Hiking alone in Alaska: stories and tips for hiking in bear country
Welcome to this article about hiking alone in Alaska. I have been to Alaska many times which I consider quite unique as I’m from Europe where Alaska totally seems like the other side of the world. I was however lucky enough to travel to Alaska seven times over the past decade and even though my first tour was with a group, I have also traveled solo.
This article about hiking in bear country is not just based on my own experiences, but also I’ll give you some advice on what to consider when you want to go solo hiking in Alaska. Note that my experience is only from hiking on designated trails and not into the wilderness, where hiking in bear country is a totally different experience. And without a doubt are better blogs about. I’ll tell you some of my personal stories about when I was hiking alone in Alaska and got scared. Sometimes I turned around, sometimes I continued. At the bottom of this post you’ll find my tips for hiking in bear country. Enjoy reading!
This blog about hiking alone in Alaska was first posted in 2015 and updated in 2021 after more recent trips to Alaska
Solo female travel in Alaska
I first went to Alaska a few times with a group or a travel buddy. During my past Alaska trips I traveled by myself most of the time. Since I’m an avid hiker, not hiking wasn’t really an option, even though that meant facing a potential encounter with a bear while I’d be all by myself. I have rarely decided to not do something because I’m solo traveling, unless it’s advised by authorities to not go by yourself. Being from Europe, I find solo travel in the United States and Canada super easy and comfortable as I speak English and can easily drive a car to get around.
Bear encounter in Yellowstone
My first ever bear ‘encounter’ was on the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward back in 2007. However the black bears were very far away in a safe distance. As I was with a group, I didn’t really think much of it other than excitement for seeing a bear for the first time in my life. I did have a close encounter with a black bear in Yellowstone National Park once, which was quite an exciting yet pretty scary happening. Back then I was hiking with a partner and when we saw the bear walking towards us on the trail, our instinct said to quickly back off. That was my first encounter with a bear on the trail.
Bear country Alaska
Maybe even more so than various regions in the US or Canada, Alaska is bear country. It’s not that bears are to be seen everywhere (in fact, I’ve only seen them when actually searching for them in Katmai National Park and a few times along the road) but they CAN be anywhere. Sometimes, they may be in the bush or behind a tree you just walked past without ever even noticing you passed a bear. However as I mentioned, not hiking wasn’t an option, especially since it still was a dream of mine to hike the Harding Icefield Trail all the way until the end rather than half way up as we had done in 2007.
Growing up in the Dutch ‘wilderness’
I know that in case you may be reading this as an American or Canadian, hiking solo (as a female) in bear country may not be a challenge for you, but I grew up in something that we like to call “Dutch wilderness”. Also known as nature parks protected by fences, where you will occasionally encounter highlander cows, deer or boars. I’m not used to hiking with big wildlife such as bears and moose, it’s not something I grew up with, neither something I have had a decent chance to get used to. So before I went to Alaska during my recent trips, I re-read all the rules about hiking in bear country for the 100th time and borrowed bear spray and a sports horn from a local. She told me that in fact, the sound of that sports horn would probably scare the bear more than the spray.
Solo hiking in Denali National Park
Apart from a few short walks that never lasted longer than 10 minutes, my first real solo hike in Alaska was in Denali National Park. Denali is famous for its wildlife and can be experienced from special busses that will transport you through the park. Even though I always tell people it’s not a safari nor a wildlife excursion, I saw no less than 7 grizzlies that day. One even came up close to the bus I was in, an awesome experience, yet showing me that they are big and not to be messed with.
In the afternoon I had about an hour “off” from the bustrip I was on, at Kantishna Roadhouse, all the way at the end of the Denali Park Road. Since I wasn’t interested in participating in the optional activities (goldpanning or a dogsledding demo) I decided to explore the surroundings. They had a one mile riverside trail that I decided to check out. After following the river for a while, it went into the bush and there I found myself in the Alaskan middle of nowhere.
The sound of the lodge and surrounding buildings had already faded so there I was, all by myself. The bush around the narrow trail was thick and I found myself whispering “hello bear – please don’t come out to say hello”. As it was my first “real” hike since I came to Alaska, I decided to turn back because I started to feel uncomfortable. Nobody knew where I had gone and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be missed if I wouldn’t return to the bus. So far my first experience for hiking alone in Alaska.
Hiking alone in Alaska on Hatcher Pass
The next week I mostly did office work and took a short stroll on Hatcher Pass nearby the office I was working. It was an open alpine area and I was sure not to encounter any bears there, however anything is possible in Alaska. I also spent a couple of days in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, where we (the bunch of people I went ice-climbing with) found a fresh and smokey pile of bear scat on one of the trails. According to the guide, it hadn’t been there very long so I was pretty glad I wasn’t by myself.
