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solo adventures

A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Hiking in Grizzly Country

By Laura Reyes

After I booked my trip to hike in Montana, I knew I would need to become bear aware. All guidebooks and experts advise to hike in larger groups for greater safety. But I hike solo. 

General bear safety

Hiking in grizzly country with a group of any size carries inherent risks. Although there are no guarantees, you can increase your chances of enjoyment and lower your chances of a dangerous encounter with a bear if you understand the fundamentals of bear safety. As a solo hiker in bear country, it is crucial to arm yourself with information. Before you hike into bear country, learn the fundamentals.

  • It’s wise to understand the difference between brown and black bears and how to respond to encounters with either. [1] Once in Montana, I met another solo hiker who told me she watched videos of bluff charges to prepare her for her trip. Understanding the nuances of bear behavior can help prepare you for what you might meet on the trail. [2]
This warning is posted at trailheads throughout the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
  • Preparedness also includes understanding your options in terms of defense.
    •  When deployed properly, bear spray has been proven to deter bears. [3] 
    • I am not a gun owner, but I wanted to understand protection on the trail from all angles. There are those that would never hike or ride into grizzly country without a gun. [4] Yet, opinions about carrying guns on the trail vary. [5] [6]
    • For those who want a hands-on education when it comes to bear safety, companies like Tactic offer courses on effective bear spray and firearm use. [7] 
  • Because I would not be camping overnight, I did not need a large bear canister to eliminate food odors. Instead, I purchased odor-proof heavy zip bags. [8] The basics of bear country food storage and waste guidelines are important to understand and heed. [9] Campsites that do not store food properly attract bears. Once the bears begin to rely on that food source and return, they become more aggressive.
  • Ranger districts are a good source to determine current bear activity. You can find the nearest one through the USDA.
  • Unscented products are an easy way to increase your safety on the trail. Use unscented deodorant, hair products, and sunscreen.
  • And the one tip you can always count on, the one tip you will find in every article, every guide book, every tutorial: when in bear country–always hike in groups.

Hiking in bear country alone isn’t advised. In fact, once you get through all this information to establish a baseline knowledge of bear safety you might wonder, “Why bother?” What is a solo hiker to do? To prepare for my solo hiking in Montana, I went beyond general bear safety and researched bear activity specific to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. 

Grizzly Bear and Cubs near Yellowstone. Photo Credit @adamwknox

Grizzlies in the Area

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is located within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Although Yellowstone National Park is at the center of the GYE, it also includes: Grand Teton National Park; parts of the Bridger-Teton, Shoshone, Caribou-Targhee, Gallatin, Custer, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests; three segments of the National Wildlife Refuge System including: the National Elk, Red Rock Lakes, and Gray’s Lake Refuges; the Wind River Indian Reservation, as well as additional public and private lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

It’s a vast area, which measures 12 to 35.8 million acres depending upon the source. [10] The GYE is home to approximately 700 grizzly bears. [11] In the past ten years, there have been seven fatal attacks by grizzly bears in the GYE, five of which have been on hikers or researchers that were alone. [12]

Statistically, the number of deadly bear encounters is extremely low. However, I wanted to learn all about bear activity in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness so I could make an informed decision. These three resources proved to be the most useful and helped me decide to solo hike in the Beartooths.

Local guide books

Brown Bear Near Portage Alaska, 2018
Photo Credit: @carlos.reyeszgarrick

I went right to the expert on the area and purchased the Falcon Guide: Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. [13] The author, Bill Schneider, is experienced and knowledgeable about the hikes in this wilderness. The author also wrote Bear Aware, and he included a condensed portion in this guide book. [14]

Schneider separates the trails into multiple categories, which makes it easy to find the type of hike that appeals to you. Some of his categories include: easy overnight backpacking trips, serious day hikes, hikes for parents with small children, routes for anglers and horsemen, and trails for those who either do or do not want to see a grizzly. The latter was of interest to me. I started with these recommendations and researched the location and details of each recommended hike. 

