How to Recreate in Bear Country
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Learning how to safely travel in bear country can be a daunting task. Before I moved to Alaska, I remember frantically trying to learn to identify the different types of bears and the safety advice associated with each. By the time I landed in Fairbanks, I was pretty sure I could tell a polar bear apart from the rest, but didn’t know much else.
Turns out I was focusing on the wrong thing anyways. While knowing what to do if you do see a bear is important, the best way to stay safe around bears is to prevent a bear encounter. This is just as important for you as it is for the bears. Every year bears in national parks start associating people with food, which increases the risk of bear attacks. As a result, many Wildlife Agencies kill habituated bears. This outcome is as tragic as it is avoidable.
When we are in the backcountry, we are guests in other creatures’ homes, and the onus is on us to learn their house rules. Bears are skittish and tend to stay away from humans and generally only attack when they feel that they, their cubs or their territory or food is in danger. By implementing a few simple safety rules, we can prevent most bear encounters.
Preventing bear encounters starts before your trip. If you are planning an overnight trip, make sure that all your food fits in a bear canister, and that you have bear spray and know how to use it. Plan on storing your bear spray in an easily accessible location, outside of your backpack. I like to have at a minimum one bear spray for every three people.
Talk with your adventure partners about your bear safety game plan and determine everyone’s comfort level. If someone is bringing a gun for protection, make sure they are comfortable using it in a high stress situation. Avoid traveling alone in bear country and never use headphones if you are running on trails in bear habitat.
When moving across bear country, be bear aware. Bears are skittish and will generally stay away from humans. Make noise while walking and moving to identify yourself as human. Make sure you sing, talk, or clap your hands while shouting “hey yogi”. Be extra careful around dawn and dusk, near bushy patches with obstructed views and near water where sounds are muffled. Be on the lookout for signs of recent bear activities, especially fresh bear poop.
Wildlife’s plans should always take precedence over our personal objectives. Sometimes, this means turning around and coming back another day, or taking a longer route. A few years ago, my partner and I were bush whacking at dusk and approaching a narrow canyon that serves as a wildlife corridor when we came across a fresh bear poop. Rather than push it, we headed back to our camp and tried again the next day to give the bear ample time to travel through. Animals are generally going somewhere, and are rarely stationary. Use the “bear”-muda triangle technique when setting up camp. Eat, store your food and sleep in three different places a minimum of 100 feet from each other. Set-up your tent upwind to ensure the wind blows smells away from where you are sleeping. Store all your food, drinks, and any smelly items (toothpaste, insect repellent, sanitizing wipes) in a bear proof container. Bears cannot open these containers which helps make sure bears do not associate humans with foods. You can hang the bear canister or store it securely under a bush. Make sure that you leave any smelly clothes in your food cache.
You may be wondering if you can just get away with hanging your food. The answer is “maybe”. It’s hard to do correctly, and if a bear does manage to reach the bag, then there’s nothing stopping them from accessing the food. Because of this, most national parks require a bear-proof container. Besides, hanging a food bag is inefficient and a time consuming process. And if you’re hiking in the tundra (picture below), there are no trees to hang food from. So why risk it? If you’re going to be in bear country regularly, invest in a bear-proof container–there are even some lightweight ones available!
Despite your best efforts, if you recreate in bear country, you will eventually have a bear encounter. In fact, all of the pictures shared in this article were taken a few minutes before coming across a bear. While bear encounters may set your heart racing, most are uneventful. The key is to ensure the bears do not feel threatened by you and remain unconcerned. Never approach a bear, and never, ever, ever run away from a bear. Bears will always outrun you and running can set off their predatory instincts. Climbing trees is equally useless. Instead, calm, and slow is best. If you come across a bear and it does not notice you, just walk away quietly while keeping an eye on it. If the bear sees you, talk to it slowly to help it identify you as a human which oftentimes leads the bear to run away. If it is still watching you, or stays put, keep talking to it as you are backing away. Do not turn your back to it until you are at a safe distance.
While this is where most bear encounters end, a handful will escalate further. Explaining how to respond is deserving of its own article. You can also watch this short video, filmed last summer in Anchorage, Alaska, where a group of people responded perfectly to a bear encounter in the city’s busiest park. For a detailed overview of what to do, I recommend watching this bear safety video or a video provided by one of the National Parks.
About the Author
Barbara Johnson is an Alaskan by choice, completing her PhD at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. During her free time, Barbara likes exploring Alaska's outdoors with her friends, partner and four legged Hattifattener.