Bears can run at surprisingly fast speeds—here’s how they vary by species
If you're planning to outrun any kind of bear, it helps to know what you're up against.
This article was originally featured on Field and Stream.
How fast can a bear run? To fully understand, it helps to use this comparison: During a 2009 race in Berlin, Usain Bolt set a world record for the 100-meter dash of 9.58 seconds, a record that stands to this day. In that race, he was clocked going 27.8 mph. (He reached that speed between 60 and 80 meters.) That’s about 4 mph better than his average sprinting speed and 10 mph faster than the average human can sprint. So when you are in a bar and some knucklehead tells you he has $10 that says Bolt could outrun a bear, take that bet. Take it because a grizzly bear can run 35 mph, which, literally, is inhumanly fast. And even a black bear—top speed 30 mph—is faster than the world’s fastest man.
There’s also this: a sprinter can only maintain top speed for a second or two. A griz, on the other hand, can maintain a speed of 25 to 28 mph for two miles. A black bear is 5 mph slower over that distance but can also keep up the pace. Also—and contrary to some of the myths about bears out there—a bear is just as fast going downhill as up.
Table of contents
- How Many Species of Bears Are There
- How Fast Can a Polar Bear Run?
- How Fast Can a Grizzly Bear Run?
- How Fast Can a Black Bear Run?
- How to Survive a Bear Attack
How many species of bears are there?
All told, there are eight species of bears. After looking at the list below, you might think I left out the koala bear. But it’s classified as a marsupial—it carries its young in a pouch. The word koala comes from the Dharug, an Australian aboriginal language, word gula, meaning no water. Koalas get most of their water from eucalyptus leaves, although they do drink water. Colonists called the creature the koala “bear” because it sort of looks like a bear. But koala—not koala bear—is its proper name.
The 8 species of bears and their top speeds
- North American black bear – The most common species in the world. Black bears can run 30 mph.
- The Asiatic black bear – Slightly smaller than our black bears and one that lives in trees. Asiatic black bears can run 25 mph.
- The brown bear – Of which the grizzly is a subspecies. Brown bears can run 35 mph.
- The polar bear – Confined primarily to the Arctic Circle, they are the world’s biggest bear and biggest land-based carnivore. Polar bears can run 25 mph.
- The giant panda – Native to China, with a diet almost exclusively of bamboo. Pandas can run 20 mph.
- The sloth bear – Native to the Indian subcontinent and feeds on fruit, ants, and termites. Sloth bears can run 20 mph.
- The sun bear – The smallest bear, native to tropical forests of Southeast Asia, also arboreal (tree-dwelling). Sun bears can run 30 mph.
- The spectacled bear – The only living bear native to South America (the Andes Mountains of western South America, to be exact), primarily a herbivore. Spectacled bears can run 30 mph.
How fast can a polar bear run?
Polar bear top speed: 25 mph
The biggest bear, and the largest land carnivore, is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), which lives almost exclusively inside the Arctic Circle. Polar bears have been clocked at 25 mph, but only for short distances. They are big, heavy seal specialists and marvelous swimmers. They would quickly overheat if they sprinted distances. Their normal walking speed is about the same as ours, 3.5 mph, and they can swim at 6 mph, which is really booking. By comparison, Michael Phelps managed about 4.7 mph in the 200-meter sprint.
The largest polar bear ever taken, according to Guinness, was shot in Alaska in 1960. It weighed 2,209 lbs. and stood 10 ft., 4 in. tall. It is now on display outside the coffee shop in the former Historic Commercial Hotel in Elko, NV.
[Related: How to survive a grizzly encounter.]
Because they are so big and heavy, polar bears quickly overheat when sprinting, so they don’t do a lot of it. Bears spend the majority of their lives on sea ice (their Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means, naturally, “maritime bear”) and scientists have theorized that their gait gives them better balance on ice. Polar bears live on sea ice in order to hunt seals, their primary food. Climate change and the disappearance of sea ice is already having an effect on polar bear populations.
The longest polar bear swim lasted more than 9 days and covered 425 miles—the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The swim was made in the Beaufort Sea, where sea ice is diminishing due to climate change. The 2011 study says that the bear lost 22 percent of her body weight during the swim, as well as a cub that was accompanying her. Scientists say polar bears are being forced to swim longer distances now that there is less sea ice.
There are about 22,000 polar bears left. They live in five countries: the U.S., Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Canada. Polar bears are believed to have resulted from a population of brown bears that became isolated in Siberia during the Pleistocene. Their molar teeth are significantly different from those of brown bears.
How fast can a grizzly bear run?
Grizzly bear top speed: 35 to 40 mph
Brown bears (Ursus arctos) are found across Eurasia and in North America. Their range includes parts of Russia, China, Scandinavia, Iran, and Romania. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are a subspecies of brown bear found in North America. They’re found primarily in Alaska and Canada, with small populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. The total population is around 60,000.
There are three other kinds of brown bears in North America: the Kodiak bear, the Kamchatka bear, and the peninsular grizzly. The largest hunted grizzly on record was a Kodiak bear that weighed 1700 lbs. It’s on display at the Anchorage Airport. I have seen it, and would definitely let it pre-board on my flight. The largest Kodiak in captivity lived in a zoo in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was named Clyde, lived 22 years, and weighed 2,130 lbs. at death. His fat was measured at 9 inches thick. A year earlier, he was thought to have weighed even more, 2,400 lbs.
