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- 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.
This page includes information on: Wilderness safety | Wildlife safety | Frequently asked questions about bears
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.
Stay Safe in the Wilderness
Even experienced wilderness travelers can have an accident that leads to an injury, and people sometimes die in the park. Accidents are possible anywhere, not just on an epic backpacking trip - so even if you plan to just stick to a tour or shuttle bus, the information below is still important. Also, before starting your adventure, read the safety information in the park newspaper.
More information on wilderness travel can be found in our backcountry camping webpages.
Grizzly bears and moose are dangerous. All wildlife can behave unpredictably, even seemingly mild-mannered animals like squirrels or sheep. Do not intentionally approach wildlife. Read the Wildlife Safety section, below, for more details.
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.
Crossing glacial rivers is treacherous and the potential for hypothermia is always a factor in the sub arctic. Rainy, chilly days are normal in summer. Always dress in layers, preferably made of wool or synthetic material that is still able to insulate you even when wet. Bring rain gear or an umbrella.
Be wary of falls. Most of Denali is trail-less, and long hikes are often on a route of your own choosing. Any time 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
Ideally, you should always hike with at least one other person. Even then, make sure someone else knows where you're going, particularly if you plan to hike or backpack. 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.
Denali National Park and Preserve is home to both black bears and grizzly bears. Black bears inhabit the forested areas of the park, while grizzly bears mainly live on the open tundra. Almost all bears seen by visitors along the Park Road are grizzlies. The bears of Denali are wild creatures, free to behave as they wish. If annoyed, these solitary animals can be very dangerous to intruders. For your own protection, and to keep Denali bears healthy and wild, please carefully read and abide by these rules.
If You Encounter a Bear
- Do not run
Running may elicit a chase response. Bears can run faster than 30 mph (50 km/hr). You cannot outrun them. If the bear is unaware of you, detour quickly and quietly away. Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. Back away slowly if the bear is aware of you. Speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head. Bears that stand up on their hind legs are not threatening you, but merely trying to identify you.
- Hold your ground
Should a bear approach or charge you, do not run, do not drop to your pack. Bears sometimes charge, coming within ten feet of a person before stopping or veering off. Dropping a pack may encourage the bear to approach people for food. STAND STILL until the bear moves away, then slowly back off.
- Play dead if contacted by a grizzly
If a grizzly makes contact with you, play dead. Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach and your hands laced around the back of your neck. Leave your pack on to protect your back. Statistically, most grizzly bear attacks are short, defensive reactions by grizzlies feeling threatened by you. However, if the attack is prolonged, fight back vigorously.
- Fight back against black bears
If a black bear makes contact with you, fight back. Their charges are less likely to be a bluff.
Report all bear incidents and encounters to a ranger. Park rangers and biologists need this information to document bear behavior for research and management purposes.
Wildlife Viewing Distances and Other Behavior to Know
Denali is home to sheep, caribou, wolves, foxes, bears, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, and other wildlife that you may encounter in the park. Your behavior can make the difference between staying safe or being injured.
Please keep Denali’s animals wild by following these guidelines 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
Maintain a minimum 300 yards (300 meters) distance from bears. If you are unable to accurately gauge 300 yards, err on the side of caution.
Do not approach or follow wildlife. Maintain a minimum 25 yards (25 meters) distance from all other animals, dens, and nests.
- Don't assume moose are harmless
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, such as a human or group of humans getting too close to it.
- Don't harass wildlife
If your presence alters an animal’s behavior, this is a sign that you are too close.
- Drive-by wildlife viewing
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!
Frequently Asked Questions About Bears
- Are black bears dangerous?
Black bears are no more dangerous than grizzly bears and in fact the threat from of any bear is substantially 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.
- Can bears swim?
Bears are very good swimmers and will often 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.
- Can grizzly bears climb trees?
Young grizzlies can climb trees as effectively as most 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, recent changes in federal law 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.
- 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.
Additional Bear Information