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Re: Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH About Wilderness Survival: “Wait… did you say, ‘BEAR’?”

Over the years, I’ve noticed more and more women in the backcountry, with a noticeable up-tick after Reece Whitherspoon in “Wild”, which is good, it’s about time. But even before that trend, I could always count on two questions; “You’re by YOURSELF?” and “Aren’t you AFRAID?” Typically, the concern comes from both men and women are wild animals, namely, bears. So first, let’s look at some stats for North America with a few familiar factors for perspective (NOTE: I recorded these stats a few years ago, but they should still suffice:

611,000 deaths per year by heart disease,

15,696 deaths per year by murder (2016),

100 deaths per year by scorpion,

30 deaths per year by pet dogs,

2 deaths per year by BEAR (40 since 2000),

1 death per year by Alligator (mostly on golf courses),

1 death per year by Orcas & Dolphins (i.e. flipping kayakers, etc.)

1 death every TWO years by SHARK,

1 death every THREE years by COUGAR (9 since 1990), and

1 death every EIGHT years by WOLF (2 since 2000, or in the last century).

Considering how often people enjoy the wilderness, you can see how wild animal attacks are exceedingly RARE! Wolves and Cougars (one of 40 different names for the SAME animal!) are incredibly shy. Cougars are even shy amongst themselves (except during mating season). As for bears, you are 300-times more likely to be attacked by an owner’s dog, and 3,000-times more likely to be attacked by a dog’s owner.

Black bears, are fully-equipped, natural-born, survivors: They can run as fast as a racehorse, swim like a fish, climb trees like a monkey, and have a nose like a bloodhound. Grizzly bears, not so much, which is reflected in their North American numbers (Grizzly bears, 55,000. Black bears, 600,000). Moreover, black bears are SMART! That does not mean they can reason (only people can do that), but being smart means they can learn.

One of the main features in their behavioral profile is they are hard-wired to AVOID potential conflict. That’s why they run or climb, to avoid injury/death. The only reason they attack is if they perceive a threat (NOT because they’re “angry”), which can happen if you surprise them when eating, mating, or even if you both just happen to turn the same corner.

As rare as they are, incidents do happen, but typically because the bear has come to associate human presence with food opportunities/rewards (often because the unknowing and/or inexperienced has left food, food scraps or food garbage out). When they become habituated, a bear-human incident is inevitable. Yet, it’s always “…the BEAR’S fault!”


As I mentioned before, I’ve been a wilderness enthusiast (land and sea) for nearly 35 years and I’ve seen a LOT of bears at a distance (The way I like it) because I usually make a lot of noise. One summer, I was on my way into the San Gabriels when I stopped at one of my favorite trail camps for a few nights, Mt. Lowe Trail Camp (site of the old Mt. Lowe Tavern). It is regularly used and frequently visited, since there’s a restroom in the campground and there’s a great view from Inspiration Point a few hundred yards away.

I use a camping hammock of my own design (more on this in another post), and I tend to hang it a little high (no reason, I just like it that way). That night, I was awoken by what felt like a head bumping me from below. I thought, “Did I just dream that? I couldn’t have, my hammock is still swinging!” Just then, I heard a little noise near my gear about 2 or 3 yards away. I peaked out, shined a light, and there was a juvenile bear investigating the bacon grease I was saving to fry some potatoes (NOTE: I must accept some responsibility here by not making the grease inaccessible). I had put it in a double-plastic bag, but that’s no defense against a bear’s nose!

By the time I put my boots on and scrambled out of my hammock, the bear appeared to be gone. I thought, “No. I’m not convinced!” I normally don’t need or want a campfire, but I always set it up so I can light it with a single match. So I walked to the fire pit, lit the fire and began scanning the area with my light. About an hour later, I spotted him about 20 yards away, just waiting for me to go back to sleep. I coaxed him away, but an hour later, I spotted him again on the hillside overlooking the campground, STILL waiting for me to go to sleep!

