What should you do if you see a bear? Don't turn and run, expert warns

As folks head outdoors to camp, swim and explore, it's time to prep for potential run-ins with our wild neighbors – bears included.

Last month, a hiker in Wyoming surprised a grizzly bear, causing the bear to attack. The hiker was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Billings, Montana, where he received treatment.

Dr. Jamie Sherman, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, said black bears and grizzly bears are two of the most common in the United States. Most publicized cases of human-bear encounters are going to involve black bears, the smaller of the two, she said. 

"They're startled (or) you catch them off guard, and then they feel threatened," she said. "If they hear you coming from far away, they're more likely to be moving away before you even get to them."

Most publicized cases of human-bear encounters involve black bears.
Grizzly (shown here) and black bears are two of the most common in the United States.

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What to do if you see a bear

Branndon Bargo, assistant director of outdoor adventure at Southwestern University in Texas, has had encounters with dozens of bears, especially while exploring wild Alaska. 

"I've been in parks like Grand Teton National Park, which is right next to Yellowstone, and just been hiking on a trail and seen a black bear ... maybe two feet from the trail," he told USA TODAY. "Here come these tourists ... they walk up, and they just get right in his face and start taking pictures of it."

Here's a tip: don't do that, Bargo said.

Instead, give bears space, he said. Most of the time, they have no interest in humans anyway, he said. 

But what's also important is how you walk away. 

"You do not want to turn and run," Bargo said. "If you see something that's scary, you're going to want to turn and run. A bear that wouldn't have been aggressive now has this predatory response, and it sees this thing running and it wants to chase it."

Running isn't wise, partially because bears can run as fast as horses, and, well, humans can't, Bargo said.

"You just stop what you're doing and let the bear kind of move its way," he said. "You'll be perfectly fine."

He also stressed treating each bear uniquely because they're not all the same.

For example, in grizzly bear territories like Montana, parts of Wyoming, Alaska and Canada, it's best to travel in groups of six or more people, he said.

It's also smart to make yourself look bigger so the bears don't mistake you for smaller prey, he said.

If the bear seems agitated or aggressive, move toward it, assert yourself and possibly pick up a rock and throw it, he said. You can also scream to match the bear's behavior, he said.

"They're not really wanting to attack you or fight you," Bargo said. "They're just saying 'Hey. Get out of the way.' That yelling or screaming just kind of says 'Hey, look ... I'm not scared of you.'"

With black bears, it's recommended to back away and remain calm, which Bargo realizes is hard to do.

"How I always do it if I'm near a bear is to talk to the bear to let it know that I'm something different," he said. "I'm talking to it calmly."

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Preventing run-ins with bears: Do you have food? What about bear spray?

Sherman, from UC Davis, offered a few tips to be "bear aware," such as using bear bells to let them know you're near.

It's almost "like a cowbell that you attach to your belt," she said.

She also said those spending time outdoors may not realize everyday items could attract bears, such as dog food, so make sure food containers are secured.

"Usually, when you come in contact with a black bear, it's going to be related to them wanting food," she said. "They're hungry, especially as you get into the late summer, early fall season. They go through a process where they're really trying to bulk up in preparation for hibernation."

Even scents on lotions and shampoos can attract them.

Bargo, from Southwestern University, said bear spray is good to keep in your bag too. It's like "really strong mace," and yes, it works. Some experts recommend carrying two bottles just in case they end up spraying it when the bear is too far away, he said.

Also, it's better to keep the spray on a belt versus in a backpack – that way, there's no digging or fumbling around during emergencies, said Sherman.

Other animals to look out for while exploring: Mountain lions, ticks

Other animals that outdoor lovers may want to look out for include mountain lions, according to the National Park Service.

Described as generally "calm, quiet and elusive," mountain lions often live in areas with lots of prey and cover, like Point Reyes National Seashore in California. The National Park Service said that although mountain lion attacks are rare, it's possible.

"Even so, the potential for being killed or injured by a mountain lion is quite low compared to many other natural hazards," the park service said on its website. "There is a far greater risk, for example, of being killed in an automobile accident with a deer than of being attacked by a mountain lion."

But if you should come across one, the organization recommends making eye contact and avoiding crouching down or bending over. 

"A person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal," the park service said on its website. If you're in mountain lion habitat, avoid squatting, crouching, or bending over, even when picking up children."

Bargo, from Southwestern University, said other animals humans may encounter include a tiny, often overlooked predator – the tick.

"The problem with ticks is they create long-term issues – Lyme disease and other types of really complicated complex diseases," he said. "It creates all kinds of joint issues and really bad, harmful long-term side effects."

To ward them off, Bargo said to use tick spray or wear long-sleeved shirts and pants. Tucking your pants into your socks to keep them from climbing up your legs is also an option, he said.

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at