I was watching The Revenant today again in which the true story of 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass is told. Hugh Glass was so badly mauled by a grizzly bear near the Missouri River that his mercenary colleagues left him for dead in a shallow grave, from which he duly escaped to seek vengeance.
One of the best scenes for me in the movie is actually the bear attack. It is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking and it has lingered in the public imagination ever since, inviting the question: what should you do if you find yourself facing off against a grizzly that wants you for dinner?
Here in the UK, we don’t have the possibility of running into a wild bear because well, we don’t have any. But if you travel abroad or already live where there may be bears, you need to take the right precautionary measures to prevent an attack from happening in the first place.
If you’re camping or hiking in the woodlands of North America – particularly Canada, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, the Dakotas or Montana – or in parts of northern Europe and Asia, know that it is possible that you could encounter a large bear.
Anytime that you are passing through known bear country, you should be sure to make noise to alert them to your presence. Doing so and you won’t catch them off-guard and trying to sneak through their territory could be seen as the behaviour of a threat and they may initiate an attack as a defensive measure. Talking, clapping or singing aloud could help remove any doubt about your intentions.
As you head through bear country you should always be on the lookout for any evidence of their presence. This could be from excrement on paths to the remains of animal carcasses. If you are lucky enough to spot a cub, rest assured their mother is not far behind and will defend her children to the death. This is where Hugh Glass went so badly wrong. You might not see the mother bear but believe that she is there.
If you have a dog with you, always keep it on a lead and never let them wonder off on their own. If they encounter a bear, they could possibly provoke it, risking getting clawed to pieces themselves or leading an enraged grizz straight back to you.
When eating or preparing food, be sure to do so far away from your campsite. Any leftovers should be sealed in Tupperware boxes as bears have an incredibly powerful sense of smell and might be drawn stright to your campsite.
If you’re proposing to camp, ensure you have a tent large enough to accommodate a makeshift protective wall of rucksacks and equipment inside. This could prove a lifesaving defence in the event that an aggressive bear goes for you in your sleeping bag, a highly rare occurrence but not entirely unknown.
Types of Bear
You need to fully understand how to distinguish what kind of bear that you’re up against.
The grizzly bear is by far the bigger threat and have a pronounced hump of muscle at the shoulder. They can grow as tall as six foot five and have powerful jaws and long, sinister talons, ideal for digging up roots or disembowelling prey. You can distinguish it by its shaggier, silver-tipped fur.
A black bear, by contrast, has no such hump and is far more slender. It can be black but also various shades of brown to blonde. Less aggressive than its larger counterpart, it poses a different threat by being better able to climb trees.
Neither kind wants to attack a human for its own sake and will only do so in response to a perceived threat to themselves or their offspring or if they have reason to believe you might be food – bears are omnivores and will eat almost anything.
If you encounter a grizzly bear, the first thing to remember, as with sharks, is: stay calm and level-headed. If you start screaming and panicking you will alarm the bear and cause it to attack, either to quell a threat or eat you, depending on how it interprets your behaviour.
At all times, make no sudden moves, stay still and speak to it reassuringly in a calm, steady monotone. This at least confirms you are human, a species about which bears are broadly ambivalent. The bear will either walk away or get agitated. If the latter, the bear’s ears will pin back, it will dip its head and nod from side to side, pawing the earth and emitting a low growl of warning.
If it meets your gaze, it is about to attack. Dropping its jaw means it’s about to charge. It might plan to feint by charging at you and halting to see how you react or just knock you straight down.
If you have pepper spray, this is the time to step back and use it. Aim for the eyes and snout to temporarily blind and disorientate the creature. If you ever head into bear country, this piece of equipment is essential as it could just save your life. The good people at UDAP manufacture the market-leading brand, complete with natty “Griz Guard” holster.
Never try to run from the bear unless you have first maced it as although large, grizzly bears can reach speeds of 30mph and they won’t hesitate to bring you down.
If you are charged, you should roll yourself into the foetal position, keeping your backpack on as an added protective shield. The bear will not attack once it believes the threat is suppressed so play dead. And stay down. Grizzlies are suspicious beasts and known to return to the scene to double-check.
Black bears are not as aggressive as the grizzly but if threatened, they are still likely to attack. They are agile and adept at climbing trees so on no account ascend the branches to evade them. You might get away with it in the case of a grizzly but certainly not against a black bear.
Your best option if attacked is to stand your ground and respond in kind rather than hit the deck. Shout, raise your arms to intimidate it and hit it in the eyes and snout with whatever weapons you have to hand, be it a rock, branch or hunting knife. This will hopefully alarm the bear into a retreat.
This may be an unlikely one to encounter for most of us but should you find yourself alone in the Arctic tundra staring down the largest land carnivore on earth, good luck. This is becoming increasing more likely now as polar bears are being driven inland as a result of climate change melting the sea ice it uses as a platform from which to hunt seals and fish.
Intimidation tactics might work with a polar bear but remember they want to eat you rather than simply neutralise a threat. As with the grizzlies, bear spray is your friend here but, honestly, you don’t have a lot of options. They can outrun you on open ice and snow despite weighing a tonne, will not be deterred by attempts to play dead and can kill you with a single swipe of the paw.
I have to say, the chips are decidedly stacked against you on this one.