Mountain Air

Glacier Institute's Blog

This is a magical time of year. The cottonwoods are blooming, bear cubs can be seen on the hillsides playing, and our creeks are swelling with snowmelt. It’s officially backpacking season. 

I, like so many others, was drawn to Glacier National Park for the backpacking opportunities. It’s the perfect activity to not only lose the crowds, but find yourself in the process. Having worked with/around bears for nearly my entire career, I’m constantly asked one question – why go backpacking alone? 

It is true – traveling in groups (4 or more) in the backcountry greatly reduces your risk of surprise bear encounters. For me, however, that also takes away from the appeal. I enjoy hiking at my own pace while getting lost in the simple sounds of nature. As a thru-hiker, bear biologist, and avid solo backpacker, I’m here to offer some safety tips when exploring the backcountry solo:

  1. The first tip follows LNT Principle #1 closely – Plan ahead and communicate your plan to others. This is a big one! If you’re new to this route, do your research. There’s nothing like finding out the hard way that the 3-mile descent to your campsite includes a 50ft rappel! Be familiar with the route, even if it involves scouring the internet for blog posts or videos from others that have hiked in the same area. Communicate your route and expected return time to others. Know your pace. This first tip also helps us remember to become familiar with the rules, restrictions, and permits of the area we plan to hike through. Follow the weather prior to departure and stay up-to-date on closures. 
  1. Learn your gear. Has anyone found themselves completely at a loss when setting their tent up for the first time? No? Just me? Familiarizing ourselves with our gear can greatly reduce stress and setup time in the backcountry. Practice with your water filter at home, set the tent up in the backyard. Go on a few shorter hikes with your full pack to ensure proper fit and comfort. The backcountry is no place to realize that you have no clue how your stove works. 
  1. Pack and repack your backpack. Now say that ten times fast! Thoroughly learning how your backpack fits, packs, and adjusts is one of the most vital recommendations that I can offer. You want the majority of the weight to sit firmly on your hips. For larger, square-shaped body types, this typically means the heaviest items at the bottom, middle-weight items in the middle, and lightest items on top. For hourglass-shaped bodies with a higher center of gravity, this can mean middle-weight items on the bottom, heaviest items in the middle, and lightest items on top. Keep items you want to access quickly (phone, rain gear, bear spray, camera, etc.) packed on the outside or strapped to your hipbelt. 
  1. Be bear aware. Larger groups reduce their risk of surprise bear encounters because of one main thing – the noise. If you’re hiking/backpacking alone in bear country, make noise. I often talk to myself, narrating my hike as I go. Please avoid saying the phrase, “Hey Bear!” This is outdated information and often confuses others if there is actually a bear in the area. Let’s save that b-word for when we actually have eyeballs on a bear. Keep your bear spray easily accessible (hipbelt, sternum strap, etc), not packed inside your backpack. When traveling in the backcountry, I’ll actually pack 3 (or more) bear sprays. You never know when you might be faced with a situation, need to deploy your bear spray, then have a long hike out with a disoriented and upset bear nearby. 
  1. Keep a clean campsite. I could’ve lumped this one in with #4, because let’s face it – bears are our main concern with dirty campsites. A few key things to always remember:
    1. Be aware of your smells.  A bear’s sense of smell is one of the strongest on the planet. Despite what you read, you will never be able to keep a bear from smelling your food. We have to make sure that they can’t access any attractant. Making sure to take proper precautions to not only secure your food, but the clothing you cooked in, sunscreen, chapstick, toothpaste, etc. is the way to ensure bears don’t stick around at your campsite. Here in Glacier National Park, all established backcountry sites will either have a hang pole (for securing attractants at the correct height) or metal storage locker. If in more remote wilderness areas, make sure to bring a bear canister of the correct size to contain all smellables. 
    2. Never cook in or around your tent. In bear country, I always recommend backpackers prepare their food at least 100 yards from your tent, as well as any water source. In remote wilderness areas without established cooking areas, I always stop a few miles before setting up camp to cook my dinner. We never want to have food smells near our tent. Yes, that unfortunately means you can’t sneak that midnight snack into your sleeping bag! 
    3. Be mindful of food waste. At this point, I’ve figured out how much food I consume when in the backcountry. I only boil water in my pot and cook my food in bags. If I can’t finish a meal (pretty unusual!), I’ll always pack out leftovers with my trash. Never discard excess food into the surrounding areas. This not only attracts wildlife, but ensures that they get a food reward for coming into camp. 
  1. Keep your first-aid kit updated. If there is one main threat with backpacking solo, it’s that there’s no one to assist you through an emergency. Self-evacuation or satellite-assisted rescue might be your only option. In addition to carrying the minimum first-aid essentials, packing a satellite communication device (SPOT, Garmin InReach, etc) can assist you in sending messages when phone service is nowhere to be found. 

Above all, keeping your wits about you is most important when traveling alone in the wilderness. When properly prepared, backpacking solo can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your lifetime. Always remember to respect your surroundings, the wildlife, and “hike your own hike!”