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9 Hacks for How to Thru-Hike in Grizzly Country

9 Hacks for How to Thru-Hike in Grizzly Country

Hiking through grizzly country can offer amazing wildlife encounters through scenic terrain. However, you need to take extra precautions when doing so. Grizzly bears require a bit more space and patience than black bears.

I’ve hiked 3 major thru-hikes through grizzly country: the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) both northbound and southbound. Through this experience, I have 9 main hacks that I use to have positive encounters with grizzly bears. These hacks allow you and the bears to both be safe and coexist on the same land.

Without further adieu, here are my 9 hacks to hike through grizzly country safely.

Northern Montana CDT Edition (Also applicable to Canadian Rockies & Yellowstone National Park)

This is a grizzly track in the snow from my 2015 thru-hike of the CDT.
Grizzly Track in the Snow

When you enter grizzly country, you’ll most likely encounter the National Park Service around Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. They will fear-monger you right out of your backcountry adventure if you don’t already know a thing or two. You need to understand that they just want to protect both you and the bears.

So, can you hike solo? What do you do with your food at night? Are grizzly bears hostile?

Let me help you out with this blog post!

Yes, you can hike solo.  There are several options to keep you and your food safe.  And, usually grizzly bears are not hostile *IF* you respect them and give them space.

While I’m writing this mostly for those on the CDT in Northern Montana, it is applicable to wherever grizzly bears live.  For the CDT, this is between Glacier National Park and the Wind River Range in Wyoming. 

Below are 9 hacks to safely hike in grizzly country…

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Hack #1: Cook Your Dinner for Lunch and Eat Your Lunch for Dinner

Often, we like to cook at camp.  This is a BAD MOVE for a hike in grizzly country. 

Cooking often has all the food smells.  And bears have a great sense of smell.  So, why bring all that into your camp where you’ll sleep relatively close to your food?

Instead, I suggest taking a longer lunch break and cooking then.  Essentially, eat your dinner at lunch.  This makes all the good, cooked food smells far away from your camp. 

If a grizzly smells you are cooking lunch, you are better prepared because you’re awake and its daylight.  You can move easily.

Simultaneously, a cooked dinner likely has more calories and energy.  Why waste all that on sleeping?  Eating a bigger meal for lunch can give your afternoon hike a huge energy boost.

Hack #2: Eat Your Dinner 1 Mile or More Before Camp

Now, you’ve cooked dinner for lunch.  About a mile or so before you want to camp, eat your lunch for dinner.

That way, if your lunch does smell yummy and delicious, it keeps those smells away from your camp. 

If you end up hiking 3-5 miles after your lunch-for-dinner, you can eat a cliff bar right before bed.

The essential premise is still to have as few smells as possible at your camp before you sleep.  The worst time to deal with a grizzly is from within your tent at night.

If you combine hack #1 and hack #2, you’re much less likely to have a middle of the night grizzly visit. 

Hack #3: Store Your Food and Smellies in a Bear Proof Container Outside of your Tent.

Keep all of your food out of your tent when you hike in grizzly country.
No Food in this SMD Tarp & Bug Net!

Use a Bear Vault or an Ursack to store your food outside your tent.  These two options protect you AND the bears the best.  They are important items of gear to carry when you hike in grizzly country.

They say a fed bear is a dead bear. If a bear consistently tries to get into tents because of poor judgement by people, the bear gets relocated or killed.

A bear vault is a cylindrical container with a screw-top lid that can be placed away from your tent. 

An ursack is a lighter and malleable option.  You place all your food inside, then tie it to a nearby tree. 

If a grizzly or a black bear try to get into either, you’ll have to go retrieve it.  But, at least they’re not ripping your tent.

Are they both heavy?  Yes.  Do you have to deal with bears trying to get into your tent.  No.

Hack #4: Grab a Hiking Partner or Hiking Group

Some of the advice every national park gives is to hike in grizzly country in a group or with a partner.  Two or more people hiking make significantly more noise than a solo person.  This is because the likelihood of you talking and moving will alert the bear before you even see it.

Grizzlies and black bears tend to avoid humans if they see or hear them.  Problems can arise when they are startled, or they have young cubs nearby.  Moving in a group usually alerts them faster.

In the event that a grizzly is still startled by a group, you appear bigger as a group and therefore more threatening. 

However, hiking with others is not always possible, so…

Hack #5: If You’re Solo, Make Noise Strategically

If you do hike in grizzly country solo, make noise strategically. 

For example, you’re in northern Montana in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  You hike downhill to cross the Flathead River.  Because it’s a healthy river system, the banks are full of 7 ft tall willows.  You need to hike through the willows to the river, cross the river, then hike through willows on the other side.  You can’t see through or around the willows and the river is masking your approach.  Make noise strategically here.  Let out some whoops and noises, sing a song, and if you can’t think of anything else, say “Hey Bear” over and over. 