- Lesson Learned -

Was I scared? (I’m always asked). NO! Not in the least!! Despite the bear’s unusual behavior (coming into an active campsite), I know enough about them and saw them often enough to know what to expect if I got to my feet (it would have been a different matter if it was a cub instead of a lone juvenile!) But after years of solitary backcountry experience, never coming within 50 yards of a bear, it’s ironic that my closest bear encounter would come in a camp frequented by hundreds of people every week. So, ALWAYS presume a bear is not far away, and conduct yourself accordingly. In the end, it was the best outcome possible; Nobody got hurt, no bear was blamed, and a bear who was obviously on the way to becoming habituated, learned that human presence does NOT necessarily mean a free/easy meal!


Some of you may have heard the story of Todd Orr, the Forester who was attacked by a mama bear not once, but TWICE about 20 minutes apart. When he arrived back at his truck, he had the presence of mind to film his injuries (which he later posted to YouTube, you may still be able to find it) before driving himself to the hospital. He is one of the dozens of survivors I have personally interviewed.

His story is fairly well reported, so I won’t re-share the gory details, in fact, the first thing I told him was I was not interested in those physical facts, I KNEW the story. I was more interested in knowing what he was thinking and feeling at every step along the way beginning with his background. His father was a Forester his entire life and taught he and his brother everything they knew about the woods and bears. He so idolized his father that he not only wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, he wanted to be just like his father. So it’s no surprise Todd also became a Forester.

During Todd’s 30 years as a Forester, he had seen, and been bluff-charged by, bears many times. He carried both a sidearm and a can of bear spray, and routinely practiced drawing the spray, pulling the safety tab, and pointing the spray. So on the fateful day, he spotted a mama bear escorting two cubs into the underbrush. Thinking the show was over, he continued on his way when he saw the bear running for him at full speed.

Todd drew his spray and laid a cloud in front of the bear, but the bear was moving so fast she blew right through the cloud and never slowed before she slammed into Todd! He barely had time to hit the ground with his knees and elbows. The bear gnawed at the back of his head, and raked his back, while trying to flip him over. He remained focused and aware of what was happening, as he countered the bear’s efforts to flip him over. When the first attack was over, Todd got up and started back to his truck. He knew advanced first aid, so he knew his injuries were not immediately life threatening.

Some minutes later, the bear appeared and charged him again (Todd did NOT feel the bear was stalking him, he felt the bear just happened to take a path that brought them together again). Again, the bear slammed into him at full speed, but again, Todd remained focused and aware of the bear’s actions. Yes, the thought that this MAY be it did cross his mind, but he remained present in the moment. When that attack was over, he understandably waited a little longer before moving, then again, assessed his injuries.

From the first attack to his arrival at the hospital, Todd remained calm, focused, aware, and ever mindful in his thoughts and actions. During a detailed interview, he described his father, the man he so admired and wanted to be like as a kid, as one who was not only well-liked, open and accommodating, but completely competent, knowledgeable, skilled…. I told Todd, “You know, you just described yourself, you ARE your father!” After a few moments of silence, he said, “You know, I think you’re right.”

- Lessons Learned -

Todd’s example of a parent/s’ early influence eventually saving their lives in a survival ordeal is not unique, the story of Juliane Koepcke comes to mind. The lesson here is these are wild animals, you may know what to expect, but you don’t know what to predict.

Most bear attacks result in maulings about the back of the head and raking wounds along the back from their claws. but deaths typically occur with a bite to the back of the neck, which is why you must cover it with your hands and finger REGARDLESS of the cost. You will not bleed-out from puncture wounds (bites), the wounds will simply close-up. What you need to be concerned with are lacerations, avulsions, compound fractures, etc.

As to the “The Turtle” position, THIS should be your initial defensive posture if an attack begins, Do NOT attempt to punch the bear! Limit your resistance to maintaining your Turtle position. The bear WILL try to flip you (it’s just a natural response, try that position with your dog, watch how it responds!), but that must be the LIMIT of your resistance, anything more will be perceived as a threat, prolonging the attack. ONLY if the bear manages to flip you should you attempt the fetal position (in that case, expect much more extensive injuries).

