Alaska,  We12inspire

Solo-hiking in bear country Alaska

During my past Alaska trip 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. So when I seriously injured my ankle only four days before my departure in a cycling accident, I thought that someone up there was trying to tell me something… When doctors at the hospital told me hiking would be a definite “no” for the upcoming weeks, I was incredibly sad. However, I generally don’t take no for an answer and by the time I was about to go hiking, my ankle had already somewhat improved.

 

Let’s first start with my previous hikes in bear country. I’ve been in Alaska many times but I always hiked with a partner. As all my trips were for business, I never got to do a lot of hiking but sometimes there would be an occasional afternoon off for a stroll. Other than spotting some black bears on the Harding Icefield Trail back in 2007, I never encountered a bear when hiking in Alaska and neither did I on my trips to various parts of Canada. However, I did have a close encounter with a black bear in Yellowstone National Park once, which was quite an exciting yet pretty scary happening. You can read all about it here. Ofcourse we shouldn’t have ran away, but it was just my instinct and I still regret it. Bears are so much faster than humans so in case the bear would have taken a jump, we would have been in serious trouble. Luckily he did not but it made me realize they are unpredictable and you never know when to expect a bear out on a trail.

 

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. My persistence about wanting to do the Harding Icefield Trail all the way to the end this time, made me realize I would have to take a next big step in my “career” as a hiker, which is hiking solo in bear country.

 

bear-warning-sign

 

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 biggie 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 run into Scottish cattle or even a deer when lucky. I’m not used to hiking with wildlife, 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, 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.

 

Apart from a few short walks that never lasted longer than 10 minutes, my first real hike 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.

 

grizzly-in-denali grizzly-in-denali-2

 

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, my ankle wasn’t ready for it yet, so after about 15 minutes (and no idea how much of the trail I’d done and how much further it would take me) 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. And I already had visions of being eaten by a grizzly. Such an anti-hero.

 

hiking-in-denali

 

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.

 

bear-scat
It’s berry season!
 

By the time my last days in Alaska arrived, I was about to head down to Seward for my hike up to Harding Icefield. As you may have read in one of my previous Alaska posts, this was one of my must-do’s in Alaska. 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, that was the least of my worries. The bears were those that worried me. When I Skyped with Martijn the night before (he happened to be on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula in Homer) he told me: “You can do this, you know how to handle in case you walk into a bear.” Now I just had to believe that myself…

 

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 (while the anti-hero in me was thinking “please say it’s bad and that you don’t recommend me going out there by myself”, but they didn’t …) 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 (“Drop Dead Gorgeous” by Republica – last song to play before I arrived at the trailhead – never want to hear it again!) or just talking utter shit 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. Luckily they didn’t hear me sing …

 
bear-safety-harding-icefield
 

icefield-trail
The treeline and how to oversee the area you are in
 

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.

 

harding-icefield-selfies
Selfie shit – that’s what you get when solo hiking!
 

When I returned home and told my colleagues back at the office that I did the trail by myself (most of them have hiked it in the past as well) they were like “WTF did you do???” … Some people say you can easily do it by yourself, some people say it was just plain stupid. I’d like to go for the middle. It may not have been the best idea but it could have ended worse than drunk in a local bar, feeling heroic, by the end of the day …

 

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 bear country:

– 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.
– 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.

 
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.
 

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?

 
Want to read more about my Alaska adventures? You may like these:
Finding happiness in Alaska’s wilderness
Alaska week 1 in pictures
5 Really cool things to do in Alaska
 
Thank you for sharing!
 

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Anto is a 30-something outdoor fan who travels the world about 100 days a year, combined with a full-time office job. She loves to go hiking, enjoys a good class of wine and can usually be found with an iPhone in her hand. Favorite destinations: New Zealand, Patagonia, Austria and Alaska.

31 Comments

  • Kristen @CountryFitFamily

    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.

    • anto

      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 🙂

  • Robb saunders

    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

  • Conor

    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!

    • anto

      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!!

    • anto

      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!

  • Bart

    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 🙂 )

    • anto

      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!

  • Camper Christina

    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!
    Camper Christina

    • anto

      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!

  • crystal

    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.

    • anto

      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!

  • Emma Hart

    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 🙂

  • Nathan Anderson

    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!

    • anto

      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!

  • David Guardado Lopez

    Saludos desde el Salvador DE PARTE DE DANIELITO GUARDADO DESEANDO ESTE BIEN OK HASTA LUEGO .

  • Kari Swan

    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.

  • ranu

    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.

  • Cesar

    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.

    • anto

      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!

  • Leah

    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

    Dear Anto,
    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.

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