Safety

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two backpacker smile as they walk down a path
Carrying bear spray is an important way to stay safe while exploring the park.

NPS Photo / Kent Miller

 

Are You Prepared?

Denali National Park is a wild, wonderful place to visit, but it is important to know the hazards before you head out into the park. Explore the sections below to prepare yourself for your Denali visit.

Dial 9-1-1 in Emergencies - Be prepared to give your location as Denali National Park. Call to report accidents, fires, or life-threatening emergencies. Cell phone coverage exists only within three miles of the park entrance. Since there are no phones west of Park Headquarters, emergencies in those areas should be reported to rangers on patrol, campground hosts, bus drivers, or to staff at Eielson Visitor Center or the Toklat Rest Stop.

 

Wilderness Safety

Even experienced wilderness travelers can have an accident that results in an injury or even death. Accidents are possible anywhere - so the information below is important to all visitors. You may also want to read the safety information in the park newspaper to prepare for your trip.

  • Wildlife
    Wildlife can behave unpredictably. Do not intentionally approach wildlife. Read the
    Wildlife Safety section for more details.
  • Plants
    Do not eat berries unless you know what they are, and are sure you have no allergy to them. There are no poison oak, sumac or ivy species in the park, but some other plants can cause allergic reactions, such as cow parsnip.
  • Hypothermia
    Hypothermia is always a factor in the subarctic.
    Rainy, chilly days are normal in summer. Dress in layers, preferably made of wool or synthetic material that is able to insulate you even when wet. Bring rain gear or an umbrella.
  • Injuries
    Be wary of falls. Most of Denali is trail-less, and long hikes are often on a route of your own choosing. If you are hiking up a rocky hill or mountain, be careful of your footing. More people die from falls than any other cause in the park.

  • Don't go alone
    You should always hike with at least one other person. Even then, make sure someone else knows where you're going. Have that person contact us if you are overdue from your trip.

  • Know thyself
    Even if you plan to stay on trails or the park road the entire time you are here, keep in mind that even the entrance of Denali is several hours from the nearest hospital. Locations on the park road (i.e., during a bus trip) are even more remote. If you know you have a medical condition, such as a heart problem, talk to your doctor about your travel plans to see if there is anything you should do to ensure a safe trip.
More information on wilderness travel can be found in our backcountry camping webpages.


 

Wildlife Safety

 
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Duration:
12 minutes, 49 seconds

Seeing a wild animal in the backcountry can be an incredible experience. But knowing how to behave in an encounter scenario might make all the difference. Whether it's a moose, a bear or some smaller animal, be prepared to react accordingly.

 

Insider Knowledge on Staying Safe in Grizzly Country

By Gregory Colligan, Wildlife Technician, Denali National Park & Preserve

Recently there has been much debate between bear safety educators regarding the best way to accomplish the task at hand. It’s safe to say that two camps have emerged from this debate.
  • Camp 1: Give people a few simple rules to remember that will keep them safe in most situations.
  • Camp 2: Encourage people to be fully prepared should they encounter a bear; this means more than just avoiding bears but also understanding how your behavior will likely influence a bear’s behavior.
My tent stakes are firmly planted in Camp 2. I think that the intention of keeping things simple and easy to remember backfires very quickly when people end up in close proximity to a grizzly bear. I believe the Camp 1 approach oversimplifies things, with the result that people don’t actually take the time to truly learn the rules. Grizzly bear behavior is complex, and oversimplification does a disservice to both bears and the people that encounter them.
If someone has never hiked in grizzly bear country, their other backpacking experience has almost no relevance in a close-proximity grizzly encounter. To me, the Camp 1 approach is a bit like teaching someone to take off in an airplane but not how to land it, and then sending them out on a solo flight. This inevitably leads to both people and bears being injured or killed.

