Exploring & Staying Safe in American Bear Country

A boar plunges into the Brooks River to catch a fish for dinner. 

It would make little sense to write about all eight of Alaska's National Parks (as well as parks in Montana and Wyoming) without a special section on this website devoted to the bears that roam free there. After all, it is for their protection that some of the national parks were established in the first place.

The atmosphere of bear country is one of the most popular topics of discussion brought up to us in the context of our Alaskan travels. "Weren't you scared?!" and "Did you carry bear spray?" and "How did you prepare to camp in the backcountry?" are some of the most commonly asked questions. We had many of the same curiosities ourselves before we wandered off into the Alaskan bush for the summer.

Attacks on humans are rare, but they have happened, so clearly it's important to know some of what to do before getting out there. Let's start with these two important things: 1.) most likely, an experienced guide will be with you the entire time (unless you choose to jet off into backcountry); and 2.) it is perfectly rational to be timid about exploring a landscape where bears wander freely. With that out of the way, you can rest assured that having a bear encounter is most often exciting and wonderful as opposed to terrifying and dangerous. The key to having a great experience is in knowing how to act and what to do if you see a bear. 

In this article, we'll discuss general information about bears including their diet and habitat, behavior, how to interact and what to do during an encounter, miscellaneous factoids, and a bit about the species itself which is an important distinction, so we'll start with that.

Types of bears found in Alaska: Black bears; polar bears; grizzly, Kodiak, and coastal brown bears. The latter three are all one species of brown bear, differentiated by geography and diet which affects their size and behavior. 

A sow black bear in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. 

Black bears – These are the smallest of all bears living in Alaska. Their color is typically black, you may also see black bears with lighter, cinnamon-colored coats. While their habitat in most of North America is commonly associated with high-elevation and thick forested areas, they are roving creatures that can be found anywhere on the Alaskan landscape – on river banks, coastal beaches, in meadows, on tundra, and in valleys. Their diet consists mostly of berries, sedges and other grasses; they also eat fish, clams and other shellfish, moose calves, and other small mammals to pack on weight before winter hibernation. Black bears don’t generally commingle with brown bears, so if you see a black bear, you probably wont see a brown or grizzly in the immediate vicinity.

Where you will find them: From Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California to Shenandoah in Virginia to the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, black bears live throughout North America can be found in too many of our national parks to count! 


A sow polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Polar bears  These bears live only on the far reaches of the northern polar coastlines (you wont see a polar bear in interior or lower coastal Alaska.) As polar ice caps melt and their habitat dwindles, food sources become more scarce and as a result, they are considered to be the most dangerous species of bear to human beings. Unlike brown and black bears who generally aren't bothered by humans unless humans bother them, polar bears will hunt humans for food. 

Where you will find them: Polar bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks. In Alaska, they can be found only on the northern coastlines. 


A grizzly roaming the tundra in Denali National Park.

Grizzly – Grizzly bears are found in interior Alaska (as well as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia.) They are the smallest of Alaskan brown bears due to a more scarcely available food supply found inland, and also to the greater exertion they spend on obtaining essential calories. They feed on berries, grasses, root bulbs, insects, small rodents, and tree nuts; and when they can find a kill, moose, caribou, sheep and goats. The name “Grizzly” was coined because they tend to be the most aggressive of bears, as they have to fight harder for food sources. They can be found on the Alaskan tundra, in meadows, by streams, and in forests. 

Where you will find them: In our national parks, grizzly bears can be found in Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic (all in Alaska); and Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming. 


Kodiak bear at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.  

Kodiak – With a tremendous food supply of protein-rich fish always available to them, Kodiak bears are the largest of all brown bears. These are the heavyweights—some have weighed in at 1,500 lbs. They are found only on Kodiak Island, an amazing wilderness habitat, the second largest island in America next to Hawai’i’s Big Island. 

Where you will find them: Kodiak bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks; they only live on Kodiak Island. 

A coastal brown bear sow and her three, 2-year cubs looking for shellfish on the shores of Glacier Bay. 

Coastal Brown Bears – As the name suggests, coastal brown bears live in the coastal areas of Alaska. With a wealth of food sources at their disposal—mainly fish and shell fish unearthed at low tide—these bears are known to be relatively docile towards humans so long as they are eating abundantly. Coastal brown bears are also known to provide the best viewing opportunities for travelers to Alaska as they frequently meander the shores (which can be viewed easily from the safety of a motorized boat or kayak.)

Where you will find them: In our national parks, coastal brown bears can be found in Katmai, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, and Kenai Fjords (all in Alaska).  


