by Linnea, April 2022

This is one of the most common questions among people who travel to Glacier National Park. Bears are the subject of curiosity, fascination, and often fear, so it makes sense that they are top of mind when planning a trip to Glacier.

So, do you need bear spray if you are traveling to Glacier National Park?

The short answer is “yes”. The National Park Service recommends that visitors carry bear spray in the backcountry because it has been proven to be the most effective deterrent of bear attacks. Bear spray is an aerosol pepper spray that temporarily incapacitates aggressive bears without being lethal. Even though violent bear encounters are extremely rare, you should still take precautions to protect your safety when you are in bear country.

With that being said, there is much more information you should know about bears in Glacier and bear spray in general before you begin your trip.

I have spent my life living and hiking in and around Glacier National Park, and I have had my fair share of bear encounters on the trail. While I have never needed to use bear spray, I feel confident that I would be able to if it were ever necessary (knock on wood).

Keep reading to learn more about how to stay safe while vacationing in bear country in Glacier National Park.

How common are bear sightings in Glacier?

Bear sightings in Glacier are very common. However, this is sort of a difficult question to answer because some people visit Glacier and see no bears, while others visit and see a bear every day of their trip.

Glacier, which covers approximately one million acres, is home to around 300 grizzly bears and 600 black bears. Of course, these bears are not confined to the park boundaries in any way and can come and go as they please, but these numbers represent the animals whose home ranges are wholly or partially in the park.

I live in the Many Glacier Valley of Glacier National Park and some summers I try to keep track of the number of bears I see. Each summer, without fail, I stop keeping track after the first couple of weeks because I see bears so frequently that I lose count.

I’d say I average about 10 bear sightings each week, but I know where to look and have a well-trained eye for spotting bears far away.

People often have great bear sightings while they are driving through the park. This is a great way to view them because you are protected by the safety of your vehicle and can watch the bears from a safe distance.

Once you leave your vehicle and start hiking through Glacier, you have the possibility of running into a bear while you are in the backcountry. Bears use the same man-made trails as we do to get from point A to point B, and how can you blame them? It’s much easier to walk on a trail than it is to walk through the woods.

While bear sightings in Glacier are very common, negative or violent bear encounters are very rare. There have only been 10 fatalities in over 100,000,000 visits to the park between 1910 and 2022.

There are steps you can take to avoid a negative bear encounter, and I’ll cover those next.

How can I avoid a negative bear encounter?

There are simple steps you can take during your time in Glacier to minimize the chances of a negative bear encounter such as making noise, hiking in groups, avoiding running, being aware of your surroundings, and storing food and garbage safely. I’ve summarized these precautions from the National Park Service’s page on bear safety.

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.

I like to think of it as doing the bears the courtesy of ringing the doorbell before you rudely barge into their house unannounced. Glacier 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.

Hike in Groups

Hiking in groups is one of the best ways to reduce your chances of a negative bear encounter. There has not been a reported bear attack on a group of four or more in Glacier.

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.

Be Aware of Surroundings

Be vigilant and proactive! It is hard for bears to hear or smell you coming if there are high winds, you are hiking through dense vegetation, or there is a loud stream or waterfall nearby. Make more noise in these places. Know how to identify bear scat and bear tracks.

Try not to hike in the early morning or late in the day. A general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to be the first person on the trail in the morning or the last person on the trail in the evening.

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. 

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.

Do I need bear spray if I’m not doing backcountry hiking?

If you are not planning to do any hiking during your time in Glacier, it is very unlikely that you will ever need bear spray. If you are doing short walks in highly-trafficked areas, it is very unlikely that you will encounter a bear.

You probably don’t need bear spray if you’re not doing backcountry hiking, but it is never a bad idea to bring it along just in case.

Where can I get bear spray?

Bear spray is easy to find in and around Glacier, whether you are looking to rent or to purchase. You can buy bear spray at Costco and REI in Kalispell, as well as at nearly all visitor centers, ranger stations, and gift shops inside the park. It generally costs around $50 for a canister.

If you are flying to and from Glacier, you can’t bring your bear spray with you on the plane. In this case, renting is a good (and cost-effective) option. You can rent from Glacier Outfitters in Apgar. They also have an option that allows to you to reserve your bear spray online and pick it up at the airport when you arrive. Renting bear spray costs about $10 per day.

How do I use bear spray?

Bear spray is simple to use, but it is very important that it is used correctly in order to be effective. Bear spray is most effective when sprayed into the face of an oncoming bear.

You will remove your bear spray from its holster and remove the safety clip. Make sure the bear is downwind from you so that you do not end up spraying yourself. When the bear is within 30 feet (preferably closer), you can discharge the bear spray in a zigzag pattern starting at the ground and moving up toward the bear’s face.

For more detailed instructions about how to use bear spray, watch the video above made by Matt and Cheryl that shows how to use bear spray and compares three different brands.

Remember that using bear spray is a last resort. Before you discharge your bear spray, try to back away slowly from the bear while talking in a calm but audible voice. And, if you followed all the precautions listed earlier in the post, you will likely not have a close bear encounter in the first place.

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