Hiking in Grizzly Country: Best Ways To Avoid Bear Encounters

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Hiking in Grizzly Country:  Best Ways To Avoid Bear Encounters
Shannon and I hike well over 1,000 miles each year in Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, and we have experienced our share of grizzly bear encounters along these incredible trails.  Thank goodness every encounter has had a happy ending for both the grizzly(s) and ourselves, but we have always felt that the best “happy ending” is not having an encounter to begin with.

Through the past 40+ years, we have noticed that MOST of our encounters with grizzly bears along Glacier Park trails, Yellowstone Park trails and Grand Teton National Park trails occurred when we put our guard down, whether we were not paying attention because we were tired, or overly confident that a particular stretch along the trail wouldn’t have a grizzly on it.  Nearly every single time we are doing the right activities while hiking in Glacier Park, hiking in Yellowstone Park and hiking in Grand Teton Park, we do not experience a grizzly bear encounter.

Fight or Flight Instinct
Most grizzly encounters occur when a hiker surprises a grizzly bear(s) on the trail, thus triggering the bear’s “fight or flight” instinct.  If the “fight” instinct is switched on, then the hiker is in really big trouble.  If the bear’s “flight” instinct kicks in, then the hiker dodged a bullet.  So the goal of every hiker in Glacier Park, Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton National Park is to NOT SURPRISE THE BEAR by letting the bear know well in advance that the hiker is in the area.  This way, the bear can avoid the hiker and not be surprised.

And of course the other potentially dangerous situation is when a sow grizzly thinks you are threatening her cub(s).  This can also be avoided by making sure you do not surprise them and to give them plenty of warning that you are in the area.  If a sow grizzly knows you are coming down the trail long before she sees you, she will more than likely move her cubs off the trail and avoid an encounter with you.

The “Boom Box” Lady
Several years ago we were enjoying one of the numerous Glacier Park hikes in the Two Medicine Area, and we began hearing music… even though we were about 8 miles up the trail.  The music got louder and louder, and closer and closer…. and we finally could hear that it was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”.  Finally, the source of the music came over the hill and our jaws about dropped to the ground: Before us was a woman hiking with her teenage daughter, and sticking out of her day pack was a huge “boom box” playing a cassette.

We said hello to the hikers and politely asked about the blaring music.  The mother told us that she always carried this boom box and always played Lynyrd Skynyrd as loud as possible to scare off the grizzly bears when she was hiking in Glacier National Park.  We politely said “well, whatever it takes!” and continued on our hike.  After she was completely out of sight and after the blaring music faded off into the distance, I turned to Shannon and asked, “But what if grizzly bears don’t like Lynyrd Skynyrd and it makes them mad?  Or what if grizzly bears actually like Lynyrd Skynyrd and they approach her to get a better listen?”  We both laughed and continued on with our hike.  Obviously there are better ways of avoiding encounters with grizzly bears, and at the same time not annoying every hiker within a 10 mile radius….

Bear Bells
Anyone who has ever enjoyed Glacier Park hikes, Yellowstone Park hikes and Grand Teton hikes, has also passed by hikers jingling like a Christmas sleigh because of the bear bells hanging from their day packs and other places on their body.  These “bear bells” are probably not quite as annoying as a large boom box blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but they are a close second.

The National Park Service has determined (as well as several other independent field studies) that bear bells are not only ineffective in avoiding grizzly bear encounters along the trail, but may actually act as an “attractant”.  This is because the sound of a bell is a foreign noise that can make a grizzly curious as to what is emitting this strange sound.  This curiosity can then potentially turn into an encounter.  So to all the bear bell fans out there, you are better off NOT wearing them while hiking in Glacier National Park, hiking in Yellowstone National Park or hiking in Grand Teton National Park.

Human Voice
Research as shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the best “grizzly deterrent” while hiking in grizzly country is the HUMAN VOICE.  This powerful tool to avoid grizzly bear encounters is incredibly effective, and is endorsed by the National Park Service.  And through the many years and the tens of thousands of miles we’ve hiked in Glacier Park, Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton National Park, we can honestly say that we’ve never had a grizzly encounter when we were talking loud along the trail.

And that’s the key…. TALK LOUD.  Don’t be shy because you want the bear to hear you well in advance so you can avoid surprising the bear.  This also gives the bear plenty of time to avoid you.  So as you are hiking, talk with your hiking partner(s) with an elevated volume.  You don’t have to yell  at the top of your lungs… just talk louder than normal.

Now when the wind is blowing, or you are near a loud river or stream, you may have to ramp up the volume much more so you can be heard over the sound of the river or wind.  Also, talk extra loud when rounding a blind corner along the hiking trail.

In some places along certain trails, especially on several of the backcountry Glacier Park hikes, we also clap occasionally to make our presence known as well as talk loud.  We’ve had very good luck with this technique, especially when we know a bear is in the area.

Hiking In Numbers
Statistics show that the more people you’re hiking with on the trail, the less likely you’ll have an encounter with a grizzly bear.  This also tells you that you should NEVER HIKE ALONE in grizzly country.  Now we’ve done all of our hiking with just the two of us (Shannon and I), and we’ve done just fine.  The National Park Service recommends at least three people while hiking in grizzly country, and that’s good advice too.  But we feel that if you can only round up one other person to hike with you, then talk loud and go ahead and enjoy your hike.

Bear Spray
No matter what, in all circumstances, whenever you are in grizzly country every hiker should ALWAYS CARRY BEAR SPRAY.  There really are no exceptions to this rule in our opinion.  Grizzly bears are completely unpredictable and don’t always act as we want them to.  This article will not go into what to do if you indeed have an encounter with a grizzly, but we do want to simply say that you need to not only carry bear spray (on your hip, not in your pack), but also know exactly how and when to use it.  And EVERY HIKER needs to carry bear spray, not just one or two hikers in the group.  (We’ll talk about how to handle an encounter in a future article.)

The Bottom Line
The bottom line while hiking in grizzly country is to avoid surprising a grizzly bear(s) along the trail.  Your goal is to not even see a grizzly bear while enjoying Glacier Park hikes, Yellowstone Park hikes, and Grand Teton hikes by making your presence known far in advance by talking loud and occasionally clapping, and have at least one other hiking partner with you.  This way you’ll let the bear know you’re in the area, and he or she can move off the trail to avoid you.

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