Bears will typically only charge people if they feel threatened or (much less likely) challenged. If a bear is startled by your presence, or you have inadvertently given off a menacing vibe, you may trigger an aggressive response. Outside of that, bears usually want nothing to do with you and would rather just go about their day.
Some bears can be curious, genuinely interested in who you are without any suspicion. If that’s the case, you don’t need to worry about them charging. Simply remain calm, try not to startle it, and back away slowly. Most bear encounters are completely neutral and safe- very few become dangerous.
Bears are generally shy and prefer to avoid humans, but there are some circumstances where bears may charge people. Some reasons why bears may attack humans include:
- Defensive behavior: The most common reason for a bear to charge is defensive behavior, particularly when a bear perceives a threat to itself, its cubs, or its food. If a bear feels cornered, surprised, or if it perceives you as a potential threat, it may become aggressive. This is more likely to happen in situations where a bear is surprised at close range, such as surprising a bear at a close distance or getting between a bear and its cubs or a food source.
- Protective behavior: A mother bear, especially with cubs, may charge to protect her offspring. Bears are highly protective of their young, and if they perceive a potential threat to their cubs, they may exhibit aggressive behavior to defend them.
- Food competition: Bears are opportunistic feeders, and if they perceive a human as a competitor for a food source, they may display aggressive behavior. This is more common in situations where bears have become habituated to human food sources, such as campgrounds or improperly stored food.
How to Tell if a Bear is Curious or Dangerous
What’s the difference between a curious bear and an aggressive one? Body language and sounds. A bear that is about to charge may stamp its feet and yawn- these are warning signs to pay attention to. If the bear charges you, use your bear spray as fast as you can. It’s more effective than any other method of deterring the bear and has saved many lives.
You may also encounter a bear who engages in what’s called a “bluff charge”. If this happens, you’re not in grave danger, and you may not want to use bear spray. The bear is asserting itself and telling you to back off; it’s wise to respect it and listen. The signs of a bluff charge are: the bear will have its head up and ears forward, and try to make itself look big. It’s all about intimidation, not attack.
Better than learning how to interpret a bear’s mood is to never get close enough to a bear that it matters. If you talk, sing, or otherwise make noise, you can alert a bear to your presence while you’re still a long ways off- and they’ll usually keep their distance. When this happens, spotting a bear is a great photo opportunity and a cool memory- not a trail tragedy!
The difference between a bluff charge and a real bear charge
A “bluff charge” is a behavior exhibited by bears – they will charge towards humans or other animals but stop short of making contact. This behavior is often used as a warning or intimidation tactic and is meant to scare off the perceived threat without actually attacking. It’s a lot like a bear’s version of getting someone to flinch so you can punch them twice on the arm.
Bluff charges are commonly used by bears in defensive situations, such as when a mother bear is trying to protect her cubs or when a bear feels threatened or cornered. By charging towards a perceived threat, the bear is hoping to make the threat back off and leave the area. They really just want to make a show of force so that you will, from their perspective, leave them alone.
According to the National Park Service, most bear charges are bluff charges, and bears will often give warning signs such as huffing or jaw popping before charging. It’s important to remain calm and avoid running or making sudden movements when encountering a bear, as this can trigger an attack.
It’s also important to note that bluff charges are not always harmless, and they can still be dangerous if the person being charged does not respond appropriately. In some cases, a bear may make contact during a bluff charge if it feels that its warning signals are being ignored.
The best way to get yourself out of a dangerous bear encounter is bear spray – read our recommendations for the best bear spray to make sure you’re safe on the trail.
- National Park Service. (2021). Bear Safety in National Parks. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm
- Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. (n.d.). Bear Safety. Retrieved from https://fwp.mt.gov/fwp-managed/bear/bearsafety
- Fisher, W.A. “How Dangerous Are Bluff Charges?” North American Bear Center, 28 Mar. 2019, bear.org/how-dangerous-are-bluff-charges/.