Here’s the big one that most people (understandably) worry about when exploring the outdoors in Alaska: wild animals. Just like in the city, wild bears and moose really don’t want anything to do with you. As long as you make enough noise for them to hear you coming, they will generally get out of the way so quietly that you’ll never even know they were there. If you see a bear or a moose and it hasn’t noticed you, you can quietly back up and choose another route around it, giving it plenty of space. And, of course, the guideline that you should never, ever get between any animal and its young still applies.
With that said, what do you do if you accidentally surprise a moose or a bear, or if one surprises you? Here are some basic wild animal safety tips.
Believe it or not, many locals agree that moose are more frightening than bears. Moose may be “just” giant deer, but think about it: They can weigh half a ton and are designed to withstand attacks from bears and wolves. They can and have killed people with their sharp hooves. They’re also notoriously cantankerous and sometimes even seem to hold a grudge, so you never know if a moose you’re encountering for the first time might already be irritable because of harassment from a bear, wolves, or a dog. Play it safe by always giving them lots of space.
Signs that you’re too close or that a moose is already agitated include a lowered head, flattened ears, and raised hackles. If a moose does charge you, the best approach is usually to put something solid—say, a car or a tree—between you; to climb a tree if it’s available; or, if there’s space and time, to run away. You cannot outrun a moose, but they don’t have the chase instinct that predators do, so if you get far enough away from a moose, it’ll lose interest in you.
If you’ve ever been on a bear-viewing trip in coastal Alaska, you were probably able to get shockingly close to the bears with no consequences. Please remember that this is only possible in areas where food is extremely plentiful, and the bears have become accustomed to human proximity, and people as a group follow certain rules that keep current and future visitors safe, and the guides are always prepared to handle an aggressive bear, just in case.
Or, to put it another way, don’t expect bears in other situations to react the same way. Grizzly bears in Denali National Park have been known to charge humans from up to 0.25 mile away—a far cry from the few feet of distance you may have enjoyed during coastal bear viewing.
However, even though coastal, inland, and non-human-habituated bears tend to have different definitions of the “personal space” that might trigger a charge, you use the same techniques to avoid and defuse surprise encounters, no matter where the bears are. The following techniques have long been recommended by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other bear experts.
First, have and carry an effective bear deterrent. A can of bear spray costs $35-50 and is well worth the expense if you’re going to be hiking in bear country. The TSA won’t let you carry bear spray in your checked or carry-on luggage, so plan to buy it while you’re here.
Next, if you do see a bear but it hasn’t seen you, quietly back away, keeping your eyes on the bear so you can see if it suddenly notices you or changes its behavior. Never approach a bear deliberately.
If you see a bear and it also sees you, but doesn’t seem concerned by your presence, you can speak to it in a calm voice (to help it recognize you as human) and slowly back away. Do not run because like all predators, bears have a chase instinct that kicks in automatically. Even if they don’t want to eat you, they would love to chase you if you run. Traveling in a group greatly reduces your chances of being charged by a bear, even if you surprise it; there are no documented cases of a group of four or more people being attacked by a bear, as long as they stuck close enough together for the bear to perceive them as a group (as opposed to walking scattered apart).
If the bear follows you, stop, hold your ground, and prepare your deterrent. Hopefully you won’t need it, but get it ready just in case. Group together with others, if possible, to make yourselves look bigger. If the bear continues to approach, get louder and more aggressive; hikers may yell, wave their arms to look bigger, or bang pots and pans to scare a bear away. Despite what the movies show us, a bear that stands up on its hind legs isn’t acting threatening; it’s just trying to figure out what you are. Be ready to use your deterrent if appropriate. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has an excellent video on how and when to use bear spray properly; it’s basically mace for bears. You should start spraying when the bear is at least 20 or 30 feet away, aiming for its nose and eyes, and be aware of wind direction so you don’t accidentally spray yourself.
If a bear makes contact with you out of a defensive instinct—which is the norm if it’s been surprised, or if you’ve gotten between a mother and her cubs—the experts recommend playing dead, lying flat with your belly on the ground, legs splayed for stability and hands clasped over your neck for protection. A defensive bear will soon stop attacking if it feels you are no longer a threat. Movement may provoke another defensive attack, so try your best to keep still until you’re sure the bear has left the area.
If the attack is prolonged or seems to be of a predatory nature—which is extremely rare, but does sometimes happen—the experts recommend fighting back, concentrating on the bear’s face and nose. People have successfully fought off bears in this manner.
Sound scary? Don’t worry. This is “just in case” information, and if you’re traveling with a guide service, they’ll go over anything you need to protect against bears, and the guides will be armed for extra protection—again, just in case. I’ve spoken to bear guides with more than a decade of experience that say they’ve never had to use their guns, despite many up-close encounters. For many visitors to Alaska, getting to see a bear in the wild is the absolute highlight of their visit.
Most national parks require that you carry bear-resistant food canisters—sometimes called bear canisters, bear barrels, or abbreviated to BRFCs—while traveling overnight in the backcountry, and it’s a good practice for travel in state parks, too. If you’re traveling with a guide, they’ll help you with this aspect of the trip. If you’re on your own, many state and national parks offer bear canisters on loan.
These hard-sided canisters are designed to be too slippery for a bear to grip with its paws, too large for them to carry off in their jaws, and too strong to break when the bear does the only thing they can do with it—basically, kicking it around. Bears are hugely scent-motivated, so you put not just your food into the canisters but anything with a smell that might interest them, including soap, sunblock, scented insect repellents, deodorant, and any other toiletries you brought with you.
Bears are smart enough that once they realize they can’t get into the canisters, they’ll usually give up on them as a source of food. That’s good for you—you get to keep your food, and bears learn that humans aren’t a food source—and good for the bear, because “problem bears” that learn to associate humans with food usually end up having to be killed.
In some areas, bear-bagging—hanging a bag of food from a tree limb so that a bear can’t reach it from the ground or by climbing up the tree—is an acceptable option, but in many parts of Alaska the trees are not suitable for this. The bag needs to be at least 15 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from the trunk or nearest branch. (You’ll find varying recommendations for exact distances—this is one of the more conservative.
Wherever you store your food and other scented items—whether it’s in a bear-resistant food container or bear-bagged—it should be at least 200 feet downwind from your camp. Do all your cooking at least 200 feet downwind from camp, too, so that your sleeping area doesn’t become contaminated by food smells. Some people even go as far as storing the clothes they ate or cooked in with their food—on the theory the clothes are contaminated by food smells—but I usually don’t worry about this unless I cook something smelly or spill food on myself.
Bear Defense Tips
Many people derive a sense of greater security from having a gun on hand for bear protection in Alaska, but in many cases that’s a false sense of security. Statistics show that bear spray is almost always effective at stopping a bear charge without injury to the people or the bear. It’s very hard to shoot a bear accurately enough to kill it, especially if it’s charging at you at 30 mph; if you shoot the bear but don’t kill it, you’ve made your situation worse instead of better.
While bear spray can affect you adversely if you spray it into the wind or accidentally spray it at a friend or a dog, it probably won’t kill you. A poorly handled gun or a panicked shot, however, certainly can. If you kill a bear even in self-defense or by accident, you must salvage the carcass and surrender it to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; you won’t get to keep it.
So, although a gun can be a very useful last resort in remote situations, unless you’ve practiced extensively with your gun in situations that simulate a bear attack, it’s usually better to hike in a group and carry bear spray instead.