Here’s how I approach the subject: Be fully prepared to encounter a grizzly bear. Do not begin a trip hoping to avoid bears; expect you will encounter them, and be prepared for the event. This means thinking about more than the normal list of cautions (though you should still practice these: carry bear spray, hike in groups, make noise to avoid surprising animals, and don’t run from a bear). Your preparation to react properly to an encounter with a grizzly bear could be the difference between a good campfire story and serious injury or death.

My number one rule for preparing for a grizzly bear encounter is to become a student of bear behavior. Learning to read bear behavior will enable to react correctly if you encounter a grizzly bear at close range. This may sound like an overwhelming task, but with some research and practice, your ability to recognize bear behavior may surprise you.

Grizzly bear behavior is complex, and can be highly dependent on geography, the individual bear, and the situation’s circumstances. The best way to learn about bear behavior is to watch bears. If you’re not lucky enough to watch live bears every day, watch videos of bears before your trip. Read about bear behavior. I highly recommend Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance. A close encounter with a grizzly bear is a dance of sorts, where the bear will be reading your behavior; and if you know how to read their behavior, the chance of everyone walking away unscathed is greatly increased.

The following is my distilled version of what to do if you have a close encounter with a grizzly bear:


  1. Carry bear spray and know how to use it!
  2. Make lots of noise often, to avoid surprising a bear
  3. Hike with other people
  4. Never run from a bear
  5. If you encounter a grizzly bear at close range stay calm
  6. Never attempt to distract the bear by dropping your pack (or anything else)
  1. You Are in the Bear's Path of Travel
    This often happens when people are on trails. It is a common misunderstanding that, if you are hiking on a trail, you do not have to worry about encountering a bear. In fact, some bears seem to prefer trails—perhaps for the same reasons you like them.

    Trails are the path of least resistance and pretty easy traveling. If you encounter a bear and it seems like you are just in a place where a bear is traveling because it's easy walking, get out of the way. Do this slowly! Don't run. Stay calm and move away from the trail.
  2. The Bear is Curious
    Close proximity to a bear that is acting curious is not a situation to be taken lightly. Bears experience the world by testing things they encounter. The bear may be trying to figure out what you are. Keep in mind that predatory bear attacks are rare, but they generally start with curious bear behavior and are often deadly.

    Identifying Curious Bear Behavior
    A curious bear will often approach slowly and indirectly from the side. If you are hiking in open country, sometimes a curious bear's path of travel will parallel yours. The bear may stand up on its hind legs to get a better look at you. You may notice the bear sniffing the air. It often won't look directly at you, but will look at you out the corner of its eye and continue to slowly approach, testing your reaction.

    How to React to a Curious Bear Approaching You
    Stay calm. Get your bear spray out and ready. The idea here is give this bear the impression that it does not want to mess with you. Don't back away from a curious bear; that will only encourage it to continue following you. Make yourself look big and mean. If you are hiking with other people, you will look bigger if you are gathered together. Be aggressive in your movements and noises. Look threatening; the idea is to scare the bear away. If the bear continues to approach within range of the bear spray, use it. If a curious bear attacks, it is likely a predatory attack. DO NOT PLAY DEAD, fight back with any means available.
  3. The Bear Feels Threatened
    This is the most common reason for a non-predatory grizzly bear attack. It happens when someone surprises a bear and the bear feels threatened.

    Grizzly bears often see offense as their last line of defense. If given the opportunity to move away from you (e.g., the bear heard you coming because you were making lots of noise), a grizzly bear will often just move off without you even knowing it was there. However, if you surprise a grizzly bear, it will likely react to what it perceives as a potential threat (i.e., you) with force. This is can be a very serious situation and very different than dealing with a curious bear.

    Identifying a Threatened Bear
    Unlike a curious bear, a threatened bear will move directly toward you. It will be walking fast, or running. A threatened or defensive bear will sometimes charge. It is not uncommon for them to charge multiple times (i.e., charge, veer off, then charge again). This is a good time to mention that bears can cover around 40 feet per second when sprinting. A threatened bear will stare directly at you with a fixed gaze (unlike a curious bear giving you side-eye). They will appear agitated. They will often vocalize with a huffing sound and open and close their mouths quickly, which make a popping noise (called jaw popping). They will appear threatening, which is their point. They want to scare you away; they see you as a threat and their intent is to neutralize the threat, ideally by scaring you away.

