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Black and Brown Bear Identification Guide

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If you’re planning on spending time in bear country, it’s important to be able to identify the two main bear species. When encountering a bear in the wild, it’s important to know the differences between brown and black bears in order to react appropriately. This helps ensure your safety, but it also helps protect these magnificent animals by reducing human-bear conflicts. That is why we have put together this guide on bear identification.

Identifying bears isn’t as simple as checking their fur color because both black and brown bears have a wide variety of coloring. Knowing what kind of bear you are dealing with is very important. Black and brown bears will react very differently from each other. I have written this identification guide so you can make the right decisions if you do encounter a bear.

Brown bear in spring

Bear Attacks Are Rare

Before we jump in I want to reassure you that bear attacks are very rare. Millions of people enjoy the outdoors safely every year. If you follow the posted guidelines, stay alert, and follow the tips in our bear safety for hikers guide you can hike in bear country with little danger.

Bear Ranges

It is important to understand what kinds of bears live in the area. Depending on where you are in North America there are three types of bears you may encounter. You can find black bears in 40 of the 50 states, and all through Canada. Brown bears have a much smaller habitat, living only in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington as well as the Canadian provinces of Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Alberta.

Habitat map for North American bears from https://geology.com/stories/13/bear-areas/

Identifying Brown vs Black Bears

Both brown and black bears are found in North America. You can tell them apart by several physical and behavioral characteristics. Because of individual differences size and fur color can be misleading. The best way to correctly identify bears is by looking at a combination of features. Primarily that will be the front shoulder hump. face shape, and ear shape. Brown bears also have larger, straighter claws but this can be more difficult to check for obvious reasons.

Brown bears have a large hump on their shoulders, long claws, short round ears, a concave facial profile, and their shoulders are higher than their rump.

Black bears have shorter claws, taller ears, a flatter facial profile, and lack the shoulder hump. Their rump will be the highest part of their body. While black bears are usually black, their fur color can also range from brown to cinnamon. In some areas, black bears have even been known to have white or gray fur.

Bear identification guide

Brown Bears

Brown bear

Brown bear in stream

Brown bears, also known as grizzly bears, are large and powerful creatures with a distinct hump on their shoulders. The larger coastal bears are often called Kodiacs but they are the same type of bear. They can weigh anywhere between 200 to 1,500 pounds and can stand up to 10 feet tall when standing on their hind legs. They have a shaggy coat of fur, which can range in color from light brown to almost black, and they typically have long claws that they use for digging and catching food.

Brown bears are primarily solitary animals, although they may gather in groups at times. They are typically active during the day and spend much of their time searching for food. They eat vegetation, nuts, berries, roots, and insects, but they are also known to prey on fish, small mammals, and even larger animals like moose or elk. Brown bears are known for their impressive size, strength, and agility, and they are great swimmers and climbers.

Black Bears

Black bear in field

Black bear

Black bears live in many parts of North America, including the eastern United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico. In some areas, black bears may be active year-round, while in other regions, they may hibernate during the winter months. During the mating season, male black bears may compete for mates by fighting or displaying their strength.

Black bears are generally shy and avoid human contact, but they can become aggressive if they feel threatened or have cubs. They are curious and intelligent, and they may explore their surroundings or investigate new objects. Black bears are also skilled climbers, which allows them to escape danger or find food in trees.

Both brown bears and black bears are omnivores and feed on a variety of foods, including plants, berries, and small animals. However, brown bears are known for their fishing skills, while black bears are more likely to scavenge for food.

Identifying Bear Tracks

One of the first signs of a nearby bear is often tracks left on the trail. There is a lot that goes into identifying animal tracks but there are some features that make bear tracks pretty simple. We wrote a blog post with more information if you are interested in learning how to learn to track animals.

Brown Bear Track Identification

Brown bear tracks can be identified by their large size, claw marks, round shape, and long stride. The size of the front paw prints can range from 4 to 5 inches wide and 5 to 7 inches long, while the rear prints can be up to 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. The claw marks can be up to 4 inches long and will often be curved.

Brown bears are found in a variety of habitats, from coastal areas to mountainous regions, and the terrain can affect the appearance of their tracks. In coastal areas, where the ground is often sandy or muddy, brown bear tracks will be more indistinct and difficult to identify. In mountainous regions, where the ground is often rocky, brown bear tracks will be more visible and easier to identify.

