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Bear Safety 101: How to Travel Safely in Bear Country | USA

Grizzly bear in Glacier National Park

This post on bear safety was written in partnership with SafetyWing. SafetyWing was my travel medical insurance partner for the duration of my Rockies trip. Read on for bear safety tips for camping and hiking in bear country.

It had only been five hours since we arrived at Glacier National Park. Four since set up our tent at Sprague Creek. Three since we parked our car at Logan Pass. And we’d been hiking for about two hours along the very crowded Highline Trail when we saw our first grizzly bear of the trip.

We knew it was a possibility; the Rockies are bear country, after all. But we certainly didn’t expect our first bear sighting would come on one of the highest-trafficked trails in the park. We’d read all the bear safety tips. But after a lifetime of, you know, NOT encountering a grizzly bear, nothing could have prepared me for actually seeing a 300kg grizzly in the wild.

Do you have any idea what to do if you see a bear while hiking or camping? If you have even the slightest bit of doubt, you should read on.

A quick note. Bears are often depicted as vicious. They’re increasingly being forced out of their habitats and villainized. It’s not my intention to perpetuate that. In reality, bears are majestic and usually quite shy. Encountering a bear very rarely results in any sort of attack! Consider this lesson on bear safety as a way to create a safe dynamic so bears and humans can better share the spaces they’re both trying to occupy.

Bear Safety 101

Planning your trip in bear country? Here are some bear safety tips and a few things to keep in mind before you go out on the trail.

Bear Safety Tips - Ranger instructs what to do for bear sighting at Glacier National Park

What happened next

A ranger running crowd control told us to keep moving. Walk confidently, keep an even pace, no stopping. This worked long enough for us to get past, but shortly after, the bear reared up on his hind legs and began walking towards the trail, and then along it.

“Does everyone have bear spray?” barked the ranger. We said yes. “OK. Well, it’s time to get it out.”

Bear spray drawn, we walked steadily up the trail without turning our backs to the bear. We maintained our distance with a brisk pace, but it continued to walk towards us for at least 100m before deciding to detour up a nearby hill.

Having the ranger was like having a live demonstration of what to do if you see a grizzly bear. And if I’m being perfectly honest, my impulses were worse than I would have hoped. Standing off with a bear isn’t completely intuitive. Knowing what to do when you encounter one will take a lot of knowledge and some practice.

Before you go

Know whether it’s even bear season. Even in bear country, there are times of the year when you won’t have to worry much about bears. Before you set out, find out if you’re traveling during bear season. Some times of year are riskier than others; bear season tends to be between April and November, though weather and food supply play a big role in the exact dates.

Read recent trail reports. While planning your trip, read trail reports (like the ones on AllTrails). User submitted reports are a good indicator of recent activity and sightings. You should also check the NPS site for park alerts to see if there is any specific bear activity to be mindful of. Certain trails and campsites are regularly closed down because of increased bear activity.

Know what bears like. Bears can graze anywhere, but there are definitely some areas where a bear encounter is more likely (ie. in meadows, thick brush, or along creeks or marshes). Learn more about bear activity as it pertains to your specific trail. If you’re traveling on your own, plan an itinerary with lower risk activities (ie. hiking in a busy area rather than solo trail running). You should also avoid hiking at dawn, dusk, or night where possible.

Follow the rules. Seriously. If the park requires bear spray, recommends a certain type of food storage, or has a minimum group size, take it seriously. Bears go through phases where they’re more protective, hungry, or territorial, and the parks usually have the best judgment of when this is. Ignoring the rules puts both you and the animals in jeopardy. 

Bring the right stuff. The gear you’ll need for hiking in bear country isn’t much different than what you’d normally carry. The main exceptions here are bear spray (if your traveling in grizzly country) and a bear canister. Some people also travel with bear bells, but I’ve heard numerous reports that bear bells don’t work.

Bear Safety - Counter Assault Bear Spray & Holster
Bear Spray

Bear Spray is essentially an industrial-strength version of pepper spray. The active ingredient is capsaicin, the spicy oil found in hot peppers, and when sprayed, it causes a similar reaction that pepper spray causes in humans. That means a bit more time for you to get away!

We carried Counter Assult Bear Spray in a quick-draw holster because it’s essential that it’s available for quick access. Priced from $44.95.

Bear Can

Bear cans are polycarbonate canisters that are bear-resistant. They’re the best way to store food in the backcountry if you don’t have a bear locker, bear pole, or other way to keep the food out of reach. Scent still gets through the canister so heed recommendations about how far to keep it from your tent.

The BV500 by Bear Vault is the most popular bear canister on the market and it holds 11L. Priced from $79.95.

Know your bears

Grizzly Bears vs Black Bears. Grizzly bears and black bears look more similar than you might think. Color is NOT a reliable indicator here! The best way to tell the bears apart is to understand some of their other distinguishing features. According to the NPS, grizzly bears have a shoulder hump, dished face, rounded ears, and large white claws while black bears have no hump, a straight dog-like muzzle, pointed ears, and dark claws.

The reason it’s important to know the difference is because your response to a bear attack is completely different depending on which species you encounter. More info on what to do with either type of bear in the section below about bear attacks.

Get an insurance policy

For any type of travel, you should get a travel insurance policy. But in the case of backcountry travel, it’s especially important to have a policy that covers medical. Things to look for here are terms like “covered for amateur/non-professional sports and activities” that include hiking, camping, and backpacking. Most policies require that you’re traveling below a certain elevation, that you’re “adequately supervised”, are using sufficient safety equipment, and that you aren’t breaking any laws (just one more reason to follow the park rules!). 

