The Bear Necessities

Jason Boyle '18
Guest Columnist

As humidity levels drop and the late summer days become cooler, this time of year is perfect for taking full advantage of all the natural environments that Virginia has to offer. Whether you choose to hike Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park or just go for a leisurely stroll on scenic Old Ivy Road, there is a lot of natural beauty all around us to enjoy. However, we must always be wary of the other natural inhabitants that share these areas. For example, Virginia is home to approximately 6,000 black bears and, according to the National Park Service (NPS), that number is increasing. Human encounters with bears in Virginia are rare, but they are becoming more common as the populations of both bears and humans rise, so I want to provide some tips from the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare everyone in case they encounter a black bear up close.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Avoid bears: Bears tend to avoid humans, so if you are hiking and want to avoid a bear, you can try to make your presence known by making continuous noise, such as speaking aloud. You can try to carry a bear bell, but the actual effectiveness of bear bells is a questionable.

Avoid bear cubs: Mother bears are very protective of their cubs and will attack if they perceive you as a potential threat. Never stand between a cub and its mother.

Hike in groups, if possible: According to the NPS, bears are less likely to approach a group of people, so there is strength in numbers. 

Stay calm: If a bear is focused on you and not running away, it may simply be curious. Try talking to the bear in a low, calm voice to show that you are a human and not its usual prey. Remember that bears will sometimes bluff that they will attack by pretending to charge, then turning away to leave the area.

Make yourself look larger: You should make yourself look taller by standing up and spreading out your arms. Try standing on higher ground or a fallen tree.

Leave slowly: If the bear is stationary, move away sideways in a calm and slow manner so that you can keep an eye on the bear and reduce your chance of tripping. DO NOT RUN. Bears can run as fast as a horse and they have a natural instinct to chase a fleeing object. Also, keep in mind that black bears can climb trees.

Carry Bear Spray: The NPS advises hikers in bear country to purchase an EPA-approved bear spray and learn how to use it properly before hiking. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, data has confirmed that bear spray is the most effective tool to deter a charging bear and has proven to be more effective than using a gun. Personally, I carry Frontiersman Bear Spray, but fortunately have not had to use it, so I can’t personally speak to the effectiveness of that brand.

If you are attacked by a bear, it is important to know if it is a black bear or a brown/grizzly bear because the NPS advises different reactions for attacks by each species. If you encounter a bear in Virginia, it will undoubtedly be a black bear since grizzlies do not live anywhere around here. Black bears may appear as a shade of brown, but can be identified by their tall ears as opposed to the smaller, flatter ears of grizzlies. Black bears also lack the distinctive shoulder hump of grizzly bears.

If attacked by a black bear: the NPS advises that you NOT play dead. Instead, try to escape and, as a last resort, fight back with anything you can find, including your fists and feet. Aim for the bear’s face and muzzle.

If attacked by a grizzly bear: DO play dead, by lying face down on the ground with your hands clasped over your neck. Try to keep your legs wide so the bear cannot turn you over. For grizzlies, fighting back can make them more aggressive. Remain still until the bear has left the area. If the attack persists, then fight back.

But as a reminder, bear encounters are rare and attacks are even rarer. Bears are really fascinating, well-adapted animals and they are fun to watch from a safe distance (at least 100 yards) in their natural habitat. With these tips in mind, you can enjoy the best nature that Virginia has to offer in safety. And remember to always carry that bear spray.