Running With The Bears: A Guide For Trail Runners

You’re three miles from the finish line at the Valles Caldera Trail Marathon in the Valles Caldera National Preserve of New Mexico. Soon you’ll be able to sit down with friends and a cold beverage. Your run has gone to plan and you feel pretty good. You’re close to the back of the pack, but you won’t be last today.

You run up a short incline, crest a hill, and… come face to face with an American black bear.

Blond Juvenile American Black Bear in New Mexico (Alton R. Packard, Wikimedia Commons)

An American black bear north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. You’ll notice its fur isn’t black. Sometimes American black bears, the common name for the Ursus americanus bear species, have black fur, sometimes brown, and sometimes they’re cinnamon-colored. This is not particularly helpful when you’re trying to determine whether you’re facing a black bear or brown bear. A brown bear is the common name for Ursus arctos, of which the grizzly bear is a subspecies, Ursus arctos horriblis. And that identification helps decide whether a runner should play dead or fight back if the bear attacks. More on that soon. Photo: Alton Packard

The bear is 15 feet away.

Your first thought is?

Pretty bear!

No? You’re sure that wouldn’t be your first thought after inadvertently surprising a bear? Well, that was Karen Williams’s initial thought on June 18, 2016 when this scenario played out. She remembers it distinctly. “It was a pretty bear.”

Almost simultaneously, a second thought assailed her: I’m supposed to do something!

Then she saw a cub and the mama bear charged.

Grizzly Bear Charging (Charles Peterson, Flickr Creative Commons)

A grizzly bear charging. Photo: Charles Peterson

Karen’s third thought: Put your hands over your head and make yourself big! Yell ‘NO!!!’

It didn’t work. “Then I was on my ass and being raked with claws and bitten.”

Thought four: This is going to hurt.

“I cried out in pain and mama bear did not like that so she hit me with a left hook and bit my neck and started to try to shake me. I rolled into a ball and played dead. She went off about 25 to 30 feet and stopped at the base of a tree and huffed at her cub that was up about 30 feet. The cub cried a bit while trying to get down the tree. Mama bear kept glancing my way to make sure that I was still ‘dead.’”

Karen stayed absolutely still for another 10 minutes before checking to see that the bears were gone. It was another 23 minutes after that before another runner came up the trail. (She stopped her Garmin.) The two closest aid stations were alerted, and soon, thanks to the efforts of other runners, race volunteers, and the volunteer fire department, Karen was en route to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

Subsequent events occurred in rapid-fire succession. Officers from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) located and euthanized the bear in order to test it for rabies as required by New Mexico state law. Rabies is rare in bears, but nearly 100% fatal. Karen posted her story and a picture of her injuries on Facebook as an explanation and apology to the runners behind her. She was under the misimpression they’d been forced to stop after the attack, and she felt horrible about ruining their races. (That wouldn’t be your first post-mauling consideration? Mine neither.) It turned out the other runners had dropped earlier, but the post also served to thank all the trail runners who had helped her.

“Hi guys, I was the person who got into the tussle with the bear. I will tell you the whole story but first I want to thank a lot of people. The running community is amazing!”

Karen’s post was quickly shared and re-shared. Soon national and international media picked up the story. And then the outrage over the mother bear’s death began. Karen empathized with the hundreds and hundreds of angry comments about the bear’s death and the two orphaned cubs that hadn’t yet been found. She wrote: “I am really sorry the mama bear died. She was just being a bear.”

But there were also hundreds of vitriolic comments that were directed at Karen herself and that went something like this:

  • “She was responsible for the bear’s death.”
  • “She was invading its home.”
  • “Her selfish desire to run in a nature preserve meant two bear cubs might die of starvation.”
  • “Trail racing in an area known for abundant wildlife was an accident waiting to happen.”
  • “Irresponsible and ignorant trail racers should be banned.”

And on and on.

“That was stressful.”

