You’re headed down a trail through the brush. You’re alone and tired, it’s late, and your head is down, watching the trail in front of you. Then, you turn a sharp corner and come face to face with a tough-looking black bear with two cubs scuttled around her feet. The animal turns to face you and snarls. It stamps its foot. It lays back its ears. You freeze in your tracks, and your mind races.
What should you do if the animal starts to charge? Fight or flight?
A bit of pre-planning for this type of situation can go a long way toward saving your life. Your response to an animal charge could easily be the difference between life and death, and you need to have the confidence and presence of mind to act decisively and quickly.
However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to handle a deadly animal charge. Should you run or stand your ground? Maintain eye contact or avoid making eye contact? Is the animal charging you to defend its territory or its young, protect a kill, or make you its next meal? Either way, the consequences can be deadly.
Let’s take a look at some of the deadliest animals in North America to better understand why they charge people and what you can do to optimize your chances of survival.
It may well go against every instinct you have, but if you find yourself on the wrong side of a bear charge, don’t run. Even a slow bear is going to outrun you, and the last thing you want is to act like prey in the face of a predator. Now is the time to get out your bear spray or any other weapon you might have at hand and stand your ground.
After that first, cardinal rule of not running if charged by a bear, your response depends, in part, on the type of bear you’re dealing with. There are three major types of bears in North America, and their reasons for charging can vary.
“Polar bears rarely bluff, so if you are charged, be prepared to fight like hell.”
Grizzly Bear: A grizzly’s size makes it one of the most formidable predators in the world. If you find yourself being charged by a grizzly, know that the charge may only be a bluff. In a bluff charge, a bear will run right at you at top speed but then veer off at the last minute. Stand tall, firm, and get ready to use your bear spray as soon as the bear is in range (usually 25 feet or fewer). Of course, there is no way to know in advance what the bear will do, and, while it is rare, grizzlies will attack and even kill people.
If a grizzly knocks you down, first try to play dead. Curl up into a ball and protect your head and neck with your arms. Frequently, the bear will stop its attack after a short period of time, particularly if you’re attacked by a mother with cubs. If the attack becomes prolonged—that is, the bear is trying to eat you—stop playing dead and fight back with any weapon available.
Black Bear: Black bears are, by far, the ones you are the most likely to run into in the lower 48 states. In a few states, black bears have become accustomed to entering small communities to scavenge for food, so dangerous encounters are a real possibility. At the height of summer, a black bear needs to eat 20,000 or more calories a day, and your groceries are an easier way to get those calories than whatever berries might be around.
You can help to protect yourself from black bears in the backcountry by carrying an odor-resistant bag for your food and practicing proper food storage by hanging your food from a tree or using a bear canister.
Keep in mind that most fatal black bear attacks in North America are the result of male black bears silently stalking one or two people in the backcountry. You can increase your odds of survival by traveling in groups and staying aware of your surroundings at all times.
Although they are smaller than grizzlies, black bears are often highly aggressive. If you are charged by a black bear, stand your ground, but do not play dead if the bear knocks you down.
Polar Bear: Polar bears are extremely dangerous. They live in a harsh, barren landscape, where food sources can be few and far between. Significantly less accustomed to humans than black bears, polar bears are known for stalking people for food. When you are in polar bear country, be alert at all times to your surroundings and mindful of all weapons and avenues of escape at hand. Polar bears rarely bluff, so if you are charged, be prepared to fight like hell.
A moose is one of the most unpredictable animals in the backcountry. A general rule of thumb is to stay 25 yards away from a moose, but there are so many caveats to this—including young males, a cow with a calf, and anything to do with rutting season—that it’s best to stay way, way back from a moose.
If you’re in the vicinity of a moose, watch for signs that the moose is becoming agitated. These can include the hair standing up on its rump, the moose laying back its ears, or smacking their lips. If a moose starts to approach you, back up slowly and look for shelter behind a big tree or other large obstacle.
If a moose charges you, you’ll want to run, and run fast. Moose can reach speeds of up to 35 mph and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. In most situations, a moose will stop charging after it has decided you’re far enough out of its territory. However, if it catches up and knocks you to the ground, curl up into a ball and protect your head and neck with your arms. Wait until the moose has moved on before attempting to get up, or it may resume its attack.
Moose have a reputation for being ornery—and for good reason. There won’t always be warning signs from a moose that it is about to charge. Whenever you are in the presence of a moose, be aware where your nearest avenue of escape is.
Despite their comparatively benign appearance, bison will charge and gore anyone it thinks has gotten too close. These are rarely false charges, and there can be little doubt what will happen if a 2,000-pound animal runs you down.
Fortunately, bison typically frequent grassland and other open areas, making it much harder to come across them unaware. If you do find yourself in a bison’s space, however, remember that, like moose, bison are unpredictable and can easily reach speeds of up to 35 mph.
Despite their size, they can pivot quickly, so watch the bison for any warning that it might be about to charge. This includes tail-raising, snorting, food-stomping, and shaking its head back and forth. If you see any of these signs, back away slowly.
Don’t assume that you’ll be safe if you decide to take cover in your car, because bison have been known to charge cars. When driving through bison country, use precaution, drive slowly, and avoid honking your horn.
“…bison have been known to charge cars.”
It is extremely rare to run across a mountain lion, because they do everything possible to avoid human contact. If you happen to be one of the lucky (or unlucky) few to run across one in the backcountry, practice extreme caution.
First, consider the conditions under which you’ve encountered the mountain lion. Are you near its den? Is there a kill nearby it might be protecting? Are you between a cat and her kittens? Identify the source of the mountain lion’s anxiety and start to back away from it slowly.
Keep your eyes on the mountain lion at all times. Do not run; as with wolves and bears, the mountain lion’s predatory instinct will take over. If the mountain lion starts to approach you at all, make yourself as large as possible by waving your arms above your head, yelling, and throwing sticks or rocks. Maintain eye contact with the cat, and make sure it has an avenue of escape when it’s ready to disengage.
If you are charged, fight back with everything you’ve got. Generally, mountain lions will only attack people if they are desperate, so do everything thing you can to convince them that you are not an easy meal source.
While wolf attacks remain a rarity, their population is on the rise in many parts of the western United States. If you live in an area with an active wolf population, take precautions to protect yourself and your family. Ensure that it can’t access the garbage outside your home. Keep your dog leashed. Never leave small children unattended. Like bears, wolves are predators. If a wolf is acting aggressively toward you or is just curious, do not run and do not turn your back. But, unlike with mountain lions, try to avoid making eye contact with the wolf. A wolf might interpret eye contact as a direct threat and become increasingly hostile.
“If a wolf snarls at you, take heart—wolves are not known to snarl at their prey before attack.”
If a wolf approaches you, wave your arms, yell, and generally treat the wolf like it’s a bad dog. If the wolf snarls at you, take heart—wolves are not known to snarl at their prey before attack. If it continues to approach you, throw rocks, continue yelling, and prepare to use your bear spray or any other weapon at hand.
Keep a Sharp Eye
In the backcountry, the best offense is a good defense, so take the time to better understand the dangers you might encounter. If you are traveling on public land, call your nearest ranger station to learn about any problematic wildlife situations you might encounter. Make sure all members of your party are prepared to deal with dangerous animal encounters in case everyone is separated.
Finally, if you find yourself staring down your worst nightmare, stop and ask yourself: Fight or flight?
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.