Ask Me: Should I Hike or Backpack Solo in Bear Country?
Here’s a question I’ve struggled with. Because of the timing of my trips, I often end up hiking and backpacking solo. I enjoy that (and enjoy groups). However, as a result, I’ve had a number of bear and moose encounters that have left me a little uncomfortable, and with a feeling of powerlessness in those situations. I’ve read about bear encounters and technically know what to do (making noise, etc.), but I’ve sometimes exhausted all those tricks and found myself still staring at a bear in my path. What do you recommend I do—especially about hiking solo?
It’s made me more conservative recently—in particular, I had made plans to hike the Teton Crest Trail in September, had the permit, etc., but ended up dayhiking instead (Cascade Canyon, Paintbrush Canyon). Those dayhikes were awesome and it was probably the smarter decision, as there ended up being storms up on the crest. But, truth be told, I really made that decision to dayhike instead of backpack largely because I feel like I can do everything I’m technically supposed to with regard to bear encounters and still feel powerless when I’ve exhausted all my tools and tricks.
I hate that feeling (and I’ve had it a few times) where I’ve done everything I’m “supposed” to do and it comes down the bear’s choice. He’s still staring at me and eventually—fortunately for me—each time, the bear has made the choice to amble off in another direction.
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Many people can appreciate those sentiments, including me. I’ve taken many solo trips, and had many bear encounters solo and with companions, some of them up close. A friend and I had one encounter in Glacier National Park with a grizzly sow with two cubs at a distance of about 30 feet, and it’s very unnerving. (The sow and cubs barely even looked in our direction; they weren’t interested.) The chances of a violent encounter are extremely low, but the consequences are high, of course, and you never know.
I’ve had numerous encounters with black bears where I threw rocks to chase them off (they were always going for my food, not me). That would be a dangerous response to grizzly bears. Moose can be dangerous, especially during the fall rutting season, but every encounter I’ve had with one has been non-confrontational, even though maybe one or two were fairly close range.
You can find other sources for tips on how to hike safely in bear country, and the definitive text on that is the book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, by Stephen Herrero.
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Your question is about deciding whether or when to backpack solo in bear country, so I’ll tell you how I approach that question.
I think specifically about the place and the likelihood of a bear or moose encounter while hiking solo. For instance, I’ve seen moose in the Tetons at least three times, always at an adequate distance to not antagonize them; but I don’t recall ever even seeing a bear there, despite nearly 20 trips in the Tetons backcountry (including some remote, off-trail areas). I suspect that’s because of the park’s management of backpackers and food in camping zones, and the regular hiker and backpacker traffic keeping bears away from trails.
Given all that, and the regular human traffic in the Tetons in summer (it does taper off in September), and the fact that much of the terrain—especially along the Teton Crest Trail—is in meadows or above treeline, with long sight lines, I consider the Tetons a relatively safe park for someone with the right skills to backpack solo.
However, I wouldn’t recommend solo backpacking in, for example, Glacier, where there’s a high concentration of black and grizzly bears and moose, or in many parks in Alaska. Maybe not in the Olympic Mountains, either, because of a high concentration of black bears and dense forest increasing the likelihood of a surprise, close encounter. (I shot the lead photo of a black bear at the top of this story in the Olympic Mountains; it was just off the trail we were backpacking down, and showed no aggression toward us, but we moved along quickly.)
As for specific, solo-hiking strategies, here are mine.
• Planning months ahead certainly helps you avoid having to hike solo. While I’ve done it many times, I rarely backpack solo these days, mostly because I plan my trips months in advance and that helps in finding friends and family who can join me. (I prefer having companions, and I tend to miss my family more when I’m out solo, which makes it less enjoyable for me.)
• When in grizzly country, I always carry this pepper spray. (Tip: Practice pulling the plastic locking clip off it, because it’ll be very hard to think straight when you see a bear charging.)