    How to React to a Threatened Bear
    Stay calm. This is absolutely critical in this situation. Get your bear spray out. Again, look big, but not aggressively threatening. This requires nuance. The idea is to convince the bear that you're not a threat, but at the same time, that you're a big creature and it doesn't want to make physical contact with you. You also need to de-escalate the situation. Move slowly and talk softly to the bear. If the bear gives you the opportunity, slowly back away. If you feel that the bear intends to make contact with you, use your bear spray. If the bear does make contact with you, PLAY DEAD and don't move until you are sure the bear has left.
  1. Are black bears dangerous?
    Black bears are no more dangerous than grizzly bears and in fact the threat from of any bear is reduced with proper human behavior. Always be alert to your surroundings and make noise to avoid surprising a bear. Both species are prone to investigate human made items, especially food and garbage. Never approach a bear and be sure that all your personal gear is secure particularly anything food related or with an odor.
  2. Can bears swim?
    Bears are good swimmers and will swim to cool off, play, chase prey, or cross bodies of water. Grizzlies have been observed swimming in Wonder Lake and other bodies of water in Denali.
  3. Can grizzly bears climb trees?
    Young grizzlies can climb trees as effectively as black bears, but adult grizzly bears have more difficulty. Most grizzlies can climb a tree if it has ladder-like branches, but their weight and claw structure prevents them from climbing as efficiently as black bears. Three of the 23 documented bear-induced human injuries in Denali involved grizzlies pulling humans out of trees so don't try to climb a tree to avoid any bear.
  4. Can bears run downhill?
    Yes. Both species of bear in Denali are quite agile and quick despite their often cumbersome and bulky appearance. They can run well over any slope and terrain. Both species can reach bursts of 35 mph or more so never try to out run a bear.
  5. Do companion dogs keep bears away?
    Dogs can sometimes keep bears away from a camp, but very often, a dog initially chases a bear and then the bear chases the dog right back to the camp. Dogs may also harass a bear unnecessarily or pique a bear's curiosity. Dogs must be kept on a leash while in the park and are not allowed on trails, in the backcountry, or left unattended at any time.
  6. Will bears attack sleeping people?
    Incidents between people and bears in Denali are few. In the 23 cases of bear-induced human injury, only two cases involved sleeping campers. Both parties were camped without a tent, and one was camped near a dead moose as well. Bears are curious animals and will probe novel items in their environment with mouth and paws. While such investigation could potentially injure a human, it is not considered an attack and the bear will usually run at the first sign of human activity. Using a tent while camping gives a curious bear something other than an exposed, sleeping human to investigate.
  7. Are bears that approach people / camp-grounds in the Frontcountry "tame"?
    No! None of the bears in Denali are "tame". Bears that approach people and campgrounds may be habituated to the presence of humans and/or conditioned to obtaining human food. These bears have a higher potential for unwanted encounters with people because they often lose their fear of humans or may attempt to get further food rewards. It is these bears that most often require management action on the part of park staff to keep both people and the bears safe. Never feed or leave food or garbage where a bear might get it, and always discourage bears in close proximity to homes or camps by shouting, honking car horns, or making other raucous sounds.
  8. Does pepper spray protect people from bears?
    The best protection for people from bears is proper knowledge and behavior when facing a bear encounter. That said, pepper spray can be a very effective deterrent in the event of an aggressive interaction with a bear. Pepper spray has been shown to be effective at deterring grizzly bears over 90% of the time. But don't let pepper spray instill a false sense of security. Always take the proper precautions to avoid an encounter in the first place. Pepper spray should be used as a last resort if all of the proper responses to a bear's behavior do not work (i.e., shouting, waving arms, backing away slowly, etc.). If you carry pepper spray, be sure you know how to use it before it is needed.
  9. Do bears have poor eyesight?
    Bears do not have poor eyesight. They can generally see as well as most humans. Experiments with black bears have shown that they can learn color-based visual-discrimination tasks more rapidly than chimpanzees.
  10. If a bear stands up and looks at me, is it acting aggressively?
    No. Bears stand on their hind legs in order to get a better look or a better whiff of something they are not sure of. If this happens, make it obvious that you are human by waving your arms and speaking loudly. Try to position yourself so that you are upwind and the bear can smell you. Signs that a bear is disturbed by your presence include: woofing, jaw chomping, swaying, laying ears back, and yawning. Guidelines on how to act during a bear encounter are available in the visitor's center.
  11. When do bears go into their winter dens?
    In Denali, bears typically go into their dens in late October or early November. They typically emerge for the summer season in late March or the first few weeks of April. For this reason, bear resistant food containers are required for all backcountry users between mid-April and mid-October.
  12. Can I carry a gun or firearm to protect myself from bears?
    If you are entitled under applicable federal and State of Alaska laws to possess a firearm, changes in federal law (circa 2010) make it legal to carry firearms in most outdoor areas of Denali National Park and Preserve.

