We were hiking along one of the many beautiful trails in Glacier National Park when we came across a couple sitting eating lunch under a tree just off the trail. As we approached them to have a chat, the woman suddenly jumped up and yelled “BEAR!”.
Her husband also sprang up and we all backed away from the tree, just as a bear came sauntering by, only a few feet short away, foraging among the brush under the very tree they had just left.
It was both scary and exciting. It looked cute and gentle, and I really wanted to get a photo, but we had been hearing all week about the first rules of any bear encounter:
- don’t surprise a bear
- don’t approach a bear
- don’t make assumptions about a bear
In short, give them their space! A lot of space! And it’s a good thing we did, because only seconds later a cute little bear cub came hopping along behind. It would NOT have been a good thing if we had inadvertently gotten between this protective mother and her baby.
Guidelines For Keeping Safe When Hiking in Bear Country
Glacier National Park is grizzly bear and black bear country. Itis hard to miss the safety information brochures available around the park, and the postings at trailheads to remind visitors that they may come across bears – even on the most heavily traveled trails and roads. And hikers, backpackers, and campers need to be especially cautious and prepared when venturing into the backcountry.
Prepare ahead of time and follow the guidelines below to minimize your risk, and keep yourself (and the bears) safe when hiking in bear country.
1. Be Vigilant
Look around and stay hyper-alert and aware of your surroundings at all times. Be observant to any signs of bear activity such as fresh scat or tracks, or rustling in nearby bushes. Keep children especially close, and when possible, travel in a group. Obey trail closures that have been put in place to protect bears and people.
If anything doesn’t look or feel right, consider heading back the way you came. It’s better to cut a hike short or opt for a different route than to risk a bear encounter.
2. Make Noise
It’s common to hear backcountry hikers let out an occasional “WHOOP” or shout “HEY BEAR!” at regular intervals. If a bear hears people coming, it will usually just move out of the way and go on with its business.
They don’t like to be surprised, and may react in an aggressive or defensive way if caught off guard.
So make lots of noise, especially on blind turns or near shrubs or running streams. Shout out, clap your hands, and talk loudly with your companions.
Many people wear bear bells attached to their pack or shoes so that they are making a constant noise as they walk. It’s unclear as to how effective these bells are at any distance, but they can serve as a warning if you are unwittingly very close to a bear. They’re also a fun way of keeping track of your children and other travel companions.
We especially like the Coghlan’s Bear Bell because it’s very inexpensive (about $4), comes with a Velcro attachment strap, and has a magnetic silencer that keeps it quiet when not in use.
3. Keep Food and Trash Stored Away
Odors attract bears. So whether you’re setting up camp for the night or just stopping for a picnic lunch, it’s important to keep food attended to at all times and leave your area clean. If you have a dog with you, keep it on a restraint and don’t leave pet food out. Put trash in bear-proof containers, or if none is available, pack it back out with you.
4. Know What to Do If You Encounter a Bear
If you surprise a bear, stop and assess the situation. What kind of bear is it? Does it have cubs? Is it aware of your presence?
- If the bear appears to be unaware or unconcerned with your presence, slowly and quietly back away and leave the area
- If the bear approaches you or charges you, stop. Stand your ground and stand tall. Talk to the bear in a calm voice. Do not make eye contact, as this may be interpreted as aggressive behavior.
- If it’s a grizzly bear and it’s about to make contact, play dead. Lie on your stomach flat on the ground with your hands clasped behind your neck. Most attacks end quickly. Don’t move until the bear has left the area.
- If it’s a black bear, fight back. Defensive attacks by black bears are rare.
- If either kind of bear attacks you, use bear spray.
5. Carry and Be Prepared to Use Bear Spray
Bear spray is an aerosol pepper derived spray that stops a bear in its track due to temporary incapacitating discomfort. It is a non-toxic and non-lethal way to deter aggressive bears and prevent injury to the person or the bear involved.
Some canisters come with their own holster for conveniently carrying at your hip for quick and easy access, and we saw plenty of people carrying these while we were in the park. They also fit conveniently into the side pocket of backpacks. Just be sure to remove the zip-tie that secures the safety tip before your head out on the trail.
If a bear attacks, spray in the direction of the oncoming bear. You don’t need to aim at its face, and it can be fired directly from your hip. It will dispense in an expanding cloud and is effective up to 30 feet away.
Note that this spray can be ineffective on windy or rainy days. Also know that it is not a deterrent or a substitute for the above precautions. And just a reminder that since it is an aerosol, it can not be taken on an airplane (either in carry-on or checked baggage). So if you are flying to your destination, you will need to purchase your spray locally.
We absolutely loved the beauty and grandeur of Glacier National Park and plan to return in the near future. The park services reports that bear attacks are extremely rare when the above steps are followed. So don’t let the fear of bears stop you from exploring some of the most spectacular backcountry the U.S. has to offer. Just travel smart, carry the right gear, and have a fabulous time!
Have you ever encountered a bear in the wild? Share your experience in the comments below.