Spot the Difference: How to Tell Grizzly Bears from Black Bears for a Safer Outdoor Adventure

Spot the Difference: How to Tell Grizzly Bears from Black Bears for a Safer Outdoor Adventure

07 06 2023

Bear attacks continue to make  headlines

When it comes to bear safety, there’s this saying: Brown lay down, black fight back. And while this rhyme might be easy to remember in a stressful moment when you encounter a bear, sometimes brown bears don’t appear to be brown and black bears don’t appear to be black. Not to mention, who wants to lie down when in the face of an aggressive bear—an animal that can run up to 40 mph, cover up to 50 feet in one second, and weigh up to 1,200 pounds?


If you encounter a bear, here’s how to tell if it’s a grizzly bear or black bear and how you can protect yourself.

Grizzly Bears vs. Black Bears

Grizzly bear vs. black bear

Color and size can be misleading when identifying grizzly bears and black bears. Grizzlies, also known as brown bears, can range in color from black to blond and black bears are often a darker brown shade than jet black. While grizzly bears are usually larger than black bears, a female grizzly could weigh as little as 300 pounds and be mistaken for a black bear.

To differentiate between the two bear species, it’s best to look at their shoulders, facial features, ears, and the length of their claws.

  • Shoulder Shape: Grizzlies have a pronounced shoulder hump and black bears do not.
  • Facial Features: A grizzly’s face is more concave, and its eyes appear closer together and deeper set. A black bear’s face is straighter and flatter and looks more like a dog’s.
  • Ears: Grizzly ears are small and rounded, while black bear ears are pointed and stand straight up.
  • Claw Length: Grizzlies have long, curved claws to help them dig, while black bears have shorter, straighter claws that are better suited for climbing trees.

You Encounter a Bear. Now What?

Black bear

Bear Encounter by Curits Matwishyn

If you encounter a bear, the National Park Service recommends keeping a minimum distance of at least 100 yards between yourself and a bear. Here are other guidelines you should follow:

  • Get out of the way and let the bear pass. Do not try to approach the bear.
  • Talk quietly to help the bear identify you as a human, not a predator.
  • Stay still, calm, and walk away slowly. Do not run away, as this threatens bears and might cause them to attack.
  • Avoid getting in between a mama bear and her cub on the trails. Bears become aggressive when they think their young are threatened.
  • Use your bear spray. Having a way to protect yourself from up to 35 feet away from an attacking bear is far easier and safer than trying to fight off an attacking bear.