threat to the cubs she will move on. A predatory bear will not. Bears are omnivores and scavengers and frequently eat dead things.

  8. Several years ago a good friend of mine was backpacking with his wife in Glacier National Park. They had gotten a late start one day and found themselves hiking down a trail after dark. He had a headlamp that shined out to about 300’. As they hiked he looked up and sudden saw two glowing eyes at the edge of his light range. He quickly realized it was a very large bear. Luckily he had a canister of bear spray on his belt. He reached down and flipped off the safety, then started slowly walking backwards keeping his eyes on the bear. He looked down for a second and saw that his boot had become untied. Without thinking he bent over to quickly tie his boot. All his wife saw was a powerful stream of bear spray blasting down his leg, then enveloping him in a choking cloud of bear spray. As he fell backwards trying to get away she swears she heard the bear laughing. Later after they finally arrived at the campsite she would not let him sleep in the tent he smelled so bad, he had to sleet 50’ downwind.

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