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Friday, September 16, 2011

When You Meet a Bear

This article is taken from one of my recent survival columns at Outside Magazine. To read additional articles, visit   -Many thanks to colleague and friend David Cronenwett for sharing his wealth of backcountry know-how and insight into bears. 

What's the most dangerous animal in the lower 48? How do I protect myself from it?

In my experience, other than running into a shady two-legged, the bear is the most dangerous large animal in the backcountry. Given much-publicized attacks by grizzly bears in recent years, I thought I would focus on them and spoke with wildlife educator and northern-skills expert David Cronenwett who lives in the heart of bear country in Montana where his job regularly takes him in sight of these amazing creatures.
This is the right, front foot of an adult black bear.
 David recommends, that if you run into a Griz at close range and they are not aware of your presence, then it’s generally best to quietly leave the area. He says that “if you bump into one that knows you are there, turn sideways slightly and avert your stare, since bears recognize a full-frontal gaze as a threat (predatory stare).  Talk to the animal in an unthreatening voice and pull your pepper spray from its not arm the can unless a charge is in progress.” 

Cronenwett, also states that “bears generally do not want to fight; it’s a dangerous waste of energy and most Grizzlies by far do not recognize humans as prey.  Sure there are exceptions, but most of the recent incidents have involved mothers with young and defensive actions.”  The vast majority of the time, a Grizzly will go the other way if given a chance. 
The top plaster cast is from an adult black bear. The bottom is from a black bear cub. Both are front feet.
 His advice from many years on the trail: “Keep a clean camp, make noise around blind corners and in brushy spots, hang/bear box your food, be alert (hugely important), understand how to recognize bear sign (rub trees, scat, tracks) avoid camping near carcasses, camp away from trails (since critters use them for the same reasons we do) and carry pepper spray.  The effectiveness of pepper spray is undisputed; practice "drawing" and arming it regularly.  This device isn't perfect but far more effective and easier to use than firearms.  Taking a snoutful of pepper spray is a powerful deterrant to a charge.”

David’s wilderness skills training school that focuses on bear ecology can be seen at

About Ancient Pathways

Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. When not on the trail, he lives in a passive-solar, strawbale home in northern Arizona. For information on Tony’s books, gear, or bushcraft courses, visit

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