There are so many myths and misconceptions concerning grizzly bears that it’s hard to remember whether you’re supposed to make yourself big, play dead, or do the foxtrot when you encounter one of these beasts on your hike.
Before you know it, you’re confusing bears with sharks and trying to punch a 600-pound bear in the face while wondering where you put your surfboard.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that bears can’t climb trees. You may have heard the following advice from a friend:
“If you see a grizzly bear, head for the nearest tree and climb. Bears can’t climb trees, so you’ll be safe”.
Firstly, your friend is an idiot and you should stop talking to them. Secondly, most bears can climb trees, and the only thing that this half-assed “escape” will do is confuse a 300+ pound beast and leave you 20 feet and 2 broken legs from safety.
Can Grizzly Bears Climb Trees?
As you may have guessed from our condescending tone above, bears can climb trees. In fact, they’re pretty good at it. But their adeptness depends on their age, size, and species.
Black bears are some of the most agile climbers. Scampering up a tree is definitely not the best way to get away from these beasts—if they want to follow you, they can.
Grizzly bears can also climb, but they are a little heavier and more awkward, and so the best climbers are often the smaller and younger bears.
It also depends on the type of tree, as a grizzly bear finds it easier to climb a tree if it has a lot of ladder-like branches. If you’re thinking that you can just climb a tree without branches, think again. Unless you have a ladder or can shinny like the best of them, you’re going to need some branches as well.
What Kind Of Bear Can’t Climb Trees?
Polar bears can’t climb trees. They are far too heavy and cumbersome. But polar bears don’t need to climb trees on account of them not living in forests. The likelihood of you encountering a polar bear on your hike is pretty slim, but on the off-chance that you do, and it doesn’t maul you on sight, you can try and escape by climbing a tree.
It should also be noted that polar bears have huge claws and incredible strength. They might not be very familiar with trees, but they are still good climbers.
Also, that really only applies to adult polar bears, as cubs are small and nimble enough to climb trees.
Can Other Bear Species Climb Trees?
Many bears outside of North America can climb trees.
The sloth bear is a great example, as it seems to split its time between the ground and the trees and is very comfortable relaxing on branches or feeding on termites.
Adult sloth bears also use trees to protect their young, placing them on branches where they are out of reach before standing their ground and fending off attackers.
Sun bears are even smaller and more agile, making them perfect for maneuvering through branches and feeding on the fruits, honey, and birds that lie within.
Panda bears climb trees to rest and they also use them as protection, but they spend most of their time on the ground.
Can a 500-Pound Bear Climb a Tree?
500 pounds is a little on the chunky side and grizzly bears may struggle to climb trees at this size. However, if there are plenty of branches for them to grab and hold onto, they should be able to climb.
It’s easy to picture grizzly bears as lumbering, awkward plush toys that spend most of their time sitting, eating, and looking cute, just like cats. But also just like cats, bears can get going when they want to. They are fast, strong, and agile, and you underestimate them at your peril.
Why Are Black Bears Better Climbers Than Grizzly Bears?
Black bears are, without a doubt, the best climbers of all bear species in North America.
They climb using all four legs, pushing with their hind legs and grabbing with their front legs. They have been known to move so quickly and effortlessly that it looks like they’re walking up the tree.
Black bears also have hooked claws that dig into the tree trunk, helping them to grip and climb.
See just how quick a black bear can climb a tree. If nothing else, it may deter you from ever using this method of escape.
Adult grizzly bears are even stronger than their North American cousins, but their claws are straight and they are also much heavier, making it harder for them to pull themselves up the tree.
A grizzly bear will look for low-hanging branches and use these to support its weight. A black bear will just scamper up like a gargantuan squirrel.
This is a great video showing the differences between these two bears.
A black bear runs away from a grizzly bear and scampers up a tree in the blink of an eye. The grizzly follows slowly, tries to climb, realizes there are no branches, and then looks around to make sure no one is filing this embarrassing moment for a viral YouTube video.
Summary: Can You Climb Trees to Escape a Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, or Polar Bear?
You’re in bear country. There is a bear 50 feet ahead of you and a tree 20 feet behind you.
The animal is focused, intent, aggressive, and bearing down on you (that’s what bears do best).
Should you make a dash for the tree?
If it’s a black bear, the answer is a clear no. Black bears run faster than you and climb faster than you. Instead, you should stay calm, make yourself big, and make sure it knows you’re human and not prey.
In other words, don’t look like food, and if there are small children with you, pick them up so they don’t look like food, either.
If it’s a grizzly bear, and it looks a little on the heavy side, you might be tempted to sprint for the tree. But if it has branches, that won’t work, and if not, you’ll have to be very quick at running and climbing to get away.
Just imagine this beast charging for you while you’re out of breath, panicked, and desperately trying to clamber up a slippery tree.
It’s like trying to fit your front door key in the lock when Michael Myers is behind you, it’s dark, and you’re drunk.
If it’s a polar bear, you could try climbing the tree to escape, but unless you’ve accidentally hopped the fence in your local zoo, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter towering trees and menacing polar bears on the same hike.