Solo hiking the Harding Icefield Trail
By the time my last days in Alaska arrived, I was about to head down to Seward for my hike up to Harding Icefield. Over the past years, I had gotten kind of obsessed with the urge to hike this trail all the way to the end, so when the time was finally there, I was as anxious as I was excited. It’s a strenuous trail and despite my ankle being anything but recovered after a recent accident, that was the least of my worries. The bears were those that worried me. When I Skyped with my back then partner the night before he told me: “You can do this, you know how to handle in case you walk into a bear.” Which is in fact true, but knowing what to do is not enough, you’ll have to act when an incident happens.
The first thing I did upon arrival at the visitors center was check with the wardens if they’d seen any bears on the trail recently but they said they hadn’t seen any in days. Then I asked them about the trail conditions and they said “it’s perfect, you’ll have a really good time out there. They said nothing about me being solo and wished my a great hike. They told me to keep an eye out for “moving bushes” as during this time of the year, the bears would searching for berries and that in case I’d see a “moving bush” get away from it as far as possible, without putting myself in danger. Another thing they told me that my best weapon would be my voice, to make the bears aware or my presence.
So off I went. The first hour and a half led me through thick woods and I knew this would be the “trickiest” part of the track, bear-wise that is, as you have no oversight of the surroundings. The first 10 minutes or so I was fine but when I heard the first bits of rustling in the bush, I freaked out. It might as well have been a marmot or whatever, but ofcourse I thought “BEAR!” So by then I started talking to myself. I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail yet so I figured it would be best to use my strongest weapon, as the lady at the Visitors Center told me. “Hello bear – I know you are there, but just stay away. I got a horn and bear spray and am not afraid to use it” … of course I didn’t repeat that for the full hour ahead of me so I was singing or just talking to myself. But it made me comfortable. As soon as I made my first stop to soak up some water, a couple of Italian hikers passed me and it turned out they had walked right behind me.
I reached the treeline about 2 hours after I started and another 1.5 hours later I reached the Harding Icefield, without seeing any bears. On the way down the track was much more crowded but I’d seen pictures that didn’t scare bears so there I found myself again, talking to myself and my heart skipping a beat each time I heard something in the bush. “Hey Anto – you’ll be fine!” is what I kept on telling myself. About an hour before the end, I met a guy from Seattle who started chatting about hiking and outdoor life – we hiked together for the rest of the trip so it wasn’t necessary anymore to listen to my own shit – which I was really happy for.
Upon arrival back at the car I felt kind of heroic. Not only because I did that bitch of a trail with an injured ankle (I also was high because of painkillers at the same time, trust me on that one) but also because of the bears and facing my fear of a possible encounter. I had just done a 7 hour hike in bear country, all by myself.
I’m happy I finished the trail without encountering a bear this time. Would I solo hike in Alaska again? Sure I would, however I don’t think I will ever be entirely comfortable. There are numerous (fatal) bear attacks each year and even though the chance of getting hit by lightning is much higher than being killed by a bear, I will always remember that it’s bear country and that they can be anywhere.
My tips for solo hiking in Alaska
– Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. I’ve heard stories of people gone missing for days but also people who survived bear attacks. In case you get attacked, the sooner you get help, the better. Or better: share your live location via Whatsapp in case you feel really unconfident. Remember that while hiking alone in Alaska you may not have signal everywhere!
– Inquire (if possible) at a Visitors Center if there’s any recent sign of bear activity. If there is, better stay away or team up with other hikers. Generally a group of 4 is being told to be a safe amount of people together as there are (almost) no records of groups this size being attacked by bears. I’ve seen various trails in the Canadian Rockies fenced off due to bear activity, I would never consider ignoring those.
– Carry bear spray and know how to use it. I carried it right on my chest and even though it didn’t look too charming I wanted to have it close to me in case I would have to use it. I’ve seen hikers who carried it in the side pocket of their bags but believe me, you need to act fast if you are going to use it. Also, and very important, don’t use it when the wind is facing you. It’s no fun.
– Make noise. I may have passed a bear but at least they knew I was there because I was making noise all the time. Noise will alert bears that you are in the area and most of the time they will make sure they are getting out of your way.
– Watch out for bear scat. If it’s fresh, then better stay away. Also watch for carcasses – bears will protect these with their lives if they have to.
– Make sure you know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly (brown) bear. If a black bear attacks: flight back. If a brown bear attacks: play dead.
– Do not go close to bears to take selfies. The cover picture of this article was taken while I was in Lake Clark National Park with a certified wilderness guide.