When I asked Karen, a military veteran and emergency-room and intensive-care-unit nurse, how the bear attack had changed her thoughts about nature, she said it hadn’t. “It changed my thoughts about humans.” Human aggression on social media seems like it may have affected her more deeply than the bear’s aggression.

Karen’s response to both the trauma of the attack and the vitriol afterward is unique and noteworthy. She’s spearheading a campaign to change the New Mexico law that mandates killing wild animals that attack and bite humans to test for rabies. She argues rabies is rare in bears and that the law should differentiate between bear attacks that are predatory, which is very rare for American black bears, and attacks that are defensive, as she argues hers was. There was no reason to suspect that bear had rabies. She was acting exactly as you’d expect a sow surprised at close range with cubs to act, according to Dr. Diana Doan-Crider, adjunct faculty at Texas A&M University and the Mexican Black Bear Expert Chair of the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Dr. Doan-Crider also serves on the group’s Human-Bear Conflict Team and spoke with Karen after the attack. She says this kind of attack (female black bears protecting their cubs) is well-documented behavior.

Karen expects the process she initiated to change New Mexico law, which started on July 14 at a meeting of New Mexico’s Water and Natural Resources Committee, to be long and drawn out. But she also expects to succeed. “I’ve run ultras. I can outlast any of them.”

In addition to the social-media maelstrom, Karen has also endured a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacking since the attack (by people who have not been attacked by bears:)

  • “You should have…”
  • “It would have gone better for you if you had just…”
  • “I would have…”

It’s always tempting to indulge in talk about bear protocols from the comfort of your bear-free house. It’s quite another to enact these protocols. (Raise your hand if you’ve been in the position of a multi-hundred-pound ball of ursine power barreling at you at more than 30 miles per hour and having only a second or two to react.) Any criticism of Karen’s actions needs to be grounded in this reality.

Karen’s attack during a popular trail race draws attention to the fact that trail runners need to know what to do if they encounter a bear. They also need to know how to avoid those encounters in the first place. Minimizing your chances of a negative bear encounter really boils down to this: Bears don’t like surprises. Not one bit. At all. So when you’re running in bear country, you should be nice and noisy. This is especially true when you’re coming around a curve, going up a hill, or running through dense foliage where surprising a bear is more likely. Let bears know you’re coming. You can talk loudly, sing, or holler out. A simple “Hey bear!” works. Homer Simpson’s Beer Song is fun too. (Change ‘beer’ to ‘bear.’ The song won’t make sense, but it’s more fun.)

Homer Simpson's Beer Song

Homer Simpson’s Beer Song. Image from

Jingle bells aren’t loud enough (thankfully!) to do the trick, according to Dr. Doan-Crider. A cowbell would work, but your loud voice weighs less and won’t drive everyone around you stark-raving mad.

If you do come upon a bear when you’re running, and it sees you, you should suppress the urge to set Strava records in the opposite direction. Prey flees. Don’t look like prey. If the bear is close, stop where you are, and make yourself appear as big as possible. (At 5’1″, this guidance always makes me cranky.) Waving your arms slowly above your head and out from your sides might make you seem larger. If you’re with other runners, you can gather shoulder-to-shoulder so you look like one very big animal. (Apparently bears excel at risk-benefit analysis.) Talk firmly to the bear like you might to a dog. It doesn’t matter what you say exactly. Just do your best to sound authoritative and unlike a small, panicked animal. Back away slowly while you’re talking.

If the bear follows you, drop something that might draw its attention away. A water bottle. A Buff. A hat. Avoid dropping gels or other food. Bears that are habituated to human food are much more likely to cause problems for other runners.

If you have bear spray, it should be in your hand ready to shoot. Remember, bear spray is much more powerful than the pepper spray you can buy for self-defense. Bear-spray concentrations are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the spray canisters will always be labeled for use on bears. If a bear charges, pull the trigger on the spray as soon as the bear is within range. The best way to understand a bear spray’s range is to practice firing it before you need it.

In Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country, John Gookin, former Curriculum and Research Director for the National Outdoor Leadership School, recommends, “Take your brand new can of bear spray, go out onto the wide-open prairie, set out a target 10 feet away, aim downwind (if you don’t, you sure will the second time), pull the trigger guard off, and give it a firm half-second pull on the trigger. This gives you a feel for how far it shoots and, especially, how it is significantly influenced by air currents… Now put the trigger guard back on the bear spray and don’t test it any more. Wash the nozzle of the can with soapy water at your next opportunity to get rid of the odor. Avoid getting any of the capsicum on your skin.”

Deciding whether or not to run with a can of bear spray is largely a matter of contacting your local wildlife manager. And taking responsibility for your safety and decisions in this way is the smart thing to do. Valles Caldera National Preserve, where Karen’s attack occurred, doesn’t require hikers or runners to carry bear spray. Their bears are mostly troublesome around campsites where they’ve been habituated to food. Traveling in groups and using the other methods outlined above keeps most everyone safe. Karen, of course, would not have had time to use bear spray even if she had been carrying it. The attack happened far too quickly, she says.

If a bear does charge you, (DOH!), whether you fight back or play dead largely depends on what species of bear you’ve encountered, an American black bear or a brown bear. (These are the two main species of bears in North America. As previously mentioned, grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bear.) It also depends on whether you’ve surprised the bear and it thinks you’re a threat. That’s right, you’ve encountered a bear on your run. Enlarging yourself, firm words, Buff offerings, and a burning spray in the face have not deterred it. It’s charging at you, and you’re supposed to remember whether you should play dead or fight back based on whether it’s a brown bear or a black bear and whether you think you might have given it a scare. What makes all this even more challenging (!) is that it’s hard to tell black and brown bears apart if you don’t do it a lot. You can’t rely on fur color. Black bears can have brown fur and brown bears can have very dark fur. And size isn’t entirely distinctive either. Brown bears are usually larger, but there are some burly black bears in western U.S. states. Black bears have longer noses and longer ears than brown bears. So you could use that to help you distinguish between the two.

Black Bear with Roman nose (Pat Gaines, Creative Commons license)

An American black bear with a long, Roman nose and good-sized ears. Photo: Pat Gaines

Or you can just remember that brown bears have humps. Muscly back humps. Which means female brown bears have… Lovely Lady Humps. (Sure, groan and roll your eyes, but I challenge you to ever forget it.)

Brown Bear with Back Hump (Marshmallow, Wikimedia Commons)

A brown bear with a back hump. Photo: Marshmallow, Wikimedia Commons

Certainly ask the local wildlife manager which bear species populate the area through which you are going to trail run. On the East Coast of the U.S., you don’t have to think about ears, noses, or humps. There are only black bears there. That’s true for New Mexico too, where Karen was attacked. Most brown bears (remember grizzly bears are a kind of brown bear) are found in Alaska and Western Canada including the Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Alberta. There are also brown-bear populations in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Idaho in the US.

And once you know what kind of bear is unhappy with you, you just need to remember whether you should play dead or fight it off.

Here’s the method I used to use:

“If it’s brown, lie down. If it’s black, fight back.”

It turns out my two-line rhyme isn’t nuanced enough. Better is:

“If it’s brown, lie down. If it’s got something to protect, hit the deck. But if a black bear wants you for lunch, give it a punch.”

Bear with me while I explain. (“Bear,” get it? Wahahaha.)

So you might be thinking: Well, playing dead makes good sense. I could do that.

“You felt threatened by me, Bear, but see, I’m not a threat anymore. I’m nice and dead. And now you can go away. Nothing to see here… just a dead human lying face down with his hands over his neck and his legs spread apart.” (That’s the preferred playing-dead position. Your face and neck are more protected like that than if you rolled up in a ball, and it’s harder for the bear to flip you over with your legs spread… apparently.)

