Can Polar Bears Climb Trees? [Answer & Facts]

Photo: Natalia GH / Shutterstock

While it’s unlikely that any of us will see a polar bear in the wild, that won’t curb our interest. They’re fascinating creatures, both among other bear species and the animal population at large.

One question that may stand out is whether or not they can climb trees. A common tip for surviving a bear encounter is to climb a tree. This is usually for a grizzly or black bear, and it’s not good advice, as both bears can climb trees.

But what about polar bears?

A polar bear is the only species of bear that can’t climb trees. Part of this is because they are incredibly large and heavy animals. Even if their size wasn’t an issue, there are few if any trees in their natural habitat for them to have the proper instincts and skills.

Just How Big Is A Polar Bear?

Polar bears are the world’s largest land predators. The largest male on record weighed over 2,000 pounds and was 12 feet tall.

The size of the average male polar bear, though, is between 770 and 1,300 pounds, with a height between three-and-a-half and five feet.

Female polar bears are indeed smaller, but they’re still formidable animals. The average female polar bear weighs between 330 and 650 pounds.

Their size doesn’t do anything to help them climb trees, but it does protect other land animals from becoming a polar bear’s dinner. Polar bears can’t run very fast, and most land animals are able to escape them with ease.

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The bears turn to the water for their prey, eating marine mammals. Polar bears often lie next to air holes in the ice and catch animals as they come up to breathe.

They prefer seals as their main food source. A single ringed seal has enough energy to last a polar bear an incredible five days.

Arctic Trees

Though polar bears do need a cold climate, they do not live in Antarctica. Instead, they’re on the other side of the globe in the Arctic and some countries in the Arctic circle.

These include Canada, Russia, Norway, Greenland, and even the United States! Polar bears have been found to inhabit Alaska.

The Arctic includes the “tundra biome,” which is the northernmost line where plants are able to grow. The environment only has a two-month growing season, and has a permanent layer of frozen earth, called the permafrost layer.

Low-growing shrubs and mosses can exist in the tundra biome, but it’s thought to be too harsh for the average tree to grow.

There is, however, a type of willow that does grow in the Arctic: Salix arctica, the “Arctic Willow.” However, it only reaches a height of about nine centimeters.

This tree is one of the smallest willows in the world. It grows in a thick carpet across the Arctic. This gives the appearance of tiny forests across the landscape.

With such large bodies and a shrub-filled environment, it’s no wonder polar bears did not adapt to tree climbing.

Polar Bears Can Swim

They may not have good vertical skills, but polar bears can certainly move horizontally – through the water, that is. The scientific name for a polar bear is Ursus maritimus; the direct translation is “sea bear.”

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These amazing animals can swim great distances in search of food. They can go as far as 60 miles (or 100 kilometers) without stopping for rest.

Part of what helps them survive the cold Arctic waters is their shaggy fur and a thick layer of fat, which keeps them warm.

They also have feet and legs that are perfect for swimming. Polar bears use their broad front feet to paddle forward. They steer themselves through the water using their back legs.

Can Other Bears Climb Trees?

There are seven other bear species in the world besides polar bears: spectacled or Andean bears, sloth bears, giant pandas, sun bears, North American black bears, brown bears, and Asiatic black bears (also known as moon bears).

If you think grizzlies should be on that list, they are! Grizzly bears are in fact a type of brown bear. (You don’t need to worry about drop bears, though – those are just a myth.)

Each of these bear species can climb trees, though with varying degrees of success and interest. This makes the polar bear unique among bear species, but the others, like the giant panda, can have their own special traits as well.

It’s often thought that grizzly bears can’t climb trees at all. A common tip is that climbing a tree is a safe way to escape an encounter with one.

Unfortunately, this is not true, and you should not climb a tree to escape a bear, particularly American black bears or grizzlies. The good news is that bears don’t often want to attack you at all.

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The best thing to do if you encounter a black or grizzly bear is to stay calm and talk to the bear. It may sound silly, but most bears will recognize by the sound of your voice that you are a human and therefore not prey.

You should also wave your arms over your head using slow movements. This will make you look as large as possible, intimidating the bear so it won’t attack.

Don’t run away; instead, move away from the bear in a slow and calm manner, backwards and sideways at the same time.

Moving backwards lets you keep an eye on the bear, and bears won’t consider sideways movement threatening. 


Polar bears are massive creatures that can skillfully hunt, swim, and even climb. That last skill just happens to not include trees.

There are essentially no trees suitable for climbing in a polar bear’s environment. Even if there were, these bears are the largest of all the bear species. In general, they’re not built to climb trees.

This makes polar bears unique because they are the only species out of eight that can’t climb trees. All the rest can, and some of them do it quite well.

Even without this skill, polar bears are impressive animals, surviving in an environment few others could. Seeing one would indeed be an incredible sight.

James Ball

James has had a lifelong passion for animals and nature, tracing back to his childhood where he first began fostering intimate knowledge and connection with pet frogs and snakes. He has since honed this interest into a career as a trained Wildlife Biologist, specializing in Biogeography, sustainability and conservation. In addition to his professional pursuits, James maintains an active lifestyle, regularly indulging in outdoor activities such as hiking, and musical pursuits like playing piano and swimming.

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