Bears and the PNT

Shoni the Grizzly by Charles Peterson is licensed under CC by 2.0

The Pacific Northwest Trail travels through some of our most cherished and wildest public lands. These special places are home to animals iconic of wilderness, like grizzly bears and gray wolves.  

In much of the lower 48 states, a bear sighting has become special and rare. Many of these animals have been lost to local extinction. With a relatively small remaining habitat, seeing a surviving grizzly bear is part of the very special experience offered by a trip on the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Our privilege to visit these places comes with the responsibility to protect them. 

Put bears and safety first on the Pacific Northwest Trail by following the special rules and regulations at each of the public land units you visit. Your choices can help protect wildlife and keep the backcountry safe for generations to come.

Two Species of Bears Found on the PNT

Do you know your bears?

Although they have many common names, in the Pacific Northwest there are only two species of bears: the American black bear (Ursus americanus) and the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), a subspecies of North American brown bear.

Their names can be misleading. Color and size are not reliable ways to tell these species apart. Every visitor to the Pacific Northwest Trail should take the time to learn about the key differences between these two species, where they live, and the extra steps they need to take to visit bear country safely and responsibly.

Learn more about bears and bear safety at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s website.

Bear Identification Chart
Bear Identification Chart. Center for Wildlife Information
American Black Bear

The American black bear is the most common and widely distributed bear in North America. 

Black bears in the Pacfic Northwest are considered medium-sized bears. Despite their name, their fur may be brown, cinnamon, blond and many other shades in addition to black. 

Black bears are common in forested areas along the PNT, but they will leave forests in search of food. It is common to see black bears grazing on blueberries in open alpine meadows and along the sandy beaches of Olympic National Park.

Black bears have better eyesight and hearing than humans. And their sense of smell is about seven times better than a domestic dog’s. They may be active at any time of the day or night, although they mainly forage by night.

Learn more about black bears here.

American Black Bear by Casey Brown is licensed under CCby2.0
  • Fur Color:  Shades of black, brown, blond, cinnamon, or rust (black, brown or cinnamon may be most common on the PNT)
  • Weight:  100-300 pounds, with males larger than females
  • Height Standing:  Average 5 feet tall when standing upright on two feet
  • Height Walking:  Average 2.5-3 feet tall at the shoulder when standing on all fours
  • Profile:  When on all fours, the black bear’s rump is higher than its shoulders (key indicator)
  • Face:  Straight, with a relatively long muzzle and long, prominent ears (key indicator)
  • Range:  Live along 94% of the Pacific Northwest Trail
Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bears have faced local extinction in much of the contiguous United States, and the remaining habitat for this important species lies in but a few small areas in the Western States. 

PNT visitors to Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington will find themselves recreating in grizzly country. They should be prepared to take special precautions that are different than those typically required in areas where only black bears are found. Visitors’ safety and the survival of bears may depend on it.

“To find food, grizzly bears have heightened senses. Bears see about as well as humans do, and they see in color. A grizzly bear’s hearing is good, but the most important sense for a bear is its sense of smell. A grizzly bear’s nose is about 1,000 times more developed than a human’s nose. Bears remember where food and places are by how the place smells.” – Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game

Learn more about grizzly bears here.

Grizzly Bear by by Chascar is licensed under CCby2.0
  • Fur Color: Shades of black, brown or blonde (dark brown may be most common on the PNT)
  • Weight: 200-600 pounds, with males larger than females
  • Height Standing: 6-7 feet tall when standing upright on two feet
  • Height Walking: 3.5-4 feet tall at the shoulder when standing on all fours
  • Profile: When on all fours, the shoulder hump is taller than the bear’s rump (key indicator)
  • Face: Concave or “dished in” (key indicator)
  • Range: Live along the PNT in Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington (may occur in the North Cascades)

Where Bears Live on the PNT

Bears are common across 94% of the Pacific Northwest Trail. They are common in forested areas along the PNT, but bears will leave forests in search of food and may appear in places you might not expect, like above tree line in the mountains, near residential areas, or coastal areas. It is fairly common to see black bears on rugged beaches along the Wilderness Coast section of the trail.

From the eastern terminus in Montana through Eastern Washington, approximately 400 miles of the PNT travels through grizzly bear habitat. This includes Glacier National Park and the Flathead, Kootenai, Idaho Panhandle and Colville National Forests.  

It is also possible, but not likely, for grizzlies to visit the North Cascades ecosystem, in the Cascade Mountains in Western Washington. The last documented sighting in this area was in 1996.

Black bear habitat includes nearly the entire trail corridor, with the exception of 70 miles of trail through the islands of the Puget Sound.

(Find free maps of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail here.)

