I’m currently spending two weeks hiking and exploring in Whitefish, Montana, near Glacier National Park, one of the few regions of the country inhabited by BOTH black and grizzly bears. Hiking in bear country might sound scary, but most of the time, if you don’t bother the bears, they won’t bother you back, and carrying the right safety equipment can’t help give you the peace of mind you need to fully enjoy the great outdoors.
In this guide, I’m going to walk you through some general safety tips from the National Park Service for hiking near bears and what to do in case of an encounter. I’m also going to list some of my favorite bear hiking safety tools that I’ve carried with me in my pack during every hike, both for safety and general peace of mind.
Your Best Bet in Case of a Bear Attack? Non-Harmful Bear Spray
Of course, bear spray is essential anytime you’re hiking in bear country, whether there are currently active bears in the area or not. Bear spray is lightweight and easy to carry, as easy to use as a fire extinguisher and is a non-harmful way to deter black and grizzly bears in the event of a charge or a full-on attack.
Read More: The Best Bear Sprays of 2022
Frontiersman 7.9 Ounce Bear Spray
A Bear Encounter in The Wild…
Note: the method above is widely touted as NOT what you should do in case of an encounter with a grizzly bear. Yelling, screaming and getting as big as possible are recommended methods for black bears, which tend to be more skittish. However, grizzly bears are aggressive enough to where lying down and being as quiet and submissive as possible, while avoiding making eye contact, is the safest route to take.
Tips For Hiking Safely Near Bears
The good news? Bear attacks are rare, and lethal encounters with bears are even rarer. The most important thing to avoid a bear encounter is to avoid surprising a bear while hiking. If you surprise a bear, they’re more likely to become agitated, see you as a threat and potentially charge. Here’s how to avoid disturbing this apex predator during your day hike and coexisting peacefully.
1. Avoid Hiking Alone
I’ve been hiking alone for most of my time here, but I’m aware of the risk I’m taking. It’s better to hike in larger groups because these tend to make more noise and are therefore less likely to catch a bear off guard. Groups of 4+ people are great, but even smaller groups chatting or laughing are better than people strolling along solo.
Dogs might seem ideal companions in bear country, but they’re more likely to attract a bear, depending on the size. Bears might view them as a potential food source, or at the very least, your pet could make the bears in the surrounding area sick and vice versa. When hiking in bear country, it’s better to leave the pups home.
2. Make a Lot of Noise
If you’re hiking in an area where there hasn’t been bear activity for a while, this is less necessary. However, if you’re hiking in an area marked as bear territory (many national parks monitor this very closely) or one recently closed down due to bear activity, make lots of noise. Clap your hands, carry a bear bell, talk loudly, laugh and make your presence known. This is especially important when hiking around blind turns, in thick brush or through trees that make great bear habitat.
3. If You See a Bear, Don’t Run or Panic
If you see a bear, the most important thing to do is not run, scream or panic. You want to avoid activating the bear’s fight or flight response as much as possible.
- If it’s a black bear… become as big as possible, wave your hands, yell “hey, bear!” and it will most likely leave you alone.
- If it’s a grizzly bear… talk to the bear in hushed, calm tones without making eye contact, slowly back away without turning your back, and if it does come towards you, lay down on your stomach with your hands covering your neck.
If a bear attacks you, it’s time to use that bear spray! Make sure it’s readily available on a holster or in your hand, rather than tucked away inside your pack or a side pocket.
Remember, bears aren’t rabid human-eating machines looking to hunt you down whenever you step foot on a trail. They’re just animals living in their habitat that we’re invading, so be respectful, calm, and the vast majority of the time, you’ll be okay.
Crucial Equipment For Hiking in Bear Country
Here are a few things I carry in my pack during every hike and some additional equipment I recommend for longer backpacking trips and excursions. Bears inhabit some of our nation’s most beautiful parks — Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone, etc. If you prepare and know what to do, a safe trip in all of these areas is more than possible.
1. LuxoGear Emergency Whistle
I wouldn’t blast this whistle throughout your entire hike since that’s almost definitely going to alarm nearby hikers that there’s an emergency or, at the very least, annoy everyone. Instead, I carry this with me in case I’m attacked, fall or get injured in some way that keeps me from returning to the trailhead. It’s reassuring to have around your neck since it can be heard from up to a mile away at full volume. It also has an adjustable reflective lanyard and a durable ABS plastic design.
2. Coghlan’s Bear Bell
A bear bell is a nice thing to attach to your backpack for a little extra noise when hiking, walking or running on trails. This one comes with a magnetic silencer, so it doesn’t drive you crazy when you’re not on the trail, and it’s made to easily attach to your backpack, belt loop, shoelace or any hook and loop closure.
3. Mace Brand Maximum Strength Bear Spray
This is another bear spray option made by the same brand that makes mace. It’s made for maximum strength and can provide protection from a bear up to 20 feet away, so you don’t have to let one get too close. It’s made with a 20% OC, 1.34 Capsaicinoid hot formula to cause temporary sight loss and burning, restrict breathing, and cause a burning sensation in bears’ lungs. These symptoms are only temporary but designed to be enough to deter a bear from attacking.
4. Counter Assault Bear Spray
Another popular bear spray brand is Counter Assault, a brand made in Montana with plenty of experience with grizzly and black bears. This canister is designed to deter all bear species from attacking humans and has a 40 feet spray distance and an 8-second spray. This can is 10.2 ounces, so it’s slightly larger than the other but is still slim enough to carry with you. It also comes with its own holster for easy access. This is the kind I carry with me on every hike, and it’s super easy to slip in and out of the side pocket of my backpack when I hear a rustling in the bushes.
5. Frontiersman Bear Spray Holster
Many bear spray brands make holsters compatible with their specific cans, so if you can, I’d buy them at the same time to ensure the can will fit. Regardless, having a holster like this can save precious seconds of retrieving your bear spray if you need it. When hiking in bear country, reaction time matters, and this one is made for easy retrieval without loud velcro straps and has a snug fit, so your bear spray stays where you need it to be.
6. LOKSAK OPSAK Odor Proof Storage Bags
Bears, especially ones that frequent popular camping sites invaded by humans are drawn to humans not to eat them but sometimes to eat the food they’re carrying. This is especially true for campers and backpackers, who have ventured further into bear territory than the average hiker. These odor-proof ziplock bags are great for storing your snacks and decreasing the chance a bear will pick up the scent. They work as regular food storage bags, with a hermetic seal to keep air-sensitive foods from getting stale over time, but also have a 2-level seal for keeping odors in.