So you want to survive a bear encounter?

Map showing black bear populations in the US.
I didn’t really think about bears living in eastern North Carolina until one ran out in front of me and I had to slam on brakes not to slam into it. As an avid hunter for many years, I had never seen a bear roaming around the woods. That may be because, in the 1980s, the bear population was at a mere 2,000 black bears in the coastal plains region; but thanks to the woods around our area, black bears numbers are estimated to be over 20,000. The black bear, which is the only bear native to North Carolina (brown bears also exist in the continental United States and that includes the two subspecies of brown bear: the grizzly and Kodiak), statistically grows larger in eastern North Carolina (some have weighed in excess of 1000 lbs). Since I love to traipse around the woods and explore during cold months, I figured that I would share some tips for surviving a bear encounter. I’m not an expert but I am one of those people that overthinks everything and every situation. I like to be prepared because all bears have been known to attack humans with over 100 people dying from bear attacks over the last century. While this is not really a grizzly statistic (yes I know that was corny), it is still important to remember a couple of tips when interacting with bears in the wild.
  • No Flash Photography: Even though I love to take nature photos to feed my Instagram ego…I mean to share beauty with the world…it is important to leave the close-up pictures of bears to the professional wildlife photographers. There have been numerous attacks due to someone trying to snap a photo of a bear in their territory. If you want to safely take pictures of a bear…visit one of our beautiful zoos.
  • Uhm…You’re in my spot: Bears don’t like you. Wild bears won’t magically like you. Emphasizing what I spoke about before, bears don’t want their picture taken! Think about the environment that you are in. When hiking or traipsing around the woods like I do, avoid that dark, unknown cave. Don’t go into that mysterious looking hollowed out log. These are places where bears make their dens.
  • Momma Bear: Speaking of a bear den. A bear den is not a comfortable room in your house that you only use during Christmas time or the sitting room in Grandma’s house with the furniture that has only been used 4 times. A den, in this case, is a wild animal’s lair. Their habitat. The place in which they hibernate and have their offspring. You should avoid these environments just as much as you should avoid a bear with a cub. If you see a bear with her cub/cubs, leave immediately. A mother bear with her cubs won’t back down. She will do whatever it takes to protect her cubs and will attack if she even senses that her cubs might be in danger.
  • STOP!!!!: Okay. So I told you to leave immediately but don’t make all kinds of erratic movements. Bear with me while I explain (sorry I had to). Don’t freak out and run screaming because you’ve seen a bear. Whether this is a momma bear with cubs or just a giant 800 lb black bear you walk up on in the edge of a cornfield, stop right there and don’t move. I know this is going to sound silly but experts recommend that you speak to the bear in a low, calm voice and slowly raise your arms above your head. This will make you look larger, but your calm voice will not make the bear feel threatened.
  • Slowly Step Away: Clearly, you can’t just stand there with your hands up talking to the bear telling it that you aren’t going to hurt it, this is the time that you should calmly leave. Do it slowly and go back from whence you came. Try not to cross paths with the bear or the momma bear and her cubs again. LEAVE. Slowly leave and don’t come back.
  • Don’t run!: The absolute worst thing that you can do is to go ‘awww he won’t hurt me’ and try to take his picture. Also, don’t think that you can just throw him a honey bun and expect that to bide his hunger. Also, don’t run! Probably even worse than staying there to take a picture would be to run off frantically. Bears can run faster than you. They think that chasing prey is fun. They will kill you. So don’t run away frantically.
  • “Just play dead.”: I am reminded of a joke Jim Gaffigan told about going camping when I think about just ‘playing dead’. “… there’s bears out there. Last time I went I got this pamphlet that said if a bear approaches you’re supposed to play dead. Really, we’re going to rely on my acting skills? Play dead? Who came up with that – maybe the bears? Play dead, cover yourself in honey, climb on a large white plate. Don’t try to run away from us, I mean the bears.” If a bear is charging you, you have some pretty less-than-desirable options to think about. The first one is the common ‘just play dead’. You can fall into the fetal position and pretend to bed. Hope that the bear has some sort of moral compass that will cause them to not eat you because you are vulnerable and he’ll just sniff you and walk away. Being in the fetal position will only do one thing…protect your vital organs if (and when) he attacks you. Also, it is important to remember that this ‘playing dead’ technique is only viable for grizzly bears or larger brown bears. Do not play dead around a black bear. They will thank you for being so still and put on their bib, break out the knife and fork and commence to eating you. If you are color-blind and/or you cannot tell if the bear is brown or black…DON’T PLAY DEAD.
  • Go ahead punk, make my day: If you have a gun (yes I know that that is a controversial topic for some of you), right now might be a good time to use it. If a bear is charging you, and you have said weapon, go ahead. Note that it is going to take more than one bullet to kill said bear and if you miss and you only graze said bear…’you’s just gone piss em off’. Another thing to consider. The only time that you should shoot a bear (unless you have an approved hunting license and it is in season) is if you are being threatened. This should be a last resort because remember…you’re in his territory. Also, the wrongful killing of a bear in the US can catch you a fine of up to $20,000.
  • Not packing: Okay, suppose you don’t have a gun, don’t like guns, don’t believe in killing things, or the camping ground or national park that you are visiting doesn’t allow firearms. If any of these incidents are the case, you can actually buy a bear strength spray or pepper spray that is strong enough to make the bear hurt enough for you to get away. Note: just like the bullet, if you just spray the bear haphazardly and don’t get it in the right spot, you’re just going to piss it off.
  • FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE: In the words of the immortal Hulk Hogan‘s ‘Real American’ theme song “fight for what’s right – Fight for your life”. That’s right. You fight like it’s your last option. Because if you die, it really was your last option. But if you’re one of those people that would rather go down swinging than to lay on the ground playing dead anymore…fight. Kick, scream, flail your arms, go for the eyes, kick him in the….yeah you know–do whatever you can because you’re going to be in for the fight of your life.
All in all, just be smart. If you’re out camping, clean up your garbage. Clean up thoroughly after a meal and secure the food overnight high above the ground (they suggest hanging it high in a tree) to prevent the bears from picking up the scent. Be mindful of your surroundings. And again…just be smart.

Images: Range map of the American Black bear accredited to Kmusser derivative work: Bobisbob (talk)derivative work: Bobisbob (talk) – Black_bear_map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, Shiva Kumar: Nature Photographer and researcher accredited to Shiv’s fotografia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Black Bear with cub by Hmbaker – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Black bear along lake shore, Yellowstone National Park accredited to w:Harlan Kredit – NPS (, Public Domain, The grizzly bear image accredited to Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith – Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos ssp.), CC BY-SA 2.0, Grizzly bear sow & cub radio neckband, Yellowstone National Park by John Good – NPS (, Public Domain, Featured Image: Grizzly bear image accredited to Steve Hillebrand, US Fish, and Wildlife Service, Public Domain.