For animals that can weigh up to 1,700 pounds, bears are incredibly fast creatures. Brown bears, black bears, and polar bears can run faster than the average human. While some particularly fast dog breeds can move faster than a bear, your average dog wouldn’t stand a chance.
In this article we will cover:
- Why can bears run so fast?
- How fast can different bear species run?
- How your champion dog breed would compare to a bear
- Why you should never try to outrun a bear
- What to do if you meet a bear in the woods
Why can bears run so fast?
Bears are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and animals. Depending on the breed, the composition of their diet ranges from 60% to 90% plant-based. To catch the meat they also depend on, they have to be quick and smart.
Bears often attack fish, rodents, and hoofed animals such as moose, moose, caribou, and deer. They are particularly effective at attacking younger, injured animals, as they are slower and more vulnerable.
While bears may look fluffy and plump, underneath all that fur are some pretty incredible muscles. Without the skin, they look amazingly like a human bodybuilder. These muscles develop from a lifetime of wandering the woods and chasing down prey. A bear’s claws also make them particularly effective at gaining traction on rough terrain and climbing trees.
How fast can a grizzly bear run?
Grizzly bears are the fastest of the Ursidae family and can run at top speeds of 35 mph to 40 mph. While they cannot maintain this top speed for long, their ability to run fast and maintain high speeds makes them exceptionally effective predators.
There is not much research on the speed of a bear. As you can imagine, it would be difficult to set up the ideal experiment to capture your speed. Most references to a bear’s speed come from two different encounters in Yellowstone National Park in the 1930s.
Both encounters occurred shortly after the roads were plowed. In one situation, two park employees came across a sow and her puppies on the road. The bears spotted the car and headed down the road with park employees following at a safe distance for two miles. They used their car’s speedometer to record their speed and traveled at a constant speed of 25 miles per hour for two miles.
In another encounter, ranger Cliff Anderson and his family came across a sow and her two cubs feeding on a roadside carcass. There were two other cars approaching the ranger and the bears when the female grizzly charged at the cars. The sow ended up chasing the car for two miles at a top speed of 28 miles per hour.
Therefore, grizzlies can not only run fast, but can also maintain high speeds over long distances. Read the full history of the Yellowstone encounters here.
How fast can a black bear run?
Black bears are slightly slower than brown bears, but can reach top speeds of around 30 miles per hour. Your speed is going to vary based on age and athleticism. For example, a bear with its winter coat and fat reserves will be slower than a skinny bear coming out of hibernation. Thirty miles per hour is still significantly faster than humans or your average dog (more on that below).
Black bears are also highly adapted to climbing, so while they can’t run as fast as a grizzly bear, they can outrun them. Black bears can climb 100 feet up a tree in 30 seconds. So don’t try to escape a black bear by climbing a tree.
How fast can a polar bear run?
Polar bears are the third slowest member of the Ursidae family with top speeds exceeding 25 miles per hour. With the rapid decline of polar bear habitat, polar bear encounters are becoming more common. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there have been more than 20 polar bear attacks on humans in recent years. If you are in an area inhabited by polar bears, you should understand the potential risks in the same way you would with a grizzly or black bear.
Can a dog run faster than a bear?
While we’ve never seen the two run, it’s safe to say that many common dog breeds can’t outrun a bear. There are about 10 different dog breeds that can reach speeds in excess of 35 mph, out of the 195 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. So somewhere between 3 and 5% of the breeds in the world could outnumber a bear.
A couple of dogs that could potentially outrun a bear (based on top speeds would be) a greyhound (45 mph), saluki (45 mph), jack russell terrier (38 mph), dalmatian (37 mph), and weimaraner ( 35mph).
Check out Parade’s full list of 30 Super Fast Dog Breeds to see if your dog makes the list.
Of course, this begs the question: are you faster than your dog?
Can you run faster than a bear?
Not only can’t the fastest human outrun a bear, but you definitely shouldn’t try it. The world record for the fastest two-mile run was set by Daniel Komen in 1997. It took him 7 minutes and 58 seconds to run two miles. That’s about 15 mph sustained for two miles.
Even the fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, couldn’t outrun a bear. Bolt set a world record in 2009 and his calculated speed for 100 meters was 23.75 miles per hour.
All of these world records were also completed on flat ground, of course. Add in a hill and fallen wood and there is absolutely no way you can outrun a bear. Bears can easily navigate through the woods at speeds well in excess of the maximum speeds of humans and dogs.
What should you do if you encounter a bear?
Let’s start with the good news: bear attacks are relatively rare. On average, there are 40 brown bear attacks around the world each year. Black bear attacks are even less common. In the United States, on average, there is one fatal black bear attack per year.
Bears generally won’t attack you unless they feel threatened or are protecting their cubs.
If you see a bear when you walk through the woods, the first thing you should do is identify what kind of bear it is. Brown bears and black bears often react very differently to humans.
Brown bears tend to be much more aggressive and territorial, while black bears tend to be more timid and avoid human interaction. That said, both species can be aggressive if they have cubs nearby. If you see a sow with her cubs, be very careful.
The best way to avoid bear encounters is to not surprise them. Walking with a group of people, talking and making noise is usually enough to deter bear encounters. Most bears don’t want to mess with humans.
Black bear encounters
If you come across a black bear in the woods, you should:
- Try to identify yourself as human by slowly moving your arms and speaking calmly to let him know you are not prey.
- Get as big as possible by moving to higher ground or waving your jacket or trekking poles
- Slowly walk back leaving a path for a bear to leave the area.
If you are attacked by a black bear:
- don’t play dead
- Defend yourself, focusing on the face and muzzle.
- Try to escape to a safe place.
Grizzly bear encounters
If you come across a grizzly bear in the woods:
- Don’t make eye contact with him.
- walk away slowly
- Don’t yell or run (as there is no chance you will outrun the bear)
- Speak in a soft, monotone voice so the bear knows you are human and not prey.
- Slowly walk back leaving a path for a bear to leave the area.
If you are attacked by a grizzly bear:
- Leave your backpack on and play dead
- Cover the back of your head with your hands and spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to flip you over.
- Try not to move until the bear leaves the area.
- If it continues to attack, counterattack as best you can, aiming for the bear’s face.
For more details on what to do in the event of a bear attack, see the National Park Service’s publication on Staying Safe Around Bears.
Having bear spray and/or a firearm and knowing how to use it can help protect you from bear attacks. Watch our video on whether you should carry bear spray, a gun, or both when you’re out in the bear woods.
Gun, bear spray or both? | Clay Newcomb learns the bear defense