Why on earth wouldn’t you always play dead? Why would you want to fight off some black bear attacks? (And how are you supposed to fight bears anyways?) Well, here’s the deal: If a black bear perceives you as a threat, it will often run away, but it might also attack you–especially if it’s surprised at close range. That’s what happened in Karen’s attack. She ran up a hill and startled a bear that was only 15 feet away. Rick Winslow, Bear and Cougar Biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, says that Karen’s proximity to the bear was probably key to the attack. He notes, “Several years of good moisture conditions, foliage, grasses, and forbs are at maximal growth and could easily provide cover which contributes to humans approaching bears very closely and unintentionally threatening them.” He says a similar attack happened near the park the previous September when a jogger surprised a black bear and her cubs. “Bear attacks in New Mexico and elsewhere seem to be on the rise, which is probably mostly due to more people recreating in bear country than anything else,” explains Winslow. “…Because runners, or mountain bikers, are traveling rapidly and not necessarily making much noise, the potential to surprise an animal exists. While negative encounters are rare, they can obviously happen.”

When a black-bear attack is defensive, you should play dead just like Karen did–and remove the threat. The sow mauled Karen until she didn’t seem like a threat to her cubs. So, “If it has something to protect, hit the deck.”

Unfortunately, there are also rare cases of predatory black bears. So if you haven’t surprised a black bear, and you don’t think the bear is defending something from you, you should assume its attack is predatory. Certainly, if the bear has been following you down the trail for some time, you should make this assumption. If you don’t fight back in that case, the bear will eat you. Playing dead only makes that easier for the bear. “If it wants you for lunch, give it a punch.”

As far as bear-fighting techniques go, experts recommend focusing your efforts on the bear’s eyes and nose. (And pray.)

If you’d like to know why brown and black bears react differently to threats, or want more detailed advice about bear encounters or traveling and camping safely in bear country, definitely check out the National Outdoor Leadership Schools’s Bear Essentials book. It’s concise, well-written, and memorable.

The bear’s death after Karen’s attack, its missing and orphaned cubs, and the hostile commentary on social media all raise the question of runners’ and race directors’ responsibilities regarding safety. They also challenge us to articulate our responsibilities as stewards of the natural areas we love.

Dr. Doan-Crider suggests race directors consider posting people along sections of their courses with high potential for bear encounters. Biologists could help identify these areas. Volunteers could then hike up and down the trail making noise. Of course, given the human-power constraints most races work under, these tactics pose a logistical challenge. Furthermore, it’s perhaps too easy to abnegate responsibility for our safety to race directors and race organizations. We often assume race directors are experts who mitigate any real dangers on a course. This belief is usually bolstered by years of non-events at a race. We find ourselves thinking things like the following:

  • The race document advises runners to carry a map. But the RD says the course is well marked. And I don’t know anyone who’s gotten really lost on this course. I won’t carry a map.
  • The race director didn’t recommend doing bear calls if you’re running alone, and she didn’t recommend carrying bear spray. No one has ever been attacked by a bear during this race. I don’t need to worry about bears.

Cultural traditions around wilderness travel are grounded in self-reliance and personal responsibility. It’s important to inculcate these values in the people we run with. The more a runner educates himself about potential hazards along the trail and the better he knows how to minimize them, the less likely he is to get hurt and the less likely he is to put other runners at risk. Rick Winslow of NMDGF agrees and adds, “[I]t’s always in the best interest of the racers, race directors, workers, and volunteers to have all the information they may need, including possible dangers, while working in a non-traditional race environment.”

