23 Apr

All you haters out there, get your keyboard ready. Get your fingers limbered up. I'm about to call for a stop to all the fear mongering about black bears. Here we go!

Here's the punch line: We are not bear food. 

Much to the contrary of what many people may try to tell you, black bears are not out to eat you. I get comments on my social media accounts that go something like this: "Don't ever, ever [fill in the blank about what they think might instigate the black bear of death] or you'll get attacked by a bear. You're gonna die, you stupid stupid backpacker!!" 

Fear can be a great motivator. Fear can be used to convince us to believe or to do dump things. But I'd rather just offer the facts and let the reader determine if being afraid of black bears is warranted. Certainly, anyone can be afraid of anything for any reason. But let's not be afraid out of ignorance (think the Salem Witch Trials), which is a different word for “being uninformed”. So, let's get to what experts in the field of black bear behavior say. 

Dr Lynn Rogers studied black bear behavior for over 50 years. Here are some of the highlights of his studies: 

Death by encounter is EXTREMELY RARE

The fear of being killed by a black bear are completely irrational, neurotic, and unfounded. Black bears have killed 61 people across North America since 1900. The chances of being killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightening are vastly greater than being killed by a black bear. The chances of being murdered are 60,000 times greater. Although they are powerful animals, black bears are extremely unlikely to kill a human.

Aggressive Displays

The most common aggressive displays from black bears are merely rituals they perform when they are nervous. A nervous bear is not a killer bear. 

Defending Cubs

Defending cubs is more a grizzly bear trait, not a black bear trait. There is not a single record on file in all of recorded history proving that anyone was killed by a mother black bear defending her cubs. And a black bear attaching a person while defending cubs is also very rare. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go cuddle up with a cub. Don’t do that. If mom is around she probably won't particularly like it.

Startled Bear

Startled black bears run away, often up a tree. By contrast, a startled grizzly bear may charge and occasionally attack, making grizzlies over 20 times more dangerous than black bears. So, don’t go startling bears for fun. It won’t be fun. 

Defense Reactions

Most attacks by black bears are defensive reactions to a person who is too close, and injuries from these defensive reactions are usually minor. So don’t put a bear in a situation where they may feel they need to be defensive. Give them some clear choices for escape routes. 

Smelling Fear

A black bear will not attack because it senses you are afraid of it. Think about this: most people who find themselves near a black bear are afraid, but they are very rarely ever attacked. 


Black bears are quite predictable. They are not ferocious. They are curious, social, and not territorial. We often find that they will congregate with each other and even with humans near food sources without attacking the human. 

Other sources of information

DNR of Minnesota has the same advice. Also see a website called Get Bear Smart for very similar information. 

What Would David Do?

  1. Carry bear spray if you want. Besides pepper spray, throwing stones is effective, especially if you yell and act aggressive at the same time. I carry bear spray in places where there may be grizzly bears or an elevated population of black bears that may be accustomed to being around humans.
  2. Be noisy or hike in a group. Bears are often spooked by noises and tend to stay clear of human groups. And this will also help ensure the bear is not startled. Noise will also keep other animals away. 
  3. Keep a clean camp.  A black bear sense of smell is 2000-3000 times better than humans. They can catch a scent from literally a mile away. Use bear proof containers or hang your food to frustrate them in their search for food. I hang my food and smelly things in a URSack at least 50 ft from my tent. Remember, every time we are out in nature we are teaching and training bears and other animals how to behave. Don't teach them they can get a free meal when a human is around. Even the smallest crumbs or food wrappers have a scent a bear can smell from far away. I eat away from my where I’m sleeping in case I drop crumbs or spill something.
  4. Keep your smells at home. Perfume will attract bears to you. Guys, no cologne. Ladies, no perfume. This includes scented deodorant, soap, hand lotion, sun lotion, shampoo, laundry detergent. Use odor free on everything you wear or put on your skin or hair.
  5. Study up on bear behavior. Know how to interpret their behavior and how they will react to your behavior.

I hope this helps. Again, be afraid if you want. But rather, I would suggest be respectful by knowing and acting appropriately.  Happy trails!

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