    However, hunting and the use or discharge of a firearm is still generally prohibited by federal law within the national park. Limited exceptions exist for qualified local rural residents engaged in subsistence hunting on lands added to the original Mount McKinley National Park in 1980 by ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act).

    Contrary to the belief of some, firearms are not needed for protection from bears, and studies have shown that pepper spray may actually be more effective in preventing a bear attack than firearms. Any shooting of an animal by non-subsistence users of the park must be immediately reported to park rangers who will conduct a thorough criminal investigation. The State of Alaska's Defense of Life and Property (DLP) regulation does not apply within Denali National Park and there is no DLP regulation in federal law.
  13. How does Denali manage bears?
    The park has a Bear-Human Conflict Management Plan which outlines in great detail how the park should minimize and mitigate conflicts between bears and humans.

Herbivores can be just as dangerous as carnivores. Moose weigh up to 1,600 lbs - three or four times the weight of a grizzly in Denali - and will charge anything they think is threatening.

  • Stay Away
    Stay at least 25 yards (25m) or two bus-lengths away from moose.
  • Run Away
    If a moose charges you, it is because you are in its territory. Get away as fast as you can. Moose are not predatory, and they will not try to eat you. Instead, they try to trample a perceived threat.
Please keep Denali’s animals wild by following these rules when encountering wildlife:
  • Keep wildlife wild
    Do not feed or allow wildlife to obtain human foods. This includes small animals, like squirrels, which can become surprisingly aggressive if they grow accustomed to getting food from people. You don't want your vacation ruined because a squirrel bit your fingertip off.
  • Keep your distance
    Do not approach or follow wildlife. Stay 300 yards (300 meters) away from bears and maintain a minimum 25 yards (25 meters) distance from all other animals, dens, and nests.
  • Don't harass wildlife
    If your presence alters an animal’s behavior, you are too close.
  • Wildlife viewing from the road
    If you are driving in the park and wish to stop to view wildlife, be sure to pull as far out of the roadway as you safely can. If you are on Highway 3, do not pull over unless you find a parking lot or pull-out area. Stopping on the side of the road on Highway 3 is extremely dangerous, as most other travelers are not expecting cars to suddenly stop in the roadway. If you cannot safely exit the roadway, drive past the wildlife and look for a safe spot to park or turn around. Do not stop in the middle of the road!
 
 

Additional Bear Information

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    Tags: bear safety

    Last updated: April 11, 2018

    Contact the Park

    Mailing Address:

    PO Box 9
    Denali Park, AK 99755

    Phone:

    (907) 683-9532
    A ranger is available 9:30 am—5 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you get to the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

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