Bear Safety

Big grizzly bear tracks in sand
Grizzly bear tracks.

NPS Photograph

Bears and campers often frequent the same areas in Alaska’s national parks and it is important that campers and hikers respect their space. It is likely that bears and campers will encounter one another, but by remaining calm and following the basic advice of experienced bear behaviorists, you increase the odds of a positive outcome for both you and the bear.

We strongly recommend that you attend a back country/bear safety orientation at one of our Visitor Information Stations. Once in the backcountry, you are on your own.

Most people who see a bear in the wild consider it the highlight of their trip. However, food conditioned bears (bears that have become accustomed to human food and petroleum-based products, such as fuel and bug repellent in aerosol cans) can present a hazard to people traveling in the backcountry. If we all do our best to prevent negative interactions with bears and other wild animals, the backcountry will be a safer place for all, including the bear.

Avoiding Bear Encounters

It is important to be “bear aware” when camping and hiking in Alaska’s national parks and to avoid seasonal bear areas (sedge meadows, berry patches, etc.). Bear signs are easy to find if you know what to look for. Select a campsite with the least amount of bear sign and away from seasonal bear foraging areas.
Here are some tips:

  • Avoid surprising bears by being alert at all times, in all places. They may perceive you as a threat if you startle them. Bears are active both day and night and can be found anywhere.
  • Avoid areas with restricted visibility and make noise when exiting your tent. Ask yourself: Can a bear walk by and pass my campsite and cooking area unhindered?
  • Watch for their tracks and scat, as well as diggings and carcasses they may be feeding upon.
  • Trails that are formed because of consistent use. Bears will often follow the path of least resistance, for example, lake-shores, gravel bars and ridgelines.
  • Avoid salmon streams in late-summer and fall. Bears like fish and a noisy stream may lessen your ability to hear a bear or for a bear to hear you.
  • A tree or log that has bear hair or claw marks may indicate that it is a repeatedly used bear rub-tree.
  • Large dug up areas could be forage sites or day beds.
  • Sing, shout, or make other loud noises as you walk to warn bears of your presence. Be especially careful in dense brush, where visibility is low, and along rivers, where bears cannot hear you over the noise of the water.
  • Never intentionally approach a bear. Bears should live as free from human interference as possible, so give them plenty of space.
  • Choose and set up your camping sites in a bear safe manner, use appropriate food storage, and always be conscientious when cooking.

 

How to Handle a Bear Encounter

As the number of visitors to bear country in Alaska increases, so does the number of human-bear encounters. The vast majority of these encounters do not result in human injury or fatality. However, a much larger proportion of these encounters do result in the bear’s death. You can help prevent injury to yourself, to others, and to the bear by taking a few basic precautions.
  • Stay Alert. Stay constantly alert in bear country. Use your ears, eyes, and even your nose to detect the presence of a bear. The sooner you are aware of the bear, the more time you and the bear will have to react appropriately.
  • Be Visible, Make Noise. A surprise encounter with a bear is dangerous and can be frightening. However, you can reduce the potential for such encounters. Avoid surprises by traveling in open areas with good visibility. Make noise as you walk, particularly in thick brush, or when rounding a blind corner — talk, clap, or sing. Be extra alert in windy conditions or near noisy streams or rivers that may mask your sounds. When possible, travel with the wind at your back.

First, assess the situation

Does the bear see you?
  • If the bear does not see you, simply move away from the bear and the encounter is over. Back away out of sight and change your course. Move out of the area or quietly observe the bear at a safe distance without approaching or otherwise disturbing it.
  • Disturbance is evident whenever a bear changes its behavior because of you. If it stops eating and looks up, sniffs the air with ears erect, trying to locate you, you are too close! Bears only have 6-8 months to acquire the calories and fat reserves needed for the entire year. Give them space.
  • Never approach a bear, even from your boat or kayak. Approaching bears is dangerous and can cause undue stress and disturbance to the bear increasing the risk of attack.

Non-defensive Bear Encounters

If the bear is aware of you and either looking or not looking at you, or moving steadily along a route, this can be considered non-defensive behavior.

What if you are hiking or floating and you encounter a non-defensive bear?
  • Do not run! Running may elicit a chase response from an otherwise non-aggressive bear. 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 but has not acted aggressively. Speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head. Bears that stand up on their hind legs are not necessarily threatening you, but merely trying to identify you.
  • Change your course to avoid the bear. Increase your distance from the bear and stay alert to the bear’s wherabouts.

What if you are camping, cooking, or eating and you encounter a non-defensive bear?
  • Keep all of your gear under your direct control. Make sure the bear is aware of your presence. Talk calmly to the bear and stand your ground.
  • If you are in a group, stay together without blocking the bear’s route. If the bear is not focused on you, allow the bear to pass peacefully. If the bear approaches and is focused on you, stand together and elevate your defensive actions by shouting, yelling, and waving your arms. Do not retreat from the bear. You can also use noisemakers like airhorns or bang pots and pans.

