Published March 16, 2021
No matter how prepared you feel to encounter a black bear on the trail, coming face-to-face with one of these wild creatures can be jarring (speaking from experience).
Maybe it’s because of their 4-inch claws. Or, how they have a biting force strong enough to crack a bowling ball. Or maybe, it’s because they look a lot bigger than first imagined when they're standing only a few feet away.
Though black bears are omnivores and non-aggressive by nature, they will act defensively if they feel threatened. Since coming across one is a high probability for avid hikers or any who venture regularly into bear country, it’s best to know what to do when that happens.
In this post, we’re covering all things black bears, sizing up other animals to be aware of, along with sharing tips from experts like the National Park Service (NPS) and the American Hiking Society (AHS) for how to stay safe on the trail.
Are black bears dangerous?
Compared to grizzlies and mountain lions, black bears are the preferable wild animal you’d want to see on a hike. They are surprisingly timid and aren’t aggressive by nature.
It’s predicted there are around 800,000 black bears in North America living from Canada to Mexico, and everywhere in-between. Statistically, hikers have thousands of interactions with bears every year, very few resulting in physical injury or death.
There’s less than 1 black bear attack a year in the United States, and according to the NPS, the chances of being injured by a bear are 1 out of 2.1 million. Since 1900, there have been 67 fatalities in North America linked to black bears. That's roughly one fatality every other year. We describe the most recent ones down below.
Why might a black bear attack me?
In most situations they try to avoid humans altogether, acting aggressively only if they feel threatened or frightened.
Being an animal that relies heavily on scent, they’re often drawn into camps or residential areas because of curiosity peaked from strong odors put off by food or dumpsters.
Most black bear attacks occur when a person surprises a bear or gets too close, causing the bear to act defensively (especially if mama bear is walking around with her cubs). Rarely, there have been episodes where a black bear has acted predatorily.
Can they really hurt me?
A black bear charging you is no joke. These guys can weight up to 200 lbs if it's a female and 700 lbs if it's a male. When standing up on their feet, they can measure up to 7 feet. When attacking, bears are known to swing their paws and cause severe scratches with their short, curved claws. Their bite isn't nearly as strong as a grizzly's (about half the force), but depending on its location, would also be enough to put someone's health and life at risk.
When benchmarked against other animal attacks, black bears aren’t the animal to be most worried about. Attacks are incredibly rare, especially compared to other animals that hikers are much more likely to encounter.
The below figures are yearly estimates based on available historical data. United States only.
MOSQUITOS: 100s of Deaths Each Year
Yup, you read that right. Mosquitos make the list, and not only that, these virus-carrying insects are some of the deadliest animals on earth. According to the American Mosquito Control Association, mosquito-related diseases like West Nile, Yellow Fever, Malaria, Dengue, and Zika are responsible for hundreds of deaths every year in the U. S and millions worldwide.
The worst part is these suckers are everywhere, except for maybe Antarctica. But there are preventative measures you can take that include covering up, keeping your camp clean, using mosquito repellents, and staying away from stagnant water sources and damp, grassy areas. Additionally, mosquitos like to come out during cooler times like dusk or dawn and they avoid the hottest parts of the day.
BEES, HORNETS AND WASPS: 62 Deaths a Year On Average
There are 20,000 different species of bees in the world. Well-known for their role in the production of honey, and their powerful sting, these little creatures can become life-threatening to people who experience an allergic reaction when stung.
Since 2000 alone, the CDC reports that bee stings have killed over 1,000 people, with an average of around 62 deaths per year.
The best way to avoid getting stung? According to the CDC, they suggest evading bright-colored clothing, colognes, perfumes, or lotions with powerful scents, and being extra aware around flowers. Also, don’t swat at the bee. Bee’s attack when they feel threatened.
TICKS: 40,000 New Reports of Tick-Borne Illnesses Each Year
Ticks are most active in Spring and Summer and are often found in tall grass and brush. They can carry several diseases, and according to the AHS, the most probable threats to hikers are Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The CDC reports over 30,000 cases of Lyme Disease and 4,000-6,000 tick-borne spotted fevers (including RMSF) a year.
If treated in time, tick-borne illnesses rarely turn serious. A few recommendations from the AHS include wearing light-colored clothing (as this deters ticks), wearing long pants and tucking them into your shoes, using EPA-approved bug spray, and performing a “tick check” when exiting a trail—either visually or by showering and washing your clothes shortly after.
