Going to Yellowstone, the Tetons, or Wind River Range? Maybe on a Wildland Trekking hiking trip? The Greater Yellowstone Region is an unmitigated wilderness paradise. One of nature’s finest works in the lower 48.
The region’s nearly 20 million acres envelops everything that compels a person to explore the outdoors. Horizon-filling ridgelines. Dense forests. Unpredictable weather.
And wildlife. Lots and lots of wildlife.
The Bears of Yellowstone
Thousands of people who backpack in Yellowstone every year don’t see a bear.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Maybe they saw (most likely smelled) you first.
While black bears in Yellowstone are indeed an issue pertaining to food theft and the very rare aggressive act toward humans, it’s the brown bear, or grizzly, that commands our rapt attention when traveling in the wild depths of Yellowstone.
Know that there are few life experiences as memorable as seeing a grizzly in its native habitat. Zoos offer no comparison.
Brown bears are the king beasts of most of North America, polar bears nothwithstandng. And like all noble creatures, they deserve our respect.
It is a goal to see one on every guided Yellowstone backpacking trip, but only under the absolute safest of circumstances, i.e., from a safe distance and without disturbance.
We do not ever try to get their attention. We never “go look” for bears, we let the turns of the trail reveal the park’s inhabitants and respond as long-established protocol dictates.
Camping With Bears
In order to fully appreciate what a wild place like Yellowstone offers us, we need to abide by some simple but critical backcountry rules when it comes to camping with bears.
Paws down, the most important rules to follow when backpacking in grizzly country involve handling food.
This means that we store all of our food downwind and ample distance from our tents, at least 100 yards.
Meals will be stored in hard-sided canisters and sometimes, suspended on park-provided storage poles, sturdy cross-beams fastened to healthy, tall trees. Same with any trash we accumulate.
While many parks like those in the Sierras and Rocky Mountains provide locking steel boxes at backcountry sites, Yellowstone does not.
We’ll add to those food caches all of our scented toiletries, like our soaps, lotions, toothpaste, deodorants, and even our lip balms.
Every night at bed, we’ll double-check our packs and pants for snacks and snack wrappers, even the errant cashew or breath mint.
Other tips for camping in bear country:
- keep a clean, organized camp
- always let someone know when you leave camp for any reason
- dutifully clean all cookware
- watch and respond appropriately to all signs of bears, like feces (scat) and tree scrapings
- never spend any time near an animal carcass, even roadkill in busy places
While this sounds like a lot to worry about, most of these best practices should be applied to all backpacking scenarios, even when the biggest fear of a wildlife encounter involves an attention-starved ground squirrel.
Should at any point on our journey we encounter a bear not real pleased with us encountering him or her, we do carry a safety precaution in the form of bear spray.
In short, it’s like personal-defense pepper spray, but bear-powered. Here’s a breakdown by the National Park Service on bear spray’s beneficial purpose for both people and bears.
All Wildland Guides are trained to use bear spray and all guests are given a lesson. It’s quite simple.
Additionally, we discuss in person with guests other precautions and how to react to bears that happen to show aggression. It’s very rare. Nonetheless, it’s crucial for everyone in a backpacking party to understand how to travel safely in the woods with bears.
Hopefully, it’s knowledge we never have to deploy.
Craig Rowe – Wildland Trekking Guide