Scouting magazine

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? 


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