The American black bear is common along the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Bear safety precautions will vary across the PNT and may be very different from other public lands you have visited before.

Why Food Storage Is So Important

Food storage regulations protect bears, people, and the backcountry experience we enjoy on the PNT.

How you are required to store your food on the PNT may vary depending on which area along the trail you plan to visit. To recreate responsibly on the PNT, you must carefully research food storage regulations before your trip. If you wait until you reach the trailhead, it may be too late. For example, you may need to plan ahead to rent or purchase special equipment, like a hard-sided bear canister which is required in some areas of Olympic National Park.

To protect yourself and wildlife, it is your responsibility to manage your food, scented items and other “attractants” at all times in the backcountry. Proper food storage overnight in camp is critical, but you are also responsible for your attractants during the day while they are stored in your backpack and you are hiking on the trail. 

Learn more about the three food storage methods the PNTA recommends and where they are permitted on our Food Storage webpage

Over the last fifty years, the number of hazardous bear encounters on our public lands has been greatly reduced. This is due to the cooperation of backcountry campers who use the modern food storage methods developed in our National Parks and Forests after tragic accidents in the late 1960s.

Please do your part to keep the backcountry safe for everyone. Learn the regulations of the local land manager before your visit. Know that regulations will vary across the Pacific Northwest Trail and may be very different from other public lands you have visited before.

Food storage regulations will vary across the PNT. See our Approved Food Storage Chart for more information.

Put bears first on the PNT by learning how to avoid an encounter and by managing your food properly. 

Proper Food Storage Helps Grizzly Bear Recovery

As the population of North America continues to grow, grizzly bears have faced local extinction in much of the contiguous United States. The remaining habitat for this important species lies in but a few small areas in the Western States. 

It is critical that visitors to the PNT do their part to keep recovering grizzly populations healthy by learning how to avoid bear-human interactions. All too often, the saying, “a fed bear, is a dead bear,” is unfortunately true. 

Learn more about grizzly recovery efforts here.

Grizzly Bear Habitat Sign
A sign in bear habitat explains the need for proper food storage.

Regulations Will Vary Across the PNT

When it comes to food storage regulations in bear country, a one-size fits all approach is not practical. Backcountry visitors must be prepared to adapt their behavior and gear for local wildlife, just as they would for current weather conditions or to meet personal goals.

Local regulations have been carefully developed by experts based on years of experience and local circumstances. You may be visiting an area with species that are new to you. Or, local populations of animals may behave differently than you are used to. For example, they may be more aggressive or may have learned how to defeat basic food-hanging techniques.

PNT visitors should expect rules and regulations to be different between some of the National Parks, Wilderness Areas and National Forests along the trail. 

These boundaries aren’t always clearly marked with signage, but they will be shown on a quality map. The PNTA recommends that you always study a map while planning your trip, and take our free mapset with you on the trail.

One thing to research while consulting a map is if the trails you plan to visit cross more than one public land unit. For example, if your route will cross two National Forests, it will be your responsibility to know the rules and regulations of each place you will visit, and to adapt your gear and behavior accordingly.

(See the PNTA’s Approved Food Storage Chart for more information.)

One should also be aware that temporary restrictions can go into effect. In Glacier National Park, for example, it is not uncommon for local land managers to respond proactively to changing conditions by issuing temporary area closures when an individual grizzly bear’s behavior becomes too aggressive and poses a risk to visitors.

bear canister
Bear canisters are required on the PNT in two areas of Olympic National Park.

Food storage is very important on the Pacific Northwest Trail because it protects bears, people, and the backcountry experience that makes the trail so special.

Three Food Storage Methods

When you are in camp and you have finished preparing or enjoying a meal, food, trash and scented items must be stored by following the regulations of the local land manager. 

With the exception of a trip to the Puget Sound or some National Parks, which have special equipment, an overnight trip on the PNT will require one of three basic food storage methods. You can learn more about them and where they are permitted on our Food Storage webpage

Because of its great length, the 1,200-mile PNT travels through a variety of public lands: National Parks, National Forests, State Forests, and others. Regulations will vary between some of these areas. 

Some food storage methods, like hard-sided bear canisters meet or exceed the requirements for all of these areas and can be used along the entire trail. Other methods, such as the “Ursack hang” is only permitted in the eastern portion of the trail. You can learn more about food storage requirements on the PNT here.

DO NOT risk having a bear encounter in your tent by sleeping with your food, garbage or scented items.

Protect Your Food At All Times

It is your responsibility to safeguard your food and scented items for your entire trip. When they are not secured using an approved food storage method while you are in camp, they can be vulnerable to wildlife. 