News of recent attacks

Additionally, I wanted to know about any recent bear maulings in the area. I was aware of the very bad luck of Todd Orr, who was attacked two times in the same day by a grizzly while hiking outside of Bozeman. [15] But I wanted to know about the interior of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. I wanted to know about recent attacks, and came across the story of Brad Johnson. Brad was starting a multi-day backpacking trip with a group of friends and ran ahead on the trail when he was charged and attacked by two grizzlies. He survived.

I dug around to locate which trailhead was his home base, and found he started out from the Clay Butte Lookout Trailhead. I checked my map and determined that this trailhead was right next to the Beartooth Lake Trailhead. I planned to hike this trail to Claw Lake because it was a very rare loop hike that would not require any additional shuttle planning for either drop off or pick up. As a solo hiker, I decided to err on the side of caution and drop that trail.

Specialized guide books are excellent, but uncovering recent bear activity within your desired hiking boundaries will help you decide what is best. 

AllTrails

AllTrails is a website that posts rankings, reviews, and photos of trails in hopes of building, “the largest collection of hand-curated trail guides.” [17] Members of AllTrails can sign into the site to track and time their hikes. You do not need to be a member to access reviews and photos of trails on the site. I tuned in to the site to gauge trail times and conditions, see how accessible the trailheads were, and assess how popular or crowded the trails were. 

Black Bear Near Portage Alaska, 2018
Photo Credit: @carlos.reyeszgarrick

AllTrails hikers tended to report large animal sightings as a highlight of their hikes. Hikers reported seeing grizzlies along some of the trails I was considering in the Beartooths. Another feature of AllTrails is that any review or photo posted is tagged with its date. You can access info that is just hours old. It is not a perfect science, but Alltrails can help to give you very current information to help you plan your trip and finalize your trail choices.

Given all these bear safety basics you might feel overwhelmed and ask yourself again,”Why?” Why should I go through all this for a hike when there are loads of other trails in loads of other states that won’t require this much preparation. You might decide to hike elsewhere. I wanted to offer a roadmap of how I gathered bear safety information and reached my decision.

For me, the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness is worth the preparation. In return for stepping outside of my comfort zone and figuring out the safest way hike alone in bear country I was rewarded with breathtaking views, minimal crowds, and a very satisfying experience.

FOOTNOTES

  1. “Characteristics of Bears in Yellowstone” by National Park Service.
  2. “Bear Attacks” by National Park Service. August 12, 2019.
  3. “Bear Spray: Buying, Using, and Recycling it in Yellowstone” by National Parks Trips Media Staff. August 15, 2019.
  4.  “An Expert’s Guide on Staying Alive in Bear Country” by Tyler Freel. June 24, 2019.
  5. “Should You Carry a Gun in the Outdoors?” by Wes Siler. September 26, 2018.
  6. “You Don’t Need To Hike With a Gun” by Drew Pogge. June 10, 2019.
  7. “How to Survive a Grizzly Bear Attack “ by Wes Siler. February 26, 2019. Surviving the Griz! Course is available through Tactic.
  8. LOKSAK OPSAK Odor-Proof Barrier Bags – 12″ x 20″ – Package of 2 available at REI.
  9. “Food Storage and Handling for Campers and Backpackers” by REI.
  10. The reported size of ecosystems can vary depending upon the source. The Shafer article gives the range of 18 – 35.8 million acres while the National Park Service offers a range of 12 – 22 million acres for the GYE. “Land use planning: A potential force for retaining habitat connectivity in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Beyond” by Craig L Shafer. January 2015. “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” by the National Park Service. August 1, 2019.
  11. “Grizzly Bear” by National Park Service. September 18, 2019.
  12. “Fatal Bear Attacks.”
  13.  Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (Regional Hiking Series)
  14. Bear Aware: The Quick Reference Bear Country Survival Guide
  15. “Mauled by a Grizzly.Twice.” by Todd Orr as told to Carolyn Webber. July 7, 2017.
  16. “Minnesotan Was Mauled by Grizzlies in Beartooth Mountains” by Brett French. February 14, 2019
  17. AllTrails is a website that provides, maps, directions, and photos of trails designed to make it easier to get outdoors with more confidence.

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