Don’t Buy Bear Spray: Top Tips For Exploring The US’ National Parks

There is plenty of planning one should do when gearing up for a trip. You haven’t got the home field advantage, as it were, so missteps in planning could mean an unplanned shopping trip (read: unplanned expenses) if you’ve forgotten to pack something, or missing out on an experience because you didn’t realize that “on time” means “late” sometimes. My partner and I really nailed some of these plans, and we really missed the mark on others. Let’s get into it and discuss what we did that worked – and what we learned the hard way.    

1. You may need Bear Spray, but you don’t have to buy it.

If you plan on visiting Glacier National, Yellowstone, or Grand Teton (or any other mountain park, for that matter), it’s a good idea to bring bear spray with you.   What is bear spray? I’m a city boy from a part of the country with no bears. I’m going to be honest and vulnerable with you for a moment… until I was looking at it in real life on a shelf at REI during this trip, I didn’t know bear spray was real. No shit. Bear spray is, essentially, military grade mace (per the employee at REI). It’s a last resort for a bear encounter. While hiking, it’s encouraged that you and your hiking buddy/-ies talk amongst each other. Bears don’t want to see humans any more than you want to see them. If they hear you coming, they’ll typically head the other way. If you do encounter a bear, best practice is to keep your head down and not look it in the eyes. Back away slowly, the bear should leave. If the bear does begin to move toward you, you can deploy your bear spray like you would a fire extinguisher – aim in a downward direction and sweep the air ahead of you. The trouble with bear spray is that it is like mace, as I mentioned. If you’re downwind from the bear, you run the risk of macing yourself. Safety procedure for using bear spray can be found on this page by Yellowstone National.   Be that as it may, it is a handy tool if you know how to use it. My partner and I stumbled across some at REI and discovered it ranges between $50-75 (€40-60). Good thing we had already consulted good ole’ Reddit.

Don’t buy bear spray. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the front desk. They likely have some. You see, you can’t take bear spray on an airplane for obvious reasons. Many tourists will purchase bear spray, not have to use it, can’t take it home, so they leave it in their hotel room. Our desk clerk gave us a full can for free, saying “We’ve got a whole box back there from people who’ve left it behind.” A note: Just ensure your second-hand hotel bear spray isn’t expired. You definitely want good bear spray in the unlikely event that you need to use it.    

2. Make sure your Backpack is comfortable. No, really.

Y’all. We’re not kidding. So, why were we at REI so often while we were in Kalispell, if we weren’t there to buy bear spray? We needed a good backpack. Day one of Glacier National, we took an average-sized yellow backpack with us. Nothing fancy, just a lightweight backpack from Target that we’ve had for years. It folds in on itself to become a palm-sized package for easy storage when not in use, if that gives you any idea of how lightweight this bag is – and how little padding is on the straps. When I say the straps have little padding, I mean they have no padding. No padding in the back, either. We brought some Hydroflasks, some snacks, eventually removed our jackets and stored them in there, and had a few other miscellaneous items to carry. After trading the backpack back and forth for a six-hour hike, both of us had red strap marks digging into our skin. Do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve got a comfortable bag for carrying your hiking goodies. You won’t regret it. We just picked up an inexpensive bag designed for hikers from REI that had padded straps and a clip to go around your waist to prevent your back from doing all the work.    

3. Bring cash!

You never know if you’re going to need it! Some small businesses along your route may be cash-only, or because of fees imposed by credit/debit card companies, may have high minimum purchases for cards.

This especially came in handy for us when we passed through Arizona. Unfortunately, Native American food is difficult to find. As we passed through the Southwest, we made it a point to spend money at a Native American business – if we could find some. We eventually located a Mexican-Navajo restaurant called Amigo Cafe in Keyenta, Arizona. We were thrilled to try the food, but the establishment was cash-only. Thankfully we were prepared and the food was incredible.    

4. If you’re not early, you’re late.

Parking at national parks can be a hot, hot commodity. I mean like, it fills up faster than a Saturday morning at The Breakfast Klub. Okay, that was a very Houston-centric reference and many of you won’t understand that. Just know that Beyoncé is from Houston, we love her, and when she’s in town she eats at “TBK”. So between her endorsement and the fact that the food is slammin’, you ain’t getting a seat for breakfast on the weekend unless you show up practically before sunrise. Same goes for parking at basically any national park.

We planned out our hikes by discerning which were likely to be the most popular ones (which hikes take you to the best views?) and chose to do those first each day because they were most likely to fill up quickly. Regardless of which park we were at, we would generally try to arrive at the trailhead parking lot around 6:00 AM. It was usually still dark out when we left our hotel, and depending on how far the trailhead was inside the park, we would leave the hotel anywhere between 4:00 and 5:00. The groggy mornings were always worth it when we reached the destination, though. Take my word for it; I’m not even a morning person and I was thriving, despite the early rises.  

5. Never pass up a paper map!

Sound the alarm: Don’t be surprised if there is absolutely no mobile phone signal while you’re in a national park. Sometimes my partner, who has Sprint, would have a little signal when I didn’t, and sometimes I (AT&T) would have a little signal when he didn’t.  However, don’t trust that just because you have one or more people with you that someone is bound to have signal. By and large, both of us had nothing within the park gates. This is great if you want to take a break from social media and emails while exploring nature. Where it’s not so great is navigation. In days of yore (like, 15 years ago, ha), people may have been more apt to pick up a map for navigation. These days with Apple Maps, Waze, Google Maps, etc. already on our phones, picking up a paper one isn’t exactly second nature anymore. When you enter a park, grab a map. You’ll need it. Most rivers, overlooks, campgrounds, and roads are clearly labeled, both in person and on the map, making navigation extremely easy. If you load the map on your phone at your hotel to take you directly to your first trailhead or attraction of the day, your phone will likely get you there without incident. The trouble comes when you need to load up a new destination once you’re inside the park and have completed that first trail or attraction. The location you’re at may have maps there, but if you’re at a trailhead for example, many times those maps are only of that trail, and not the whole national park. These maps will be useless in helping you get to your next activity. So, grab that park map when you enter the park.      

Well, we’ve arrived at the end. What was just a 10-day excursion for my partner and me has turned into a five-blog reading experience for other intrepid explorers on the internet. What a remarkable age this is, that we were able to share these moments together. As I sign off, I would like to thank David for collaborating with me and asking me to share my travels with you all. And of course, thank you, the readers, for reading. ~Barrett –Collaborating with other writers and travelers was something I really wanted to do with this new website and I am so pleased that Barrett could be the first person I’d write with! His 10 Day/5 Part Blog is a great guide for those who want to explore the U.S and find a amazing landscapes, animals and coffee! I want to thank Barrett for sharing and allowing me to work with him! His new literary journal just launched and I really recommend you guys check out Hearth and Coffin! And to the readers and followers, be sure to stay tuned for more great stuff! ~David

Barrett White is a journalist based in Houston. He runs The Common Grounds Collective blog, which he updates when he feels like it. His byline has appeared in the Houston Press, OutSmart Magazine, and Spectrum South – to name a few.​   He has lived the life of a starving writer in a 1930s downtown studio, enjoyed crepes on the banks of the Seine, camped in his Ford Focus while traversing the United States, and almost learned rudimentary algebra in college. He’s exceptionally talented at navigating public transit and lives for the noise and the bustle of the city. ​His love of adventure and breadth of experience informs and directs his style.   Barrett is a proud Associate Member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @ebearw

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