Make noise strategically any time you can’t see very far ahead of you.  This goes for dense underbrush as well. 

If you’re every unsure, start singing or talking out loud.  Sometimes, I like to ramble in a British accent just to amuse myself.

Hack #6: If You See a Grizzly, DO NOT RUN

Bear Scat with my foot for reference.
Big Pile of Bear Scat

This is the BEST advice for any bear encounter.  DO NOT RUN.  Running triggers the predator/prey instinct.

Instead, pull out your bear spray while simultaneously talking to the bear and slowly walking backward. 

Bears can usually recognize human voices as something they don’t want to deal with. 

Walking slowly backward gives them space without them thinking you’re prey.

Keep a good eye on your surroundings.  Look around you for bear cubs.  Momma bears become very protective of their cubs and may act more aggressively if cubs lurk nearby.  Also, look to see if the bear has made a recent kill.  Bears need to eat, too.  They will protect food that they have recently taken down.

Hack #7: Camp Away from Water

This hack takes a bit more planning and skill than the other hacks.  However, it is one of the better ones to avoid unwanted encounters when you hike in grizzly country.

80% of wildlife encounters occur near riparian areas (water).  Why?  Everyone must drink water at some point, including grizzlies. 

Toward the end of your hiking day, know your upcoming water sources.  Plan to get water, maybe eat dinner at a water source, then hike out.  Bring enough water for your evening, whatever you need for breakfast, and the miles to your next water source.

If you’re new to this concept, start by measuring how much water you typically drink after dinner before bed.  Then, measure how much water you need for the morning (coffee, oatmeal, drink mix etc.).  After that, know how much water you drink per 5 miles or so in morning temperatures.  This knowledge will help you plan how to camp away from water.

Hack #8: If You Listen to Music/Podcasts/Audiobooks, Only Use ONE Headphone.

Let me say this: I am all for listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks.  Personally, I need the mental stimulation to continually hike 12 hours per day 7 days a week.  Do I listen in grizzly country? Yes.

BUT, for safety reasons, I listen ONLY with one headphone.  This way, I can still hear large animals, snakes (in the desert), or my partner yelling to get my attention. 

Usually, bears make a decent amount of noise.  So do moose.  It’s a large-animal-moving-through-sticks sound.  Once you’ve heard it, you’ll know. 

Being aware of your surroundings is especially important if you’re alone in grizzly country. 

Hack #9: Have Bear Spray Handy, But ONLY Use as a Last Resort

A warning to be extra careful hiking in grizzly country in this campsite.
Glacier National Park Bear Warning

Always carry bear spray in grizzly country.  AND, make it easily accessible.  I cannot stress this enough when you hike in grizzly country. If it’s in the back mesh of your pack and you see a bear, you’re not going to take your pack off to get it.  Put it in your shoulder strap, on your hip belt, or side pocket.

However, while I advocate that bear spray should be taken out every time you see a bear, DO NOT spray UNLESS it charges you. 

Bear Spray is messy, nasty shit.  It’s oil based and very hard to get off of yourself and your clothing.  If it gets on your skin, it can burn. 

Before you spray, also consider the wind.  Even a small spray can affect your own breathing significantly. 

Basically, use it as a last resort.  Have it ready, but don’t use it unless you really need to use it.

Conclusion & Final Thoughts

Karma and I employed these hacks on the CDT in Northern Montana.  We used them from the Wind River Range north, however, a higher concentration of grizzlies resides in the Bob and Glacier National Park. 

Unfortunately, neither Karma nor I saw a grizzly on the CDT in 2022.  It simply didn’t happen.  We tried to time getting to water sources at key times to see them, but they weren’t there. 

When I thru-hiked southbound in 2015, I saw 4 grizzlies in Glacier National Park.  Two of these encounters occurred around blind corners and I had to think quickly.  One looked at me and walked away.  The other barked at me and then ran uphill.  Being more focused on pulling my bear spray, I got no photos.  I did not have my good camera with me on my 2015 thru-hike.

Of the hacks, I believe the most important actions are to not cook where you camp and to not camp near water.  The most important item is a bear proof container such as an Ursack or Bear Vault.  As more people recreate and hike in grizzly country, more interactions are likely to happen.  Grizzlies and humans will stay safer if grizzlies do not have an opportunity to eat human food. By all means, hike in grizzly country, but do it safely.

If you’re preparing for a thru-hike, you might also find my CDT Gear List handy as well as my post about How to Prepare for a Thru-Hike on the CDT.

Comment below if you have anything to add!