General Hunting Tips

Bear Encounters: How Hunter Education Can Help You Survive

Close-up of a bear, bear encounters concept.

Have you ever wondered what to do if you run into a bear in the woods? While bear hunting may not be one of the most common species hunters pursue, depending on what you hunt, you could come across a bear while pursuing other prey. 

What's it like to encounter a bear on a hunt? Montana hunter Dan Mock has been a hunter education instructor for three years. He shares the following stories of how to be prepared when hunting or hiking in bear country.

A group of hunters around a deceased bear in a truck, bear encounters concept.

It Had to Be Done

I love bears, especially when they are in their comfort zone – either paralleling me or heading the other way. But having one sniff at my head through a backpacking tent does not engender the most secure feelings!

In my way of thinking, the best places to canoe, backpack, or hunt must have bears and no roads. Bears symbolize the wild with a touch of risk. To enjoy these areas, you must always control or at the least minimize the risk factors for the bear's safety and your own. 

Killing a bear is seldom the answer. For one thing, it may not be an open season, or you may not have a bear tag. Besides, I don't want to eat another bear.

However, I'm not afraid of doing what must be done when the situation demands it. For example, while hunting moose in British Columbia, Canada, the guide asked if I minded cropping an aggressive black bear that had twice chased his mother into her log house. (That is a big no-no.) 

So, understand that in this instance, the bear brought the following action upon itself: he was shot with a 180 gr. 300 WIN Mag, and death was almost instant at 75 yards.

A Bear Crossing

One time, I took my brother-in-law hunting in an area halfway between easy hunting and the farms below, assuring him his first buck. Leaving him well-situated 300 yards away, I thought I'd take a nap when some instinct said, "Wake up now!"

A fast-moving black bear was making tracks down the trail that I had my legs across. Not wanting to share the trail or pet him, I shot him twice, very fast. The Remington .308, 150 gr. took care of the 450-pound black bear at 35 yards.

Thinking back over the years, I am sure that big brute had no idea my legs were blocking his trail. However, he was inside my comfort zone, and I'm not that comfortable with danger.

A Surefire Wake-Up Call

Another black bear decided to investigate a new smell – my cowboy coffee. 

Four of us were on a nine-day canoe trip down the John River out of Alaska's Brooks Range when, one evening, we decided to camp on an island. The river had three channels on the left and one on the right. What a magnificent spot!

At 5 a.m., my buddy was 150 yards from our tents, sipping coffee and admiring the hilltop caribou and hillside sheep, when a black bear stepped out of the forest 250 yards away. With its nose in the air, it crossed the first river channel. 

My pal's admiration suddenly stopped when the coffee hit my friend's sleepy brain, and he realized what was coming: that bear was on the way for breakfast.

Being awakened with "bear in camp!" definitely brings you out of the sleeping bag, eyes wide. Armed with bear spray, two of the defenders ran to the kitchen to save the coffee.

Shotgun in hand, I found the bear in the nearest channel, six feet down the bank and five yards from shore, nonchalantly swimming the fast current. I turned him three times and shouted nicely to please remove himself from the camp area. 

He'd started to leave but kept swimming back. Not good!

Just as I was about to pull the shotgun trigger for a warning shot in the water, the bear decided there was no sugar in the coffee and left down the river.

My friend and hunting buddy said, "Boy, that was a big bear!"

I said, "They all look big."

He replied, "But that one was soaking wet!" He was dead on.

Hunter Dan-Mock, a hunter education instructor.

The One I Let Get Away

With 63 years of hunting and playing explorer in the woods, I've needed fast, clear thinking many times. Being able to make the correct decisions fast comes either through experience or good training, and it can and will save lives, human or otherwise.

While archery hunting one day, I had to walk with the wind to pick up a long shelf leading to a great hunting area. As a hunter, I know walking with the wind is the best way to guarantee you will not have to clean or pack game animals – they'll smell you coming way too far in advance!

I knew that, but I stayed off the gravel game trails through habit and walked quietly on the leaves and bark on the side. As I topped a small rise, God gave me a gift. There, 12 yards away, was a 300-pound black bear eating stunted blueberry leaves. 

We were thrust into each others' discomfort zone. I froze, eyeing every movement. Defense-driven, I reached for an arrow, then realized I did not want to kill another bear. 

I had no tag, and right now, I'm a little chicken. Although the thought occurred to me to take a cell phone picture, the noise and risk were too high. Instead, I got out my bear spray, clicked off the safety, and aimed it forward.

I noodled over all this thinking and action over a very long time – 2 to 3 seconds that felt like forever!

A Standoff

Blackie took one step forward and stopped eating. He had caught my smell and could see me standing stock still out of the corner of his eye. The bear never looked at me but kept his head low in a submissive way, slowly turning around broadside, trying to show nonaggression.

He knew he made a mistake, but all he wanted was to get out of the dangerous situation. He should have smelled me long before I saw him. This concerned me until he showed the submissive stance. 

Still, why didn't he run long before our encounter? The only possible answer is that he was intent on putting on fat just before hibernation come snow or me.

Once again, I experienced the predator zone. Everything was matter-of-fact and under control.

Why? Before the encounter, I was mentally and physically prepared (I had my bear spray handy). Because of that awareness, the bear and I made it out safely that day.

A Hunter Safety Course Prepares You for Animal Encounters

While your eyes may be focused on a buck or turkey in your sights, you never know when another animal you aren't expecting can wander into your path. In each bear encounter shared today, Dan Mock was prepared with hunter safety education – and a calm disposition. His preparation helped him come out of those situations safely and with some great stories to tell!

You may never encounter a bear in the wild. However, a hunter education course prepares you for a range of situations hunters deal with during every hunt. You'll learn firearm safety essentials, shooting within your safe zone of fire, survival skills, and how to prepare for a safe, successful hunt before opening day. 

Hunter-Ed wants everyone to stay safe in the field and return home, whether everything goes as planned (or not). So, find the course for your state, start learning, and pass your state-approved safety certification – all online – before your next hunt. 


Originally published November 29, 2016. Content updated May 15, 2023.