First, let’s start with what happened before we go through the takeaways from our experience.
While hiking in Alaska and going around a tight, wooded switchback, we stumbled upon a mama black bear with her three cubs. Keep in mind that these were Alaska sized bears, not your smaller sized lower 48 bears. These bears were only about 25 feet away from us initially. Mama bear was on the trail and her three cubs were in the tree next to her. When we startled each other on the trail, the mama bear snarled, stomped her feet and then started running towards us…
That’s right, A BEAR WAS RUNNING AT US!
This bear got within 10 feet of us or as we say ‘touching distance.’ As the bear was running towards us, Sam simultaneously made himself very big and started yelling. After what seemed like the scariest seconds of our lives, the bear thankfully backed down. The bear then went back to the tree with her cubs, but continued to maintain eye contact with us. Then, we slowly backed down the trail, with our hands still in the air and yelling. We were worried the bear might charge us again but thankfully she did not. In retrospect, we find this “freeze, hands in the air!” moment a bit comical. However, in the moment, it was anything but comical.
Unlike Sam, Natalie froze in this life-threatening moment for several seconds before following Sam’s actions and also throwing her hands in the air/yelling. Natalie’s reaction prompted us to write this post so hopefully, if you ever have an encounter like ours, you do not also freeze. In addition to being aware and mindful of your surroundings…
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1. Carry bear spray in your hand while hiking, NOT on the side of your backpack
If there was anytime to use bear spray on our trip, this would have been it. However, we were carrying our bear spray on the side of Sam’s backpack and there was not enough time to grab it. Prior to this encounter, we saw people hiking with bear spray in their hands and we thought it was excessive. It was NOT excessive. If you truly have a bear encounter where you need to use the bear spray and if it is anywhere other than your hand, you probably will not have time to grab. We saw many people hiking with guns as well. Interestingly enough, a study was done on using bear spray versus a gun in a bear encounter and the jist of this study is that 9/10 times, you are more accurate at hitting the bear with the bear spray than a gun, likely because bear spray is more broad and easier to use in a high-pressure situation. Take this information as you please but please carry bear spray in your hand while hiking. Also, make sure you know how to use the bear spray, otherwise, it’s useless!
Buy your bear spray using this link: Bear Repellent Spray -EPA Certified, Maximum Strength & Distance
2. Make noise, A LOT of it
The park ranger we encountered in Kenai Fjords National Park advised us that carrying a conversation should be enough to scare a bear away. Clearly, it was not as Sam and I were talking AND intermittently clapping when this encounter happened. We also were wearing bear bells. Admittedly, we were not being very loud while talking and definitely could have been making more noise with more frequent/louder clapping. Typically, bears really want nothing to do with you and if they hear you coming, they’ll likely get out of there before you ever see them. We recommend talking at a louder-than-normal level, especially if there are only two of you, as well as clapping loud frequently.
3. Hike in a group of three or more
Did you know that there are rarely bear attacks in groups of 3 or more while hiking and there has never been a documented bear attack in a group of 6 or more while hiking? This fact is likely because the more people you hike with, the more noise you make and the more likely a bear is to get scared away. Moral of the story, hike with as many people as possible. After our encounter, we went back up the trail with a group of 8 for several wooded miles and then did the rest of the hike with one other couple (4 people total).
4. Practice what to do if you do encounter a bear
If hiking in a group, making a lot of noise and being aware of your surroundings is not enough to prevent a bear encounter, it is important you know what to do. Below is a link to the bear safety page on the National Parks website. We recommend reviewing this information and then drilling yourself on what you do in different bear encounter situations. Remember, what you should do depends on the situation and type of bear you encounter. We always say, when we have kids, before we take them hiking, we will be doing bear drills with them to make sure they are prepared. There is a reason people do fire drills so why not do bear drills? There are signs at most of the trail heads about what to do in a bear encounter situation so take the time to review that information every time you see it.
We are VERY grateful for Sam and his clear thinking in a true fight or flight moment. Also, we are very thankful for the friends we made on the trail (after turning back) who helped us find the courage, through safety in numbers, to go back up the trail (past the spot where we encountered the bears) and finish this once in a lifetime hike to the Harding IceField in Kenai Fjords National Park. To this day, 1 year later when we are writing this post, the whole experience still feels surreal and unbelievable. Sam literally saved our lives. Anytime we have a disagreement, Sam always can always say “… but remember that time I saved us from getting attacked by a bear?” As to Natalie will reply “it was one time!”
We hope this post helps you prepare for any potential bear encounters you may have while hiking. Do you have any other tips on how to prevent bear encounters? We’d love to hear your feedback or questions. Please leave us a comment!
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!
For information on hikes where you may encounter bears, please see:
- The Perfect One Week Itinerary for Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Top 3 Short Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Top 5 Long Day Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Alaska Road Trip: The Perfect Guide
- Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes
- Talkeetna, Alaska and Denali National Park Quick Guide
- Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward, Alaska Quick Guide
- Anchorage, Alaska Quick Guide
- Whittier, Alaska Quick Guide