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.
Bear Encounter Reporting
Please report any bear encounters you experience while visiting the Gates of the Arctic by downloading the Alaska Bear Encounter Report Form and e-mailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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.
How to Handle a Bear EncounterAs 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.
First, assess the situationDoes the bear see you?
Non-defensive Bear EncountersIf 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?
What if you are camping, cooking, or eating and you encounter a non-defensive bear?
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.
Defensive Bear EncountersDefensive 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.
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:
IF IT IS A BLACK BEAR, DO NOT PLAY DEAD:
Bear Encounter Reporting
Please report any bear encounters you experience while visiting the Gates of the Arctic by downloading the Alaska Bear Encounter Report Form and e-mailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Park rangers and biologists need this information to document bear behavior for research, management, and safety purposes.
Firearms and Bear SprayIf you choose to carry a firearm and/or Capsicum pepper spray for protection from bears, be familiar with the weapon(s) and their potential.
FirearmsPark 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 SprayBear 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 aheadThe 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.
Last updated: December 1, 2021