Bear Safety in Katmai National Park
Congratulations, you’ve made the fabulous decision to view majestic brown bears within Katmai National Park! Although a well-known and popular activity in Alaska, you might be wondering, how is this safe? Besides, an Alaskan brown bear can reach upwards of 1,400 pounds and can stand up to 10 feet tall! Not to mention, there are no fences or protective barriers in Katmai. Sometimes, the only thing between you and an enormous coastal brown bear is some rushing water and swimming salmon.
Don’t fret! With some advance preparation and our guidance, we have no doubt that you’ll be returning to Homer in one piece. Regardless of your wilderness experience, it is critical to take bear safety seriously not only for yourself but for the others in your group as well.
For tours visiting Brooks Camp, you’ll be required to attend a brief bear safety orientation at the visitor center. Consider this article a supplement to the information you’ll receive. Besides, you could encounter a bear on your way to the orientation! On tours that do not visit Brooks Camp, we make sure to give our own safety briefing while following the below protocol.
General Safety Tips
Knowing exactly what to do when encountering a bear can make the difference between walking away with a great photo or not being able to walk away at all. While most encounters are completely harmless, you should always take the following precautions and keep your distance as much as possible. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 50 yards away from bears at all times.
Travel in Groups and Make Noise
Never surprise a bear. Like humans, a surprise can trigger anger, making a bear aggressive and much more difficult to control. For this reason, traveling in groups on trails is always recommended in Alaska. Due to the size and extra noise created, bears usually become aware of groups far before you’re aware of the bear.
If you plan on hiking alone or in a small or quiet group, make your presence known frequently. You might notice people hiking with bells attached to their backpacks for this purpose. Calling out ‘hey, bear!’ at blind corners or in moments of solitude works also.
Bears typically do not have an intention of attacking and mostly just want to be left alone. It’s important to do whatever you can to communicate to the bear you aren’t a threat. Stay calm, back away slowly, and talk to the bear in a low tone. Never scream, make sudden movements, or imitate bear sounds.
The number one rule for bear encounters is to never run away. Just like dogs, bears have a natural instinct to chase. While it might seem like the best option, a bear can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and downhill. Don’t try to compete!
Make Yourself Look Big
If you are with small children, have someone pick them up. Wave your hands over your head slowly and in a low, calm voice, tell the bear to back away. If you can stand on higher ground nearby, do so, but never try to climb a tree. Bears are better climbers than humans!
Never Allow Bears Access to Your Food
Properly managing and storing your food in the wilderness is one of the most important ways to prevent bear attacks. When bears start to desire human food they can become unpredictable, aggressive, and dangerous. Unfortunately, this leads to bears becoming a risk to public safety, and in turn, they are euthanized.
If faced with an aggressive bear, never drop your pack to entice, block, or distract the bear. Whether there is food inside or not, keep your packs on your body. This not only makes you look bigger, but can act as protection if attacked.
What to do if You Encounter an Aggressive Bear
While a calm bear will usually continue to go about their business, an aggressive bear may woof, salivate, yawn, growl, snap their jaws or lay their ears back. They might also charge and bluff at the last second. If you’ve done all of the above and the bear is still asserting aggression and not backing off, it’s time to try and identify what type of bear you are dealing with. Remember, the color of a bear is not enough information for identification!
Brown Bears (and Grizzly Bears): Brown bears are typically larger than black bears, have a distinctive shoulder hump, short round ears, and a dished face profile between the eyes and the nose.
If a brown bear attacks, leave your pack on and play dead. Fighting back typically increases the intensity of the attack. Lay flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Make it harder for the bear to turn you over by spreading your legs. Remain still and silent until the bear leaves the area.
Black Bears: Black bears can range in color from black to cinnamon and even gray. Black bears do not have a shoulder hump and their rump stands higher than their front shoulders. Their ears are taller and more oval-shaped with a straight face profile between the eyes and the tip of the muzzle.
Do not play dead if a black bear attacks you. Black bears tend to be weaker and are frightened easily, giving you a chance to defend yourself. First, try to escape to somewhere safe, like a building or inside a car. If hiding and escape are not possible, it is time to prepare to fight back. Gather whatever rocks, sticks, or objects you can find and aim for the face and muzzle.
Bear spray is a common bear deterrent carried by hikers and campers when out in the wilderness. Bear spray is an effective way to defend yourself from a bear attack but does not replace the above information. Due to airline regulations and the risk of explosion of faulty bear spray canisters, we DO NOT allow bear spray on tour with us. Rest assured that with our group size and other guide precautions, you will not find yourself needing it while on tour.
In case you decide to enjoy Alaska’s wilderness after your tour with us, it’s good to be informed about bear spray and carry it with you. Just like human pepper spray, it is made from a red pepper oil that inflames the eyes and respiratory system. When used properly, it can effectively defend you from an aggressive bear when in the range of 25-35 feet.
Bear spray is not foolproof. In extreme heat, they can explode, and in extreme cold, they may not spray properly. Additionally, if you are downstream from the wind when discharging bear spray, you might find yourself in the line of fire. Bear spray does not replace knowledge on what to do when encountering a bear and should be thought of as a last resort.
Luckily, the high majority of bear encounters end peacefully. Just make sure to do two things: brush up on your bear safety knowledge and of course, charge your camera!