• I carry an air horn. (Small bells are practically useless—their noise doesn’t travel very far.) I have a couple of Falcon Personal Safety Horns (so I can give one to a companion, too). They’re small, weigh just a few ounces, easy to clip to a shoulder strap or belt, and very loud. (Don’t point one at someone and blast it, or fire it off near your face, it’s painfully loud.)
While pepper spray is only effective when a bear is within about 15 to 20 feet, an air horn can frighten off a bear at a distance, or just let it know you’re there. I’ll occasionally give my air horn a blast when walking through dense forest or brush in bear country, when I can’t see far. While I’ve never had to use a horn to scare off a bear, I’ve read about them working well; and it’s such a loud and unnatural noise that I believe it would work.
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• Hiking in daylight, and not too early in the morning or after sunset, makes you safer because most animals are more active between dusk and dawn. Safe food storage in camp also makes you safer, and I might feel more inclined to carry a bear canister, even if it’s not required, when I’m solo. (See my favorite canister in my review of essential backpacking accessories.)
• Be aware of whether you’re hiking into the wind or downwind—when moving downwind, animals will detect your scent from a greater distance, whereas upwind, they are less likely to smell or hear you at a distance. Also, be conscious of ambient noise levels: A loud river nearby could drown out your noise, while quiet surroundings enable animals to hear you from a greater distance—and occasionally, for you to hear them.
• Whether solo or with companions, give your itinerary to someone reliable, along with the phone number of the park ranger station or local authorities, and tell them to report you missing if they haven’t heard from you within a day after you expected to finish your trip. With a PLB, you significantly reduce the rescue-response time if you do have an emergency.
• You could carry a personal locator beacon (PLB), like a Spot GPS Messenger, that would allow you to signal for a rescue. The Spot also enables you to send a nightly message to someone back home to let that person know you’re fine.
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That’s about all you can do short of carrying a large gun—which isn’t permitted in some places, and it’s heavy. Plus, a handgun is not going to stop a bear or moose; the rifles used to kill them are high caliber and one bullet often isn’t enough. And imagine trying to aim and fire a rifle at a bear at close range, charging at 30 mph.
I strongly suspect that pepper spray would be much more effective at close range: The spray disperses widely and virtually always turns a bear away, whereas you may shoot and miss with a gun, or just enrage the bear more if you hit it without really injuring it. From a distance, a gunshot may dissuade a bear, but I’ll choose the pepper spray and air horn over a gun.
My brother-in-law, Tom Beach, who worked as a backcountry ranger in Yellowstone for about 10 years, offered these thoughts on this question, and I think his general advice applies to many places with grizzly or brown bears:
“I would backpack solo in most of Yellowstone (and was almost always solo when I was a backcountry ranger on foot), but there is about 10 to 15 percent of the park where I would never go solo due to the grizzly bear concentration (and these areas change from month to month depending on the bears’ main food sources). The challenge is that the Park Service will give you a permit to hike solo just about anywhere, and so you have to have a lot of experience/local knowledge to know better. People should be sure to ask questions about recent bear activity or sightings in the area where they are planning to go, when they pick up their permit.”
My suggestions do not completely eliminate risk of a hostile animal encounter, of course. But statistically, you are far more likely to be injured in a fall when hiking, whether solo or with companions, than to have an animal encounter. When solo, I think much more about being careful to avoid that kind of accident.
In general, though, most animals—including another you didn’t mention, mountain lions—detect people long before we are aware of them, and we probably usually fail to ever know how many animals are nearby. I remember, several years ago, after dayhiking with my family when my kids were quite young to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park—a busy trail with a constant stream of dayhikers—I ran into someone at the campground at Many Glacier who said he was in a boat on the lake below the trail around the same time we were hiking it. He said he could see something like a dozen bears grazing peacefully very near the trail, but hidden by vegetation from the hikers passing close by, and the bears just seemed oblivious to the people.
I offer other insights about backpacking solo in my blog post “Ask Me: Should I Go Backpacking Solo?”
Good luck, keep in touch.
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