hike blog

Bear Safety with Tom Smith

When you are where wild bears live you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself.

Linda Jo Hunter


om Smith has co-authored practically every important paper about human/bear encounters and advocates for bear deterrent, like capsaicin, to avoid being attacked while hiking.
Dr. Tom Smith has co-authored practically every important paper about human/bear encounters and advocates for bear deterrent, like capsaicin, to avoid being attacked while hiking.

Have you hiked in bear country? Maybe that’s a silly question because pretty much every undisturbed forest in the US and Canada are host to black bear and you’ll likely come across brown bears – which include grizzly – if you’re walking in the northern Rockies and Alaska. They’re magnificent, beautiful but can be dangerous, so we need to take special care when traveling through and camping in their habitat. 

Tom Smith is a Professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. His research topics center on human-wildlife conflict. Initially, his specialty included bighorn sheep and caribou, but when he was hired to work at Katmai National Park in Southwest Alaska, he found the most common animal there was bear and his work took a radical shift. Over the last two decades, he has conducted research in Alaska, India and in bear country throughout the lower 48 states promoting bear safety and conservation. 


Tom Smith serves as a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, Wildlife SOS-India, and the international working group for polar bear conflict resolution.
Tom Smith serves as a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, Wildlife SOS-India, and the international working group for polar bear conflict resolution.

In collecting data on literally thousands of bear attacks, he has drawn conclusions that often go against popular beliefs about bear safety, including the efficacy (or non-efficacy) of bear bells, that bears rarely attack hikers in groups, that playing dead should only ever be a tactic of last resort and that everyone – including trail runners – should carry a bear spray, like Counter Assault Bear Deterrent.

He also discussed his studies with odors and just how much will attract bears including one case where a bit of an opened freeze-dried dinner drew no interest, but apricot-scented shampoo will have a bear pulling an unsuspecting camper out of their tent.

Most important was that he not only always carried bear spray, but that he camps with an electric fence, a Critter Gitter (which he describes as, “Fun!” and often uses flares to let bears know he’s moving in their territory. All of these are light-weight and could prove useful especially if hiking on one’s own. Important to note the bears in Glacier are totally different than bears in Alaska, like Katmai. They are more fierce. I can only say that I am glad I never ever saw one while in Montana but that’s likely because I made noise appropriately and had my bear spray at the ready!

COULD YOU SURVIVE A RUN-IN WITH A BEAR? Test your knowledge of bears with this quiz.

guest post

GUEST POST: Avoiding Ticks When Hiking

The tick may very well be the most dangerous creature you will encounter on a backpacking trip.

Paul Johnson is the Founder of The Tick and Mosquito Project and contacted me about a month ago with an offer to share one of his articles on a subject that could be of great value to those of us who love to tramp in the out-of-doors. Lions, tigers and bears may frighten us, but the lowly deer tick can cause tremendous harm to our bodies. Read on and take good care!

Sometimes, the most dangerous animal on the hiking trail is much smaller than you might assume.  For all the exaggerated stories of coyote encounters, bear attacks, or cougar sightings, it just might be that the creature you need to be most afraid of is a tiny tick.

Ticks transmit diseases in their bites, and the most common tick-borne illness is probably Lyme disease which afflicts at least 30,000 people each year in the USA alone.  The deer tick (which transmits Lyme disease) is a determined little creature whose range is growing by the year.  The deer tick is synonymous with the blacklegged tick.  While deer ticks are expanding their range each year, they tend to be most abundant in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

Take a few steps to be sure you are steering clear of ticks on the hiking trail or at the campsite.  Here are some things you can do.

Use Repellent

A good tick repellent or combination of repellents can do wonders in the effort to keep ticks away from you.  While many of us are not fans of using man-made repellents, a combination of DEET and permethrin has been shown to repel ticks as well as anything.  DEET is used on your skin (and it obviously repels mosquitoes too) and permethrin is applied to footwear and clothing.

When we hike and use this combination, we tend to experience a major reduction in ticks — probably an 80% decrease, although we have never scientifically measured it.

There are some suggestions of essential oil and more natural concoctions for repelling ticks as well, and some initial studies find that nootkatone, geraniol, and rosemary might be effective to some extent against ticks.  While we certainly like the notion of natural, essential oil repellents, we also say use them with caution.  Lyme disease is not something to flirt with, and if you for sure, positively are going to be hiking in an area known for Lyme-carrying deer ticks, go with the proven DEET and permethrin combo.

As lovely as it is to walk in, and often necessary, long grass is the favorite hangout of ticks waiting to attach to our skin.

Beware of Long Grass and Brush

Ticks typically live in areas with plenty of cover.  They prefer long grass to dirt or short grass, and some of their favorite habitat tends to be a brush pile or leaf pile.  As you are spending time exploring outside, you will be less likely to encounter ticks if you stay on the trail and out of the longer grass.  

For those who might be getting their kids outdoors, be sure to help them check for ticks.  Kids don’t always have the same thoroughness that adults have, so it is not enough to just tell them to check themselves.

Be sure to look for hotspots — ticks love warmer areas on the body such as the scalp, armpits, and are behind the knees.

If you are in a position where you have no choice but to go off-trail — perhaps are a photographer trying to get that perfect photo — then it is even more important that you use repellents before you go outside.

Check Yourself Regularly

It might seem obvious, but checking yourself for ticks is critical anytime you have been in contact with outdoor areas, long grass, or forests.  It is important that you give yourself a thorough inspection, not just a simple eyeballing of your clothing.

Make sure you look over yourself quickly after ending your hike or trip, because there is evidence that the longer a tick is attached, the more likely it is to transmit Lyme disease to you if it is infected.

Monitor Your Pets, Too!

If you are bringing your dog with you on a hike, be sure to help them prevent ticks from hitching a ride on their fur or coat. Because dogs often veer off into longer grass and brush piles, they are likely to come in contact with ticks even if you are trying not to.  There are some great tick repellents for dogs (outlined here) that will help your pet keep ticks at bay.  That way, your dog is less likely to carry ticks into your car or home when the outdoor time is done.

Though a real and present danger in the Northeast, lyme disease is spreading rapidly in the Midwest and along the Pacific Crest Trail.