How Big Is That Bear? – How to Field Judge Bears

how big is that bear - how to field judge bears

It can be very difficult to judge just how big a bear is by simply looking at it. Bears are notoriously deceptive when it comes to evaluating their size in the field, especially from a significant distance. However, there are certain visual characteristics and measuring techniques that can greatly eliminate the guesswork and give one a close estimate of a bear’s overall actual size. Most of these techniques will work on both black and brown bear species and subspecies.


First of all, it’s important to keep in mind what the average weight of a particular species of bear is for reference. Black bears weight 150 to 250 pounds on average in most locations. However, they can get significantly larger in coastal areas where they have easier access to abundant food sources. Black bears that are able to fatten up on high protein, high-fat foods can weight 300 to 400lbs and even heavier…with the world record black bear tipping the scales at 880 lbs.

I did an entire video on the differences between coastal brown bears and the grizzly and Kodiak subspecies, so I won’t repeat everything here, but in regard to weight…the big coastal brown bears, of which the Kodiak bear is a subspecies of, can weigh well over 1000 pounds, with the biggest one on record being close to 1700 pounds, whereas the average weight of grizzly bears, who live in interior regions of wilderness, weigh in at 300 to 700 pounds, with the big guys sometimes getting up to 1000 pounds or so.

When sizing up a bear in the field, one of the first obvious things to look for is the overall mass and girth of the bear…especially it’s belly. A big bear is a big eater and it will show! A big bear’s belly will be hanging low to the ground…almost seemingly dragging the ground as the bear walks around. If there’s a lot of distance between a bear’s stomach and the ground, it’s most likely a younger, smaller bear.

world record Kodiak brown bear.
A big belly is a sure sign of a big bear…like this well-fed, massive Kodiak brown bear.

Squared Feet

A bear’s overall size is often referenced as a measurement of feet. However, this is most commonly a reference to the squared feet of a bear’s hide, and not the height of the bear if it were standing upright on its hind legs.

how to find the squared feet measurement of a bear hide
An example of a bear measured in squared feet.

To get the squared feet of a bear, it has to be measured from nose tip to tail tip, and from right to left front claw tip, then add those two measurements together and divide by two. Getting the exact squared feet measurement isn’t possible by simply looking at a bear, as this measurement has to be done with a tape measure on a dead or tranquilized bear. However, a common method of field judging the squared feet of a bear can be done by evaluating a fresh track. This is a technique used by biologists and guides and it’s fairly accurate. To use this method, simply measure the length of the front paw pad of a fresh bear track. Next, add 1 and ½ inches for brown/grizzly bears and 2 inches for black bears, and the total is a good estimate of a bears size in squared feet. So for example, this eight inch Kodiak brown bear track dictates that it was made by about a 9 ½ foot bear.

For reference, black bears square out to an average of 5 to 6 feet, and well beyond the 6 feet mark is a huge bear! For brown bears, a big interior grizzly squares out at around 8 feet and slightly larger, whereas a giant coastal or Kodiak brown bear falls into the 9 to 11 squared feet range.

Ears and Head

 Another way to tell if your looking at a big, old bear, or, a relatively smaller, younger bear, is by evaluating the ears and the head. The older and bigger the bear, the thicker and wider its head will look, and its ears will appear small and more off to the side. Young bears, by comparison, have narrower, more tapered heads, and their ears stick straight up and appear to be more on top of their head, instead of off to the side. A popular way to visually judge the size of a bear’s head is by imagining a triangle from the bear’s nose and ears. If the distance is the same between those points, it’s a big bear. If the distance between the ears and nose is significantly longer than the distance between the ears, it’s a younger bear. Another indicator of a big, mature bear, is a large, deep divot in the center of a bear’s forehead muscles. Finally, measuring the size of a bear’s actual skull is another major factor in evaluating a bear’s size, but this is obviously done when a bear is deceased, not while it’s walking around out in front of you.

How to field judge to size of a bear
A perfect triangle between nose tip and ears is an indication of a big bear.


Body Structure

Evaluating the body structure of a bear is another means of gauging its size. A big bear will have a massively developed front and back torso, and its front legs and back legs will appear to work independently of each other, like a bodybuilder going through a posing routine. Huge bears have to almost throw their front legs around their chest because they’re so muscular, and they also walk rather pigeon-toed. Another dead giveaway on a big bear is the dimensions of the front leg. If the shoulder and elbow are about the same width and the paw is attached to a thick, stump-like wrist, it’s a sure sign of a big, old bear. The joints on smaller bears will be more prominent and tapered. The paw, for example, will flop around much more when the bear walks, as younger bears have much smaller wrists.

Since male bears are usually significantly larger than females, knowing how to tell the two genders apart is another valuable method of sizing them up. Female bears are typically pear-shaped: with a big butt, short neck, and shoulders that are much smaller in comparison to the back torso of the bear. Males, on the other hand, have longer bodies, a longer neck, and huge, wide, massive shoulders.

Age & Mannerisms

Big bears tend to be older bears, and the biggest bears of all are usually the most dominant bears. A large, dominant bruin is a bear with attitude! Like a world champion pro wrestler, the biggest, toughest bears like to strut their stuff! They possess great confidence, they fear nothing, they move deliberately and slowly, showing off their massive musculature to all the other bears, lest there be any doubt among them who is king! Smaller, subdominant bears will get out of the way…fast…when a big king burin appears on the scene. When such a bear shows up, there’s typically no doubt or question that you’re looking at a stylin’ profilin’ champion of a bear!

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The Adventures of King Kodiak, The Biggest Brown Bear in the World, Joseph Classen
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To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.

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How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.