For a full list of what (not) to do in case you run into a bear, go to this page from the Alaska Department of Natural Sesources.
Some final words about solo hiking in Alaska (as a non-Alaskan)
It’s funny how people react differently about being bear aware. Some people seemed really distressed (even when they were hiking in a group of 3 or more) and others seemed very relaxed. I saw solo hikers that didn’t carry bear spray which I thought wasn’t very wise on a trail where bears are seen frequent, but I’ve also talked to people who thought that black bears wouldn’t harm them. I’m sure they haven’t read that black bears can be as dangerous as a brown bear. Coming to an end, I think that everyone should decide for theirselves what they think is their safety procedure and what they are comfortable with.
How about you? Would you ever solo hike in bear country? Or did you already do that? And would you carry bear spray? If you want to continue reading also check this post about solo female travel in Alaska.
Great post. I just discovered your blog via Instagram and will be checking out your other posts. I would love to visit Alaska. I hike in Quebec (where I live) and New Hampshire mountains often. I am not that scared of black bears but Grizzlies really freak me out, luckily there aren’t any in this area. My friend and I always hike in NH together and she carries bear spray and I wear a bear bell. I would hike solo if I had no one to go with though.
Thanks Kirsten, happy to hear that you took a moment to move from Instagram to the blog! I heard that your region is awesome for hiking, too. Have been there but only very short and mostly visited the cities. Grizzlies are much stronger however not necessarily more dangerous. I’d rather play dead than fight a black bear to be honest 🙂
You are so brave! I would be to scared to do that (even if I’m from Canada!)! I hope I’ll visit Alaska! But, I’m not quite sure about this part haha!
Thanks Melissa! Hope you will make it to Alaska soon!
Great read. I too was injured before going on an adventurous hike. Glad that it didn’t hinder your spirit. Keep up the great work. And watch out for those bears! Haha
Haha yes those bears – they stayed away from me this time, but we’ll see about next time. Always yes to new adventures 🙂
Brave, veryyyy brave. When I lived in the Rockies we couldn’t hike unless there’s was four of us.
Needless to say when you can’t find 3 others you just go for it. The first couple of times I was terrified – but it seemed like my awful solo renditions of Katy Perry kept the bears away. However I stopped a few weeks later when one of my co-workers was out for a jog on one of the trails and almost ran into a Grizzly. He was a pro hiker but said he was literally minutes from death.
Sooooo that was the end of that for me!
Thank you! Ahhh that is so scary about your co-worker, I can totally imagine that you don’t want to go hiking after that anymore. When I was in AK I learned that two runners had been attacked by a brown bear close to the lodge they were staying, which made me realize (once again) that bears are everywhere and they are not to be messed with.
Nika - nextstopabroad.com
wow, you are so brave! looking at your blog, it is obvious you are much more experienced hiker than I am, Yet still, wow! those bear pictures you took are really nice! I´d be scared as never I guess. Despite loving solo-traveling sometimes, I am not yet at this point to go hiking alone. Best of luck on your next adventures!!
Thank you Nika! I was scared – so not that brave after all… I love hiking by myself but am always aware that in case something goes wrong, I could be in deep trouble. I guess that’s part of the adventure, but also the part of the adventure that scares me the most!
Reading this makes me remember something. I remember a story from my father when he was hiking with some friends and my mom in Canada. He was a bit behind of the others and walked alone. Suddenly a bear was there on the trail as well – following my father. And he came closer and closer, and my father began to walk faster and faster – making it to the others eventually. But he did wanted to run to them and he still saw the gap closing between him and the bear. But he made it to the group. Then they were waiving and making strange sounds (shouting /screaming)… trying to scare the bear. In the end the bear just went for a swim in the lake.. (a true story – all the people in this story are still alive 🙂 )
Great story – those wilderness kind of things are definitely the best – esp. when it’s a good end … happy to hear your dad made it back to the group without trouble and they all got out alive 🙂 and yes, bears usually don’t want to harm people, just go out for a swim, a nap or finding some food… just like us!
Loved this post! Way to go! Good stuff and all that!
I have been camping like a fiend all summer and have done 8/10 trips since May while working 2 full time jobs, no less! lol.
Next weekend I am going to do my first solo backcountry trip. Nothing majorly difficult, but I will be alone, as well, in bear country for 2 days and 1 night. Tuesday, after backcountry camping for 15 years, like just this tuesday, lol, I was at Mew Lake in Algonquin Park, car camping no less, and came face to face with a bear on my way back from the washroom. He was 30 feet away but my instincts and training kicked in and I backed away slowly, avoided eye contact and did all the things I had learned, easy peasy and all was good!!