Karen’s work to change New Mexico law in the attack’s aftermath embodies this tradition of self-reliance and personal responsibility. The runners who knew how to provide first aid in a wilderness environment also embody this tradition. Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director for the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute, and co-author of Risk Management for Outdoor Leaders, affirms that lifesaving happens at the scene of an accident. Knowing how to provide first aid to an injured runner or yourself is quintessential to our ethic of self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Karen’s response also embodies the wilderness-travelers tradition of environmental stewardship, specifically the call to respect wildlife. This ethic, along with several others, is encapsulated in the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, which serve as a useful guide for trail runners to turn their love of place into careful recreation:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

These practices were developed by a broad consensus of land managers and wildlife experts whose hope was to foster behavior that would sustain natural places for all (trail runners) to enjoy. As trail running becomes more popular, bear encounters will happen. Situational awareness, risk analysis and decision-making, Leave No Trace principles, and Wilderness Medicine training are important components that have traditionally distinguished trail runners. Maintaining that tradition will help keep the public lands we love to run and race on open to us in the future.

Bear Cub (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish)

One of the orphaned bear cubs. Photo: New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

By the way, a week after their mother was euthanized, the orphaned cubs were found, are being cared for, and are expected to be released into the wild once they are older. This Facebook post explains how they were found and captured, and this Facebook post shows them roughly a month later in a rehabilitation facility.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you run in ‘bear country?’ What kinds of bears live where you run and how do you modify your behavior to share the landscape with them?
  • What things do you think we should do as a community, as race directors, as race participants, and as individual runners to be good stewards to the bears that live in the places we play?
Liza Howard

is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.

There are 54 comments

  1. Joe Tammaro

    I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening to me. The thought of Bjorn charging would make me think twice about bearing down or bearing arms.

  2. Jon

    I saw a bear cub on the side of the road during the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville this year. My immediate thought went to Karen’s story which I had read not long before the event. My second thought was, “I’m getting out of here.” I also informed every person I saw from that point until the end of the race (like a little kid) “I SAW A BEAR”. Thanks for the informative article as now I know what I’m really supposed to do!

    1. Liza Howard

      I can totally relate to that little kid “I SAW A BEAR” sharing of info. I’ve only had one serious bear encounter (curious grizzly up in Alaska) and I told everybody I knew about it for months.

  3. Sarah

    I was at the Valles Caldera run. While I was only doing the half and I had left awhile before the bear attack occurred , the incident has made me aware of the very real chance of coming across a bear on a trail run. When running in wilderness areas I always run with someone else or I have my coon hound with me. Which, I was wondering how having a dog with you would affect a bear encounter situation? I’ve always thought that the animal, bear or mountain lion, would be able to smell the dog and stay away, but that might be a myth?

    1. Karen Williams

      I also typically run with a dog. One person of the many I have encountered since my bear encounter told me a story of a man out with a dog and the dog chased a bear and the bear countered and chased the dog right back to his human. This was third-hand so I am not sure if it is true.

      1. Raschel

        I had a black bear chase my dog back to me during a hike so a dog will not always scare the bears away. It was a Bernese mountain dog.

    2. ChrisG

      I run with an off leash dog. We have had two encounters with black bears on trail.

      The first time, we startled a small-ish bear on a bend. The bear ran and my dog followed before I could grab her collar. She came running back about a minute later. It felt like a million minutes. After that, I bought her a bear bell that she wears whenever she is off leash. It helps me and other creatures know she is near by.

      The second time, the bear heard/saw us before we did and walked off the trail into the woods. I had time to collar and leash my dog. I stupidly tried to take a photo before I remembered, oh crap, BEAR. We slowly walked away. My dog’s reaction was unconcerned. She freaks out when we encounter coyotes.

    3. D_State

      I’ve had co-workers treed by a bear because there dog brought a bear back with them. I’ve also known people who had their bear encounter extended because they had problems separating the bear and their dog.