Two large boars feed on salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. 

Gender and age: Adult female bears are called sows. Adult males are called boars. Baby bears are called cubs. Young bears who have just separated from their mothers (this typically happens in their third year) are called juveniles


With expert bear naturalists from the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark at our side, we are able to sit among coastal brown bears for days at a time watching them in their natural habitat. Stay tuned for more on that experience (park #37, coming up!) This bear sow is named Crimp Ear, a very social bear and a favorite to many who live in that area. 

Bear viewing etiquette: Seeing a bear in the wild is an awesome and unforgettable experience. Outlined below is some general etiquette to observe while bear viewing: 

Never approach, clap or shout at, or crowd bears to get their attention... and never forget that in the wilds of Alaska, you are a guest in their home. Observing their comfort and space (for your safety and theirs) should be your first priority.

Trails in established bear viewing areas were created for a reason. Stay on them whenever possible. 

The National Park Service advises that humans stay 100 yards away from bears whenever possible. In some cases, like in the picture shown here taken in Lake Clark, Alaska, they might approach you and enter into your space. It should be acknowledged here that situations always vary, and as such, adaptability to your surroundings is necessary equipment while bears are near. 

This bear, with its scowl and drool, is displaying stress as our boat nears its environment on the Katmai Peninsula. We quickly moved away!

Bear behavior and aggression: It is essential to have an understanding of bear behavior before exploring in bear country. Outlined below are some common behaviors to watch for. 

When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to determine what you are—bears have poor eyesight.

Bears do, on the other hand, have very good sense of smell—they can smell humans from three miles away when positioned downwind. 

If it is popping its jaw, snarling, growling, breathing heavily, coughing, sneezing, or drooling, it is experiencing stress—and indication that you are agitating it and are too close. 

Sows with cubs in tow are likely to be aggressive toward humans, as sows are extremely protective of their young. If you see a sow with cubs, maintain an even greater distance. Never get between a mother and her cub.

Bears tend to be at their most aggressive near the time that they hibernate, during late October and early November, when they are vying for every calorie they can to see them through the long winter sleep. 

Avoiding unwanted bear encounters: They say that “one of your best defenses against bears is your brain.” In other words, the more you know, the better the chances of you have of having an amazing experience among bears in the American wilderness. Some ways to minimize close bear encounters include:

Hike in wide open areas where you (and the bear) have clear visibility of the landscape.

Hike in groups of two or more. The sound of voices and the reverberation of foot traffic helps to alert bears of your presence, which will usually drive them in another direction. 

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

Maintain constant conversation, and/or sing on the trail to alert bears of your presence with the sound of your carrying voice.  

Observe proper food storage at all times while in bear habitat by using bear cans; and freeing tents, cars, and your general surroundings of food and scented items. Never sleep in clothing that you cooked in. 

Always stay "bear aware" when traveling in bear country. Know that they could be anywhere... you should always be ready to react. 


What to do if you have an encounter: If you are exploring the North American wilderness, there is a likelihood that you may see a bear...and it is a wonderful experience to have. Here are some general guidelines of what to do and how to behave if you see a bear: 

Remain calm and stand still.

If you have children with you, pick them up. 

Slowly step aside of the bear's path and stand firmly in one spot, speaking in a calm but firm voice something like “Okay bear, I’m just going to step aside and allow you to pass…”

If the bear is laying down, start to back away slowly and at a sideways trajectory, keeping your eye on the bear until you are a safe distance away. 


What to do if it mock charges you: Bears may mock charge humans, running straight at you aggressively if they feel threatened. Scary! If you run - never run - it will be more likely to attack you. If you stand your ground, it will most likely stop about 10 feet from you. It might be the scariest moment of your life, but mock charges are actually a somewhat common response during a close encounter. So what to do? Stand your ground. DO NOT RUN. Running will turn you into prey in a bears eyes. This is a good time to have bear deterrent handy and ready to use. 

What to do if a bear attacks: Bears do not want to brutalize human beings, an attack typically occurs when it is surprised, and/or protecting a kill (a food source) or cubs. Black bears and brown bears have different behaviors during an attack, and your response (heaven forbid you should ever find yourself in this situation) will be different for each. If attacked by a brown bear, PLAY DEAD. If attacked by a black bear, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. In detail: 

Brown or grizzly bear: Lay on your belly, spread your legs wide apart to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over, and place your hands behind your neck then play dead and do not fight back unless the bear continues to attack. If it does, fight for your life. 

