How Does the Bear Survival Rhyme Go?


Rhymes can be a powerful way to remember crucial survival information. There’s a reason that there are so many rhymes that are a century, or even hundreds, of years old. Because they can make it easier to remember crucial survival information.

Some that was life and death at one point – and during a wilderness survival still might be.

For backpackers and long distance hikers who travel frequently through bear country, this rhyme still matters. When it comes to surviving a bear attack, there’s a popular old rhyme that can help you make the right decision if you ever find yourself in that unfortunate situation.

The bear attack survival rhyme goes “Black fight back, brown get down, white good night.” This refers to the highest percentage actions for surviving a bear attack which are to fight back against black bears, play dead against brown bears, and the really bad news if a polar bear goes after you while you’re unarmed.

But how accurate is this rhyme? Should you follow its advice? Read on to find out!

Dealing with Black Bears

black bear in tall grass
The least likely bears to attack, but you need to know how to handle them.

Black bears are rarely aggressive, but they can be curious and will fight if startled, surprised, or cornered. Many times when a black bear gets in trouble it’s because the bear is overly curious and that gets it interacting with people.

Most of the time black bears are going to be more inclined to run than fight. They are less likely to push for confrontation with people under normal circumstances. Aggression from black bears is often a mother defending her cubs or a cornered or surprised black bear fighting back to get enough space to run off.

This is why getting rid of problem black bears involves making yourself large, making as much noise as possible, and fighting back with anything you have on hand, including your own fists if you have nothing else. You want to make it clear that you are trouble and the bear is better off just not dealing with you.

The part of the rhyme that says “black fight back” is very accurate. This is the best way to deal with a black bear attack and gives you the best chance of surviving and minimizing any injuries that are going to take place from scuffling with an angry bear.

Dealing with Brown Bears

grizzly bear in tall grass
Big brown bear way too close for comfort – look at those teeth!

Brown bears tend to be a bit more aggressive and are far more willing to fight. The majority of bear attacks come from brown bears. This also means the majority of severe injuries or even deaths from bear attacks come from brown bears.

Because of this fighting back is often not the best solution if you’re unarmed. In this situation your best chances go with hitting the ground and playing dead. This doesn’t mean you’ll come out unscathed (you almost certainly won’t) but if you’re unarmed and want to survive you’re not going to scare off a grizzly by letting out a war cry (no matter how cool that image is in your mind).

There are two reasons for this. One is that a brown bear that saw you as a threat will hover around afterwards to make sure you don’t get back up. Brown bears tend to do the same thing when attacking for food.

They may put down some prey, check the area, then come back. In addition to this, brown bears are even bigger, stronger, and nastier than black bears. If one of these comes after you at full charge, you’re not going to be able to fight it off unarmed.

The duck and cover approach while playing dead is meant to protect vital areas like your neck and head. You will get beat about. But immediately after it’s important to stay down for a short time before getting up to make your way away to find help.

Assuming you have no gun or bear spray, playing dead isn’t a great option but it is the best one out there. So the part of the rhyme “If it’s brown, get down,” is accurate for anyone unarmed. If you’re armed, absolutely fight back as hard and effectively as you can. But playing dead is the best option for those who are unarmed.

Dealing with Polar Bears

sleepy polar bear in tundra
Better sleepy than angry – that’s one big bear!

So yeah. Polar bears have a reputation for being extremely curious, aggressive, and nasty. This is why individuals and cultures that live in the Arctic have an incredibly healthy respect for them and are wary of any that appear.

The best way to deal with an aggressive polar bear, according to those who live in the ecosystem, is with a professional hunter and his high caliber rifle from at least 100 yards away.

Polar bears are very big, very aggressive, and are used to being apex predator. Even when people are around. They have no fear of humans and that makes them doubly dangerous. They have an all-meat diet so they’re also much more likely than even the often feared grizzly bear who is more than happy to often claim a few overflowing berry bushes as their own.

Polar bears are big, mean, nasty, and you do NOT want an up close encounter with them. So while the old rhyme of “White, say good night” isn’t especially helpful it is probably sadly very accurate if you are unarmed.

If you’re ever in a situation where unfortunately somehow this is the case, then fighting back is probably the best option but it’s not a situation you should find yourself in.

The same probably applies to the terrifying polar-grizzly bear hybrid. Yes, that is actually a thing now thanks to climate change.

Be Prepared with Bear Spray

While a survival rhyme is great for keeping in mind what to do if a bear charges when you’re unarmed, starting out prepared is the better way to go. A famous BYU study, talked about here, shows that bear spray is more effective than firearms by quite a large margin in preventing severe injury or death during a bear attack.

While there are several on the market, you want to go with on of the bear sprays that is EPA approved for that use. As of this writing there are only four as of this writing:

Above All, Be Safe!

Most bears have no interest in dealing with people, and certainly won’t be aggressive, but you need to always be prepared. By taking proper protections you not only increase your chances of surviving a bear attack but also greatly reducing the chance of being seriously injured.

Knowing the correct bear attack survival rhyme, using bear bags or bear canisters when camping in bear country, and never leaving home without a can of reliable bear spray, and you will be prepared to keep yourself safe. If you are an expert marksman even with the especially high caliber weapons, then you may be able to get away with a firearm.

However, the key is to be prepared in all ways possible so you don’t find yourself in a desperate situation. Remembering the bear attack survival rhyme is an important bit of information for that worst case scenario.

Take all the proper steps while in bear country to make sure it doesn’t come to that and you will be much happier overall.

Not to mention safe in bear country!

Big Alaska Dayton

I've always loved the outdoors and have heard the call of the wild, so to speak, since a young age. Big-time camping, hiking, backpacking, and traveling enthusiast, I'm always up for another adventure or another activity that gets me away from the desk and out to enjoy the world. An Eagle Scout with an incurable case of outdoor wanderlust, this blog was a natural labor of love and personal expertise.

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