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What To Do When You Encounter a Bear

July 27, 2016


By Sarah Elmeligi

Bear spray easy to access on the outside of your pack? Check. Hiking with friends and making noise? Check. Dog on a leash? Check. You’re well-prepared for recreating in bear country. But, what will you do if you actually encounter a bear? A bear biologist gives us her best pointers. 


Jayson Photography, via Shutterstock.

Photo by Jayson Photography, via Shutterstock.

Note: This piece is from our archives. The attacks mentioned below are from 2016.

In the past week, there have been two bear attacks in southern Alberta – one northwest of Calgary and another in Canmore. In both cases, people ended up in the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. In both cases, people were carrying bear spray and thought they were prepared. In both cases, bears were taken by surprise and reacted in an aggressive way.

A bear encounter is a real risk in the Canadian Rockies. Most of the time when people encounter bears, nothing happens – people see bear, bear sees people, bear leaves the area. On rare occasions, it isn’t that simple. In those cases, you need to make sure that you know what to do to prevent a negative encounter.

As a bear biologist, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with bears, watching and researching them, and one thing I’ve learned is that a grizzly bear does what a grizzly bear wants. I think the essence of staying safe in bear country is making sure you do not surprise a bear and, if you do encounter one, that you remain uninteresting and unprovoking.

The most important first step in any bear encounter is to STOP and ASSESS what is going on. Chances are the bear will do the same thing. In that moment, you both have decisions to make. Look at what the bear is doing and the surrounding landscape. Is the bear aware of you? Does it care you’re there? Are there cubs or a carcass present that might make the bear more defensive? Does the bear have an easy escape route that does not involve going near you?

If you are far away from the bear (300m or more), make sure the bear knows you are there by calling out a yo, bear! If you’ve been doing this up the trail, the bear already knows you’re there and has probably decided it doesn’t care. If this is the case, then you have a great opportunity to watch a bear being a bear. As long as the bear doesn’t get too close, you can just enjoy the viewing. If you and the bear are much closer to each other (less than 100m), it’s a different story.


1/ No Sudden Movements: Stay facing the bear but do not make eye contact. Look at the ground and keep the bear in your peripheral vision.

2/ Be Ready to Spray: Get your bear spray out, take the safety off, and be ready to spray it if need be. Don’t spray it yet! (If you weren’t thinking and your bear spray is in your pack… you may want to skip this step. You want to keep your movements minimal and slow so the bear isn’t surprised.)

3/ Speak Calmly and Back Away: Talk to the bear in a calm voice as you start to back away. You can say things like: It’s ok bear. I’m backing up now. It’s ok bear. Chill out. You can say anything you like, but talking in a calm voice helps keep you, the bear, and the people you’re with calm.

4/ Assess Again: Assess the bear’s reaction again. Is the bear just trying to walk on the trail you’re on? Then step aside (go off the trail at least 10 meters, keep talking to the bear, and watch it closely) and give it space to move by. Is the bear going back to eating berries? Continue backing away until you are out of sight and leave the area slowly and calmly.

5/ Spray, If Needed: If the bear charges you, stand your ground and deploy your bear spray. Know that no matter what the wind conditions, if you spray bear spray you will likely get it on you and it will be uncomfortable. Only spray your bear spray if the bear is less than 10m away and charging you. It is a very effective deterrent, but the bear has to be close to you for it to work. If the bear charges, it will likely be a bluff charge. 

6/ Resume Step 3: Once the bear stops charging, resume Step 3 and slowly back away.

→ Read More: 6 Ways to Stay Bear Aware


Make noise. Lots of noise, very frequently. Bikes move quickly and quietly and can definitely take a bear by surprise if the animal has got its head down in a berry patch. If you run into a bear, take the same steps as above.

I’m torn if you should stay on your bike or not. I ran into a bear while biking and used my bike as a shield between me and the bear. This way, I could still back up slowly with no sudden movements. It’s up to you whether you stay on your bike or get off. Most important is that you move slowly and calmly and leave the area.

Photo by Menno Schaefer, via Shutterstock

Photo by Menno Schaefer, via Shutterstock.


  • Run. This ensues a chase and no matter what the terrain, a bear can outrun you.
  • Climb a tree. My outdoor ed teacher always used to say: “If you’re up a tree, a black bear can come up there after you and a grizzly bear can shake you out.”
  • Be tall and loud – unless the bear is charging you.
  • Put your backpack down between you and the bear as a distraction. It may not work for long and all it takes is for a bear to access human food one time to become a more serious problem in the long term.

Crowfoot Media Recommended Resources:

Grizzly Research in the Rockies
Bear Safety and More
Bears in the Mountain National Parks
BC Parks – Bear Safety

Sarah Elmeligi is a wildlife biologist based out of Canmore, Alberta. She is currently working on her PhD examining how grizzly bears and hikers coexist in the Canadian Rockies. Prior to that she worked tirelessly on the campaign to protect the Castle as the Conservation Director for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

→ Read more of Sarah’s articles.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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