Bear Safety Tips for Alaska
Bears can be found in many places across the country, but here in Alaska we live in true bear country – one of the few places in the world where all three species of North American bears live in one place. When you’re in Alaska, there are always bears nearby, even if you don’t always see them.
Bears are curious, intelligent and tend to avoid or ignore people, but can be dangerous, as evidenced by two recent fatal bear maulings in our area. Respecting bears and knowing the proper way to behave when you see one can help you avoid conflict so you both can continue on your way, safe and sound.
There are three types of bears that live here in Alaska. Brown bears, also called grizzly bears, are found pretty much everywhere in Alaska. Black bears inhabit Alaska’s forests. Polar bears are more in the far northern and western Alaska tundra and sea ice areas.
Most bears tend to be wary of humans and will go out of their way to avoid them, with very few exceptions. In general, if you respect their space, follow a few simple guidelines, and know how to react if you do encounter a bear, you can enjoy seeing one of these majestic creatures without incident.
It’s exciting to see a bear from afar —but you don’t want to let it get too up close and personal.
Here’s what to do to avoid conflicts with bears.
- Give bears their space. Every bear has its own version of “personal space.” Cross that barrier and it can become aggressive.
- Give females even more space. If they have cubs they will often respond even more aggressively as they think you might be a threat to their young.
- If you’re taking photos, use a zoom. Do not try to get closer on foot.
- If you’re hiking or exploring and come upon a dead animal carcass or see scavengers congregating, leave as quickly as you can. A bear may be near and if it thinks you’re threating its food it will be aggressive.
- Hike in a group as larger groups of people are easier for bears to notice and avoid.
- Don’t surprise a bear, make noise by talking loudly or banging things together. Once bears realize you are there, they usually will leave to avoid you.
- If you’re camping, keep it clean. Wash dishes, cook away from your tent, store all food away from your campsite or hang food out of reach of bears or in bear-resistant containers.
How to use bear spray
If you live in or visit an area with bears, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray. Bear spray is a non-lethal bear deterrent designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. It sprays a fine cloud of Capsicum derivatives to temporarily reduce a bear’s ability to breathe, see, and smell, giving you time to leave the area. When in an area where bear encounters are possible, keep your bear spray accessible in a holster where you can get at it quickly, not stored in your pack. If you have to use it, you don’t have to be a good shot. Just put up a cloud of spray between you and the charging bear.
If you encounter a bear up close, here’s what to do
If you encounter a bear, stand your ground, even if it approaches. Never run from a bear, as that will trigger their predatory instincts to chase you. If the bear doesn’t approach you, back away slowly until you are a safe distance, keeping the bear in your site, and then moving briskly away.
If a bear is charging at you aggressively and you have bear spray, use it. Begin spraying when the charging bear is 30-60 feet (10-20 yards) away, spraying back and forth in a tight pattern so the bear must pass through a cloud of the spray. Keep spraying until the bear changes direction. If it continues at you, spray it in the face.
If that doesn’t work, you’ve got two choices: play dead or fight back.
Most bear attacks are a defensive response – they are startled by you, defending their young, or defending their food. Play dead in defensive situations: Hit the ground and lie still if the bear makes contact. Lie flat on your stomach with your hands protecting the back of your neck. A defensive bear usually ends its attack if it feels you are not a threat. Remain motionless for as long as possible or until the bear is far enough away for you to leave safely.
Very rarely, a bear may attack aggressively and you will have no choice but to fight back. Use bear spray, then use what you can to hit the bear on its muzzle.
The best strategy of all when it comes to close encounters with bears in nature is to avoid them at all costs. Be aware of your surroundings, follow the common sense guidelines we’ve shared here, never feed bears, and respect their space. At the end of the day, if and when you spot a bear nearby you can enjoy them without worry that something will go wrong.