How to hike grizzly country
A common sense guide to enjoying nature's wild places
I read Hiking grizzly country – or not (September 2014, page 50) with great interest. It was sent to me by a physician friend asking me what I thought of the article. Why? I am the author of several books related to the topic and I have had my share of bear encounters.
My first reaction was not to comment at all since it’s about an aborted hike and an imagined bear encounter that never actually happened; also I preferred not to second-guess someone else’s decision not to hike alone. However, the next day as I was solo-hiking in the mountains, I reflected on the article and I felt that there were aspects worth addressing.
The topic was especially relevant as I was walking in a place where, just over a year earlier, I had chanced upon a grizzly while leading a group of hikers on an exploratory off-trail route. And there was a powerful second reason. Directly across the Rocky Mountain Trench from where we were climbing, a friend had died in 1998 after encountering a grizzly bear that was defending a moose carcass — generally the most dangerous of all bear encounters and something I’d written about in my book, The Mountain Knows No Expert.
I’ll start by saying that hiking alone in the backcountry is not recommended. A minimum of three hikers allows one to remain with a disabled person while another goes for help. The Rocky Mountain National Parks recommend groups of four or more staying in close proximity of each other in certain high-use grizzly areas. In the article, the author says he was prepared to hike in a group of two before his guide cancelled out. Bear attack statistics suggest that two may be the least safe number. There are plenty of cases where two people have been attacked resulting in injury or death. Two people seem to offer little more deterrent than someone alone and might be perceived as more of a threat to a surprised grizzly bear.
If a person is knowledgeable about, and comfortable with, hiking alone, he or she will likely have a safe and satisfying outdoor experience without significant added risk. But if something does happen — even a simple mishap like an ankle sprain — the solo hiker is in a more precarious position than with a group. A detailed itinerary left with a trusted contact and/or carrying one of the many satellite communications devices now available can mitigate this risk. In short, a decision to hike alone is not cut and dried, which was the point of the story as the author agonized over his options after his guide cancelled.
In the article he also downplayed the value of carrying bear spray, whereas it has been demonstrated to have good efficacy in deterring grizzly bears. For its slight weight and cost, it is a “must have” in grizzly country, although I will concede from personal experience that it can seem quite insignificant when faced with a surprised grizzly that is pirouetting and pounding the ground in a powerful display of upset. That particular situation seemed to hang on a hair trigger and could have gone either way, but fortunately the right neurons fired and the bear took off in another direction. And that is the way it usually plays out in direct grizzly encounters, as well as in the more numerous occasions when we unwittingly walk past a bear that stays quietly out of sight.
As the author explains, it’s not always possible to find willing companions when you want to go on a hike. But in deciding whether to go alone, consider the benefits of walking and reconnecting with the natural world versus the risks that we run in everyday life on the highways and with sedentary lifestyles. The choice, for me, is easy: unless there is a known problem that should be avoided, I would choose to go, but equip myself with knowledge about outdoor safety and the habits of wildlife I am likely to encounter there.
Mike Nash is the author of Outdoor Safety & Survival and Exploring Prince George: A Guide to North Central BC Outdoors both published by Rocky Mountain Books; and The Mountain Knows No Expert, published by Dundurn. www3.telus.net/pgoutdoors.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.