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What to Do If You Encounter a Bear on a Trail Run

Here's how to stay safe when trail running in bear country — five encounter scenarios and how to react to each.

Fall is prime trail running season. Colorful leaves, low light, and cooler temps can make hitting the trails sublime. Fall also, obviously, leads into winter. And what do bears do before hibernating for months in the winter? They’re busy fattening up for a long sleep. They’re not looking to eat you—they’re mostly vegetarian. But they are actively looking for food, which means they’re out and about, potentially on or around trails you’re running, increasing the chances of an encounter.

Black bears are more common than grizzlies in North America, but grizzlies are the more aggressive species and roam in the northern reaches of the country: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and Alaska.

What to do when encountering a bear can be a complicated matter. According to experts, your actions following a bear sighting highly depend on the type of encounter. Most bears are afraid of or uninterested in humans. A threatened bear, however, or the very rare predatory bear, can become a serious issue.

If you run where bears are known to be active, it’s a good idea to carry EPA-approved bear spray where you can grab it quickly (not on your back), and know how to use it. It’s important to read bear spray instructions beforehand — spray duration and distance vary among brands. That said, just because you see a bear, doesn’t mean you need to — or should — use spray.

Here’s a rundown of the various types of bear encounters, and how to react to each.

Encounter 1: You see a bear and it doesn’t see you.

  • Stay calm.
  • Back away slowly.

Encounter 2: A bear sees you.

  • Stay calm.
  • Talk in quiet tones, telling the bear you’re a human.
  • If the bear returns to doing bear things, back away slowly, as you would if the bear had never seen you.

Encounter 3: A bear sees you and charges.

  • Stand your ground. (The charge may be a bluff.)
  • Use your bear spray. It’s advised to start to spray a charging bear when it is 30 to 60 feet away.

Encounter 4: A bear charges and makes contact.

  • Drop to the ground and play dead by covering the back of your neck with your hands and protecting your face with your forearms, elbows on the ground.  
  • Play dead for longer than you think you need to. A bear may sniff you or simply watch you to make sure you are no longer a threat before leaving. If you move too early, you’ll likely regain its attention.

Encounter 5: A bear is stalking you.

  • A predatory bear will be intent and focused on you. It will approach you with its head up and ears erect. If you think a bear is following you, make a 90-degree turn and walk 100 to 300 yards, make another 90-degree turn, and walk another 100 to 300 yards, and so on. It may just be curious and leave you alone once its curiosity is satisfied.
  • Be aggressive toward the bear from the get-go: Talk loudly, wave your arms, look as big as possible, and throw things, showing the bear that you are not easy prey while you walk and turn, walk and turn.

An encounter with a predatory bear is extremely rare, but knowing how to react is important. Spotting a non-predatory bear while on a run can be magical, and peaceful, for both parties — if the human party knows how to best react for safety.


Adapted from Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running by Lisa Jhung with permission of VeloPress.

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