Travel Basics:

Camping and Hiking in Bear Country


Visitors from “Outside” Alaska who do not venture onto any trail because of a fear of bears should note these animals are practically never seen on well-used trails close to towns. Most bears will avoid humans, and it is safer to walk in Alaskan backcountry than to walk a street in a major American city. Do not carry smelly food, stay away from tidal flats and rivers during spawning season, and a bear sighting probably will be avoided.

Black bears (ursus americanus) have many color phases, from cinnamon to the rare blue glacier bear, and lack the massive size and hump of the brown bear. Brown bears and black bears range the mainland. Brown bears are found on the Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof (ABC) islands, and black bears live on the islands south of Frederick Sound. Both species demand respect from all who go into the woods, as their behavior is unpredictable and dangerous. If common sense and care are exercised, most direct confrontations with bears can be avoided.

Bear Country Precautions

  • Make Noise. A loud (not shrill) whistle may deter bears that are merely curious and not already annoyed or cornered. (A shrill whistle may sound too much like a marmot to a bear.) Attach a bell to boots or pack, talk loudly, or shake pebbles in a can to warn most bears of a person’s presence, and – most important – give a mother bear a chance to retreat with her cubs to a safe distance. This is especially important when traveling through alder and other brush where visibility is limited. Mothballs are sometimes carried by campers because they have a reputation of discouraging bears; if nothing else they may mask the odor of food.
  • Food Attracts Bears. Keep food well away from tent and kayaks; it is best hung in a tree, 12 feet off the ground at least 100 feet away. Do not bury cans. Wash them and carry them out. Fish has a strong odor and is highly attractive to bears, so be sure fish is kept away from boats and camp. Failing this, be sure that boats are thoroughly cleaned to get rid of any smells. Do not camp on bear trails.
  • Stay Back. If a bear is on the trail, give it the right-of-way! Do not approach a bear too closely, even for photographs. Use high-powered telephoto lens instead, or retain the memory and forget the picture.
  • Avoid Garbage Bears. Bears habituated to humans (so-called tame bears) are NOT TAME. They are deadly. They have lost their fear of people and associate humans with food. These are the garbage bears, the one who have been given handouts by people (which incidentally is illegal). Confrontations may occur in Pack Creek on Admiralty Island (please refer to the USFS literature) or any place where they have had close contact with humans over a period of time. Garbage bears may be seen in spring in Juneau. Avoid them. Do not approach closely. Habituated bears are rarely seen far from human habitation.
  • Wounded Bears are Dangerous. Human beings are the interlopers in Alaskan backcountry, and an understanding and sensitivity toward bears will help save both bear and human lives. Although carrying a gun is an individual decision, it includes responsibilities toward others in the woods. Bear encounters are rare, and a gun’s efficacy in the hands of a non-expert is debatable. A wounded bear is doubly dangerous to other hikers.
  • Pepper Spray Care. Pepper spray also should be used with extreme care; it requires being at very close range to get into a bear’s eyes, and can travel downwind or hang in the air for a few minutes and debilitate the sprayer. Also, do not put pepper spray on tents, boats, or other equipment; it does not deter bears, and may possibly attract them, given their strong sense of smell.
  • Charges. In the remote chance of a bear charge, stand still. Do not run, because bears often bluff but will chase fleeing prey. If you have a large tarp or coat, hold it up to make you look bigger. If the confrontation is with a brown bear and a tree is handy, back slowly to the tree, dropping a hat or pack to distract the bear, and climb up at least 15 feet. (Be warned. Black bears, unlike the Alaskan brown bears, climb trees.) If caught on the ground, face down, bring up knees to chest, protect the back of the neck with the hands, and play dead.
  • Respect Moose. And don’t forget. Moose are dangerous, too. Do not get too close to a mother with her young. Treat all moose with respect, and keep your distance.
  • Food and other Wildlife. Show respect for the mice, squirrels, porcupines and martens. Those innocent, diminutive, and bewitching creatures will steal unattended food from careless campers and can ruin a trip. Food should always be hung in cabins or outside in a tree. Mink have been known to take fish being cleaned in the semi-dark, lying inches away from campers.