How to Fend Off a Black Bear (And Look Cool Doing It)

As a professional bear scarer (yes that’s a job), I’ve learned some valuable do’s and don’ts while getting bears to put down the sandwiches and embrace their wildest lives. Let this article be a stepping stone in your journey towards outdoor competency.

Most people I talk to about black bear defense (or hazing) are either terrified of bears or not nearly scared enough. And just like Goldilocks, I want you to get it just right. While all wild animals should be considered dangerous and respected as such, black bear attacks are exceedingly rare, and almost always preventable. 

The first step in looking cool while fending off a black bear is to know thy enemy. Why? Black bears and grizzly bears are well, a whole different species, with different behavior patterns and widely differing deterrence strategies. If you try to scare a brown colored bear in Wyoming like a black bear you might look like an idiot. In fact you might look dead!

Nothing can replace a thorough comprehension of local guidelines; local companies or federal agencies will have information on what you can expect to see in nature and how to react. Always follow their advice and (for starters) never approach a bear. Learning as much as you can about bears and remembering that every bear and every situation is different is critical in looking cool. See my article, “How to Tell a Grizzly from a Black Bear In Two Easy Steps,” to brush up on bear ID, or see the end of this article for additional resources.

When you know for sure what type of bear you’re looking at, the next question to ask yourself is: Does this bear even need a scarin’?

Just because you see a bear in the wild doesn’t mean you have to scare it off. You’ll definitely look pretty uncool if you start screaming at a black bear 300 yards away, napping under a log in the woods. A black bear seen in its natural habitat, at a safe distance, is a beautiful thing. Don’t get any closer, but enjoy the view. A safe viewing distance is generally considered to be about 50 yards, or half a football field. However, it can be possible to startle a bear on a trail. Additionally, bears that are lingering in or near human structures (think houses, parking lots, dumpsters, campsites), definitely better “git to gittin’” before they become too accustomed to human presence (which is virtually always bad for a wild animal). 

If you’ve correctly identified your bear and you know it’s in a space it shouldn’t be, what do you do?? And more importantly, how do you look cool doing it??

Anything done cooly in life is done with confidence, and scaring a bear is no different.

A typical black bear’s MO is “scaredy cat who wants nothing to do with people.” Truly. When confronted with scary things, a black bear will typically seek to flee, often up a tree. This is not true of grizzly bears, whose typical MO is more similar to “f&$k some s#%* up.”

Female black bear eating apples out of a tree. Photo by Meredith Dennis

Remember that you (yes you) are a predator too, and if you act like it, that black bear gonna recognize it. Things that you can do to scare off a black bear are: make noise, look big, and throw things. 

Let’s take those step-by-step. 

Making noise. This includes shouting (my favorite), honking your horn, banging pots together, literally anything. The secret sauce to any noise making approach is volume and consistency. You want to yell the loudest, most aggressively you’ve ever yelled. YOU are the biggest bear in the forest and you need to let those smaller bears know it! Remember that bears that reside around humans are used to noise so it may take a lot of howling to make them uncomfortable. So cue the JLo and do not loose your nerve if you start shouting and the bear just looks at you*. Or runs ten steps then stop and looks back at you (like you’re really uncool or something). 

Pro tip: Being aggressive doesn’t have to mean screaming obscenities in a campground. Yell at it like a bad dog. Everyone knows how to yell at a bad dog, and if you start yelling dog things at it (Oh you know BETTER than that!!!) you’ll calm yourself down, which will help you think clearly, act intelligently, and…importantly, look cool. 

Look big. Listen, there’s only so much you can do to make yourself seem bigger in a stand-off with a bear. You can definitely wave your arms, raise up a jacket, etc, but don’t fret if you’re say, a small woman. I am also a small woman! And I’ve worked with a whole phalanx of women smaller than me that scare bears off all the time, by themselves, with just their voices. You got this. 

Throw things. Take a look at each of your thumbs, and kiss each one gently. Thanks evolution! Throwing things has been a super effective way for me to get black bears going when yelling doesn’t cut it. And once again, don’t worry if you’re bad at throwing things because I am actually the worst at throwing things, and I’ve still scared bears off. You can throw anything EXCEPT FOOD. You will look like an idiot if you throw food because not only will the bear not go away, but you’ll probably teach it some bad habits. I have thrown sticks shorter than 6’’ long and gotten bears to run. So seriously, anything at your disposal: rocks, pine cones, your enemy’s car keys (it was an emergency!!). 

*As will all things, shooing bears has caveats. First, and it should go without saying, but never corner a wild animal. If you want to get a bear out of your yard, make sure there’s a viable way for it to leave. Immediately stop hazing any bear that shows signs of aggression, or if you yourself feel overwhelmed. It is always ok to remove yourself from a situation–and no you won’t look uncool for doing so. Tell your friends it was a baby grizzly and mama wasn’t far behind (I have heard people say that). They probably won’t know the difference anyway (unless they read my articles) and your secret is safe with me. At the end of the day, your safety should be your number one priority.

There you have it. If you want to scare a black bear and look cool you must: know your enemy, survey your location, channel your inner Fonz (that’s still a cool reference), and then go buck wild. 

Additional Resources

BearWise: Great in-depth information on black bears.

NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife: Bulleted list on basic bear hazing. Note: the most recent guidance regarding eye contact with bears is that it does not provoke aggression.

Bear Smart Society: Information on both grizzly and black bear safety.

National Park Service: More information on both grizzly and black bear safety!

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