Never leave “attractants” like food, trash or scented items unattended, even for a short period of time. Many animals have an excellent sense of smell and are naturally curious. Wildlife may go after your food bag or trash, even if it is deep in your backpack. Some animals will chew through packs or carry them off to get at their contents, leaving you with damaged or missing gear that your comfort and survival depend on. 

While on trail and in camp, keep these items in your line of sight at all times and within a few yards of you or another member of your group. (This is another reason that hiking with a partner is recommended in bear country.) Even if you don’t see wildlife nearby, animals can move quickly and may be much closer than you realize until it is too late.

If you do encounter a bear at close range on your trip, NEVER LET THE ANIMAL GET YOUR FOOD, especially by dropping your pack or food bag to distract the animal. This could create a “vicious cycle” that could put other campers in danger and the bear’s life at risk. Learn about the proper way to handle a bear encounter here.

A grizzly bear sow and two cubs in Glacier National Park

While visiting grizzly bear country, PNT visitors should be prepared to make significant changes to their behavior — or to recreate elsewhere.

Food Preparation and Storage

While recreating in bear country outdoor visitors must take special care when preparing food and enjoying meals.

For example, in Glacier National Park where both grizzly bears and black bears live, land managers have installed special infrastructure to help visitors recreate safely and responsibly. The park has built backcountry campgrounds so that tent pads, food storage and preparation areas and outhouses are at a safe distance apart (or about 100 yards). This concept is called “triangle camping” and is essential in grizzly country.

The PNT also passes through four National Forests where grizzly bears occur. While backcountry camping near the trail in these areas, visitors will be responsible for ensuring that they cook meals and store food 100 yards from their camping area, and relieve themselves 100 yards away from both of these areas.

Some backpackers find it easier to alter their routine in grizzly habitat by cooking in the late afternoon, and then hiking on a few miles to make camp before dusk. They will still need to store their food, trash and scented items at a sufficient distance from camp, as required by the local land manager.  

Learn more about food storage and preparation across the 1200 mile trail corridor of the PNT here.

Ursack AllWhite Bear Bag
Two models of Ursack have been certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee

Since the PNT was first thru-hiked in 1977, there have been no documented conflicts between bears and the trail’s users. Don’t cause the first! Learn how to avoid a close encounter before you go.

How to Avoid an Encounter With a Grizzly Bear

The risks we take on our outdoor adventures can vary greatly, especially while hiking great distances across National Scenic Trails through different environments.

Most outdoorists know that hazards can change based on factors like environment and weather, but they may not be aware of the hazards that local animal populations may pose to them. Fortunately, land managers have the experience and local knowledge needed to provide expert advice to ensure your safety — and protect wildlife. 

While relatively rare, grizzly bear attacks can be hazardous or even fatal. PNT visitors should be prepared to learn about the risks and how to minimize them. They may need to alter their camping routine, take special equipment, and avoid certain activities. Night-hiking and trail running, for example, may be relatively safe to do elsewhere, but are considered high-risk activities in areas where grizzly bear encounters are possible.

 An “encounter” could be considered different from a common animal “sighting” where wildlife is observed at a safe distance. In an encounter, a human and an animal come in close contact and the animal does not immediately leave the area or becomes aggressive. For grizzly bears, experts recommend keeping a distance of at least 300 feet, or the length of one American football field between you and the bear to minimize the risk of an attack.

(Read about the distance visitors are required to keep from animals in Glacier National Park.)

While rare, bear encounters have resulted in serious injuries, even fatalities, in the Northwest. Fortunately, the cooperation of backcountry visitors with new park rules and regulations, has greatly reduced the number of tragic bear encounters over the last fifty years. 

Put bears first on the PNT, and do your part to keep the backcountry safe for everyone by following these precautions while visiting our public lands. 

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee provides guidelines for bear safety, here.