SPIDERS: 7 Deaths a Year on Average
The bad boys here are the brown recluse and the black widow whose venom is toxic to humans, leading to an average of 7 deaths a year in the U.S. While brown recluses primarily live in the south and Midwest, black widows are found nationwide.
Both critters like to hide in spots like rock or woodpiles, holes, in trees, or tucked in discarded shoes, clothing, or sleeping bags.
Preventative measures to keep from getting bit include resisting reaching blindly into areas where spiders like to hang out, avoiding resting against rock piles or trees, and always double-checking your sleeping bag, attire, and boots before slipping into them.
To spiders, humans are not a meal. They avoid us when they can help it, but they will fight back if provoked or surprised.
GRIZZLIES: 45 Attacks Per Year
In a study published by Scientific Reports, there were 664 grizzly attacks reported worldwide from 2000 to 2015 with 14% of these attacks being fatal. Many of the victims were lone, adult hikers, and over half of the run-ins involved female grizzlies and their cubs.
VENOMOUS SNAKES: 7,000 to 8,000 Bites a Year
In the U.S., the CDC reports that around 7,000-8000 people are bitten by venomous snakes a year. Yet surprisingly, only about 5-6 of these bites result in fatalities. Those most at risk are people in remote areas where medical attention and antivenom are not readily available.
Many snake attacks occur because the reptile feels threatened and is reacting out of self-defense, or because it’s confused, believing the hand or foot of a person is a smaller animal.
As for how to avoid snakes, most like to chill in cool, shaded, or damp areas. The AHS says the best practices to avoid getting bitten are to stay on trails, always watch where you step, and avoid rock and woodpiles and tall grass.
Also, no night hiking. This is when snakes are most active. And if you’re in snake territory, wearing boots, pants, and snake gaiters is a good idea.
ALLIGATORS, CRORODILES AND MOUNTAIN LIONS: Less than 1 death per year
As for mountain lions and alligators, the probability of an attack is low. We count less than 25 fatalities caused by mountain lions in the U.S. in the last 100 years and less than 1 death/year in the U.S. caused by crocodiles and alligators (41 fatalities since the early 1700s).
Below are the eleven wild black bear attacks that occurred between 2010-2021.
Date: September 21st, 2020
Victim: Renee Levow, Female, 53
Levow was walking her two German Shepherds through her wooded neighborhood one evening when her female dog spotted a bear near the woods and chased after it. The bear swiped at the dog, and the dog then returned Levow. Shortly after, a black bear weighing approximately 150 pounds emerged from the woods and charged, attacking Levow as she struggled to fight it off. The bear eventually let up its attack and ran off. Levow was able to call 911 for help, she believes her dogs helped to chase the bear away, aiding in her survival.
Date: July 10th, 2020
Victim: Dave Chernosky, Male, 54
Chernosky awoke in the middle of the night to noises coming from his kitchen, where he found a large black bear digging through his fridge and cupboards—it had entered his home by opening the front door in search of food. Not wanting the bear to go downstairs where his children were asleep, he spoke softly to the bear, successfully ushering it outside and into the garage. When he opened the garage door the bear, startled, charged him. Chernosky then yelled at the bear and was able to scare it off. He called 911 and was treated for his injuries.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Date: July 6th, 2020
A group of five, including three adults and two children, were outside of their tents one evening while camping near the Hellroaring Trailhead when a black bear approached them, biting one of the adults and nipping at one of the children. The bear then went on to consume the camper’s food which had not yet been hung. The group escaped with minor injuries and reported the incident to Yellowstone authorities, who later arrived at the campsite to find the bear still rummaging through the food.
Bear spotted in Yellowstone National Park
Date: December 14th, 2018
Victim: Melinda LeBarron, Female, 50
LeBarron was walking her dog on her property at approximately 6:45 pm when she was attacked by a female black bear. The bear approached her unexpectedly, grabbing her by the leg and pulling her close to 90 yards before it eventually released her and scurried off. LeBarron survived the attack which resulted in broken bones and wounds requiring surgery.
Pinetop Lakeside, Arizona
Date: June 28th, 2011
Victim: Lana Hollingsworth, Female, 61
Lana Hollingsworth was out walking her dog at night at a country club parking lot when she was attacked by a black bear who was rummaging through a nearby dumpster. She survived the attack, undergoing a series of follow-up surgeries, but a month later passed due to a hemorrhage believed to of been linked to the initial encounter. Authorities later found the bear and shot it. The attack is one of six documented bear attacks in Arizona since 1990.
