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Bear Aware: How To Stay Safe In Glacier National Park

8 min read

When planning a trip to Glacier National Park, safety should always remain your top priority. it’s important to not only keep yourself safe but also to keep others around you safe, including local wildlife. Glacier National Park is well known for its bear populations and houses the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48. This is your guide to staying safe in bear country and how to properly identify, de-escalate, and hopefully avoid any bear encounters on your trip.

Growing up in Northwest Montana it was an early childhood lesson that humans are not on top of the food chain. Fatal bear attacks are few and far between but stories in the likes of the chilling Night of the Grizzlies were quick to help you understand just how unpredictable wildlife, especially North America’s apex predator, can be. This is bear country, and it was bear country long before it was Glacier National Park. Terrifying, humbling, and inspiring all in one, witnessing a bear in its natural habitat is truly a sight to behold.

Understanding the Bears of Glacier National Park

A sign that reads Entering Bear Country

Glacier National Park has exceptionally diverse in its wildlife, hosting a particularly noticeable population of both black and grizzly bears. There’s an equal likelihood that you could run into either type of bear and it's important to know who you're sharing the park with, so here's a quick rundown:


Bear Identification

Black Bears: Recognizable from their straight, dog-like muzzle and pointed ears. Commonly found across North America when you picture a bear with a prominent rump – that's your black bear.

Grizzly Bears: Grizzlies are a bit different and have a few key distinguishing features. They sport a noticeable shoulder hump, dished face, rounded ears, and longer light-colored claws

Bear identification chart

In the correct setting, a bear sighting can be the highlight of your Glacier National Park experience, but as a visitor, it’s your responsibility to keep both yourself and the bear safe. If you can, notify a park ranger or employee if you spot a bear or any unusual wildlife behavior. With a bear in the area, officials may need to close trails or certain locations to maintain safety.

Importance of Bear Awareness

Being bear aware means more than just understanding that you should always maintain a safe distance and not feed the local wildlife. It’s important to realize that every action you take may directly, or indirectly, impact their well-being. These are wild animals that deserve respect and space. Knowing how to identify them helps us appreciate their presence from a safe distance.

General Safety Guidelines

A bear crossing a road

While the correct gear can help avoid disaster your first line of defense is understanding the do’s and don’ts of bear safety. Before worrying about what should be on your safety checklist let’s start with mindset and how to properly behave in the park.

Keep a Safe Distance

Here's the golden rule: never approach a bear. If you see one, maintain a distance of at least 100 yards (91 meters). For other wildlife, such as sheep and goats, keep it to 25 yards (23 meters). If you notice the animal's behavior changing due to your presence, you're too close. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens for a better view, and always give them an escape route.

Local Expert Tip: Always carry binoculars; they're your best tool for safely observing bears and other wildlife from the recommended distances.

Rules for Viewing Roadside Bears

Bears can oftentimes be spotted along roadsides, but it’s important to still remember, getting too close isn't safe for you or the bear. If you're driving and spot a bear, you should still attempt to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards. It can be tempting to stop for a photo, but this can lead to bears becoming too comfortable around vehicles and roads, which can result in more frequent conflicts and accidents.

That said, seeing a bear from the inside of a vehicle is often one of the best ways to maintain your safety. Don’t be tempted to stop and hold traffic, especially along busy routes such as Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s always best to slow down and continue on your way without stopping.

Prefer to have someone else do the driving? Sit back and enjoy the views on a Going-to-the-Sun Road Guided Day Tour.

Hiking in Bear Country

A hiker carrying bear spray

Many travelers venture to Glacier National Park with hopes of seeing spectacular mountain vistas, sparkling mountain lakes, and exciting wildlife. But if this is your first time in bear country, let alone setting out for a hike through their backyard, the potential of running into a bear can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are plenty of tried and true ways to stay safe if you follow these guidelines:

  • Make Noise: Bears usually avoid humans, so make your presence known. Keep a conversation going, shout, or clap, – anything to avoid surprising a bear.
  • Hike in Groups: There's safety in numbers. Groups of four or more are less likely to encounter bear problems.
  • Avoid Running on Trails: Running might surprise a bear, which is something you want to avoid.
  • Carry Bear Spray: This is your best defense against a bear encounter. Learn how to use it properly and always have it ready.
  • Be Aware of Your Surroundings: Watch out for signs of bears, especially in areas with dense vegetation or berry patches. Keep an eye on the trail and avoid hiking at dawn, dusk, or night.

For those choosing to hike solo, consider sticking to more populated trails or joining a small-group hike, like this Avalanche Lake Guided Hike in Glacier National Park.

Camping in Bear Country

A bear safety sign on a picnic table

Camping in Glacier National Park can make for a truly unforgettable experience, but it comes with a few extra responsibilities, especially when it comes to wildlife and bears.

Securing Food and Garbage

Store Everything: All food, containers, cookware, and trash (yes, even those tiny wrappers) must be stored in a bear-proof manner. This means using food lockers or properly constructing a bear hang to store your items away from your campsite.
Clean Campsites: Keeping your campsite clean is not just good manners, it's a safety measure. Bears are attracted to food smells, so leaving no trace is key.
Pack-it-in Pack-it-out: Leave the campsite in better condition than you found it. If you packed it in, make sure to pack it out.