      My best advice it to supervise your dog appropriately for the situation and be prepared for an enhanced risk if this doesn’t happen or there is a lapse. Lots of things can be bad for dogs like porcupines, snakes, moose, bears etc. When you are travelling in terrain where you are more likely to meet these things it’s important to modify the level of supervision necessary for that dog. Some dogs are great about sticking around with you on a trail without a leash, that’s ideal especially if the land manager doesn’t have rules about that sort of thing. Other dogs need to be on a leash sometimes, but can have periods of freedom before they forget their listening skills. Others would probably benefit from being on a leash at all times. In areas with high animal density, it’s probably not if but when you are going to have a problem if you let your dog roam freely.

      Most dogs can be trained well enough to listen around other animals even if things are exciting. Teaching them commands like “Wait” (pause until I say to go forward) and “Leave It” (don’t eat that porcupine!) pay dividends. Also, you’re the leader so they should be looking to you for their direction so make sure it’s clear and reasonable.

      In bear country, it’s always a good idea to carry bear spray in a location where it’s easily accessible. And although dogs don’t act as an extra deterrent to bears, they can sometimes give you a heads up on wildlife of all types. Like the locations of all the squirrels.

    4. Liza Howard

      Sarah, Dr. Doan-Crider says, “Dogs off-leash are not recommended as they can often “bring a bear back to you” if a bear pursues the dog. Many parks and forests require leashes for that very reason. Some bear managers use “Karelian bear dogs” that are specifically trained to work with bears, but don’t confuse those with dogs that are not trained for that purpose.

      As far as I know, dog scent is not a deterrent for bears or mountain lions.”

      1. Katie

        My off-leash dogs have treed and chased bears a few times on our runs. In every situation so far they’ve helped to keep the bear away from me.

    1. Liza

      Thanks Karen! And thanks so much for your generosity with your time answering my questions. I hope the rest of your trail races in 2016 are much more dull. :)

  4. ChrisB

    There was a mama bear and two cubs blocking the trail at last weekend’s Never Summer 100k at around the 47 mile mark. I was thankful for the people stopped ahead of me because I was definitely in a fatigued mode staring at my feet at the time. A reminder to always keep your head up and look ahead even when you’re in that dark place late in a run/race.

    I’ve been fortunate in that my black bear experiences trail running near home have always been a bear running away from me. I do try to make noise while running alone, especially anytime the brush gets high and thick.

    Luckily I haven’t run into a protective bear yet and I hope this article and my experience last weekend can help myself and others avoid Karen’s experience.

  5. SarahO

    This was a great and informative article. I am a newbie trail runner and (ironically) prefer trails because It drastically reduces the chance I will be attacked by an unleashed, aggressive domestic dog. This article highlights to me that I should not get lulled into a sense of safety and need to do some more self education.
    Karen, thank you so much for putting your story and yourself out there. I am an animal lover like you and am sorry that you are being personally attacked because wildlife officials enforced state laws. It is a shame that the bear died, but your story may save many human lives.

    1. Liza Howard

      I live in a neighborhood full of unleashed grumpy little dogs, SarahO. I wish the “if you just do your best not to surprise them, you’ll be fine” advice worked for them as well. I’m really glad you found the article useful.

  6. Julie

    Thank you for informing and entertaining, Liza! Your sense of humor is so tastefully integrated into what could be a tough subject. (My favorite line: “It’s always tempting to indulge in talk about bear protocols from the comfort of your bear-free house.”) :)

  7. carolwilliams

    Very informative ! Love reading it all! Thanks for this article. We hope Karen will carry bear spray on her treks through trails? Karens mom

  8. Lynne

    I encountered a cub years ago in NM on the La Luz trail…sang and banged rocks together as I moved out of the area…never saw the Mama. Whew!

    I now live and run in the mountains of CO and have started carrying an air horn. It is very loud! Have yet to use it in a wildlife encounter…any input from anyone who might have? Also…I intermittantly clap my hands loudly together when going thru more secluded, brushy areas where I might surprise wildlife.

