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Bear Safety Tips

Bear Identification, Awareness & Safety

Most all of Montana and much of the country are home to black bear, with grizzly bear roaming a handful of western states as well. Both of these bear species can be found in low elevation farmland or atop a mountain peak above timberline. So wherever you may roam, it’s good practice to know bear identification, and safety. 


    Identification can be difficult at a distance, but there are a number of characteristics to look for. The claws are your best identification feature.

A black bear will have darker claws roughly 1.5” long, and likely not even visible under normal situations.

A grizzly usually has lighter, ivory colored claws approximately 3” long and likely visible on the paw while walking. A grizzly also has a distinct shoulder hump of powerful muscle that is the tallest feature of the bear's profile while down on all four legs.  A black bear lacks this distinct hump, and the rump is usually taller than the rest of the bears profile when on all fours.  Keep in mind, that the body position or the movement of the bear, may make this hump indiscernible on a grizzly.

The side profile of a black bear’s face is usually straight or sloped downward and away from the brow towards the nose, with noticeably taller, pronounced ears.

A grizzly face profile is more concave or dish-shaped from the brow to the nose, almost as if an up-turned snout. The head usually looks wider from a front view as well, with thicker fur protruding on each side of the face, similar to a lions mane. The ears are usually quite short in comparison to the head size.

Many people make the mistake of assuming a black bear is black and a grizzly is brown. This couldn’t be more incorrect.

A black bear can be black, brown, tan, cinnamon, blond, or some blend or combination of the above.

A grizzly’s color can vary from black to blond as well, making color a poor choice for identification.

Grizzlies are generally larger than black bears, but this may vary as well, depending on gender, age, food availability , health and locality. 


Generally, grizzly bears are more aggressive than black bears, and should be treated differently if encountered. Every situation is unique however, and each bear may behave unexpectedly. A bear of either species that is following or stalking you, may be displaying predation with the intent of killing or eating you.  In this situation, do not run!  Back away slowly while making noise and talking, so the bear is fully aware that you are a human.

If attacked by a predatorial bear, fight for your life. 

Generally, if encountering a black bear, talk and make noise, do not run, and back away from the situation. If charged, stand your ground or back away slowly while making noise and arm motion, making yourself appear larger and aggressive.  Use bear spray or a firearm as determined necessary. 

Fight for your life if attacked. 

If encountering a grizzly, try to remove yourself from the situation without running as well. If charged, back away slowly while making noise and talking. Use bear spray or a firearm as determined necessary.  If attacked, play dead in a prone position, face down, arms wrapped around the back and sides of your head, protecting the back of your neck and your face.  If rolled over or flipped, immediately roll back to your stomach, face down, arms behind your head, once again giving protection to the back of your neck, face and vitals. Focus on survival and blocking out the pain while resisting the urge to scream, fight back or flee. 

It is quite amazing what the human body and mind can endure in a survival situation, with focused attention. Do not give up the will to survive! In your head, tell yourself over and over “Don’t move! Don’t move! I will survive! The bear will leave.”

It is likely that the encounter will be of a short duration. Leave the area immediately following an attack and administer first aid when you have retreated to a safer area. Get medical assistance as soon as possible. It is a good idea to have at least a basic knowledge of first aid or backcountry survival. You may need to know how to apply a tourniquet or bandages to slow bleeding. 

Most likely, a grizzly attack develops from one of three reasons.

A female protecting her cubs. A bear guarding its food source. Or a surprise encounter, threatening the animal.

In these three situations, the bear will usually retreat if the threat is minimized, returning to check on her cubs, its' food source, or it may just leave the area to avoid human contact.

At this time, retreat as well, and seek medical attention if necessary. 



1. Always carry bear spray in bear country, even on a popular trail with heavy traffic and a bear encounter is unlikely. It may be unlikely, but not impossible. 

2. Do not carry or rely on expired bear spray or spray that has been left in sub-freezing temperatures. It’s range and potency may have been jeopardized. 

3. Carry the bear spray in an easily accessible holster or clip on your waist belt or a chest harness. It must be immediately visible to you and instantly accessible. A bear can run up to 40 miles per hour, leaving you with no time to spare, fumbling with your spray. Do not attach the bear spray to the side or back of your backpack, behind your waist, or under a garment. Every second counts, so immediate access and deployment is key. 

4. Repeatedly practice deploying your bear spray from the holster and removing the safety clip to improve speed and efficiency. This “muscle memory" response may just save your life. If you have an expired bear spray or an inert can of training spray, deploy and spray to further improve your speed and accuracy. Obviously, do not spray into the wind, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling bear spray. 

5. If you are trained and comfortable carrying a weapon or handgun, carry the largest caliber you are comfortable with shooting, that can easily be drawn and fired.  Again, practice is key here as well. 

6. Remove your headphones or ear buds when hiking in bear country or anywhere wild animals are active. A bear or mountain lion may stalk you or attack from any direction. Deer, elk or Moose can be very dangerous as well, especially if protecting their new-born. Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to sights and sounds.

7. Know something about bear identification and behavior. It can vary greatly between species. 

8. Travel in groups when possible, and make noise or talk regularly so you don’t surprise a bear up close. 

9. If you do see a bear, back away slowly and avoid the area until the animal has moved on. 

10. If possible, be well versed in backcountry first aid and survival, and carry the necessary safety items, along with a cell phone, two way radio, or PLB (personal locating beacon) for communication in an emergency situation.

Enjoying the outdoors may be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have, so don’t shy away from it. Just be aware and prepared.

Animal attacks are extremely rare, and you will likely be lucky to just see a bear or mountain lion fleeing the area. 

Be prepared with the proper training, knowledge, and equipment, just in case the rare incident does occur, but don’t let those thoughts or fears keep you from the enjoyment and experience of being outdoors.


Todd Orr. 

2X grizzly attack survivor. Bozeman, Montana. 

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