SafetyWing: My travel medical insurance policy for this trip was through SafetyWing. I chose to partner with them because there were a few things I really liked about their policies. That said, I didn’t have to use it (no bear attacks here!) so please read the fine print before you commit. I’m sure you’ll find they’re pretty great too!

  • Priced from $37/4 weeks (or $1.32 per day). That’s significantly more affordable than any partner I’ve used before.
  • Administered by a major insurer. You get the benefits of working with a small company that is quick to respond, but the confidence of a large insurance provider. SafetyWing policies are administered by Tokio Marine.
  • Can be purchased or extended while traveling. Many policies won’t let you do this!
  • Good for nomads and long-term travel. While this didn’t apply to this particular trip, it’s something I always look at when buying a policy. Some long-term policies are crazy expensive, inflexible, or won’t cover you if you visit home. SafetyWing is none of those.

SafetyWing is insurance created for nomads that offers travel medical insurance while you’re out of your home country. Compared to other major travel insurance providers, I found their pricing to be more competitive, their policies more flexible, and their coverage in-line.

Get a quote for your next trip.

On the trail

There are a few bear safety tips and things that are best practice when hiking in bear country.

Tell someone where you’re going. Some parks have registration desks where you can log which trail you’re hiking and your departure time. At the very least, you should let someone know where you’ll be hiking. Better yet, hike with an emergency beacon (like this one from Garmin) that you can deploy if anything happens.

Be bear aware. This is basically a clever way of saying you should be conscientious of your surroundings (which you should be doing anyway). Know the risks for the places you’re traveling and keep your eyes up. 

Make some noise. The best way to avoid a bear attack is to avoid an encounter entirely. The best way to do that is to make noise. This can be in the form of singing, clapping, occasional shouting, or a loud group chat. Anyone who regularly hikes might scoff at the idea of being THAT person on the trail, but this is one situation where it’s totally acceptable (and necessary) to be the idiot on the trail chanting. Contrary to popular belief, bear bells aren’t particularly effective.

Hike in groups of 3 or more. Hiking in groups not only creates more noise, but it also serves as a deterrant for an attack. Similar to human attacks, bears are more likely to run off rather than approach you if you’re traveling with other people.

Grizzly climbing over a hill in Glacier National Park

Carrying bear spray (and knowing how to use it) is another important part of traveling in bear country. Instructions from Counter Assault Bear Spray read:

  • How to use Bear Spray: If a bear or large predator approaches to within 30 feet (9m), give a short warning blast, placing a fog between you and the animal. If the bear or large predator continues to approach or to charge within 20 to 30 feet (6-9m), use short blasts, continuously in succession, aiming at the face and eyes of the bear. Depress the actuator tab for 1-2 seconds in order to create a barrier of spray between you and the bear. Check for wind direction and position yourself upwind if possible, before spraying again. Repeat until the animal retreats or is deterred.

Properly store food and all scented items. Bears have a better sense of smell than we do. When you’re traveling in bear country, you need to be hyperconscious of what you have on you that has a scent. While food is an obvious one, other items like sunscreen, chapstick, or electrolyte powders could also put you at risk. 

Every park has different rules on how to store your food for camping in bear country. While a bear canister won’t prevent bears from smelling your food, it can stop them from eating it (which is good for both of you). Some places provide bear lockers while others have bear poles that suspend your food out of a bears reach. And when camping in the backcountry, you should keep your food at least 30m away (this also varies so check at the backcountry desk before you go.

What to do if you see a bear

Alright, so let’s say you do everything right and you still come across a bear. Like I said before, a bear encounter isn’t inherently dangerous! What you’ll want to avoid are surprising the bear, coming between a mother and a cub, or creating an otherwise hostile situation.

Keep a respectful distance. Most parks recommend that you maintain a minimum of 90m of space between you and a bear. If you see a bear from farther away, stop to assess the situation. Make sure you don’t impede on their space or block their escape. If it’s in closer range and you have the option to move away, that’s always your first course of action. 

Assess the risk. What kind of bear is it? Are they with a cub? Does their body language seem aggressive or relaxed? Regardless of the answers to these questions, you should try your best to avoid confrontation. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUN. As you try to create space, avoid direct eye contact and watch for signs of agitation or aggression. Talk quietly and otherwise try to appear non-threatening.

If the animal is intent on approaching you, your response will vary based on whether the animal seems agitated or not. For a more relaxed or curious approach, you can act more proactively while a defensive approach should be much more passive.

Draw your bear spray. If a bear is approaching, you can use bear spray to create a defensive wall. Since it’s high-grade capsicum, the spray will cause burning in the bear’s eyes and nose to give you time to get away. But since humans too can be affected by bear spray, it’s equally important that you know how to use it. It’s sold with a quick-draw holster with a quick-release safety; you should be able to draw it and have it ready to use with just a couple of seconds notice.

And if you are attacked by a bear…

Do not run and do not drop your pack; it can help protect your back. In case of a grizzly attack, it is recommended that you lay on your stomach with your hands protecting your neck and play dead. You would only fight against a grizzly bear as a last resort. On the other hand, if a black bear attacks, you should first try to escape and then fight back, concentrating blows on the bears face or muzzle. 

Consider this a starting place on what to do you’re attacked by a bear. Your response will also change depending on where you’re attacked, whether you’ve been stalked, and what equipment you have at your disposal. Be informed, but also always follow your intuition. For a more comprehensive overview of what to do, take a look at what the NPS has to say about assessing bear attacks.

Grizzly bear in Glacier National Park

That just about covers it. Have questions about hiking in bear country or any bear safety tips you’d like to share?

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