What to do if you encounter a black bear

It’s normal to be somewhat alarmed if you come face-to-face with a black bear. But the reality is that black bears are rarely aggressive. Actual attacks by black bears are rare.

Knowing how to behave when encountering bears and how rare bear attacks actually are can keep you safe and provide peace-of-mind. Although bears are large and powerful animals, a wild Minnesota black bear is normally shy and scared of people – even bears that are two to three times heavier than an average person. With a little preparation and knowledge, you can recreate in bear country with confidence. Learn how you can respond to a bear encounter, what to do if a bear becomes aggressive and how you can defend yourself with bear spray.

Situational encounters

On a trail or in the woods
  • Do not panic. Stop what you are doing and evaluate the situation.
  • Make your presence known by speaking in a calm tone. Don’t startle the bear.
  • Alter your route or back away slowly, preferably in the direction you came.
  • Walk, do not run, and keep your eye on the bear so you can see how it reacts. In most cases, the bear will flee.
  • If the bear walks toward you, act boldly, yelling and throwing something at it. Do not climb a tree.
  • If you have bear spray, remove the safety, and be ready to use it if the bear approaches you.
At a campsite
  • If the bear makes you uncomfortable, leave the area. Otherwise try to make the bear leave.
  • Ensure that the bear has a clear escape route with no people or obstacles in the way. Act boldly: make loud noises and throw things in the direction of the bear. If it does not leave, try to hit the bear with rocks or sticks.
  • Do not approach the bear.
  • Do not offer it food, and do not let it take food.
  • If you have bear spray, remove the safety, and be ready to use it if the bear approaches you.
At your cabin or home
  • Watch from a safe distance, or from inside, to assess why it is there (for example, is there a food source like birdseed attracting it?).
  • Wait and see if the bear leaves on its own. If the bear does not leave on its own, but approaches (e.g., comes up on the deck, or puts its paws on windows or doors), it’s time to try to scare it away: boldly shout, bang pots, slam door or throw something.
  • If you have bear spray, remove the safety, and be ready to use it if the bear approaches you.

Dealing with aggressive bears

If the bear becomes defensive

Sometimes bears exhibit a quick burst of aggression to defend against a perceived threat. The closer you are to the bear when it becomes aware of your presence, the more likely it is to exhibit defensive behavior. This behavior is intended to intimidate and scare away the threat. It may pop its jaws, swat at the ground while blowing or snorting, and it may even bluff charge toward you. The bear is communicating to you that you are too close and it wants you to leave. This is not the time to argue with the bear.

  • Try to appear non-threatening.
  • Speak to the bear in a calm tone and slowly back away. Do not run.
  • If you have bear spray, remove the safety, and point it toward the bear. It is OK to start with a quick spray, as that will not make the bear aggressive.
  • If the bear retreats, leave the area immediately.
If a bear approaches you

It is not normal behavior for a bear to come up to humans, especially in daylight. Typically, bears only do so because they seek food sources provided by humans. Very rarely, a bear may see a person as potential prey.

If a bear does approach you:

  • Talk to it in a firm voice.
  • Back away, and keep watching the bear. Do not turn and run.
  • If a bear follows you, act boldly: yell, raise your arms and throw things directly at it.
  • The more persistent a bear is, the more aggressive you need to be.
  • If you have bear spray, use it.
  • If a bear attacks or tries to make contact, fight for your life. Do not play dead. Kick, punch or hit the bear with whatever weapon is available. Concentrate on the face, eyes and nose.

Defending yourself with bear spray

Bear spray containing capsaicin (hot pepper liquid) is a good option to change the behavior of bold bears. It also gives you peace-of-mind and can prevent a bear from attacking. It is available at most outdoors stores or online sporting goods retailers.

What to know about bear spray
  • It is made specifically for defense against bears, and is not the same as the pepper spray that is used for personal defense. Bear spray has a lower concentration of capsaicin, sprays farther, and sprays in a widening cone.
  • It will not make the bear aggressive. Most times, bears that are sprayed leave the area, allowing you time to retreat.
  • It is more effective than a gun: A wounded bear may charge you – a sprayed bear will not.
  • It is not meant to be sprayed on yourself or equipment as that can actually attract bears since they like to investigate novel smells.
  • The spray causes pain (in eyes, nostrils and throat), but will not cause any permanent injury to a bear or person.
  • Pay attention to the expiration date as expired bear spray will be less effective or ineffective.
  • You need to learn how to use it, not just carry it. Watch a video so the process is embedded in your mind and you don’t have to think as much if you need to use it in a high-stress situation.
  • Carry it on your belt, not in your pack, so that it is easily accessible. If you encounter a bear, there will be little time to react.
How to use bear spray

Use bear spray either to scare away a bold bear or to deter a bear that is coming toward you.

  • Remove safety clip.
  • Hold the can in two hands, with one finger on the trigger, and extend your arms straight out.
  • Aim toward the bear’s face, or slightly below. (Spray going over the bear’s head will not be effective).
  • Beware that wind coming toward you will blow the spray in your face.
  • Deploy a two-second burst when the bear is 15-30 feet away.
  • Assess whether the spray hit the bear in the face. Typically, a bear will recoil immediately and paw at its eyes and face. Prepare to deploy another burst if the bear doesn’t leave.
  • If the bear charges, spray directly into its eyes.
  • Once the bear has retreated or is busy cleaning itself, leave the area as quickly as possible, but do not run. Get to an area of safety, such as a car.
  • In case you have the spray on your hands, do not touch your face. If already in your eyes, wash with water if available. Otherwise, it will dissipate on its own in 30-45 minutes. If you have contacts on, remove them and throw away. You may experience much discomfort, including swollen eyelids, coughing and nausea, until the spray is out of your system.

This video from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee provides a quick demonstration of how to use bear spray.

Mother black bear and cub walking through a forest.

Did you know?

Bear attacks in Minnesota

Our state has a healthy population of black bears, but while Minnesotans spend considerable time recreating in the wooded areas we share with them, most people have never seen a bear close up. This is because most bears flee quietly when they hear someone coming. Even among the thousands of encounters that have occurred, by hikers, campers, birders, berry-pickers, hunters and others, the experience is usually non-eventful. Attacks are very rare.

  • There have been no fatal bear attacks in Minnesota. The closest bear attack-fatality occurred just across the border in Ontario in 2019.
  • Since 1987, there have been eight unprovoked bear attacks in Minnesota that resulted in hospitalization. All 10 victims fully recovered.
  • Most of the incidents involved bears attracted to unsecured food sources at homes or campsites.
  • In three cases, the bears chased dogs that were not leashed. Bears perceive dogs as a threat, and dogs being chased often come back to their owner with the bear at heel.
  • One bear in the attacks had a very unusual brain disease that certainly motivated its aggressive behavior (it also showed signs of previously being in captivity). None of the other bears involved in attacks had any physical ailments (e.g., rabies).