In bear encounters conflicting advice. Do you make eye contact or not?

Most websites advise you not to make eye contact with bears. Virtually every program I’ve seen on TV or on youtube does the same. Does anyone have direct experience in such matters? I look forward to your feedback.

“My advice to keep your eyes on the bear conflicts with almost every other message given about what to do when you are in close proximity to a bear. I look at the bear to remain dominant while I decrease the threat level with my voice. Others will argue that you should avert your stare because a direct stare is aggressive and may provoke an attack. My experience tells me that this is not the case with bears. Animals that live in group-social environments often have hard, top-down hierarchies. A stare at an alpha chimpanzee or wolf may be perceived as a challenge to its position of authority. Bears are different; they interact and cooperate with strangers on a regular basis and are used to negotiating with unfamiliar individuals.”

Note the author’s remark in an earlier part of the post you quoted:

“Don’t attempt to stare the bear down” sounds compatible to me with “don’t make eye contact”. In other words, the writer says you should be looking towards the bear in a nonaggressive but confident way, but not locking eyes with it.

I personally have never encountered a bear close up in the wild and hope to keep it that way, so I have no way of knowing how sound any of this advice is.

If it’s brown, lay down; if it’s black, fight back.

It depends on why you’re encountering the bear. Did you stumble upon the bear, or did the bear stumble upon you? Is either of you near your home? Does either of you have young nearby?

Need answer fast?

I don’t think making eye contact per se has much measureable impact on the outcome of a bear encounter. There’s nothing that’s going to happen by looking at the bear’s eyes rather than looking at it’s ears or chest. Some aspects of body language are more important than others, but eye contact isn’t a very big player overall.

There are of course different things you ought to do depending on how the bear acts, what species it is, and what the outside circumstances are, but the experts I’ve heard speak say you need to assess the bear’s body language to determine which course of action to take. Intentionally not looking at the bear will probably put you at higher risk than taking 5 or 10 seconds to see what it’s doing and how it’s reacting to your own body language.

There’s no hard and fast rules of always do X or never do Y. Depending on the circumstance and the bear’s “mood” (for lack of a better term) you might be able to frighten off a full grown grizzly, or you may end up getting attacked by a macho black bear cub. But in all cases, you’d better look at the bear and pay attention to what’s happening to best inform your decisions. And an area of the bear that will contain a lot of clues is it’s face (breathing, intent of stare, mouth movements, ear orientation, etc). The bear’s not likely going to be able to tell whether you are looking at it’s eyes to challenge it or the shape of it’s nose to tell it’s species… it really shouldn’t matter it you “lock eyes”.

This past summer I was hiking in Grand Teton National Park, and took a break just off-trail by a lake along with a couple of other hikers. I was climbing back onto the trail when I heard a voice behind me say “Bear!”.

I looked ahead to see a good-sized black bear facing me about 20 feet away. In the second or so that our eyes met, I could also see her cub in the background. As my brain sent the message “this is not good”, I turned around and walked in the other direction (the other hikers had preceded me).

As I later found out, this was not the recommended Right Thing To Do (you are supposed to look large, speak calmly, not retreat, sing a Ramones medley or whatever), but we were not pursued; Mama and cub were more interested in digging up grubs or something else more interesting than eating hikers.

Yes. I’ve dealt with black bears in the past. For the most part they are docile herbivores, and love to play. When they play, they want to dominate you just like when they are playing with each other. The exception are mothers guarding their cubs. Usually a well placed punch or two directly on the nose is enough to make them drop down and become submissive.

It’s going to be very difficult to determine how often making eye contact or not fails in bear encounters.

Slight nitpick, while the diet of the black bear (Ursus americanus) consists substantially of vegetative matter (nuts, berries, bark, et cetera) they definitely will eat meat; they are mostly carrion scavengers but they will hunt opportunistically and will avail themselves of sources of fish, shellfish, et cetera. They are especially hungry for fats prior to hibernation (for bears in northern regions that hibernate). Black bear sows are not known for defense of cubs; cubs are taught from an early age to climb trees higher and faster than an adult boar (which is the most common threat) and the sow will move away and bark/yowl to distract a boar. Defense of cubs is a trait of the North American brown and grizzly bears (U. arctos) and their Asian cousins. The vast majority of attacks by black bears are defensive in nature (people get too close to the bear or draw it in with food, and then the bear becomes panicked and attacks) with a very small number of predatory attacks.