When the bear is satisfied the threat is over, it will move on. When that happens, don’t move until you’re satisfied the bear is gone. Like Todd, your next task is to assess your injuries. Stabilize as best you can, call/signal for help, and/or start walking.

The options for GRIZZLY bear attack is a dismal few.Grizzlies are much larger, generally the larger the bear, the more unlikely they can climb trees, Still, ALL bears are skittish to some degree, including grizzlies, black bears even more so. But even grizzlies have been scared off by standing tall with arms stretched up and out, with loud noises, and by throwing things, etc. But the best advice is always aimed at avoiding interactions; know the mating and hibernating seasons, handle food, food scraps and food garbage correctly and MAKE NOISE!

7 Replies

my bear encounter while on the John Muir Trail in the Sierras


REI Member Since 1979


Saw your video, you handled it correctly. Congrat's. Don't engage more than necessary, well done. Obviously an adult Griz', I could see it tense-up when it became aware of you and (rather casually) cast for a scent. It obviously had seen people before, it was not shaken enough to stop looking for food. "Circling" was its way to avoid you while continuing on its way.


Unlikely to be a grizzly in the Sierras.  The last known grizzly in Ca was shot in 1922.

The last fatal bear attack in Ca that I could find was in 2008 and that was a performing Brown bear that got fed up and killed its trainer.  Most bear attacks here seem to be on the edges of towns.  I haven't found a report of a wilderness attack.  The generally well observed bear can and strategic bear box policy has made encounters along the JMT rare.

There is a large population of Black bears in the Sierras.  There are estimated to be about 30,000 in Ca total.   You are most likely to encounter them in heavily visited areas like Yosemite NP.  The only ones I have seen are in town in South Lake Tahoe and in a tree at Kirkwood ski resort.  I have heard them trying to get into garbage container in Yosemite and friends saw a mother and cub near a trail at Glacier Point at the height of tourist season.

Attacks by mountain lions are becoming a bit more common here as their population rebounds but again it's mostly not a wilderness phenomenon but suburbia encroaching.  Since they are carnivores and will stalk and surprise I think there is a bit more reason to be concerned about them if you are out alone in the twilight hours.

Stairs and bathrooms are far more dangerous and old age seems to be eventually fatal.

As an addendum, I thought I's add this: ONCE AND FOR ALL... DO I... OR DON’T I... FIGHT?!

I find too many people get this part wrong, mainly because it’s a nuanced answer that requires explanation, and it REQUIRES people to educate themselves and remain calm (two traits I don’t attribute to most people) enough to correctly evaluate the situation. DON'T depend on any advice in a RHYME!

First, learn how to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear (you’re more likely to encounter a black bear), black bears are typically far more timid and are more likely to be fended-off, grizzly attacks are far more critical. Next, bears in the frontcountry behave differently toward people than in the backcountry, meaning if a bear is used to seeing people (i.e. in the frontcountry), they are less likely to run away, but they are not necessarily more likely to attack. Backcountry bears are more likely to attack because they are more likely to consider you as possible prey.

However, the REAL question is NOT whether it’s a grizzly or a black bear, it’s whether they are in defense mode or predatory mode! Examples of defense mode behavior are the bear may snort, vocalize (bears don’t “growl”), swat the ground, extend its lips or even stand on its hind legs (this is a sign its just trying to decide what you are or if you’re a threat). Black bears are more likely to make noises, bluff-charge, etc. because they are trying to warn you off. More serious/dangerous situations/behavior are a mother bear protecting its young, protecting food, a mating partner or simply being surprised by you.

Presuming other steps/measures are unsuccessful, when a bear is in predatory mode, their demeanor reflects predatory behavior; they don’t make noise, instead they make an effort to be stealthy and they assume stalking behavior such as approaching you from behind with head held low and ears back. Overt predatory behavior includes entering a shelter/tent. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings, particularly in the backcountry. Periodically look around, if your instinct tells you you’re being watched/followed, you're probably right, look around and make noise!

If the bear is in predatory mode (more likely a grizzly), it means the bear does not see you as “human”, it likely sees you as possible prey (or at least is investigating you as possible prey). Fortunately, even a grizzly in predatory mode can be scared off by making noise, making yourself look big, throwing whatever’s at hand at it, etc., anything to snap it out of its predatory mindset. Now, here’s the critical part…

If the bear is in defense mode, it’s attacking because it saw you as a threat for some reason, NOT because it’s "angry" or hungry! So the thing to do is to present as little threat as possible. This means taking a defensive position. Do NOT go strait to the “fetal position”, that's your fall-back strategy! Instead, get into “The Turtle” position: knees and elbows on the ground, arms and legs in tight, lowest possible center of gravity, and no matter what happens, keep your hands and fingers protecting the back of your neck!!! (if you are wearing a backpack, even better). The bear will likely try to flip you, but limit your defense to staying in position, DO – NOT – FIGHT – BACK!!! Fighting back against a bear in defense mode will just prolong the attack! If it manages to flip you over, then you can try the fetal position, but your injuries are likely to be much more severe. When the bear is satisfied the threat is over, it will move on.

If the bear is in predatory mode, FIGHT – BACK! In this case, the bear has decided you are prey, period! Again, black bears are more likely to be fended off, if you can grab a rock, focus your attack on its nose, eyes, face.Grizzlies are larger and require more food, so it’s unlikely it will stop once an attack has begun. (But make no mistake, the smaller black bear is every bit as capable of decapitating a person with a single swipe of its paw!). In these cases, a gun may be your only defense.

Also, I would urge caution when coming to another’s defense without a gun, unlike cougars (who have been known to maintain it's bite on a victim's head despite being stabbed in the eye with a pen by a rescuer), bears are known to leave a victim to go after a would-be rescuer, then return to the victim after killing the rescuer.



There are localities without bears.  All of the islands within Channel Islands National Park are bear free.  you still must guard your chow because there are plenty of mice and island foxes, who correctly regard people as prime food sources.

I appreciate your stats on wildlife fatalities. Do you have comparable figures on fatalities from falls and slips, firearm accidents, and drownings?  I was struck by the prominence of drowning in the fatality stats in Tucson - second most frequent fatality behind falls.  Flash floods can be extremely deadly....Far more hazardous than critters..

Somewhere I have read tht honey bees kill about 50 people per year (analphylactic shock, I imagine)..

I wonder if more people are killed/seriously injured by the forearms they were carrying for defense from bears than by the bears themselves.



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[be sure to read the "addendum" I posted on whether to fight back]

> [California] Channel Islands

Yep, including Catalina. Typically you just have to be aware of rattlesnakes (on Catalina, bison)

> stats on other situations?

No, I don't have stats with me other than what I've already mentioned (i.e. hiking produces far more SAR missions (more than climbing, kayaking, fishing, etc.))

> falls, floods, etc...

As Ive said before, "In the wilderness, YOU are your biggest problem!" I would say IGNORANCE is a chronic problem: Ignorance of what to expect, ignorance of how to plan and prepare, ignorance of the need for proficiency (including being physically fit), etc.

> Bees and bears...

Yes, even with the incursion of Africanized honey bees, anaphylactic shock (allergy) more of a concern than actually being killed by the bee venom itself. As to bear attacks, the typical attack results in mauling injuries to the back of the head and raking injuries to the back from the bear's claws. If the bear manages to get a hold of an arm or leg, those injuries are typically puncture wounds from bites.

As to being killed/injured by FIREarms, remember that bear attacks are exceeding rare and deaths by bear are rare in the extreme! So, yes, I'm sure deaths/injuries from a firearm (i.e. hunting accidents) would be far more common.


No rattlesnakes on either San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, or Santa Barbara Islands (the national Park).  There is a nonpoisonous snake on Santa Rosa,however.

The bison on Santa Catalina are exotic, as were the cattle, deer, elk, and pigs formerly found on someof the other islands.  Theexotics are now gone from the park islands and it is making an huge difference as vegetation rebounds.

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