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Survival / June 12, 2016

Bear Defense: Your Best Bet At Survival

Written by: Renee Howard

I rounded a corner on the trail to face a startled grizzly standing on his hind legs fifty yards away. I heard Annie barking in a spastic fury in the distance. The bear could easily cover the distance between us in three seconds. I was about to become pulverized cube steak like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Just behind the bear, Annie came barreling down the road toward me. As she ran by the grizzly it gave chase. That meant they were both charging right at me. I didn’t have bear spray. I wasn’t carrying a pistol.

As I prepared to be mauled to death, Annie darted off the road just ten feet in front of me. The bear followed the dog. Sweet mercy, I was saved! At some point Annie ditched the grizzly and I watched in awe as it darted up a mountainside. Sheer luck. I was humbled.


Years before that I had a job as a fourteen year old girl counseling a horse camp for the summer. In my time spent in the woods thus far I’d never once considered bear safety. I think my dad mentioned it a few times – but the info didn’t really sink in. We did an overnight camping trip and I had a giant old-school Coleman tent filled to the brim with ten year old girls which included a wide array of snack foods – or rather, bear bait. Chocolate wrappers and Cheeto crumbs dusted the surface of our sleeping bags after several hours of stories and binge eating. We slept soundly. Too soundly.

I heard a gentle swishing noise on the tent, but was so bloated with chips and cookies that I didn’t fully wake up. One of the girls emerged from her snack coma and went outside to pee. I heard the pitter patter of her little feet running and she leapt into the tent.

“Miss Renee. There’s a bear.”

I opened one eye and looked out my side of the tent. Sure enough the little jerk had it’s claws hooked into the cracked window of our camp supervisors car. She had been sleeping in there, but not anymore. I saw her yelling at the bear to no avail. I got out of the tent and threw a rock at him, which sent him high tailing for the woods. Just a punk.

I climbed back in the tent and laid down. I looked up ready to fall asleep, but I noticed the tell-tale shred of claw marks above my head spanning the length of the tent. They stopped just above my face. I didn’t fall back asleep.


Thick underbrush, creeks, avalanche chutes and berry patches are all common places to find bears. This image of Alaska's Matanuska Valley is prime Grizzly and Black bear habitat.

While those stories are entertaining to tell around a campfire, they are boldly eclipsed by the tale of Gene Moe; a legendary bear attack survivor from Alaska. At age sixty-nine, Gene killed a Kodiak bear with nothing more than a pocket knife and his one good arm after being brutally mauled. True story.

He survived to tell the legendary story live in Alaska’s Arctic Entries event. What’s impressive is Gene’s attitude. He embodies the spirit of the bear; a stubborn will to meet the challenge and overcome it at all costs. That’s how you survive.


“Confidence and proficiency with the firearm you’re shooting is critical. ”

In Alaska this spring three very experienced outdoorsman were seriously mauled. That gives pause to think;  how can we prevent an encounter and how can we prepare to defend ourselves?


Avoidance is Best:

  • Stay in groups of two or more. Bears are less likely to attack groups.
  • Make noise especially around loud creeks and dense brush. Surprising a bear is the thing that will get you chomped.
  • Minimize smells. Cook, clean and store your food down wind 300 feet away from where you’ll sleep. Don’t leave anything smelly in your tent, including toothpaste and hygiene products. Use a bear-proof can or hang your food in a tree 15 feet off the ground.
  • Avoid bears feeding on a kill.
  • Never go near a sow with cubs.
  • Electric bear fences are proven to be effective deterrents for curious bears.
  • Situational awareness. Take note of sounds, signs and smells.



Bear spray


Practicing with UDAP bear spay. Even being upwind from the pepper, it still made me cough. Easy to see how it would deter a bear.

Bear spray is only effective if used at close range. It’s designed to be used right in the ol’ kisser. Hold it together and don’t waste your charge until you can smell their breath. A friend has had real world success in dishing out enough canned whoop-ass to send a persistent black bear packing. Practice with the bear spray often. Also, NOT IN YOUR CAMP and NEVER DOWN WIND. It will mess you up!

Pepper spray is a known bear attractant in small amounts. A light mist on your clothing or gear is screaming “taste me!”. They can catch a scent up to nine miles away. The UDAP Bear Spray booklet contains a boatload of fantastic information. Read it.


Ruger Super Redhawk Toklat with extra ammo. An ideal bear defense gun.

This is how you securely sport your side-arm with the Blackhawk Alaska Guide holster. A hip holster will often be in the way of your pack



  • Know your gun
  • Get training. Practice regularly. Carrying a gun is a huge responsibility.  Ask yourself honestly, “Am I a liability or an asset with a gun?”. Confidence and proficiency with the firearm you’re shooting is critical. Know the laws where you travel.


  • We carry a Ruger Super Redhawk Toklat .454 casull with a 5” barell. Anything comparable is fine –  but nothing smaller than .41 Mag. Also, it’s not so rowdy that I can’t accurately shoot the damn thing.
  • Get a good holster. Having your gun secured to your body is critical if you get blindsided. The Black-Hawk Alaska Guide holster is a good option for access and comfort.
  • Ammunition is crucial. The brands of ammo we buy for bears are Buffalo Bore and Underwood because you get what you pay for. Superior components and consistent pressures. You don’t want your bullets to glance off the skull of a grizzly which has been known to happen. How much is your life worth? The type of bullet we use for our revolver is 300 grain heavy .454 casull. Make sure you know what ammo to buy for your particular gun!


A well placed shot in the brain or spine will stop a bear. Unfortunately the brain is a small target. A heart or lung shot will be easier and will kill the bear eventually. It has been said that an enraged Grizzly can keep going on pure adrenaline without a functioning heart for ten minutes or more. Another strategy is breaking a shoulder or leg. What will save your bacon is practice. Shoot until the bear stops moving or is out of range.


Practice quick-drawing your unloaded side-arm often. The last thing you want is to be struggling with a buckle or getting your revolver hung up on straps because you didn't get acquainted with your gear.

UDAP bear spray is meant to be used at close range under 35 feet. Practice pulling the tab on the top and letting it rip. Inert bottles can be purchased for training.

When Bears Attack:

Black bears are more skittish. They’re often deterred if you stand your ground. A bold boar might test you to see what he’s up against. DON’T RUN. When black bears attack, there is a decent chance it’s predatory. Convince them you are not prey. Fight back with all your might. If it goes hand-to-hand try for nose punches and eye gouges.

If a brown bear mauls you, protect yourself by lying face down or balling up. Cover your neck with your hands. Brown bears and Grizzlies don’t often exhibit predatory behavior toward humans. They prefer avoiding us. An attack is usually in defense and tends to last about 15 seconds. They may come back for a subsequent attack to make sure the threat is past. Hang in there, buddy! You can always Gene Moe the bear if you have to.


Take Away:

Never assume your odds of an encounter are slim. Always prepare with tools of defense that you feel confident using and practice regularly. Don’t fear the backcountry; acknowledge that your vying for the top of the food chain with other worthy creatures.

about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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