Date: June 24th, 2012
Victim: Peter Baca, Male, 30
While camping with his wife and 1-year old child at the Ponderosa Campground, Baca awoke one morning to a black bear attacking him through their mesh tent. Campers heard Baca’s yells for help, and one camper fired a firearm while others began throwing things and making noise to distract the bear, giving Baca a chance to get away. Baca suffered major injuries and was airlifted to a hospital. He survived, and his wife and child were unharmed.
© Kaibab National Forest (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Delta Junction, Alaska
Date: June 6th, 2013
Victim: Robert Weaver, Male, 64
Weaver and his wife were returning to their remote cabin near George Lake one evening when a black bear attacked. Weaver was killed, while his wife was able to seek shelter in the cabin until authorities arrived. The bear was found and killed by a trooper who was investigating the case, reporting that the bear had been stalking him.
Date: August 15th, 2013
Victim: Abby Wetherell, Female, 12
Wetherell was attacked while jogging around 9 pm on a nature trail near Cadillac, Michigan while visiting her grandparents. The bear attacked once, then stopped, but turned back a second time and Wetherell decided to play dead. After a moment the bear left. Only when it was out of sight did Wetherell run back to her grandparents’ house. She was airlifted to a hospital and underwent two hours of surgery. She’s since recovered and is determined not to let the bear attack dampen her love for the outdoors.
Lake Mary, Florida
Date: April 13th, 2014
Victim: Terri Frana, Female, 44
Frana walked out of her house to check on her children who were bicycling in the area when she spotted two bears in her yard. Once outside, she saw three more bears standing inside her garage eating trash they’d pulled from it. Right after, one charged and attacked her. She was able to get away and make it inside and contact 911. She survived the attack, her injuries including 40 stitches on her scalp and cuts, scrapes, and bruises across her body. Frana’s residence is beside a nature preserve, where bear spotting’s have long been a regular occurrence.
West Milford, New Jersey
Date: September 21st, 2014
Victim: Darsh Patel, Male, 22
Heading out for a day of hiking with friends in the Apshawa Preserve, Patel was warned by a man and woman at a trailhead that a bear had been spotted in the area. Patel and his friends pressed on, running into the bear shortly after where they stopped to take photos of it. When they turned to leave, the bear followed them. The group dispersed, running in different directions. Once reunited at the trailhead, the group found Patel was missing. They called authorities, and Patel’s body was found two hours later.
© Shiv's fotografia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Douthat State Park, Millboro, Virginia
Date: August 8th, 2015
Victim: Laurie Cooksey, Female 52
Cooksey was hiking with her son when they were attacked by a female black bear on the Blue Suck Trail in the Blue Ridge mountains. The duo attempted to get away by going down the side of the mountain, but the bear came after them. Cooksey kicked it, and the bear slipped on the wet ground, allowing them to escape and reunite with her other two children who been on the trail behind them. The bear found them once more, but the group made loud noises to intimidate it. Cooksey survived with injuries; her children unharmed. She didn’t have any food with her and there were no cubs present at the time of the attack. It’s believed that the bear was hunting.
Near the Spence Field Shelter, Townsend TN
Date: May 10th, 2016
Victim: Bradley Veeder, Male, 49
Veeder, a thru-hiker on the Appalachian trail, was sleeping outside of the Spence Field Shelter one evening when a bear bit through his tent, putting two puncture wounds in his leg. The bear ran off once Veeder began yelling and punching at it through his tent. Veeder and the other campers in the area moved to the shelter to wait out the rest of the night. The next morning, they found that the bear had returned during the night and tore through Veeder’s and another camper’s empty tent. Veeder’s wounds were non-life-threatening.
Date: November 16th, 2016
Victim: Karen Osborne, Female, 26
Osborne was walking from her home one evening to her daughter’s house to check on why her dog was barking. Being dark out, she didn’t know that she had accidentally walked right between a mother bear and its cubs. The bear attacked, the encounter lasting longer than thirty minutes with Osborne fighting back the entire time. The bear eventually withdrew, and Osborne managed to use her cell phone to call 911. She survived the attack and believes the bear left because it grew tired.