Bear Track
A bear print in the Kootenai National Forest.
  • Trail running in grizzly bear habitat is highly discouraged.
  • Hiking at night, dawn, or dusk is highly discouraged.
  • Hiking alone is highly discouraged.
  • Listening to headphones is highly discouraged.
  • Hiking with a partner or a small group is recommended.
  • Learn and follow all food storage regulations for the area/s you plan to visit.
  • Maintain a “triangle camp” by cooking and storing food at least 100 yards away from camp. Avoid urinating or defecating within 100 yards of camp; these odors can attract animals.
  • Keep a safe distance; Glacier National Park recommends keeping a minimum safe distance of 300 feet (or one football field) between you and a bear at all times.
  • If you do encounter a bear at close range (less than 300 feet) follow the recommendations below.
  • While outdoors, always be aware of your surroundings. On the trail, visually scan the area ahead of you for bears or for blind spots where your line of sight may be restricted to less than 300 feet.
  • In areas where bears might have trouble hearing your approach, or you may have trouble seeing a bear, be sure to sing or make other “human sounds” to avoid surprising them. Consider slowing your pace to give any bears in the area more time to move away from you.
  • Bears are attracted to berry patches, and may forage for berries in dense forests and open alpine areas. Some berry bushes can be tall, thick and brushy and can greatly reduce your line of sight.
  • Bears are also attracted to carcasses, which can give off strong odors. If you smell or find yourself near a carcass, leave immediately, if possible.
  • Learn to recognize “bear signs” like scat, tracks, and digging along the trail that might give clues to recent bear activity and avoid these areas.
  • Where dogs are permitted, keep them on a leash at all times. Off-leash dogs have caused their owners to be attacked by bears. They can agitate bears and cause them to take chase back to the owner. While visiting bear habitat, consider leaving your pet at home.
  • Consider contacting the local land manager to learn about recent bear activity in the area.
  • Know that occasionally trails and campgrounds may close temporarily due to unsafe bear activity. The NPS, USFS, and PNTA share this information on their websites under Trail Conditions and Trail Alerts pages and may also post this information on trailhead kiosks.

How to Prepare for a Bear Encounter 

Glacier National Park makes the following recommendations for bear encounters within the minimum recommended safe distance:

“If you encounter a bear inside the minimum recommended safe distance (100 yards / 91 m), you can decrease your risk by following these guidelines:

  • If a bear or other animal is moving in your direction on a trail, get out of its way and let it pass.
  • If you can move away, do so. If moving away appears to agitate the bear, stop. In general, bears show agitation by swaying their heads, huffing, and clacking their teeth. Lowered head and laid-back ears also indicate aggression. Bears may stand on their hind legs or approach to get a better view, but these actions are not necessarily signs of aggression. The bear may not have identified you as a person and is unable to smell or hear you from a distance. Help the bear recognize you as a friendly human.
    • Talk quietly.
    • Do not run! Back away slowly, but stop if it seems to agitate the bear.
    • Try to assume a non threatening posture. Turn sideways, or bend at the knees to appear smaller.
    • Use peripheral vision. Bears may interpret direct eye contact as threatening.
    • Continue to move away as the situation allows.
  • If a bear appears intent on approaching you, your group, or your campsite in a non-defensive manner (not showing signs of agitation), gather your group together, make noise, and try to discourage the bear from further approaching. Prepare to deploy your bear spray. If you are preparing or consuming food, secure it. DO NOT LET THE BEAR GET YOUR FOOD!
  • If a bear approaches in a defensive manner (appears agitated and/or charges), stop. Do not run. Talk quietly to the bear. Prepare to deploy your bear spray. If contact appears imminent and you do not have bear spray, protect your chest and abdomen by falling to the ground on your stomach, clasp your hands around the back of your neck, and leave your pack on for protection. If the bear attempts to roll you over, try to stay on your stomach. If the attack is defensive, the bear will leave once it recognizes you are not a threat. If the attack is prolonged, FIGHT BACK!”

For more detailed information, watch Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety video.

Why You Should Carry Bear Spray 

Whenever possible, PNT users should take measures to avoid close encounters (less than 300 feet) with bears. If an encounter with a bear proves unavoidable, trail users should be prepared to achieve two objectives: protect themselves and protect the bear from unnecessary harm.

In grizzly country, bear spray is essential. PNT visitors should be prepared to use bear spray correctly, and to take special precautions to avoid an encounter with grizzlies and other sensitive wildlife. Bear spray has proven to be very effective and it is inexpensive, lightweight and non-lethal. Some PNT visitors choose to carry bear spray along the entire trail to protect themselves in the event of a rare encounter with a black bear, wolf or cougar.

Bear spray is intended to be sprayed in the face of an aggressive bear. Studies have shown it to be effective 93% of the time in causing bears to cease aggressive activity. Firearms have been found to be significantly less effective and may pose an unnecessary threat to wildlife. 

Several brands of bear spray are commercially available in the Pacific Northwest. These products consist of an aerosol can containing a highly concentrated pepper spray, a trigger and a locking mechanism to prevent accidental discharge of the contents.

Cans can vary slightly in size which affects their weight and the amount of spray they produce. They typically spray a distance of 30 feet for about seven to nine seconds depending on weather conditions and the size of the canister. Some manufacturers include a convenient nylon holster that can be attached to a shoulder or hip belt strap on a backpack. It’s important to carry bear spray in a place that allows for quick access during an encounter. 

Equipping oneself with bear spray is no substitute for common sense, bear safety precautions or food storage methods. You can learn more about the bear spray here.

Learn more about using bear spray at the Be Bear Aware Campaign’s website.