  9. Grant Nicolaus

    Living in Jackson Wyoming seeing bears on the trails is something that can happen any day. While running close to town I don’t always take bear spray because there’s generally more people making noise. Anytime running in Grand Teton NP or farther in the back country bear spray is always on me, either in my hand or somewhere I can easily reach it. Even with bear spray, talking loudly with friends or yelling silly phrases helps not scare bears. I will preface this by saying “I’ve heard” bear bells make bears curious because they don’t know what the noise is. Good rule of thumb is always having bear spray and yelling, making “noise” on the trail could also make the bears curious.

        1. Liza Howard

          According to Dr. Doan-Crider (bear expert extraordinaire), they’re not loud enough to alert bears to your presence in most cases.

        2. Adrian

          Well, at 7pm, the Bears all dress for dinner. The black bears put their tuxedos and bow ties on, the brown bears tend to be a little more casual as no one is really prepared to address their inappropriate behaviour with them. Then they drink daiquiris and wait for dinner. Dinner is announced by the ringing of a little bell…

    1. Mike B

      Did a solo run around the back country of Grand Teton NP last year, and bear awareness was my greatest concern. Ran alone, but tried to manage the risk by carrying bear spray (tested it before as recommended), walking through low visibility areas to avoid running surprises, was regularly clapping my hands, and sang “99 bottles of beer” out loud. Still a risk, but the experience was worth it…the most incredible run I’ve ever done.

  10. Jeff

    I was running in Alaska on an interpretive loop near the Mendenhall glacier when I heard a snapping of jaws. I saw a cub climbing a tree and stopped dead in my tracks. Just then a mama bear sprinted across the trail about 10 yards from me and towards the cub — luckily I was not directly in between her and the cub. The ranger seemed fairly nonchalant about it when I got back to the interpretive center but I think my HR hit about 215.

  11. DF

    Great article, Liza. I see bears almost every time I run in Shenandoah (when in season, but we’re seeing them further into the winter). This past weekend I startled one running down the trail maybe 25-30ft up. It quickly ran off across a stream but I stopped, made some noise, and watched it wander off. I’ve seen a couple bears out there with nearby cubs and make sure to give them plenty of distance (I didn’t see any other cubs/bears in this particular occasion).

  12. Matt

    Thanks for the article and book references. I run in black bear country. I run alone. I have had two bear encounters this year, thus far. Luckily, the encounters were simple I change my direction of travel or the bear did.
    For me, since I run alone. I stay aware of my surroundings , no ear buds. And I carry gear to keep me safe. Bears are not the only hazards to me. Self reliance is king.

  13. Chris

    An entertaining and informative read. Didn’t realize our area of NJ had so many black bears (apparently the largest one killed in NJ was in our county,wiki). So seeing a single adult and a mom and her cubs around, I do not run the trails after work and do my long runs on the weekend during midday to avoid their active periods. Of course make noise when the Japanese Barberry is thick along the trails.

  14. Andy M

    Good timing! I just had a friendly encounter with two black bears at pretty close range this past weekend. And I was outnumbered two to one. Bear #1 sauntered into the woods, but his friend stood at the edge of the trail and just watched me as I stood there and watched him. So I did what we’re taught and tried to look big and made all kinds of noise. And talked to him, encouraged him to follow his friend into the woods across the trail. But he just looked at me somewhat befuddled, a little amused, and not the least bit frightened. Finally, as I approached waving my arms and making noise (I really didn’t want to go back the way I had come) he did a little ursine amble back into the woods and just watched as I walked (not ran) past. Luckily, here in New England we only have black bears, so trying to determine species is not necessary. But we have had incidents of aggressive bears locally, including one last year that went viral when the hiker posted her cell phone video of the bear licking at her feet on Youtube. And yes, she also had to withstand the same rebuke on social media!

  15. mtnrunner2

    Too bad Karen got assailed by the online community. That’s not fair.

    In CO, I always carry a can of whoop-ass — i.e. bear spray — in my running pack. It’s just a good precaution. Only ever used it on a recalcitrant skunk. I figure that’s my way of leveling the chemical warfare playing field.