Date: June 18th, 2017
Victim: Patrick Cooper, Male, 16
Cooper was attacked while competing in the juniors’ division of a mountain race in Alaska called the Bird Ridge trail race. The attack was a rare predatory action, according to Alaska State Parks officials, and an especially rare one being that it happened during a race where crowds were watching and many people were competing. The bear was shot but escaped into the woods.
Pogo Mine, Alaska
Date: June 19th, 2017
Victim: Erin Johnson, Female, 27
While working as a contract employee for Pogo Mine, Johnson was collecting soil samples with a coworker when they were attacked by a black bear. The attack led to Johnson’s death. The coworker was injured but survived. It’s believed that the bear stalked the women before its attack. It was later found and shot by mine personnel.
Black bears are wild animals, and though the number of attacks in the past 100+ years shows they are uncommon, bears can still be just as unpredictable as nature’s temperament tends to be.
Don’t be afraid to make noise when hiking. Whistle, chat with your fellow hikers, or sing if you so feel inclined. Any noise you can make is a way of giving a bear fair warning that you’re passing through.
Pay attention to your surroundings (no earbuds!) and keep an eye out for fresh tracks or droppings.
Stay away from berry patches, streams, and areas with heavy brush—these are black bears' favorite hangouts.
Keep pets on a leash and be sure to check all guidelines for any area you’re hiking into ahead of time. Many areas that venture through bear country don’t allow pets.
When you stop for the night, always keep all food and any scented items in a bear bag at least 15 feet above the ground or a bear canister. Whichever you use, place it at least 100 yards away from your camp.
Try to put distance between where you cook and eat and where you set up your tent. And don’t leave dirty dishes sitting around.
Don’t keep any scented items in your tent! Including wrappers. Bears have a 7X greater sense of smell than a bloodhound, and if they smell something they like, they’ll be coming to explore it.
Keep a clean camp.
Encounter Tips: (provided by the NPS)
Most importantly, stay calm and do not run. Chances are you’ve just got a curious bear on your hands and he’s not looking for a quarrel either.
Don’t give your food to the bear—this will just keep it coming back for more.
If you’re wearing a backpack, keep it on. In the rare circumstance the bear attacks, it can provide additional protection.
Face the bear head-on and do your best to appear as big as possible. Wave your arms and stand up straight. If you’re wearing a jacket or sweater, spread it out to make you look larger.
Don’t yell, but speak in a low voice, calmly to the bear. Try your best not to sound threatening. Hearing your voice will help the bear recognize that you’re a human.
Slowly back away from the bear in a diagonal direction while keeping your eyes on it. This movement is a non-threatening gesture.
Either head back the way you came or try to find a detour around the bear at a safe distance. Whatever you do, be sure to leave the bear lots of space, and make sure it’s not following you.
There’s a chance the bear might act defensively by swatting its paws or huffing. This is the bear’s way of telling you to back up and back off.
Always keep a can of bear spray with you and in close reach when venturing into bear country. Use it only if the bear broaches you, and when it gets within range (read the bear spray instructions ahead of time.)
If a black bear becomes aggressive, don’t play dead like you would with a grizzly. Instead, fight back with everything you have using any object at your disposal to attack the bear in the face and nose.
How big are black bears?
Out of the bear family, black bears are the smallest breed coming in behind grizzlies and polar bears. For black bears, it’s typical for a female to weigh anywhere from 100-200 pounds, while full-grown males can come in between 400-700 pounds. In Fall, they weigh an extra 30%.
Bears reach their largest size between 8-12 years out of their average 25-year life. They can be anywhere from 4 to 7 feet from toes to nose.
How fast can black bears run?
Though black bears are known for their ‘moseying along’ nature while walking, when they run, they can move fast—reaching up near 35 mph.
Can black bears swim?
Black bears have powerful legs, making them excellent swimmers. They have no trouble crossing lakes, ponds, or rivers, and can swim quite fast for many miles.
Can black bears climb trees?
Terrific climbers, black bears' claws allow them excellent grip. It’s not rare to see them scaling up the sides of trees, especially cubs.
Are black bears always black? Can they be brown or white?
‘Black’ bears can vary in color depending on their location, diet, and even sun exposure. They may be black, brown, blond, or grey. In British Columbia, there’s even a black bear with white fun known as the Kermode, or Spirit Bear. Its color is due to rare genetics.
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast who specializes in articles, blog posts, gear reviews, and site content about living the Good Life spent exploring The Great Outdoors. Her favorite days are ones in nature, and her favorite views are any with mountains.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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