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How I got over my fear of bears

If you’ve read any articles on this blog before, you’ll know that I dedicate a lot of my writing time to bears, because I have been, for most of my life, completely terrified of them. 

When camping and backpacking, I find it very hard to sleep because of the constant anxiety I feel when thinking about a bear coming into my camp. 

Recently, in Grand Teton National Park, that exact thing happened. Although it was a pretty scary encounter (the second of two bear encounters I had while backpacking with my wife and our best friend), I realized afterward that I wasn’t really afraid of another encounter. 

Waking up to a bear

We’d hiked up Paintbrush Canyon, and partially down Cascade Canyon, in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. It was, roughly, a 15-mile day that really kicked our butts. We didn’t spend enough time getting acclimatized before the hike began, which meant hiking above 10,000 feet wore us out in the extreme. 

We set up camp in the North Fork camping zone, about 9,000 feet up. Ate dinner, went to bed. Each of us had Counter Assault Bear Spray we’d rented from Teton Backcountry Rentals

Small backpacking tent set up at a campsite in the woods
Setting up camp in North Fork – Cascade Canyon. Bear spray visible at bottom.

Like I mentioned before, I typically have trouble sleeping in the backcountry. The reasons are many – being uncomfortable on a sleeping pad, being too cool or too hot, all that stuff – but the main reason I have trouble sleeping is the persistent thought of bears. 

What if a bear came into our campsite?

What if I forgot to put some scented item – deodorant, chewing gum, a moist towelette? 

What would I do? Would I be able to respond in time? Would any amount of prep matter? 

While those anxious thoughts continued to bounce through my head, the two melatonin gummies I’d taken finally started to work their magic, and I drifted off to sleep. 

I woke up a few times during the night – sometimes because my hip hurt, sometimes because I was inexplicably sweating in 35 degree weather, and sometimes because Tony was rolling over on his extra loud sleeping pad. 

But, at about 5:30 AM, I woke up to a sound I hadn’t heard before. A low, slow rumbling, almost growl. With that growl came the sound of heavy, lumbering footsteps. 

Within a few seconds, I was sure: there was a bear nearby. Grizzly by the sound of it. 

I sat up on my sleeping pad and started to clap as loudly as I could. Alongside the claps, I started to speak as loud as possible: “Hey bear! Hey bear! I’m in here, bear!”. Within seconds, Mary (my wife) and Tony joined the clapping chorus. 

Every thirty seconds or so we’d quiet down to listen – and every time, we could still hear the bear breathing and moving nearby. We were camping next to a downhill stream that made quite a bit of noise; earshot was maybe 100 feet or so if you were talking loudly. This meant that the bear had to be reasonably close if we were able to hear it breathing over the sound of the stream. 

Thirty minutes of that – clap, yell, wait, repeat – before we finally started to think the bear had left. We continued to talk loudly for another half hour or so before we were finally confident enough to head back to bed. The bear was gone. 

Once we returned to civilization, we looked up as many videos as we could to try and confirm what we’d heard. This video was the closest thing I could find to whatever walked near my tent that night:

How I got over my fear of bears

For a scaredy cat like me, you’d think that encounter would have had me shaking in my boots. But, surprisingly, I wasn’t. I felt reasonably calm. I knew exactly what to do in a bear encounter, and I did it. I had my bear spray ready and was properly trained on how to use it. 

All that fretting and researching and worrying made me decently prepared to respond, and I responded. Although I was still pretty fearful for the rest of the backpacking trip, I had a deep sense of reassurance after that encounter.

The day after we left the backcountry, I realized bears weren’t really bothering me anymore. All it took was seeing four of them and having a close encounter with an unseen fifth. For the rest of the trip, no matter where we camped or hiked, 

What does this mean for you? If you, like me, have been carrying a fear of bears that sometimes makes it harder to enjoy the outdoors, it might be time to head out to bear country. The reality is that bears pose very little danger to hikers and backpackers, and the only ones who find themselves in true danger are the ones who are unprepared, foolish, or both. This means that, if you feel like your fear is a little bit more than a healthy fear, you should look to face it.

Seeing a bear in the wild is a pretty special experience, even for someone like me who has actively avoided that moment. In fact, seeing (rather, hearing) a bear up-close turned out to be exactly what I needed to put my fear in the appropriate perspective. It’s allowed me to move more freely and confidently through the backcountry, and I’m grateful for that. 

Cascade canyon trail, with Grand Teton mountain in the background

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