Brown bears, on the other hand, can be more aggressive, particulalry in protecting rich food sources or during pre-hibernation and mating season, and may attack without provocation, but generally speaking they ignore the tiny naked cubs unless they have something delicious smelling or are behaving like prey. Even then, experienced zoologists have approached brown and grizzly bears in the wild with cubs or near food sources without issue by conditioned introduction, and the fact that an idiot like Timothy Treadwell could survive for over a decade of spending summers in close contact with grizzly bears without coming to harm argues for the reserve and tolerance that these animals have for humans.

As for deaing with a bear encounter, it is true that you should behave aggressively toward threatening black bears and play dead in the case of a brown attack. Bears have relatively poor vision and do not generally make eye contact; they respond more to posture and motion. In any case, with either black or brown bears you should not run away as it may stimulate an attack, and you should view posturing (yowling, scratching at the ground, standing upright) as communicating fear or possessiveness rather than a prelude to attack. If a bear actually wanted to attack you, he or she would just do it without warning or preface, and there is pretty much nothing you could do about it.


I think I’d be too frightened to stay erect. Although I suppose I might discover that I’m into it. :cool:

Are there any picnic baskets to distract the bear with? Is the bear disguised as a rain cloud and probably just in search of honey? Do people pretty much agree that you’re due for an Oscar?

I live in bear country in Northwest Montana and encounter bears now and again while hiking in the woods. Whether I look a bear in the eyes or not doesn’t really come into play for me. In most cases the bear will notice you before you notice him, and while blindside attacks do happen, in my experience, at least with Black bears, you usually have time to back away even if it’s a sow with cubs. In general Black bears aren’t out to attack you, Grizzly bears are another story. So first you need to assess what you are dealing with. Is it a black or brown bear? Are there cubs around? Does the bear have a place to escape? You need to keep your eye on the bear and that means looking at it’s face. That doesn’t mean staring it down unless it’s a solo black bear, as others have already mentioned. You can scare a black bear away fairly easily if they have an easy path to escape. People have been attacked from behind so not looking into their eyes doesn’t guarantee you anything, except that you may lose a split second when the bear decides to bluff charge and you happen to be looking down or away to avoid eye contact…

Just so people are aware, the “black bear” and “brown bear” monikers are something of a misnomer. Brown bears are generally a brownish color but can range from very dark to a cinnamon color. Black bears can be pretty much any color from blonde to jet black, depending on region and diet. Black bears will generally avoid confrontation as long as they have a way out, and can learn to tolerate the presence of people given sufficient time and benign contact; brown bears pretty much don’t care about people and will approach you or not as it suits their curiosity and interest.

One thing that is impressive is just how much strength and dexterity these creatures can display. Black bears in particular have surprising manipulative ability using claws and teeth, and are excellent conceptual problem solvers (some zoologists believe that their mechanical problem solving ability is on par with primates). Brown bears are somewhat less dexterous, or perhaps, just don’t care to try to finness a problem; I’ve literaly seen a van torn open, Hulk-fashion, by a Kodiak. But they can also pry open shellfish and flip salmon out of a river like swatting flies. Despite their size, they are able to sprint with amazing speed in short bursts, and there is pretty much no way you can outrun or outmaneuver one on foot. Fortunately, black bears are evolutionarily conditioned to consider themselves as prey to brown bears, and the extinct dire wolf and short-faced bear, while brown bears being apex predators in their environs are rarely so desperate for a meal to openly attack an adult standing upright or a group of people.


You don’t have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun your fellow hikers.


You’re not here for the hunting, are you?

If it’s white, say goodnight.


I think the only thing we can say is that encounters with bears can be anywhere from benign to terrifying, depending on the circumstances. If you are hiking in the woods and see a bear a few hundred feet down the path there is usually time to figure out the best way to avoid an encounter. Most likely its a black bear. Take out your bear spray and try to determine if you have been seen and what kind of bear it is. In most cases you just slowly back away and the bear will go on it’s merry way. Hikers don’t realize how often they walk near an unseen bear and the bear chooses not to interact with them.

On the other other hand if you are walking in the woods and turn a corner and startle a Grizzly sow with cubs things can turn ugly very quickly. Before you have a chance to react the bear might charge you in which case dropping to the ground and protecting the back of your head may be the only thing you can do. In this case the worse thing you could do is try to run away since that will trigger the animal’s chase response and you can’t outrun or out climb a bear. There’s always the chance that the bear will bluff charge you and give you the chance to back away and arm yourself, but there is no way to know what the bear is going to do until he does it.

Black bears, regardless of what color they are, can usually be scared away. Brown bears, Grizzlies where I live, will attack if they feel threatened, and your mere existence is deemed a threat to them. Be smart and make a lot of noise when you are walking in an area prone to bears, carry bear spray and a loaded gun, and be prepared for anything.

This thread reminds me of a National Park warning I saw several years ago: