by Matt, July 2022

Yellowstone is one of the few places in the Lower 48 states with grizzly bears. Many Yellowstone “first-timers” often ask me if Yellowstone is safe to visit. What they really want to know is:

How likely is a bear attack? Should I bring bear spray to Yellowstone?

If you do any hiking or camping in Yellowstone, you SHOULD bring bear spray. Generally, you don’t need bear spray when visiting the popular and crowded geyser areas and villages, such as Old Faithful and Canyon Village. Bear attacks are extremely rare and unlikely, but they do happen. There are several places to buy or rent bear spray in and around Yellowstone.

Keep reading for all you need to know about being BEAR AWARE.

Possibility of Running Into a Bear at Yellowstone

In the old days, when people could feed the bears in Yellowstone, it was a virtual lock to see a bear! Today, however, it’s possible to visit the park and come away with ZERO bear sightings.

It takes effort and getting to the right places to see a bear. You’re more likely to see one at dawn or dusk, and if you know the right places to visit.

Though it is possible for bears to come near public amenities, sidewalks, or boardwalks, it is extremely rare because bears like to avoid people.

However, if you do any hiking, especially backcountry hiking, your chances of a bear encounter increase dramatically. BE PREPARED.

park ranger
Park Ranger managing a bear situation

The rangers at the National Park stay aware of which areas are highly populated with bears. If there are too many in a certain area, they will close it to the public.

They keep information about area closures updated on their website.

Possibility of being attacked (or killed) by a bear

Just because you may see a bear does not mean that it will attack you. The average amount of bear attacks in Yellowstone is 1 per year. Yellowstone receives over 4 million visitors per year, so the odds of an attack are minuscule.

In the entire history of the park, only 8 people have been killed in bear attacks, and many of these happened when feeding the bears was legal. The park estimates there have been 44 people injured by a bear since 1979.

It isn’t likely that a bear will attack you, but having bear spray doesn’t hurt. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Grizzly vs Black Bears

Yellowstone is home to grizzly bears and black bears. Black bears are found all over the country, but grizzly bears are only in the Montana/Wyoming region — mostly consisting of three major national parks and their surrounding areas: Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and Glacier National Park.

Grizzly bears are generally larger and more aggressive than black bears, though there are many more black bears.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Though Yellowstone has boundary lines defined on a map, it is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), an area much larger than Yellowstone. It’s large enough and unique enough to be considered its own ecosystem.

Because Yellowstone does not have fences, bears roam all over the ecosystem, including within and without the park.

Grizzly Bear at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone (Canva)

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes Grand Teton National Park. In fact, one of the most famous grizzly bears in the world lives in Grand Teton: Bear 399.

Because the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem contains two national parks and three states, an organization was formed specifically to handle grizzly bear issues and research: the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

How many bears live in Yellowstone?

Grizzly Bears

Yellowstone National Park and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee can’t say for sure how many grizzly bears there are in the park, but they believe there are around 150 grizzly bears living inside Yellowstone National Park, and between 800-1200 grizzly bears living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Black Bears

The park does not provide an estimate of black bears in the park. It only says that they are “common.”

Generally, grizzlies push the black bears out of their living areas. Though there is some overlap, it’s common to see black bears and grizzly bears in different areas of the park.

If you’re visiting Yellowstone and you want a game plan for seeing more wildlife, you really need to check out my Yellowstone Itinerary. I’ll provide you with the data, maps, and places to visit to see more wildlife.

Camping

Bears can be near or within any campsite at Yellowstone. The smell of garbage or food could bring a bear to your camp, so to keep bears away you need to keep your camping area clean and odor-free.

Put your food in your car or in bear-proof containers. All campgrounds — though not all campsites — have bear-proof containers. You may have to share one of these with a neighbor.

Is it safe to camp in a tent in Yellowstone?

Yes, it is safe to camp in a tent in Yellowstone. I’ve done it many times without bear spray, though I feel better when I bring bear spray.

There is one campground in the park that receives enough bear visitation that it requires hard-sided RVs: Fishing Bridge RV Park. They do not allow tents at Fishing Bridge RV Park.

All other campgrounds allow tent camping.

Hiking

I never bring bear spray when I’m walking on the boardwalks around the geyser basins, or if I stop for a roadside waterfall or other attraction.

However, I definitely recommend bringing bear spray when hiking.

Make a lot of noise while you are hiking so that if there are bears around, they can hear you coming ahead of time. This will help keep them from being surprised, which they don’t like!

Some hikers attach a little bell to their backpacks so that they are always making noises as they hike.

Always stay on maintained trails.