    As bears go, I’ve had a momma and cub pass right behind me at Deer Creek Canyon west of Littleton and a short distance from suburban homes. I’ve seen/heard bears while running in Boulder’s Flatirons, and on trails deeper in the mountains. Most of them wanted to have nothing to do with me (usually in search of trash cans or apple trees), but a mother and cub is another thing entirely.

    I make up silly songs to make noise when I run alone in suspect territory, i.e. with food sources and blind turns.

    I’ve also test-fired the spray, good advice.

    It honestly never occurred to me that simply making noise would provoke the bear, but I guess the idea is it wants render you a non-threat.

    Good info. Thanks Liza!

    1. mtnrunner2

      PS – From the comments here, it’s great to hear we have lots of bears still out and about in the USA. Just gotta be careful and ready!

  16. Allen Lucas

    What a great (and useful) article! I will no longer roll my eyes at anyone I see singing and otherwise being noisy while running. The closest I’ve come to this sort of thing is accidentally getting between a doe and her fawn – the fawn was panicking and didn’t seem to know what to do, but the doe seemed more irritated with her kid than worried that I was a threat (thankfully – I just stood there and tried to say soothing things that mostly involved Bambi and how Thumper probably shouldn’t be trusted).

    I always run with a camera in my hand, so when my body is discovered, I hope someone thinks to look at the pictures since they will likely be awesome. (I don’t do selfies though, so don’t expect that level of stupidity. But something close.)

  17. Erika

    Great article! Can you turn it into a series and write about the large mammal we are most likely to see in Texas- feral pigs? I see them from a distance fairly often and I’ve seen a dog that didn’t survive an encounter with a feral pig. So I wonder what to do if I find myself too close to one.

    1. Liza Howard

      Thanks, Erika. I’ll share that with Meghan. I’m envisioning some sort of Marlin Perkins setup. Welcome to irunfar’s Wild Kingdom! Last week we traveled to the Texas to see how feral pigs and trail runners interact. :)

  18. Juan

    Thank you for the information! Great article. I was very surprised to hear that someone close to the back of a pack of people that had gone around the same loop a couple of times still had an encounter with a bear like that one. I would have expected all those people to scare off any wildlife!

    How about a loud whistle? I can whistle pretty loudly, so that’s what I do, instead of clapping or talking.

    Also, what kind of bear spray do people recommend for running?

    1. Liza

      A loud whistle would be fine, Juan. Anything that is labeled bear spray, bear deterrent etc. is fine. To have that label, they’re required to contain a specific amount of capsaicin and capsaicinoids by the EPA. You can look for that EPA label too.

  19. Andy

    Thanks for Your wonderful article. I recall watching You set the womans’ Javalina 100 record. My brother has taken some awesome videos of Black Bears on the Massanutten trail in Virginia. I love Your suggestion of carrying a loud whistle. My wife suggested that I do that here in Arizona.

  20. Lori

    There were two fatal bear attacks here in Alaska in the past couple weeks, only about 24 hours apart. Both of them, oddly enough, were by predatory black bears. One of them was during a trail race outside of Anchorage, where a 16 year old boy was killed.
    I ran a trail race the following weekend (last weekend), and probably close to half of the runners (including myself) carried bear spray. I read an article the other day, however, that reports that although spray works great on brown bears, it may not be particularly effective against black bears. Thoughts?

    1. Karen Williams

      Daryl Ratajczak, Wildlife Biologist and bear expert for the national forest service says: It is a simple response. Every once in a while something that is meant to keep you safe doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. A perfect example of this is a car seatbelt. Every once in a while someone is trapped or killed because of a seatbelt. Do we want to undo all of our thinking when it comes to wearing a seatbelt? I will tell you without a doubt I would rather carry bear spray in the event of an attack then anything else. Yes, it was unfortunate that it didn’t work in a few isolated incidences but I have used it enough to know that it does work.

      I hope that makes sense.

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