Walking Distance #20 | Bear Safety ft. Tom Smith

In this episode of Walking Distance presented by The Trek and hosted by Blissful Hiker (Alison Young), we are joined by Tom Smith, a professor of wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University in Utah. Initially Smith’s research specialities included bighorn sheep and caribou, but when he began working at Katmai National Park in Southwest Alaska, he shifted to studying the most common animal there: bears. In the last 20 years, Smith has conducted research in Alaska, India, and in bear country in the lower 48 states. 

Blissful Hiker covers why it’s important to have bear deterrent, rules of thumb about making noise while on the trail, methods to bear-proof a campsite, and explains what conventional bear wisdom still holds true.


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Interview with Tom Smith

2:00 – Introduction to ‘bear country’ and Tom Smith

3:42 – What are your thoughts on Timothy Treadwell, and his involvement in Katmai National Park with bear environmentalism?

5:12 – Our podcast is for hikers and backpackers, and to help people feel safe and capable outdoors. One thing you’ve already mentioned is bear deterrent, so could you break down what bear spray is and how to use it best?

9:00 – I’ve read articles about people spraying bear spray around their tent, which is definitely not the correct use. Is there data on that?

12:00 – Does bear spray train bears to stay away from humans? Is there any data that bears might associate the pain of bear spray with humans if they experience it?

12:50 – I’m a bit embarrassed to share this story, but last July I was in Glacier National Park, and I hiked alone at dawn in bear country. I didn’t see any bears, but I was playing with fire, wouldn’t you say?

17:22 – Glacier rangers told me that bears are curious, and that bear bells and some other noises like singing might actually attract them. What do you know about that?

19:32 – People who go on long distance trails, for instance I was on the Continental Divide Trail, often hike alone. I wonder if there’s a rule of thumb about making noise if you’re alone and you want to ward bears off?

22:24 – You said something really interesting, that in Yellowstone or Glacier the bears are more aggressive than on the coastline of Alaska, for instance. Why is that?

26:53 – We’ve spoken a lot about food storage on Walking Distance, from cooking and eating away from where you camp, using a bear can, and pack away smelly items. But you’ve mentioned other things that aren’t as obvious, such as not using very smelly shampoo, and that gas canisters can attract bears.

33:47 – Let’s shift to bear encounters; as you’ve said, most bears are risk averse, and they don’t want to fight with us. But in the rare instance that a bear is charging you, what do you do?

36:50 – How do you bear-proof a campsite?

39:40 – Would you even use your bear-proofing methods in Montana?

41:40 – The most surprising advice I read in your work is that the conventional wisdom of playing dead around a bear is wrong, that you should always stand your ground. Can you explain?

46:20 – If we were to sum all this up for our listeners, I’d say to be aware in bear country, carry your deterrent at the ready, hike with another person and have a plan of how to defend yourself.

47:08 – What are the differences in behavior in bear types? What is the reason that a bear would be clearly predatory, is that rare?

50:13 – Although it’s rare that you will have a bear encounter, carrying bear spray is like wearing your seatbelt in the car: it might save your life.

Mentioned in this episode:

Tom Smith 

Critter Gitter 

Camp Fence 

Sky Blazer Flare 

Bear Safety Handout 

Get all of the Walking Distance Podcast episodes.

About Alison Young

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, is a former host and producer at American Public Media and professional flutist. She’s thru-hiked New Zealand’s Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as long trails in South America, South Africa, Europe, Pakistan and all over the US. In her podcast Blissful Hiker, she shares personal essays from the trail along with collected sound. Her goal in life is to hike until she drops.

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