You finally escape the big-city life for a wilderness getaway: a fabulous, stress-free 10 days of backpacking through Yellowstone. You’ve just started to feel the mental noise slip away, replaced instead by the sound of birds, your footsteps and the rustling leaves above. Ahhhh. You turn a corner – only to find yourself way too close to a real-live bear! It turns to look at you, almost in slow motion, and you freeze…
What Do You Do?
The real question may be: What could you have done earlier? Rewind this scenario to about a week before the trip. Find out if you’re headed into bear country while you’re checking out routes. John Gookin, curriculum manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and local bear expert, advises visitors to find out the local practices and regulations for the area, because those will trump whatever you’ve learned elsewhere.
“Most importantly, respect the bears,” says Gookin. “And welcome to their habitat.” Since he developed the first NOLS bear fence in 2002, the school has enjoyed over 10,000 consecutive successful nights in the field. The portable, electrical fence carries just enough “jolt” to keep bears out.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, grizzlies are an endangered species, and local practices differ from in other areas. Do you need to buy a bear canister (food container) to store your food? Rope and tackle to hang it? Many campsites in bear country will provide bear boxes, poles or cables, but you’ll want to know for sure. You may also want to look into carrying bear pepper spray, but if you do, make sure that you know how to use it first. If you have the opportunity, practice spraying one before your trip.
Bear safety regulations exist as much for the bears as they do for us. “Don’t accidentally train the bears,” Gookin says. Sloppy camping can condition bears to human food, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Once a “problem” bear has been reported, it will most likely be killed. Bear basics are simple: they get hungry. If they smell food, they go after it. If they feel threatened, they will be defensive. If Mama Bear feels like any of her cubs may be in danger, she will be very defensive.
NOLS protocol involves acute awareness of your surroundings. Be on the lookout for fresh signs of bear activity and steer clear of them: scat, claw marks on trees, dug-up roots, overturned rocks, food caches (dead animals). You’ll also want to stay away from feeding areas like berry patches or trout spawning streams.
On the Trail
While backpacking through bear country, make noise to warn bears of your approach. Some hikers wear bells or carry clanging pots and pans outside their pack. Singing and clapping can also be effective methods. If you’re backpacking in a big group, make sure that you hike with at least three other people during the day. Keep the bear spray handy enough to “quick-draw” it. Avoid hiking around dawn and dusk if possible, as bears’ activity peaks at these times.
Setting up Camp
Due to poor night vision, bears stick to trails at night, which means that you should cook and camp well away from trails. Ideal camp setups include consolidating all food preparation and eating into a kitchen area at least 100 yards away and downwind from the sleeping site. A gravel bar along a large stream is ideal. This kitchen area should also be the site for any odorous materials such as toiletries, all food, spices, garbage, used bear spray cans or anything else that may smell “good.”
Keep a can of bear pepper spray handy in the tent. If you need to use the bathroom at night, stay close, make noise and bring the bear spray. For women who are menstruating, used tampons should be double (or triple) bagged with crushed aspirin or a moist black tea bag to keep down the smell. You can also bring a spare pint water bottle to store the bag.
To protect your food at night, you’ll want to hang it, have bear canisters (small but sturdy hard-edged bins) or use a bear fence.
The Unavoidable Encounter
In the case that you do see a bear but it hasn’t seen you, back away slowly. If it sees you, DO NOT RUN. Bears can run faster than Olympic sprinters. Most sources recommend speaking in a low, firm voice and waving your arms without making eye contact (bears may see that as a sign of aggression) while turning sideways and walking away slowly. You may drop a nonfood item to distract it, such as a water bottle or bandana.
If a bear charges, stand your ground as running may lead to chasing. Most charges are bluffs. Link arms with others and try to look as large as possible to dissuade the bear from attacking.
If a bear actually strikes, drop to your stomach with your legs spread slightly apart and lock your fingers behind your neck in order to try to keep the bear from flipping you over. Generally, the bear will bite and swat the victim, then run away. In this case, stay on the ground until you are absolutely certain that the bear has left the vicinity.
In the unlikely situation that the bear keeps attacking you, you should fight back aggressively, aiming for the face, more specifically, the eyes and nose.
Julie Hwang lives and writes in Lander, Wyoming.