For animals that can weigh up to 1,700 pounds, bears are incredibly fast creatures. Grizzlies, black bears, and polar bears can all run faster than the average human. While a few particularly quick-footed dog breeds might be able to move faster than a bear, your average dog wouldn’t stand a chance.
In this article we’ll cover:
Bears are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Depending on breed, their diet makeup ranges from 60% to 90% plant-based. In order to catch the meat they also rely on, they must be fast and smart.
Bears will typically target fish, rodents, and hooved animals such as moose, elk, caribou, and deer. They are particularly effective at targeting younger and injured animals as they’re slower and more vulnerable.
While bears may look soft and pudgy, beneath all that fur are some pretty incredible muscles. With the skin off, they look surprisingly like a human bodybuilder. These muscles develop from a lifetime of wandering through the woods and chasing their prey. A bear’s claws also make them particularly effective at gaining traction on uneven terrain and climbing trees.
Grizzly bears are the fastest of the Ursidae family and can sprint at top speeds of 35 mph to 40 mph. While they can’t maintain this top speed very long, their ability to sprint fast and maintain high speeds make them exceptionally effective predators.
There isn’t a whole lot of research on a bear’s speed. As you can imagine, setting up the ideal experiment to capture their speed would be difficult. Most references to a bear’s speed come from two different encounters in Yellowstone National Park back in the 1930s
Both of these encounters happened soon after the roads were plowed. In one situation, two park employees came across a sow and her cubs in the road. The bears saw the car and took off down the road with the park employees following at a safe distance for two miles. They used their car’s speedometer to clock their speed and were traveling at a consistent 25 miles per hour for two miles.
In another encounter, Ranger Cliff Anderson and his family encountered a sow and her two cubs feeding on a carcass in the road. There were two other cars approaching the ranger and the bears when the female grizzly charged the cars. The sow ended up chasing the car for two miles at a top speed of 28 miles per hour.
So not only can grizzlies sprint fast, but they can also maintain high speeds for long distances. Read the full story from the Yellowstone encounters here.
Black bears are a bit slower than grizzlies but can reach top speeds of around 30 miles per hour. Their speed is going to vary based on age and athleticism. For example, a bear with its winter coat and fat reserves is going to be slower than a lean bear coming out of hibernation. Thirty miles per hour is still significantly faster than humans or your average dog (more on this below).
Black bears are also highly adapted for climbing, so while they can’t run as fast as a grizzly, they can out-climb them. Black bears can climb 100 feet up a tree within 30 seconds. So don’t try to escape a black bear by climbing a tree.
Polar bears are the third slowest member of the Ursidae family with max speeds topping out around 25 miles per hour. With polar bear habitat quickly declining, polar bear encounters are becoming increasingly more common. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there have been more than 20 polar bear attacks on humans in recent years. If you happen to be in an area that polar bears inhabit, you should understand the potential risks in the same way you would a grizzly or black bear.
While we’ve never seen the two race, it’s safe to say that many common dog breeds cannot outrun a bear. There are about 10 different dog breeds that can reach speeds above 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 outrun 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 (35 mph).
Check out Parade’s full list of 30 super fast dog breeds to see if your dog makes the list.
Of course, this brings up the question: are you faster than your dog?
Not only can the fastest human not outrun a bear, but you definitely shouldn’t try. The world record for the fastest two-mile run was set by Daniel Komen in 1997. It took him 7 minutes, 58 seconds to run two miles. That’s roughly 15 mph sustained for two miles.
Even the fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, couldn’t outrun a bear. Bolt set a world record back 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 timber and there is absolutely no way you could outrun a bear. Bears can easily navigate forests at speeds well above the top speeds of humans and dogs.
Let’s start with the good news: bear attacks are relatively rare. On average, there are 40 brown bear attacks around the world every year. Black bear attacks are even less common. In the United States, on average, there is one fatal black bear attack per year.
Bears typically won’t attack you unless they feel threatened or are protecting their cubs.
If you see a bear when you’re hiking in the woods, the first thing you should do is identify what type of bear it is. Grizzly bears and black bears often react very differently to humans.
Grizzlies tend to be much more aggressive and territorial whereas black bears are often more timid and avoid human interaction. That said, both species can be aggressive if they have cubs around. If you see a sow with her cubs, take extra caution.
The best way to avoid bear encounters is to not surprise them. Walking with a group of people, talking, and making noise is typically enough to deter bear encounters. Most bears don’t want to mess with humans.
If you encounter a black bear in the woods, you should:
If you get attacked by a black bear:
If you encounter a grizzly bear in the woods:
If you get attacked by a grizzly bear:
For more details on what to do in the event of a bear attack, check out the National Park Service’s post on Staying Safe around Bears.
Having bear spray and/or a firearm and knowing how to use them can help protect you from bear attacks. Check out our video on whether you should carry bear spray, a pistol, or both when you’re out in the bear woods.