Be Bear Aware While Hiking in National Parks
National parks offer some of the most scenic wild lands in North America. Each year, many millions of people visit national parks throughout the United States and Canada. Many choose to explore the less traveled parts of the parks by hiking in the backcountry. Hiking the backcountry of a national park is rewarding, exciting, and adventurous; however, there are many potential hazards of which people should be aware. There are high streams, cliffs, geothermal features, waterfalls, falling rocks, steep terrain, thunderstorms, high elevation snowfall, and wildlife just to name a few.
Wildlife can be found in every national park although the species and population numbers vary significantly by geographic location. One of the most majestic animals is the grizzly bear. The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is a powerful predator, capable of out sprinting a horse, and weighing as much as 350-600 pounds. Grizzly bears can be found in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks in Montana and Wyoming. Larger populations of grizzly bears area also found throughout western Canada and Alaska.
Grizzly bears are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and animals. They often feed on new grasses and winter-killed carcasses when they first exit hibernation in the spring. Bears have a keen sense of smell, and they may detect food several miles away. Under normal circumstances, grizzly bears are afraid of humans and make every effort to avoid them. However, bear encounters do occur for various reasons, and they can be dangerous for both the bear and the outdoor enthusiast.
Never hike alone in bear country. Bears are much less likely to confront a group of hikers than a solo hiker. It is also a good idea to pay attention to the direction of the wind and be aware of conditions that could lead to surprising a bear. If the wind is blowing into your face, then it is unlikely that any bear in front of you will be able to detect your scent. Such a situation does not require you to turn around and walk in the opposite direction; however, it does mean that you should pay extra attention to what is in your path. Be cautious when approaching the crest of a hill or hiking out of the forest into a meadow. In such cases, any bears that are present may not be able to see you coming. Hikers should also exercise additional diligence when hiking near a swift stream as the noise caused by the fast-moving water will likely make it difficult for any bears in the area to hear you coming.
Bear encounters can be particularly dangerous under three different circumstances. Never approach a bear with cubs, never approach an animal carcass, and never surprise a bear. Bears are extremely protective of their young, and they will ferociously attack anything they perceive to be a threat to their cubs. Bears are also very protective of their food sources, and they will attack anything they believe is attempting to steal their food. Finally, bears are highly unpredictable and they often attack out of fear when surprised. Another important consideration applies to overnight campers in bear country. Never store food in your tent or in a place that can be accessed by bears. Your food should always be stored in a bear-proof box or hung from a tree at least ten feet off the ground, and campers should prepare meals at least 100 yards away from the tent site when camping in backcountry areas inhabited by bears.
Most dangerous encounters can be avoided by simply being aware of your surroundings and following the bear safety rules. Nonetheless, people need to know how to respond in case they find themselves in a bear encounter. The first rule to remember in a bear encounter is to never run. By running, a hiker may trigger the bear’s natural predatory instinct to pursue, and even olympic sprinters cannot outrun a bear. Although it will certainly prove difficult, the best approach is to stand your ground. It is recommended that hikers carry bear spray when venturing outdoors in bear country. However, people need to know how to use the bear spray in order to avoid negative outcomes. For example, bear spray typically has a maximum effective range of 30 feet, which means you don’t want to begin spraying too soon only to run out of bear repellant before the bear is close enough to feel any effects. In addition, it is important to be aware of the wind direction when using bear spray. If a stiff wind is blowing into your face, you are likely to do nothing more than debilitate yourself with the bear spray when it blows back into your face. This can be a lot of information to process under stressful conditions that are far less than ideal.
If you encounter a grizzly bear and it charges in your direction, stand still. Sometimes, bears will bluff charge which means they turn off into a different direction at the last moment. If a charging grizzly bear does make physical contact, drop to the ground, lay face down, and lock your hands behind your neck. If you are wearing a backpack, it will provide additional protection for you. Remain still and as quiet as possible during the attack, because the grizzly bear will typically disengage and move on when it no longer perceives you to be a threat. Resisting a grizzly bear during an attack will only further provoke the bear. Before moving, listen carefully and look around to be sure the bear has left. Do not get up until after the bear has moved out of sight, and then leave the area immediately preferably in the opposite direction from where the bear went.
For encounters with black bears, it is generally advised that you fight back. Black bears behave differently than grizzly bears, and they have been known to stalk humans. The main factor is to know whether you have surprised a sow with cubs or whether you are being stalked by a lone black bear. If you are being stalked (e.g. slowly approached) by a black bear, then you need to be prepared to fight back with everything you can use (e.g. bear spray, rocks, and sticks). It’s also important to remember that black bears are excellent tree-climbers, and you will not be able to simply escape by climbing the nearest tree. Often times, a predatory black bear can change its mind about pursuing a person if it determines that the required effort will be too great.
In conclusion, people should not stay out of the wilderness simply because bears live there. In fact, the presence of bears actually confirms the wild nature of the land and the adventurous experience that awaits the outdoor enthusiast. Most hikers never even see a bear when hiking in the backcountry of national parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier. A few lucky ones enjoy the rare experience of seeing a bear from a safe distance in the wilderness. Although the vast majority of hikers never see a bear during their excursion, it is always important to be bear aware when exploring the backcountry of national parks where bears roam. By being knowledgeable and prepared, your outdoor experience will be much more safe and enjoyable. Get outdoors this summer and experience the many grand things that can only be found in the backcountry. Learn more about Yellowstone and Grand Teton wildlife.