Can you carry snacks or eat picnics?

picnic
We eat picnics every time we visit Yellowstone

One of my YouTube viewers was concerned that bringing snacks while hiking, or food for a picnic, would attract a bear.

It is ok to carry snacks while hiking, and we eat picnics all the time in the park.

There are many picnic areas around Yellowstone, and they are generally located near the main road (called the Grand Loop Road), where it’s unlikely to see a bear.

Driving through the Park

It’s fairly common to see bears while driving around Yellowstone.

Grizzly bears are usually located far away from the main road, but I’ve seen black bears near the road — or even cross the road in front of me — multiple times.

bear walking in road

If a bear is visible from the road, it won’t take long for a crowd to form.

A bear isn’t going to attack your vehicle, so you don’t need to carry bear spray while driving.

Bear Safety Precautions

There are safety guidelines for all those who choose to visit Yellowstone National Park.

Keep proper distance when possible

When driving through and watching for wildlife, it is a law that people keep at least a 25-yard distance from the bison, and a 100-yard distance from the bears and wolves.

If a bear is within vision, it’s ok to get out to look at the bear, but maintain a safe legal distance.

bear walking in road

Secure food and garbage

You may have heard the phrase: “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Feeding bears makes them comfortable around people, which is very dangerous for people and bears. In these scenarios, the bears often end up paying the ultimate price for human carelessness. 

If camping or picnicking, do not leave food out!

Make noise

Bears usually avoid contact with humans and tend to move out of the way if they can hear people approaching. Your voice is the best tool to let them know you’re coming through. Call out or clap periodically while you are hiking so that the bears can hear you coming.

Bear box

Our assistant, Linnea, Iikes to think of it as doing the bears the courtesy of ringing the doorbell before you rudely barge into their house unannounced. This is their home, after all, and the bears did not invite you to be there. If you warn them you are coming through, they’re less likely to take offense to an unannounced house guest.

The last time I was in Yellowstone, I hiked all alone in the forest (big no-no; see below). I constantly yelled out “Hello there!” and “Is anyone there!” This served the dual purpose of giving a bear notice and might actually get someone else to respond (that way, both of us are making noise and I wouldn’t look so ridiculous, lol).

Hike in groups

Hiking in groups is one of the best ways to reduce your chances of a negative bear encounter.

Hiking alone is one of the most unsafe things you can do in a national park anyway. Most major catastrophes in the national parks (whether animal attacks or falling into canyons) happen when people are alone.

Don’t run on trails

Running is a great way to accidentally surprise a bear. A surprised bear is more likely to react defensively (or violently) than a bear that knew you were coming.

Carry bear spray (& know how to use it!)

Having bear spray isn’t all that helpful if you don’t know how to use it!

Cheryl and I actually bought multiple cans of bear spray and sprayed an innocent bear (LOL). We did this so we could learn how to use it, show you how to use it, and help you know which one to buy! Watch the video below.

What does bear spray do?

Bear spray is a non-lethal bear deterrent. Its active ingredients are Capsaicin (pronounced “cap-SAY-sin”) and other Capsaicinoids. This is a fancy way of saying that it is made out of an active component of chili peppers—the part that causes the burning sensation associated with eating them.

These active ingredients in bear spray cause bears irritation and inflammation in the mouth, nose, eyes, throat, and lungs. This discomfort distracts the bear and keeps it from being able to breathe deeply in and out which makes it difficult to charge or attack.

bear spray

Where to Buy Bear Spray in Yellowstone

Bear Spray can be purchased within Yellowstone. The gift shops, outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores have bear spray. They sell the EPA-approved product.

Hiking and camping stores near Yellowstone also carry bear spray. Cabelas, Sportsmans Wearhouse, and more carry bear spray. Walmart and Costco also carry bear spray. Make sure it is EPA approved, as other deterrents aren’t as likely to work.

You cannot take bear spray onto an airplane, so if you’re flying to Yellowstone, wait until you arrive to purchase or rent bear spray.

If you’re driving to Yellowstone, we recommend buying the Frontiersman now so you don’t have to waste time looking for some once you’re there.

Can I rent bear spray?

Canyon Village has a dedicated bear spray rental booth located right next to the Canyon Visitor Center.

bear spray rental booth

Using bear spray: If a bear charges you

Bear Spray has been successful at stopping aggressive behavior in bears. The spray temporarily inhibits the bears’ ability to breathe, see, and smell. This gives you time to escape to safety.

Here are Yellowstone’s recommendations if a bear charges you:

We hope you get to see a bear from a safe distance in Yellowstone National Park. But if you have a bear encounter, now you’ll know how to be prepared!

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