Another reason I do a lot of off-trail hiking

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 10:01:52 04/05/15

In Reply to: hmmmmmm... posted by skyrim


First, let's clarify the specs on pepper spray. The expiration date is ordinarily anywhere from 3 to 4 years, depending on how long the product has been sitting on the shelf of a given store. By insisting on good value for your consumer dollar, and not bailing out a retailer that doesn't manage inventory rotation and resupply well, you can insure you always get at least 4 summers out of your pepper spray investment.

Second, the range is well beyond 25 feet. Be Bear Aware protocols call for spraying a quick burst at a aggressive bear when they get to within 35 or 40 feet of you to create a "cloud" they have to pass through. Then, you save the bulk of the spray for up close work if that cloud doesn't deter the bear.

I stopped patronizing BACKPACKER magazine years ago, when they persisted on publishing what I refer to as "kiss and tell" articles about some of America's most special backcountry places, replete with GPS coordinates, so ultra-lazy people could eschew research and simply buy BACKPACKER. I mention this because I did not look at the linked article, so I don't know whether they contributed to this confusion.

I have used pepper spray numerous times in practice situations, where we had a group of people, each practicing individually, so we could all benefit from observational learning. I also had to spray an enraged grizzly mama once upon a time. In that instance, I followed the protocols, and shot a burst into a light breeze at the recommended distance. It easily did what it was supposed to, but did not have any apparent effect on the bear's behavior. Once the bear got up close, a steady stream of pepper spray directed at its head kept it from coming closer.

I do not actively lobby against people using air horns to make noise in grizzly country. To each, his or her own. I have never heard an air horn in the backcountry, so I can't speak from auditory experience. As much hiking as I have done in grizzly country, the only time I have encountered a grizzly up close on a trail was on the Mary Mountain trail, on the Central Plateau. I don't remember encountering any other hikers on the trail that day between Violet Creek and Nez Perce Creek, so we pretty much had the trail to ourselves. We got to within 5-10 feet of a grizzly mom and a COY, without knowing it. In that area, the old road is slowly being retaken by lodgepole pine saplings and shrubby foliage. There were 7 of us, and at least 2 different conversations going simultaneously. Our sudden presence, combined with numbers and noise, scared the living daylights out of those bears, and they ran south, off the trail as fast as they could move. This is the one incidence in my experience where having AND USING an air horn might have been efficacious. Now, this trail is between 20 and 25 miles, depending on which set of signs or which hiking guide you read. Would you honk a horn every couple hundred feet over that distance?

Speaking for myself and a number of others who I have hiked the Yellowstone backcountry with, I think we would rather be out where the bears are than on trails crowded with humans. I've only had one other relatively close encounter with a griz in the backcountry, and that one was avoided, thanks to the use of FRS radio communication between our two groups.

I should mention that in the case of being charged, I doubt an air horn would have been of any value. We were talking loudly and carrying an occasionally squawky radio scanner. The terrain that separated us from the bears initially masked the sound. Additionally, the bears were napping along a noisy stream that also served to limit the benefit of any noise we might have made. It wasn't until we topped a rise above them that they could both see and hear us. That is when Mom decided to charge up the hill.

If lots of park visitors started carrying air horns, and started honking at intervals along the trail, the experience would be more like hanging out at a truck stop along an interstate highway than hiking in a wild place. Keep in mind that research shows a definitive link between number of hikers and odds of being charged/attacked. Also, human trails in Yellowstone tend to get so much foot traffic, particularly the first 3-5 miles, that grizzlies avoid them. Sure, there have been notable exceptions, and those have made the news. I immediately recall the last 2 fatalities, one of which was a solo hiker about 5 or 6 miles in on the Mary Mountain trail. The other was a group of two, who were on a trail along the north edge of the east side of Hayden Valley, and did not follow behavior protocols. Three other maulings that I recall from the last 50 years occurred off-trail, near trails, in known grizzly habitat (Hayden Valley, Heart Lake, and the Trilobite Lake area). They all involved either a lone hiker or a pair of hikers!


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