It’s important to note that brown bear tracks can sometimes be confused with tracks left by other animals, such as moose or elk. However, brown bear tracks will always have distinctive claw marks and round shape that sets them apart from other tracks.

Black Bear Track Identification

Black bear tracks can be identified by their smaller size, straight claw marks, elongated shape, and shorter stride. The size of the front paw prints can range from 2.5 to 4 inches wide and 3 to 5 inches long, while the rear prints can be up to 8 inches long and 3.5 inches wide. The claw marks can be up to 1.5 inches long and will often be straight.

Black bears are found in a variety of habitats, from forests to swamps, and the terrain can affect the appearance of their tracks. In soft ground, such as mud or snow, the tracks will be more distinct and easier to identify. In hard ground, such as rocky or gravelly terrain, the tracks will be less distinct and harder to identify.

It’s important to note that black bear tracks can sometimes be confused with tracks left by other animals, such as coyotes or wolves. However, black bear tracks will always have distinctive straight claw marks and elongated shape that sets them apart from other tracks.

Brown Bear vs Black Bear Track Identification

How to Identify Grizzly and Black Bear Tracks

Distinguishing between brown and black bear tracks can be challenging, but there are a few key features to look for. Brown bears are generally larger than black bears, so their tracks will be larger as well. The front paw prints of a brown bear can be up to 5 inches wide and 7 inches long, while the front paw prints of a black bear are generally smaller, ranging from 2.5 to 4 inches wide and 3 to 5 inches long.

In addition to size, the claw marks in the tracks can also be a helpful feature. Brown bears have longer claws than black bears, so their claw marks will be more visible in their tracks. The claw marks on brown bear tracks can be up to 2 inches long and will often be curved, while the claw marks on black bear tracks are generally straight and up to 1.5 inches long.

Shape is another important factor. Brown bear tracks are generally more round than black bear tracks, which are more elongated. Brown bear tracks also tend to have a wider rear portion, while black bear tracks are more uniform in shape.

Finally, the stride of the bear can also provide some clues. Brown bears have a longer stride than black bears, so their tracks will be farther apart. The stride can range from 24 to 36 inches for a brown bear, while a black bear’s stride can range from 14 to 24 inches.

It’s important to remember that these are just general guidelines and that individual variations in size and shape can make it difficult to distinguish between the two types of tracks. If you are unsure about the type of tracks you are seeing, it’s best to consult with a wildlife expert or park ranger for assistance.

Other Indications of Bear Activity

There are a few clues and indications that can help you determine if a bear might be nearby, regardless of the species. The first thing to keep in mind is that bears are attracted to food, so if you see signs of recent human or animal activity, it’s possible that a bear might be in the area.

One way to tell the difference between brown and black bear tracks is to look at the size and shape of the tracks. Brown bear tracks are generally larger and have a more pronounced hump on the front pad, while black bear tracks are smaller and more rounded.

Another clue that can help you determine if a bear might be nearby is fresh scat. Brown bear scat is typically larger and more fibrous than black bear scat, and may contain bits of undigested berries or animal parts. You might also be able to smell the bear’s presence, as they have a musky odor.

Scratch marks on trees or other surfaces can also be an indication that a bear is nearby. Both brown and black bears use their claws to mark trees and other objects, both as a form of communication and to help maintain their claws. The marks may be relatively high off the ground, as bears can be quite tall when standing on their hind legs.

Conclusion

In conclusion, when in bear country be aware of your surroundings and stay alert for any movement or noise. Both brown and black bears can be encountered unexpectedly, and it’s important to give them plenty of space and avoid surprising them. If you see a bear in the distance, it’s best to give it plenty of space and back away slowly without turning your back on it.

We have written a guide on bear safety for hikers that contains more information on avoiding bears, and how to react if you do encounter one. Bears are amazing animals and it’s essential to respect them and their habitat to ensure their survival in the future. Thank you for reading. Hopefully, we see you out on the trails someday.

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By Summer and Bill

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Summer and Bill are the dynamic duo behind Adventureite.com, a blog dedicated to inspiring others to explore the great outdoors. With a combined lifetime of experience traveling and adventuring across America, they have a wealth of knowledge to share. From hiking to camping, kayaking to travel, Summer and Bill are passionate about helping others discover the beauty of the natural world.

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