Hiking in Bear Country

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Whenever we as hikers venture into the wilderness we immediately assume a degree of risk. No matter the distance, your fitness level, or your backcountry experience, you should be prepared for a wide range of situations once you place that first foot on the trail.

There are many things hikers and backpackers can do to minimize risk and prepare ourselves for a variety of conditions or events that could happen while out on the trail, such as taking extra food and water, carrying a map, or stuffing extra clothing and rain gear into our packs, among many others.

However, for those that hike in bear country, there are extra precautions you must take, especially if you’re trekking in grizzly bear territory, such as in Glacier, Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park. There are several things you can and should do to ensure a safe and successful hike. One of your primary goals while hiking in bear country is to avoid a surprise encounter with a bear. In these situations noise will be your best friend, as bears will normally move out of the way when they hear humans approaching. Shouting out “hey bear” and loudly clapping hands every few minutes are excellent ways of making your presence known. Although many hikers think that they can rely solely on bear bells, this probably isn’t a good idea. Bear experts point out that the noise generated by the bells doesn’t carry well, especially in windy conditions, near streams and in open terrain.

Many hikers also assume that they don’t have to make noise while hiking on well-used trails, however, many of the most frequently used trails around the country travel through prime bear habitat. People have been charged and injured by bears fleeing from silent hikers who unwittingly surprised them along the trail. Even if other hikers haven’t seen any bears on any given section of trail, you shouldn’t assume that bears aren’t around.

Also, don’t assume a bear’s hearing is any better than yours. Various trail conditions can make it hard for bears to see, hear, or smell approaching hikers. Be particularly careful near streams and waterfalls, against the wind, or in dense vegetation. A blind corner or a rise in the trail also requires special attention.

The best thing to do is to make a lot of noise, stay alert at all times, and avoid the habit of looking down at the trail all the time.

Hikers should never hit the trail alone – no matter where you hike. There are far too many things that could happen in which a companion could provide some type of help, including possibly saving your life. This is especially true in bear country. One of the best ways to ensure a safe hike is to travel in groups of three or more people. Bear experts recommend four, or even groups of five individuals. The noise from footfalls and talking is usually enough to alert bears of approaching humans, thus providing them with enough time to get out of your way. Consequently, the number of human-bear conflicts drop as the number of individuals in a hiking party increases.

In the event that you are approached or charged by a bear while out on the trail, or in a campsite, your best line of defense will be bear spray. Hikers should always carry bear spray when venturing into bear country – and know how to use it. This aerosol pepper derivative triggers temporarily incapacitating discomfort in bears. It’s a non-toxic and non-lethal means of deterring bears. There are many cases where bear spray has repelled aggressive or attacking bears. According to studies in recent years, bear spray was more than 90% effective in stopping bear attacks, compared to firearms, which were only 50% effective. Obviously there are accounts where bear spray hasn’t worked as well as expected. Factors influencing effectiveness include distance, wind, rainy weather conditions, temperature extremes, and product shelf life.

If you do decide to carry bear spray be sure to purchase spray that is specifically made for deterring bears, rather than pepper spray, which is a milder version made to deter humans. Currently there are only four bear sprays approved by the EPA. One of those is Counter Assault Bear Deterrent, which is an excellent choice for the trail. I like it because it sprays up to 32 feet, has a spray time of 9.2 seconds, and has a CRC of 2.0%, the maximum strength of capsaicinoids allowed by the EPA. Although the product is sold in two sizes, I would recommend going with the larger 10.2 ounce size. This will provide you with more spray to deploy in the event multiple bursts are needed. I would also recommend purchasing the product with either a belt or chest strap holster. This will provide you with fast access in the event of a surprise encounter where seconds matter.

Under no circumstances should bear spray create a false sense of security or serve as a substitute for standard safety precautions in bear country.

Finally, the last thing I would recommend is for you to educate yourself on bears. The University of Alberta in Canada has posted some valuable information concerning Bear Safety, Awareness and Avoidance on their website. The page covers an array of issues regarding bears, including understanding bear behavior and how to react during various bear encounters.

I should also point out that the goal of this article wasn’t to scare you in anyway, but rather to prepare you before venturing into bear country. A Glacier National Park ranger that we have gotten to know over the years once said that far too many park visitors are “bearanoid”, meaning that they’re depriving themselves from enjoying their hike, or choosing to not even venture out onto the trail while in the park. For their sake, this is a shame.

To put things in perspective, bear encounters are very rare. Consider that roughly one million people venture into Glacier’s backcountry each year. On average there are only one or two non-lethal bear “incidents” in any given year. Moreover, there have only been 10 bear related fatalities in the history of the national park, which goes back to 1910. Only three of those fatalities involved hikers, and at least two of those were solo hikers.

So get out on the trail, be prepared, and have fun!


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