Getting in and out of grizzly country alone and alive

I often travel alone through grizzly bear country. I neither condone nor condemn the practice, as for me it is often unavoidable. When faced with the choice of going alone or not going at all, I always choose the former. During my lifetime, I’ve hiked and skied hundreds of miles alone through grizzly country, all without incident. In fact, of the five grizzly bears I’ve ever seen, each was observed from the safety of the roadside. However, there are certain guidelines one should always follow when traveling through grizzly country, especially when alone.


Perhaps the chief guideline is to always carry a canister of bear spray, and to keep it easily accessible. Don’t leave it inside a backpack, as you may only have a matter of seconds to react to a charging bear. Additionally, don’t wait until a griz is hot on your heels to figure out how to remove the canister’s safety. Practice the motions of removing the safety ahead of time, that way firing the canister will be second nature. Lastly, check the can’s expiration date. Bear spray past its expiration date may not deploy properly and won’t help to deter a charging grizzly.


Ideally though, one should never have to deploy their bear spray. As long as a grizzly bear knows a person is approaching it will generally move to avoid making contact. That’s why it’s important to make noise, which can be a fairly problematic proposition when rolling solo. It feels ludacris to walk through the woods yelling random things at suspicious bushes and berry patches, and embarrassing when one meets another person out on the trail. Lately, I’ve found myself increasingly singing when alone in grizzly country, as it provides a steady stream of human noise while appearing slightly less eccentric to any casual passersby I encounter.


It also doesn’t hurt to educate oneself on bear habitat and food sources. To avoid an unfortunate run-in with a grizzly, it helps to think about where they are most likely to be. I always take special care when moving through stands of whitebark pine trees, as whitebark pine nuts serve as an important food source for grizzly bears. On a similar note, I remain especially vigilant when navigating high alpine scree slopes. During the summer and fall months, army cutworm moths fly into the cracks between rocks in alpine talus fields, drawing grizzly bears up into areas where people might not necessarily expect to see them. The bears gorge themselves on the moths, and will spend hours flipping over boulders to find them. It’s not unheard of for a grizzly to consume tens of thousands of moths in a single day!


Traveling alone in bear country can be quite a safe endeavor, provided that one remains keen and vigilant. Use additional caution when navigating prime bear habitat, and always make noise. Grizzlies rarely maul people and generally only charge when surprised, or when attempting to defend cubs or a carcass. Practicing proper bear etiquette reduces the already slim odds of a bear attack, and traveling alone should not deter one from exploring the outdoors.