Grizzlies are distinguished from black bears in a number of ways. Unlike black bears, they have a hump of muscle on their backs that helps them dig, which is what grizzlies do while searching for roots and insects or when making dens. They have what’s commonly described as a “dished in” face with rounded, short ears. A black bear, by contrast, has a straighter-profiled face and pointier, longer ears. The griz also has a rump that, when standing, is lower than its shoulders, while a black bear’s rump is taller than its shoulders. If you get really close, you can also distinguish grizzlies by their longer claws, although this is not recommended. A grizzly’s claws measure 2-4 inches, while a black bear’s claws measure just 1-2 inches.
Both black bears and grizzly bears can climb trees, so hiding in a tree isn’t a good way to avoid either species. Black bears are more instinctive climbers, but a grizzly after prey has no qualms about climbing trees. Scientists think that this ability is what allowed black bears to escape mega-predators like saber-tooth tigers and dire wolves during their evolution, when other ground-dwelling bears died out. The average brown bear encounter is 20 times (according to the National Bear Center) more likely to result in injury than the average black bear encounter.
Grizzly bears evolved in treeless environments. Their strategy has always been to confront and neutralize threats. Being neutralized by a grizzly can be highly uncomfortable.
How fast can a black bear run?
Black bear top speed: 30 mph
The black bear (Ursus americanus) is native to North America and is more closely related to the Asiatic black bear than to the grizzly or polar bear. Whereas other specialized mega-predators of the last Ice Age—two species of the larger short-faced bear and the aforementioned saber tooth tigers and dire wolves—died out, the omnivorous black bear is still with us and found in most of its historic range of forested lands.
The biggest black bear on record was a male from New Brunswick that was shot in 1972. Its dressed weight was 902 lbs., meaning that it probably weighed 1,100 lbs when alive. In 1921, a cow-killing black bear weighing 899 lbs. was shot in Arizona. There have been a number of bears over 800 lbs. killed by hunters in recent years, some of them from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, places where they were nearly hunted out of existence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
[Related: Simple tips for getting black bears to leave you alone.]
About 10 years ago, A black bear study challenged the long-held idea that a mother bear with cubs is the most dangerous black bear. Of the 63 fatal attacks by black bears that had occurred between 1902 and 2011, 88 percent involved a bear “on the prowl, likely hunting for food.” A whopping 92 percent of those bears were male.
The study’s lead author, Stephen Herrero said that mama bears will act aggressively, swatting the ground and false charging. “They want to make you think they’ll eat you alive, but they’ll almost always stop.” They are more interested in keeping their cubs safe than attacking you.
American black bears are smart and good with their paws. They are, for example, capable of opening screw-top jars. Personally, I was almost 11 before I mastered this. Like all bears, they are crazy strong. A 120-pound juvenile was documented overturning flat rocks weighing 310-325 lbs. using a single paw.
How to survive a bear attack
There were just 48 fatal bear attacks in North America between 2000 and 2017, according to the Alaska News Source. Twenty-five attacks were from black bears and 21 from grizzly bears. Given that there are 15 times as many black bears (900,000 in North America, according to the Fur Institute of Canada) as grizzlies, it’s obvious that, bear for bear, grizzly bears are much more dangerous than black bears. According to the National Park Service, if you see a bear, talk to it in a calm voice to let it know you’re human and not a prey animal. Stand your ground—if possible, get to higher ground to make yourself appear bigger—and wave your arms slowly. If the bear stands on its hind legs, it’s usually just curious.
Don’t run, as that’s what prey does, and is likely to set off the bear’s predatory instincts. Screams can do the same thing. Instead, keep talking in a low voice and move away slowly. If possible don’t retreat directly, but instead at an angle. Sideways movement is generally interpreted by bears as non-threatening, whereas a direct retreat is more likely to be associated with prey animal behavior.
How to survive a grizzly bear attack
- If a bear attacks you, leave your pack on—it will protect your back—and play dead.
- Lie flat on your stomach, hands clasped behind your head to protect your neck, feet spread wide to make it harder for the bear to roll you over.
- Remain still. You are going to get bloodied, but usually, the bear will leave when you don’t respond. Normally, fighting back just increases the ferocity of the attack.
- IF the attack persists or the bear comes back, fight back as hard as you can, striking the bear in the face.
How to survive a black bear attack
- As with a grizzly, talk calmly, wave your arms slowly, and make yourself look as big as possible. Mothers with cubs are best handled by giving them space and retreating slowly while talking calmly.
- Shout at the bear, throw rocks, and try to escape to a car or building if possible, all while looking at the bear. Do not turn and run away.
- If the bear attacks, fight back using any object available, aiming your blows at the bear’s face and muzzle.
- NEVER PLAY DEAD.
If any bear attacks you in your tent or stalks you prior to an attack, fight back immediately with anything you have. Such attacks are rare but very serious because the bear is looking for food and thinks you are prey. If you are among people who don’t think bears are dangerous, get out of there as fast as possible. There are lots of YouTube videos of people ignoring bear safety rules. They have seen too many Disney movies.
Correction (March 27, 2023): The article previously stated that grizzly bears can maintain a speed of 25 to 28 mph for two miles. It should be two hours, not two miles.