There was a video that went viral several years back, especially amongst wildlife and hunting enthusiasts, that showed a grizzly bear chasing down an elk. The grizzly bear won the race and the elk spent the rest of its days as feculence fertilizer around the bear’s domain.

Black bears are even faster, with the lean, post-hibernation black bears, clocking in at 35mph. Before the long winter, when black bears are cloaked in thick layers of fat, they can still reach 35mph, but tire very quickly and easily overheat.

That doesn’t mean that running will save you if you happen to catch a black bear right before it says good night to the world for a few months. Usain Bolt reached speeds of 27mph and black bears could have caught him with ease.

How far can black bears run at full speed?

Photo by Danika Perkinson / Unsplash

A black bear going full out, can hit 35mph and maintain that speed for roughly 150 yards. That’s a football field and a half and it’s not like you’re going to spot a black bear in the woods and have that kind of a head start.

You might assume that you could quickly scale a tree and ole black bear will simply be too tired, too dumb, or too fat to haul up the tree after you. You would be wrong. Not only can black bears run like the wind for a long distance, but they can also haul themselves 100’ up a tree in a matter of 2-3 seconds.

When most people see a black bear, from the safety of the inside of their car or on a TV screen, they think about their cute, fuzzy faces and Winnie the Pooh Bear. The fact is, most of the time, that’s all a black bear is; they’re cute, fuzzy, and generally harmless to humans.

That is until they don’t want to be, and you had better be on a motorcycle or in a vehicle if you hope to escape the wrath of a momma black bear who believes you are a threat to her cubs.

Can dogs outrun a black bear?

Photo by Trac Vu / Unsplash

It’s entirely possible that a dog can outrun a black bear, assuming we’re not talking about Pugs or Shih Tzus. Greyhounds (one of the laziest dogs on the planet incidentally), Doberman Pinschers, Whippets, German Shepherds, and Weimaraners are the kind of dogs that have the build-type to possibly escape the wrath of a black bear.

Of course, that’s assuming that the dog makes the right moves at the right time to avoid being caught. The fact is, not only are black bears ridiculously fast, but they’re also explosive, with deceptive reaction speed.

A black bear can go from 0mph to 35mph with nightmarish speed and intensity. If the dog in question has the right instincts and is both poised for flight and pointing in the right direction, then it has a shot.

Some larger dogs, such as Mastiffs, Great Danes, and Cane Corsos would make it a much closer thing as they lack the explosive speed of some of their medium-sized cousins. They would probably put up a better fight, but the world’s most ferocious dog would be putty in the claws of a black bear.

What makes black bears so fast?

Not only are they deceptively quick, but they’re also deceptive in appearance. The pudgy-looking black bear is hiding a whole lot more beneath its cuddly, fuzzy exterior than you would imagine. These are some of the things that make black bears so darn fast:

  • Thick, large musculature
  • Powerful, long claws (1½” to 4”)
  • Pivot and lunge power
  • Uphill and downhill speed
  • Small, compact size (up to 650lbs.)

The black bear’s back limbs are covered in thick sheets of muscle, with ropey, powerful tendons that propel it forward at an explosive and frightening speed. Their long claws aid them in their initial launch because they dig into the earth and serve as a kind of springboard.

The long claws are also beneficial on the run, as they dig into the earth providing superior grip while also allowing them to turn quickly with their prey. They aren’t like alligators in that they are only north and south runners.

Black bears can pivot quickly and have more endurance than you would think as they can outwind horses on occasion and can keep pace with most horses as well.

Remarkably, black bears can run uphill or downhill at the same rate of speed as they can on flat, open ground, and for similar distances. They’re also big enough to trample straight through heavy brush and small trees, which would slow a deer down, moving to avoid them.

Their small, compact frame gives them a speed advantage as well, especially over their larger cousin, the grizzly and polar bear. While grizzly bears are fast—around 30mph top speed—the black bear is faster, mostly due to the lower amount of weight.

The greatest advantage that anyone or anything might have against a black bear would be hard terrains, such as asphalt or concrete. On that type of footing, the black bear’s claws will work against it, slowing it down considerably.

Are black bears aggressive?

Black Bear, female. British Columbia, Canada May 2019
Photo by Bill Pennell / Unsplash

Typically, black bears are non-aggressive and will leave you alone, usually running off in the opposite direction. On very rare occasions, however, a black bear may not leave you alone and it will certainly act aggressively if it’s a female black bear and you have stumbled on her and her cubs.

Black bears and violent confrontations with humans are rare but most often are initiated by dogs. Black bears are higher on the food chain than even the most ferocious dogs and may consider your chihuahua as nothing more than an easy meal.

Humans are often attacked while trying to defend their dog(s) from black bears or encountering the bear when the dog unwittingly returns home, seeking protection from its owner.

Always trust the family dog to bring a rampaging, hungry, highly irritated black bear home for dinner. The truth is, most black bears will run away from dogs, not necessarily because they are afraid, but because dogs are an unfamiliar element in a black bear’s normal environment.

In the rare circumstances where black bears don’t run away, however, things can get hairy in a hurry (pun very much intended).

What do you do if you encounter a black bear?

The one thing that you should never do if you encounter a black bear out in the wild, is run. A black bear instinctively understands that there is only one thing that runs and that is prey. Besides, you have no hope of outrunning it and you certainly can’t climb a tree to escape it, especially if it wants you.

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t play dead either. Playing dead works with brown bears (grizzlies) and possibly even polar bears but black bears aren’t falling for it. Your only real option, if you are unarmed and well away from a safe enclosure, is to face it head-on.

Black bear attacks on people are exquisitely rare. When a black bear attacks a human, it makes the news almost solely because of how rare it is. Most of the time, the black bear is completely unsure of what you are but most black bears that recognize a human will turn tail and run.

Wave your arms, yell at it, make noise, and make eye contact. It will run counterintuitive to everything your lizard hind-brain understands about prey and predator behavior. If it charges you, stand your ground, even if you soil yourself.

If you have pots and pans, such as a campground setting, clap them together and make a raucous, insane amount of noise. The ultimate objective is to make the black bear understand that you are a human, as most simply aren’t interested in humans.

When are black bears active?

Brown bear fishing.
Photo by NOAA / Unsplash

If you want to avoid bear encounters, as most sensible people do, then it’s important to know that black bears are most active in the early morning hours and late in the evening. That’s true for spring and summer, but not necessarily during the winter months.

Black bears usually mate during July and that may make them a bit more boisterous and alert. Either way, it’s best to be even warier during these periods. Carry bear spray with you, especially if you are in areas of the country where black bears are known to inhabit.

As winter approaches, black bears seek out a den that is capable of obscuring them and offering some form of protection throughout the winter season. They will generally stay there and rarely venture out until the spring returns.

Final thoughts

35mph may not seem very fast when you’re slow-poking it through the neighborhood in your car, watching out for the speed bumps and school zones. On foot, however, at least to a human, 35mph is a blaze of speed and far beyond our capability.

Black bears are powerful, fast, and much more agile than they would appear. Fortunately, black bears rarely encounter humans and run away when they do, preferring to hunt more familiar prey.