What do I need to know about bear safety in Alaska?

One of the most frequently asked question by travelers to Alaska is, "Will I see a bear?" Alaska truly is bear country, so yes, there is a good chance that you'll spot a bear while you're in Alaska. But the real question should be, "How do I stay safe around bears in Alaska?" Understanding a bit about bear behavior, practicing deterrence methods, and keeping your cool in the case of a bear encounter are the most important elements of bear safety in Alaska.

Types of Alaska Bears

Let's start with identifying the three species of bears in Alaska. Black bears are the most common. They live predominantly in Alaskan forests and are skilled tree climbers. Black bears are not always black, but can be distinguished by pointier faces, rounded ears, and lack of a shoulder hump. They're smaller, standing up to five feet tall and weighing between 125 and 400 pounds, and are often shier than brown bears.

Brown bears are the second most common bear in Alaska. Brown bears and grizzlies are the same species but differentiated based on their location. Brown bears are more coastal and often much larger due to the abundance of fish protein in their diet. Grizzly bears live in the interior and are almost entirely vegetarian. Brown bears have broad, round faces and a hump along their front shoulders. They average six to seven feet standing and weigh between 300 and 800 pounds.

Polar bears are located on pack ice and coastal tundra along the extreme north and west of Alaska. They are the largest Alaskan bear, standing up to 10 feet tall and weighing as much as 1,200 pounds. They're also the least abundant, with a population around 5,000.

Avoiding a Bear Encounter

The key to staying safe in bear country is doing everything you can to avoid encountering one. First, always be aware of your surroundings. Move slowly through areas with limited visibility, especially tall brush. Keep an eye out for recently trodden game trails and other "evidence" (i.e. bear poop). Anglers should take stock of their fishing spot to make sure they have a clear path out in case a bear moves in.

Bears react when they're surprised, so the next step is to make sure they know you're around. Bear bells are fine, but the best deterrent is your voice. When hiking, make noise. Carry on a conversation, sing, clap. You may feel silly at first, but it's better than the alternative! Additionally, always travel in a group: Do not hike alone, there is safety in numbers. Two is better, but three or more is best.

Finally, don't inadvertently bait a bear. If you're fishing, never leave your stringer unattended and always throw fish carcasses back into fast-moving water. While you're hiking, keep tidy on the trail. Even crumbs or an accidently dropped corner of a granola bar wrapper can entice a bear. When camping, it is important to keep your camp clean and food far away from your tent. A distance of 100 yards is sufficient. Use bearproof containers and pack out your trash. To the same point, if you're traveling by rental car, never leave food in your parked car overnight.

Carrying Bear Spray

If you're spending any time exploring the outdoors in Alaska, you should be carrying bear spray. Products labeled as bear spray contain capsicum, which is a highly concentrated red pepper extract effective at deterring bears at close range. They are designed to propel a mist for 15 to 30 feet. You can find bear spray in any local outdoor store. Carry it on your belt loop or within easy reach on your backpack (not in your backpack) and know how to use it. Note that you cannot take bear spray on a plane, so hand yours off to another visitor before you leave.

If You Encounter a Bear

When dealing with close encounters, common sense will be your best defense. Remember that bear attacks are very rare and that predatory attacks are even rarer. So first, if you spot a bear, stay calm and observe what the bear is doing. If the bear appears not to have sensed you, keep watching and cautiously move away without alerting it. Do not turn your back on the bear until you are out of eyesight. If the bear does notice you, absolutely do not run. This is critical. Running can trigger the bear's instinct to chase. You cannot outrun a bear. You cannot outswim a bear. You can't outclimb one either. Instead, help the bear recognize you as a human and not a threat. Talk in a low and loud but normal voice. Wave your arms slowly above your head. If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. This behavior usually means the bear is curious, not threatened or aggressive. Slowly back away and give the bear the opportunity to avoid you. Once they feel there is no threat, they will move on.

Let's say you take the above actions and the bear stays focused on you. You should then become more assertive. Group together with other people. Yell, shake jackets overhead, bang on water bottles or hiking poles, and throw rocks or sticks. If a bear charges, it is usually a bluff so stand your ground. Young bears are often the territorial ones and can be successfully intimidated or chased away.

Don't let the thought of bear sightings either entice or scare you. There is no guarantee for your safety in bear country, but a knowledge of bears, deterrents, and proper behavior in case of an encounter will greatly reduce your risk. And remember, this is as much for the safety of Alaska's bears as it is for its people: When you're bear aware you help keep Alaska's bears wild.

Admiring Alaska's Bears Safely

Bears really are a sight to see. They're surprisingly nimble and quiet, curious and intelligent. For a safer way to observe these creatures:

For more information, check out the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Essentials for Traveling in Alaska's Bear Country.