With males reaching 800 kg / 1,764 lbs. and females reaching over half that size polar bears are the largest bear species in the world.
These bears also have a huge head with impressive jaws filled with 42 sharp teeth which they aggressively use for shredding and tearing their prey.
Needless to say, these bears are apex predators perfectly capable of killing humans, and although it would be unfair to portray them as mindless killers who will immediately go after a human when spotting one, it’s a fact that a hungry polar will gladly have human meat for dinner.
Luckily these predators are restricted to the arctic circle, aka polar bear country, so unless you’re planning a nordic adventure you don’t have to worry about a polar bear encounter.
If you are in fact planning a trip up north then please read on as I tell you how to survive a polar bear attack.
Besides useful tips on how to act in case you have been chosen as a polar bear snack, in this article you will learn if these bears in fact attack humans, scenarios that should be avoided, and more.
Do Polar Bears Attack Humans?
Polar bears DO attack humans, and unlike other predators who might perceive humans as more of a nuisance than a meal these giant predators actually see humans as a source of food.
However, I don’t want to shed a negative light on these wonderful creatures so it’s important to mention that polar bear attacks have historically been extremely rare averaging only between 7 – 12 per decade from 1960 until 2010.
Between 2010 – 2014 there was a significant surge in attacks with 15 happening in just 4 years.
The reason for this is not that polar bears are getting more aggressive but in fact due to the following:
- Global warming: climate change is reducing the polar bear hunting season which increases the occurrence of starving polar bears who must venture on land searching for anything they can find.
Garbage and human flesh are not nearly as tasty as seals and narwhals but when the apex predator is starving it’ll have to do.
- More people visiting the arctic circle: every year more and more hikers and adventurers are heading towards the north. Of course, more people equal more chances of an attack taking place
Even with polar bear attacks on the rise, it’s important to note that over a 145-year period, between 1870 – 2014, only 20 fatalities have occurred worldwide.
This time period could be even longer as I couldn’t find any registered fatality from 2014 – 2022.
Just to provide a little perspective there are between 30 – 50 fatal dog attacks per year in the US alone.
As you can see you’re far more likely to die from a dog attack or even a coconut falling on your head (it’s 150 people per year btw) than from a polar bear attack.
But if you’re planning a trip to Canada, Greenland, Norway, Alaska, or Denmark it’s best if you are prepared and know what to do in case you come face to face with the largest land predator in the world.
Steps To Survive A Polar Bear Attack
So if you took all the precautions to avoid a polar bear encounter (I’ll list them shortly) and still find yourself in the vicinity of a polar bear it’s important you know what to do:
Carry polar bear deterrents
Make sure that if you’re visiting an area where polar bears are known to occur you are armed with deterrents and have them within easy reach at all times.
Some of these are bear spray, noisemakers such as air horns, pistols, and bear bangers.
Learn to identify polar bear body language
This is not an easy task as they show no facial expressions but there are certain behaviors that will let you know the bear has spotted you and is interested.
Standing on hind legs while sniffing the air, lifting its head to look in your direction, moving the ears back or forward, and staring directly at you are all signs that a polar bear has seen you and is focused on you.
Quietly back away and don’t lose sight of the polar bear
Whether the bear has spotted you or not the course of action is the same: if you’re with a group calmly and quietly inform them of the presence of the polar bear.
Tell them what the bear is doing and where it is located and what the emergency exit plan will be.
Then start slowly backing away and try to exit the area either in the same direction you came from or by making a very wide detour around the bear.
Keep your eyes on the bear at all times.
Remain downwind of the polar bear whenever possible
These bears have an extremely sensitive sense of smell so staying downwind may prevent the bear from being able to sniff you if it hasn’t already.
You know you’re downwind from a bear if you can see it in front of you and the wind is blowing into your face instead of against your back.
Don’t be deceived by the polar bears’ immense size and weight, they are very fast and agile.
You have exactly 0 chance of outrunning a polar bear and if you start to run away it’s almost guaranteed the bear will start chasing you.
Be prepared to fight back
If a polar bear charges in your direction you need to fight back, playing dead will not work and will just make you an easy kill.
Use your deterrents if you have them on you and try to hit the bear with anything you’ve got in sensitive areas such as the face and nose.
What Are Polar Bears Afraid Of?
Polar bears are apex predators at the top of the food chain. They have no natural predators and show no fear of humans so they’re not scared of anything.
Scenarios To Avoid In Polar Bear Country
If you’re anywhere within the arctic circle you must assume that a polar bear may always be near so knowing what scenarios to avoid and what precautions to take will increase your chances of avoiding an encounter:
- Always check your surroundings before exiting a vehicle or building.
- Travel in groups. This will increase your chances of spotting a bear. When possible take a cab instead of walking at night.
- Avoid dimly lit areas or zones with many obstacles that may limit your visibility.
- Reduce scents. Try to avoid perfumes, lunchboxes, and other strong smells when walking around.
- Don’t get close to whale or seal carcasses. Polar bears are very protective of their food.
How To Tell If A Polar Bear Is Near
Polar bears are very quiet and skilled predators, most of their prey isn’t aware that a bear is close by until it’s too late, so the only telltale sign one is near is a fresh seal carcass or the fact that you are seeing one.
If you’re in polar bear country it’s best to assume one could always be near.
Due to the very restricted area that polar bears inhabit your chances of ever encountering one, and therefore needing this information, are extremely slim but if you’re planning a trip up north definitely keep this guide handy and stay safe!
I hope that you never have to use any of the tactics set about above and urge you to STAY SAFE when in polar bear country.
Until next time!
I am a lover of everything nature and animal related with over 15 years of experience in the field of wildlife rescue and education. Currently living in Colombia working with wild and domestic animals and spending all my free time writing about them 🙂