Bear expert Chris Morgan explains how to avoid and survive a real life bear attack

By Kara Warner
Updated January 28, 2016 09:00 PM
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Credit: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

While Leonardo DiCaprio‘s gritty and Oscar-nominated performance in The Revenant is to be celebrated, the way in which his character handles being attacked by a Grizzly bear is not.

Not that DiCaprio’s 1820’s fur trapper Hugh Glass has time to react properly in the film when he is set upon by a ferocious mama bear trying to protect her cubs, but ecologist and bear expert Chris Morgan would like audiences and readers to know that Glass’ harrowing, near-death Grizzly bear encounter is a very rare occurrence and most importantly, one you can avoid.

Here are 10 things to know about bears, the difference in attack behavior between grizzlies, black bears and polar bears, and how to prevent and survive an attack:

Know your bears
“There are three species in North America: grizzlies, polar bears and black bears,” Morgan tells PEOPLE. “Sometimes grizzlies are called brown bears but they are the same species. You are by far most likely to encounter black bears in North America and by far, that black bear is most likely to run in the opposite direction. Negative encounters are really rare with any of these bears. There are millions of interactions every year between people and bears, which more often than anything end up in suspicious glances and running in the opposite direction by the bear.”

Don’t make yourself an easy dinner
“Any bear whether it is grizzly or black bear and a bear that is acting like you are potentially on the menu of the day, you’ve got to fight back,” Morgan advises. “Don’t make yourself an easy dinner. If you’re walking down the trail in, you might have a bear following you acting suspiciously and really paying attention to you, checking you out and thinking you are potentially something to eat, that’s why you fight back in that case because you don’t want to be an easy meal.”

Make yourself large and loud
“If you’ve got a bear thats treating you like you’re a potential food item, some of things you can do: stand up high, jump on a rock or log,” says Morgan. “I teach kids how to unzip their jackets so you can grab the tail of a jacket and lift it up over your head so it makes you look a third larger than you are, you want to make yourself look intimidating to a bear so it has second thoughts about eating you in that situation.”

If you surprise a bear, play dead
“The other category of attack is a sudden or surprise encounter where a bear is defensive,” says Morgan. “If you are walking on the trail and suddenly bump into a bear that’s surprised and agitated, and the jaws starts popping and they gnash their teeth together kind of in this chomping fashion, sometimes they’ll charge at you to try and get you out of their space. It’s like bumping into someone unexpectedly, we all have our limits. In that sort of sudden encounter, that’s when if you were being attacked by a bear that you surprised or had a sudden encounter, that’s the time to play dead.”

Know how to play dead
“The best way to do it is face down on the ground lying flat on your belly,” Morgan says. “If you’ve got a backpack on keep it on, that way the bear can’t access your back as easily. If the bear rolls you over, roll over again so that the backpack is up and you are face down. Lock your fingers behind your neck, cover up your neck and basically just remain as quiet and still as you can and literally play dead. If you surprised that bear, and that’s why he’s acting attacking you, as soon as he thinks that threat is gone, then he’ll leave the area or leave you alone and that’s what you’re hoping for by playing dead.”

Polar bears are a whole different story
“I’ve spent a lot of time in polar bear country, it’s a whole different game,” says Morgan. “Polar bears are wired differently from a grizzly bear or black bear because 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of their diet is meat. They have to catch prey in one of the most stark and difficult environments to live in on the planet, so they are highly tuned to eat meat, to kill seals on the surface of the ice and feed on the seals. If they see something that is a meaty meal, like potentially a human out on the pack ice or on land in places where polar bears are on land, you definitely have to have a heightened sense of awareness of them. You have to change your mindset to match that of a polar bear because it’s a different animal which is understandable when you think it makes a living from eating meat. Finding those meals on the ice, in the dark, at -40 degrees. That’s one determined animal.

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Do not play dead with a polar bear
“I wouldn’t play dead with a polar bear because generally they are thinking food and if they are on to you, they walked a distance to find you,” says Morgan. “You’d have to fight back. Generally a polar bear attacking you is going to be attacking you because it thinks your food, so you can’t make that easy, you have to fight back. When it comes to avoiding them, one of the best things to do, back to grizzly bears and black bears, they don’t like surprises so one of the easiest things to do when you are hiking is to get into this mode of shouting ‘Hey bear, hey bear.’ If the wind is in your face, shout even louder because the bear can smell you because your scent is being carried downward, so compensate for the wind, compensate for the rain, compensate for the rivers and thick brush, make sure the bear knows you are coming and they will usually do the polite thing and let you through. 99.9 percent of the time they will leave the area to let you through.”

Always carry bear spray
“Bear sprays work really well to deter a bear that wants to attack you” says Morgan. “It’s a highly noxious red, capsaicin pepper-based spray that can deter a bear and works great on the grizzlies, sometimes on black bears and worth carrying in polar bear country as well. Most people go into polar bear country armed with a firearm but you don’t really need that in grizzly or black bear country. It’s just a much more serious carnivore that you’re dealing with in polar bears. Knowing how to use the bear spray is very important, don’t put it in the bottom of your backpack where you won’t be able to grab it when you need it, be aware of it on your belt, you have to know how to use it.’

Don’t run away from bears
“You never run from any of these bears because that might trigger a chase response,” says Morgan. “Some of them are programmed to chase prey so running from a bear is never a good thing to do. Even if you are the fastest Olympic sprinter, a bear can still almost run twice as fast as that. They are clocked at 35 miles per hour some of these bears, you can’t outrun them. They look so slow and walloping don’t they? But they are really not, they are quick as a bullet out of a gun when they decide to charge at something. They can move very quickly for a big animal.”

Don’t ever get between a mama bear and her cubs
“Definitely something to look out for is females with cubs, especially grizzly bears, not so much black bears,” Morgan says. “It surprises people when they hear but generally black bear mothers would sooner run up a tree or away from people then defend their cubs. With grizzly bears it’s definitely a threat. The old adage of don’t get between a grizzly bear and her cubs is absolutely true.”

Want more bear info? Keep an eye out BEARTREK
The upcoming documentary is Morgan’s next passion project. “It’s about a journey I take around the world to meet four different bear species and the biologists who are trying to save them,” he says. “Grizzlies in Alaska, polar bears in the Canadian arctic, a crazy cliff climbing population of bears in Peru, and then the smallest bears in the world in Borneo, so it’s a journey that reveals so much more about bears than you can ever imagine. It’s a very cool project and all the profits are being given back to the bears. It’s been supported by 300 donors and its a real passion project and looking beautiful.”