It scared the shit out of me, but at the same time, made me feel less afraid somehow, maybe because I did the right thing and he left me alone like people said he would. Seeing a bear, finally, so close after 15 years of backcountry, less than 2 weeks before my solo trip was what I thought was my sign as well, like your ankle, but now reading this and some other things I’ve seen the last few days, I am once again, fuelled with courage and ready to give it a go.
Thanks for being bold, for being courageous and for most of all, putting it out there, for people like me, who get it and won’t say “WTF did you do?” I will instead say Congratulations on your victory!!!!
Looking forward to reading more of your posts! Happy hiking!
Thanks for stopping by Christina! How was your backpacking trip? I’m considering hiking a part of the Pacific Crest Trail by myself next spring – but am still doubting if I should invest in the planeticket because it’s going to be a short trip only. Wow – that must have been so scary running into a bear, 30 feet is definitely so close. We met one at the distance in Yellowstone and it was super scary but these things just happen. However it will always be a great memory. I’d love to explore Algonquin one day – have sold so many trips there but never was able to visit myself unfortunately so far. Happy traveling and happy hiking!
Yes ! Cool post. I am a Park Ranger and often hiked solo in Giz country in Glacier NTl Park. and I did a trip o two in alaska. people thought i was crazy and i got funny looks, and i was on edge, but did the best i could (and was extra aware) and knew the risk. loved it though. nice to know that i’m #2 sometimes.
Yay Crystal – way to go! I’d love to visit Glacier one day – it’s been high up on my bucketlist for a long time now. Happy hiking for the future!
Oh my goodness lady, you are so brave! I guess though as long as you know how to stay safe and what to do in case you encounter a bear, you’re well prepared! It looks like a really scenic hike though, I think I would’ve even braved the bears to walk through that 🙂
Thanks Emma! The hike was super scenic, shame about the weather but there’s nothing you can do about it really.
Great post! This sounds like a great hike, I’d love to try it sometime. Though hiking solo in bear country can be dangerous, it sounds like you took all of the necessary precautions! Good tips at the end, it’s always best to be prepared 🙂
I came across a black bear while hiking solo one time. I heard it grunting and moving in the bushes, so I froze. I started shouting and making noise while backing away and holding (in a very shaky hand) my knife. Luckily it wasn’t aggressive, and I was able to get down the trail. Still, it was very scary!
Thanks Nathan! I guess shouting is definitely the better option, usually bears are not even aware that you are around … bears are fun yet scary … I always look back with a smile at encounters though!
hola. me parece excelente esta actividad que tu realizas.
Muchas gracias Danielito!
David Guardado Lopez
Saludos desde el Salvador DE PARTE DE DANIELITO GUARDADO DESEANDO ESTE BIEN OK HASTA LUEGO .
Great post I enjoyed reading it a lot! You have balls I must say 😀
Thanks Karo 🙂 I was a little anxious every now and then … they have bears in the Tatra’s too, I heard?
Awesome article, I’m going to Alaska Sept 2018 and in process of planning it. Anything more than a short hike I will be doing solo and I so want to do this one and I feel like maybe I could now. I live in Chicago so I’m not used to all the big game either but I am well aware of what cpul d happen if I’m not alert and I have my bear spray from my Michigan trip. Glad I found this article thanks again.
Fantastic experience after reading your outstanding blog. My dream is to travel the best and famous place in the world.
And I am really glad I have found your blog. Thanks dear for sharing this awesome and informative article with us.
Keep it up.
Congratulations, you’re very brave. I have hiked solo in Juneau Alaska by myself,in Barrow and a bit in Anchorage.
I two weeks I l b in Alaska again for 10 full days , planning to go hiking alone into the wilderness, I’m kind of worried about bears but you’re giving me a lot of motivation with yor adventure. Thanks a lot.
Wow, Barrow sounds exciting, also because they have polar bears. Where exactly will you be hiking? I love Alaska so much, I can’t wait to go back one day! Enjoy!
I hiked with my family in bear country last summer. We went as a group to reduce the chances of injury to anyone in the party.
I loved it. My goal was to safely take pictures of these animals so I waited in the tree as I spotted them on the ground. We didn’t camp out but rather slept in the car each night after a day of hiking.
I had a camera with me just in case. Thanks for the useful suggestions and tips. I’ll keep them in mind next time I go hiking in bear country. We are slowly working up to the point of a semi solo hiking trip.
Where do I get bear spray? Is it cheap? Is it a good idea to carry a personal alarm on my person or not? I am planning to take a first aid box along with me too as a precaution.
Serge Van Sint jan
Thank your inspriring blogs!
Is it possible to contact you in order to have some advice for a hiking I’m organising this summer (in solo).
Thank you in advance.