Should a bear approach or charge you, do not run and do not drop your pack! Bears occasionally make bluff charges, sometimes 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.
  • If the bear departs the encounter ends.
  • If the bear continues to approach, stand your ground and remain assertive.
  • If a bear charges you stand your ground and remain assertive. Make yourself look big. Most non-defensive charges do not end in contact.
  • Now is the time to use bear pepper spray if you have it!
  • If the bear makes contact fight back vigorously! This is likely a predatory attack. Kick, punch, or hit the bear’s face, eyes and nose.

Defensive Bear Encounters

Defensive behaviors arise when bears are defending food, or female bears are defending their offspring, or because you have surprised the bear. Defensive encounters usually occur suddenly and at close distances. Defensive behavior may include snorting, huffing, jaw popping, and charging.

If you note any of these behaviors STOP AND STAND YOUR GROUND. Your safety lies in calming the bear.
  • Talk calmly to the bear; move slowly away diagonally if the bear is stationary.
  • Continue to monitor the bear as you move from the area.
  • If the bear renews its advance stop and stand your ground again. Talk calmly to the bear.
  • If the bear charges remain non-threatening and stand your ground. Most charges do not end in contact. Now is the time to use bear pepper spray if you have it!

What if the bear makes contact during a defensive encounter?
If a defensive attack occurs(if you surprise a bear) it may be best for you to 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 and vital organs. If the attack is prolonged, change tactics and fight back vigorously.

IF IT IS A BROWN BEAR, PLAY DEAD:
  • Lie face down with your hands clasped behind your neck and legs spread apart so the bear can’t turn you over.
  • Do not move until the bear leaves the area. If the attack is prolonged and the brown bear begins to feed on you, fight back vigorously! The encounter has now likely changed from a defensive one to a predatory one.

IF IT IS A BLACK BEAR, DO NOT PLAY DEAD:
  • Fight back vigorously!
  • NEVER PLAY DEAD WITH A BLACK BEAR! Most black bear attacks are predatory.
  • FIGHT ANY BEAR THAT ATTEMPTS TO ENTER YOUR TENT! If an unprovoked aggressive attack occurs (if you are sleeping in your tent and you feel a bear scratching or biting through your tent) you should fight back!

Report all bear incidents and encounters to a ranger!
Park rangers and biologists need this information to document bear behavior for research, management, and safety purposes.

 

Firearms and Bear Spray

If you choose to carry a firearm and/or Capsicum pepper spray for protection from bears, be familiar with the weapon(s) and their potential.

Firearms

Park visitors are allowed to carry firearms in the park’s backcountry for personal protection; however we strongly en-courage visitors to carefully assess their skill level with firearms before doing so. For people who are not extremely experienced and comfortable with firearms, they may be safer without one. Firearms may serve as a false sense of security and could ultimately lead to taking unnecessary chances or actions in bear country.

Firearms should never be used as an alternative to common sense and sound bear avoidance principle. They are to be used for protection only as a last resort when an attack is imminent. Bears will sometime approach to within 10 feet before turning and running away. It is legal to shoot a bear in defense of life or property in Alaska ONLY if you have made efforts to avoid problems in the first place, if you did not provoke an attack or cause a problem by negligent-ly leaving food or garbage in a manner that attracts bears, and if you have done everything else you can to protect your life and property. In the event a bear is killed for self-protection, you are responsible for ending your planned itinerary and transporting the skull and properly skinned hide with claws attached to the proper authorities. Additional guidelines regarding defense of life or property are listed in the Alaska Hunting Regulations produced annually by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.

Visitors who discharge firearms inappropriately and/or kill or injure wildlife unnecessarily will be held accountable for their actions.

Bear Spray

Bear spray (Capsicum spray) is also an effective deterrent in bear encounters. “Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force and should be considered as an option for personal safety for those recreating and working in bear country.” -from The Journal of Wildlife Management. In a 20 year study recently completed, Capsicum spray was found to be more effective in preventing injury to persons and less lethal to bears than firearms in most instances.

Capsicum spray also has its own inherent dangers. You must be fairly close to the bear to use it effectively (15-20 feet) and make sure you are not standing downwind. Capsicum spray can accidentally discharge and disable you or someone in your party. If you discharge bear spray and get it on your gear be sure to wash it off thoroughly. When dry Capsicum has proven to be an attractant rather than a deterrent. Similarly, do not transport it in a vehicle or light plane unless it is in an air-tight container because accidental discharge could disable the driver or pilot. Check it frequently during your trip to be sure it hasn't accidentally discharged.

Plan ahead

The final decision is yours. However, if you choose to carry a firearm and/or Capsicum spray we recommend that you spend some time becoming versed in its use before heading out into the back country. Firearms are subject to Alaska State laws. Notify your air taxi operator if you carrying bear spray or ammuniton so that it may be stored safely on the aircraft.
 

For more information on bears and bear safety check out these sites.



Last updated: April 28, 2020

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