Black bear: Do not play dead, instead, try to escape to safety and if that is not an option, fight for your life by kicking and punching the bear's face and muzzle.  


Bear deterrents: "Deterrents" are items carried on your person that are used for self-protection in the case of a bear attack. The deterrent that you should first use during an aggressive bear encounter is your brain to determine its behavior and to act accordingly. If that fails—bears are wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable—it is wise to have a second line of defense. The following deterrents are useful in different scenarios, though you don't need to carry them all. Just choose the right one for you and the environment that you are in. And of course, learn how to use them. 

Stef taking off into bear country in Lake Clark Alaska with a can of bear spray, also known as "a can of confidence." 

Spray: The most popular and well known bear deterrent is casually called “bear spray”—Alaska guides call it a “can of confidence.” Bear spray is like mace, its aim is to stop a bear from attacking you by blinding it. If you are standing downwind when you spray it, it will blind you, so learn how to use it. It is imperative that you buy EPA approved bear spray they can be sold in most national park visitor centers.  

Bells:  "Bear bells"—sometimes called the "afternoon snack alarm" are simply jingle bells that you fasten to your pants that make noise while you walk. Noisemakers. It is our understanding that the sound of bells isn't unfamiliar enough to bears to act as a deterrent, and recent studies conducted in Katmai showed that the majority of bears weren't fazed by the sound. They also interrupt the peaceful environment for everyone else there, so we are not huge fans... but, to each his own. 

Flares: Flares are a popular deterrent with naturalists because the sound (like fireworks) will scare the bear without causing them harm, and they are lightweight and easy to carry.

Guns: Guns should only be handled by experienced gun owners and operators, and those who are familiar with bear behavior. Shooting a bear could easily go really wrong... It could also land you in hot water with the State while leaving you with a mountain of paperwork to fill out explaining why you shot a bear. Most top guiding companies in Alaska equip their guides with a gun, as well as training on how and when to use it.  

Keeping bears wild: We as humans are very lucky to be able to observe bears in their natural habitat in America's national parks and elsewhere. It is essential that we do our part to minimize impact on bears so they can continue to roam our planet. Here are some ways that each of us can do our part to help keep bears wild:

Respect a bear's space. Use binoculars or telephoto camera lenses to "get closer." The National Park Service advises that humans stay at least 100 yards from bears if they can help it. If a bear shows any change in behavior when you are near then you are too close. 

NEVER feed a bear. Ever. "A fed bear is a dead bear." When black or brown bears begin to associate food with people, they start to get aggressive; when bears become aggressive with park visitors, they are captured and exterminated.

Drive slowly on our wilderness roads. In the last two years in Yosemite National Park, early 60 black bears have been killed by road traffic. We always try to practice defensive driving, keeping in mind that any animal of any size could bolt in front of our car at any given time. We've not had a collision yet and hope to get through this year (and lifetime) without one! 

Black bear sow and her cub in Yosemite National Park in California.

Miscellaneous Facts:

While the weight of brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears differ greatly, they are all born as 1-lb cubs.

Black bears live to an approximate 20 years of age and can run 30 miles an hour. 

"Hyperfascia" is a period brown bears go through late in the season just before hibernation when they eat nearly everything in sight in preparation for their long winter snooze. 

When bears hibernate, they’re not asleep. The heart rate of a bear slows to about 10 beats per minute, rendering them in a comatose state. They lose 40% of their body weight during that time. Boars (adult males) are usually the last to go into hibernation because they need to pack on the most weight. 

According to the National Park Service, there are more bears estimated to live on the Alaskan Peninsula than people. 

More people are killed by moose than bear each year in Alaska.

Bears are not social animals within their species, but are tolerant of one another so long that everyone has enough to eat.

Bears are actually very good swimmers but they tend to avoid it unless making a water crossing, like this coastal brown bear is doing at Katmai. 

Bears are good swimmers but it leaves them vulnerable. They typically avoid it unless they need to make a water crossing. 

Bears' only real predators are other bears. 

Sows (mother bears) need to eat enough to be able to nurse cubs in their first couple of years, as well as to survive herself through hibernation. This is why, when food is scarce, they become more aggressive with humans and other animals. 

Bear cubs stay with mama for three years then she chases them off. Young siblings who are newly are their own are called "juveniles," and they usually pal around until they figure out how to manage  then they break apart and go out on their own.


As always in the American wilderness, your safety and livelihood is your own responsibility and yours alone. It is vital to learn the area that you are exploring and also how to act while there to ensure a safe and enjoyable time in the U.S. National Parks.