Bear Spray: A Necessary Tool for Backcountry Recreationists

The snow is starting to fly in the Rockies and for a growing number of outdoor recreationists, this means strapping on snowshoes, ski boots, or crampons. But amid all the specialized winter gear, bear spray is often absent with backcountry enthusiasts.

After a busy autumn packing on the calories, most bears across North America hibernate away the food-scarce months of winter and bear encounters go down, leading backcountry recreationists to forget to include bears in their risk assessments.

Understanding Bear Hibernation

Most bears do sleep away a good portion of the winter, but this varies significantly by area, weather, and food availability. For example, Inland Alaska grizzlies spend up to 6 months in their den while black bears in New Mexico might only spend a few weeks asleep.

Snow on the ground is not a good indicator of hibernation status. Bears may search for food late into the fall and may wake up early, especially if they didn’t get to eat their fill the last fall. Even in the dead of winter, it is not unusual for bears to leave their den periodically during the winter. While the probability of an encounter does decrease in the winter, bear encounters are possible any time of the year.

Dangerous bear encounters are still possible during heavy hibernation. A bear’s metabolic, heart, and breath rates drop significantly during hibernation to conserve energy; however, unlike other hibernating mammals, core body temperature remains quite high. A hibernating grizzly bear’s core temperature drops to about 31 degrees Celsius, within 11 degrees of their normal temperature. This function allows bears to awake quickly and be ready for action. Bears are easily aroused and may exit their dens if disturbed, ready to protect themselves from any perceived threat.

Grizzly Bear den site selection may also increase conflict with the rapidly growing sport of backcountry skiing. Grizzlies often select den sites on steep alpine slopes with high snow accumulation, making it easy for them to build a deep and well-insulated shelter. In Yellowstone Park, Grizzlies prefer to den on the mid to upper third of 30 degree to 60 degree slopes with Northern exposures between altitudes of 6,500 – 10,000 feet – otherwise known as ideal backcountry ski terrain.

Why you should bring Bear Spray on your next hike

While rare, potentially dangerous bear encounters can occur in all seasons, including winter. In December 2015, two alpinists triggered a defensive attack from a Grizzly Bear on a high and exposed slope of Mt. Wilson in Banff National Park.

With an increase in winter backcountry recreationists, global and local climate changes, and recovering bear populations in some areas, it’s possible we’ll see more of these encounters. Bear spray is an essential piece of safety gear and could save your life.