Make sure to read up on Camping in Glacier National Park for more information and safety tips about camping in bear country.

Bear Encounters

A bear looking through bushes

In the wild expanse of Glacier National Park, encountering a bear can be both an awe-inspiring and intimidating experience. Knowing how to safely navigate these encounters is crucial for protecting both yourself and the majestic bears that call the park home.

Recognizing Bear Behavior: Aggressive vs Non-Aggressive

If you find yourself too close for comfort with a bear, understanding their behavior can be potentially life-saving. It’s important to remember that like most wildlife, they’re likely more afraid of you than you are of them. Here's how you can spot the difference between aggressive and non-aggressive behavior in bears:

Non-Aggressive Behavior

  • Standing: This is likely one of the first behaviors exhibited by a bear who knows a human is nearby and they may stand on their hind legs to get a better view. This is usually just out of curiosity, and not a sign of aggression.
  • Nonchalant Movements: If a bear is moving about without paying much attention to you, it's likely not feeling threatened or aggressive. But that doesn’t mean it’s unaware.

Aggressive Behavior

  • Huffing and Puffing: Listen for quick or loud huffing sounds similar to dogs. This is a warning that the bear is stressed and needs more space.
  • Teeth Clacking and Jaw Popping: These sounds are more direct warning signals. The bear is telling you that you're too close.
  • Charging or Bluff Charging: A bear might charge as a scare tactic. They often stop before making contact, but it's a clear sign you need to give them space.

By learning to read these behaviors, you can better understand how serious of an encounter this may become. Even if the bear is showing signs of non-aggressive behavior remember to maintain 100 yards distance and to back away slowly.

Local Expert Tip: In a bear encounter, remain calm and remember that running away can trigger a bear's chase instinct.

De-Escalating Bear Encounters

A grizzly bear sitting in a creek

Non-Aggressive Encounters: If a bear isn't showing signs of aggression, group together, make noise, and slowly back away. If you're eating or cooking, secure your food immediately.

Aggressive Encounters: If a bear shows signs of aggression or charges, stay calm, and ready your bear spray. Do not run. Speak clearly and calmly, avoid direct eye contact, and slowly back away. If the bear continues to approach, be prepared to use your bear spray.

Staying Safe During a Bear Attack

Aggravated bear attacks are rare and most human bear conflicts involve food, cubs, and personal space. In these extremely rare events every scenario is different, but correct mindset and knowing how to maximize your chances of survival are paramount to your safety.

Grizzly Bears: If you are attacked by a brown/grizzly bear you should leave your pack on and PLAY DEAD. Lay flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Keep your legs spread out wide making it more difficult for the bear to roll you over. Fighting back usually increases the intensity of the bears' behavior. If the attack persists, use whatever is at hand to fight back and aim for the face.

Black Bears: If attacked by a black bear DO NOT PLAY DEAD. First, try to escape to a building or vehicle. If you cannot escape fight back and aim for the face and muzzle.

For more detailed guidelines on bear encounters learn more from the National Park Service.

Additional Wildlife Considerations

A goat overlooking Going-toe-the-Sun Road

Glacier National Park may be famous for its bear populations, but it's a haven for a variety of diverse wildlife. Moose, sheep, goats, marmots, and plenty of others call this spectacular environment home. The common goal of all National Parks is to conserve and protect our natural resources for future generations and it's important to play your part in keeping wildlife safe. Here’s how you can stay safe while enjoying their presence:

Wildlife Safety Tips

  • Maintain Distance: For most wildlife like moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and deer, keep a minimum distance of 25 yards. For predators like wolves and mountain lions, stay at least 100 yards away.
  • Avoid Feeding: Feeding wild animals can alter their natural behavior and make them more dangerous. Always keep your food secure.
  • Stay Calm: If you encounter wildlife on the trail, remain calm and slowly back away. Never run, as this can trigger a chase instinct in some animals.
  • Be Aware of Mating and Rearing Seasons: Animals can be more aggressive during mating seasons or when they have young with them. Take extra caution if you spot any offspring nearby.

Wildlife Photography Tips

  • Use the Right Gear: A telephoto lens is your best friend. It allows you to capture close-up shots from a safe distance.
  • Stay Patient and Respectful: Great wildlife shots require patience. Wait for animals to come into view rather than trying to get closer.
  • Avoid Attracting Attention: Keep movements slow and steady. Quick or sudden movements can startle animals.

As you embark on your journey through the breathtaking scenery of Glacier National Park, remember that your safety and the well-being of its wildlife go hand in hand. By understanding and respecting the natural behaviors of bears and other animals, you'll enjoy not only a safer experience for yourself but also continue the best practices to maintain a safe and healthy wildlife population. With the right preparation, awareness, and respect, your adventure in Glacier National Park will be a thrilling and memorable encounter with nature at its most majestic.

Written by: Hunter

Hunter grew up in Whitefish, Montana, and loves his home with a passion for sharing it with others. A childhood spent exploring Glacier National Park and a full career in the travel and hospitality industry he's always happy to answer your questions and help you plan your next exciting adventure. Currently based in Nashville, TN with his fiancé they take frequent trips back to the Flathead to visit family, friends, and to spend time in Glacier.

All of our content at Tourbase is written by experienced travel writers who have visited all of the locations we recommend. And our review board of local tourism experts ensure that all the information we provide is accurate, current and helpful

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