Adventures in the Last Frontier
Precautions When Traveling in Bear Country
We get quite a few questions about backcountry travel in bear country, which, safe to say, is really a good question for anyone traveling anywhere in Alaska. While there are many schools of thought, and inevitably every Alaskan has their opinion on the best methodology - we've developed a practice that has allowed us to travel safely and comfortably in Alaska's wild places for over a decade without incident. Here are some ways in which we safely visit the wild places that bears call home.
Awareness of Ones Surroundings - Alaska is big, and the wilderness is seemingly around every corner. One thing we can't stress enough is being aware of our surroundings. When we're in the field, we're constantly evaluating the terrain around us from a bear safety perspective. It’s critical to question such things as: what’s around the next corner, what’s that dark spot on the hillside, is the brush ahead thick enough for a bear to go unnoticed? Awareness of our surroundings goes a long way when it comes to safety, and is an integral part of staying safe in bear country.
Route Selection – Bears are everywhere in the wilderness! - That including rivers, drainages, ridge-tops, thick brush, glaciers etc. Choosing a good route goes a long way when it comes to bear safety. We try to choose routes offer better visibility, and opportunities to see bears at a distance, and that help avoid encountering or surprising a bear at close range. As we travel in the wilderness, we’re searching for wide-open country and routes with good visibility, which not only is more enjoyable to travel on, but also provides greater visibility when it comes to wildlife. Being able to spot a bear at a distance, and thus alter course accordingly, will go a long way in terms of avoiding a negative encounter. We try to avoid traveling through dense brush if at all possible.
Making Noise - Another key travel practice is regularly making noise when hiking in windy conditions, entering and traveling in brush, hiking in drainages or depressions, and anywhere where visibility is limited and a potential for surprising a bear is high. I tend to call out regularly and loudly, often a hoot and holler, and have been know to attempt to carry a tune at times – all of which are an effective way to alert wildlife that you are nearby, and giving them time to change their course if necessary. It definitely helps avoid surprises. We get asked about bear bells quite often, and it’s been my experience that they don’t make enough noise to make a difference, and tend to annoy fellow travelers more than alert bears.
Proper Food Storage & Keeping a Clean Camp – This cannot be stressed enough in a wilderness setting. Bears have an amazing sense of smell, and we do everything to eliminate the potential association of human food equaling a food source for wildlife. The first step we take happens before we set foot in the wilderness, as we prepare our food for our adventures. We vacuum seal most of our fresh ingredients and sauces, minimizing odors. The second step is to store all food in bear resistant containers, and along with our food, we place all odorous items in these bear resistant containers on a nightly basis. These bear resistant containers are placed well away from camp. The third step is diligence in keeping a clean camp, including picking up all trash and food scraps, and placing them in the bear resistant containers. Special consideration should be taken in regards to odorous items often forgotten in pockets, including wrappers, candy bars, sunscreen and chapstick. Don’t forget these items in your pack either, as bears (and many smaller critters) are more than happy to chew through nylon to get to the goods.
Traveling with Bear Deterrents – There have been quite a few studies done on the effectiveness of firearms and bearspray as bear deterrents. While there are advantages to both, at Alaska Alpine Adventures we chose primarily to travel armed. Our guides travel with and are trained to use high caliber handguns or shotguns. Of course, we chose firearms as a last resort in the event of a negative bear encounter. We’ve never had to use one, but feel a piece of mind in having one available.
Bears are an integral part of the wilderness experience, and are a pleasure to observe in their natural surroundings. While the precautions above are simply recommendations for traveling safely in bear country, it’s a methodology that has proven itself for over a decade of wilderness travel in some of the most amazing places in Alaska.