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Book Review: "NOLS Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country"

John Gookin and Tom Reed know bear country.

Both have hiked and camped among black bears and grizzlies for more than 20 years. They’ve taught hundreds of students the ropes — and more than just how to hang food — as instructors for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Both have some exciting tales of bear encounters, and both will tell you that there’s nothing quite like sharing habitat with one of nature’s most majestic mammals.

NOLS Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country by John Gookin and Tom Reed (Stackpole Books, 2009) $9.95

Their new book, NOLS Bear Essentials: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country, is proof they know what they’re doing.

Just under 90 pages, it’s a pocket-sized information powerhouse that includes the essentials and omits the fluff. Light and small enough to take on the trail, it’s a must-have for anyone considering their first foray into bear country and a valuable resource for those who need a refresher. If you think it’s okay to toss out food particles in your dish water, hang your food eight feet off the ground, or aren’t sure if you should stand your ground or play dead when encountering a bear, you’re in the latter camp.

Most importantly, the authors stress that no matter where you’re headed to hike, you need the appropriate mindset. “We wanted to have something that helped visitors to bear country view themselves as a guest in the bear’s home,” Gookin said. “We wanted people to respect their habitat. That’s the attitude that helps you understand your situation.”

“We don’t have a lot of places we can go anymore where we’re not the baddest thing in the woods,” Reed said. “Grizzly country — that’s a really unique thing.”

NOLS Bear Essentials addresses both grizzly and black bear territory, covering bear identification, habitat, awareness, and avoidance, along with proper food storage, tips for fishing and hunting in bear country, and how to handle a confrontation. Rather than laying down set rules for hiking in bear territory, Gookin said a better option was to write about universal principles and allow people to use their good judgment and apply them to their own unique situations. There can’t be a rule that you always hang your food, because some territory doesn’t allow for it, and parks have different requirements. Knowing what your options are (food lockers, bear canisters, or food hanging) and researching your destination beforehand is a better method.

The basic principles include lots of Ps: preparation, precautions, prevention. The intent is that educated, prepared hikers who’ve done their homework and know what to expect at their specific location likely won’t need to rely on the “Confrontations” chapter of the book. “If you read it and take those things to heart, and you use your head, you’re setting yourself up for a really cool experience in bear country,” Reed said.

Though chances of an encounter are small, NOLS Bear Essentials provides clear, straightforward advice on how to handle one. Both authors write from experience, each having found himself face to face with bears in the backcountry more than once. In 1996, Reed was bluff charged by a grizzly while on a hunting trip in the Teton Wilderness, surprising it in a willow grove one late afternoon. He stood his ground, and the bear veered off into the woods once it was about 25 yards away. “Those are hair-raising experiences,” he said. “But being out there as a hunter, you realize how tolerant those critters are of mankind, and generally speaking, how few of them there are around.”

Gookin, while on a trip with bear scientists in Alaska a few summers ago, encountered a mother and her cubs, and the group chased them off by shooting off fireworks. “Bear scientists use all sorts of things,” he said. “There’s a fine line between a bear being curious and a bear being aggressive.”

A diagram from NOLS Bear Essentials illustrates one of several methods for hanging your food. (Illustration by Mike Clelland)

Along with relying on their own experiences, Gookin and Reed consulted a wealth of experts to be sure the book included the most up-to-date facts and research, including two wildlife biologists, three bear management officials, and a wildlife technician.

Outfitted with helpful diagrams that simplify intricate food hanging methods and a thorough section on bear spray and its proper use and storage, NOLS Bear Essentials wraps up decades of backcountry knowledge in a simple, straightforward style that will help assure any hiker’s safe, exciting foray into bear territory.

While bears have been a part of Gookin and Reed’s working lives, they’re part of their personal ones, too. Both make their homes in bear country. Gookin, a Lander, Wyoming, resident, loads up the family each year “just to cruise around with a spotting scope and look at bears” in Yellowstone. In addition, he’s co-authored other books on wilderness wisdom and winter camping for NOLS, where he’s been the curriculum and research manager for the past 20 years.

Reed, who now works in Trout Unlimited’s public lands division, is a quintessential Montana man. He lives a few miles outside the tiny town of Pony (population 100), owns horses, goes fishing, and shoots his own dinner (elk, preferably). A former journalist, he’s also the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories and a collection of essays called Give Me Mountains For My Horses.

In addition to sharing backcountry bear knowledge and a passion for the places they live, the authors share similar views on the balance of human-bear interactions and the importance of proper conduct when entering the bears’ home, which is why it’s a central theme of their new book.

“I think the big thing is, there are fewer and fewer wild spaces,” Gookin said. “But we can visit them, and we can cohabitate with the animals that are there, so that hopefully they’ll be there for future generations. It’s just a matter of understanding and respecting them in their natural habitat.”


Be bear aware. Read Hiking and Camping Safely in Bear Country. Learn how to identify black versus brown bears, how to act on the trail, how to properly handle and store food, and what to do during a bear encounter.


Thanks for the article Bobbi, I will add this book to my read list...whew, it keeps getting longer. You ever feel that way?

I also loved the illustration, that's exactly how bears think!

"I'm gonna figure this out"

While animals do not have the intellect we humans have, they deserve our respect, how many of us could survive in the wild naked, no electronics, no Wal-mart, so on and so forth.......

Obviously, they have something modern day man does not! We should respect them for that.

It seems that there is yet another "pocket sized" manual on bear safety published every few months. I have read quite a number of these from personal and former professional interest and am seldom impressed by the "expertise" contained within.

It reminds me strongly of Brad Angier's pontificating and enriching himself thereby, about how to live in the BC interior ...on pennies a day... We, who actually DID live there, were born there into families who had pioneered BC and worked in the wilderness used to just howl with laughter at Angier's egomaniacal posturing.

But, this is a popular topic and one which sells books and thus profits those involved. So, we shall very probably see more such tomes published.

I think one should read a book first before criticizing and dismissing its content, its authors, and their motives out of hand.

I think that YOU need to READ more carefully as I DID NOT ...dismiss...this particular book; I commented on a particular phenomenon which I have noticed during the past few years. I STATED that I HAD read the books I referred to and my point was that, due to having done so, I am a bit skeptical concerning further material of this type.

I NEVER base any of my opinions on gear, wilderness behaviour or even the publishing industry on anything except personal experience, I OWNED my own bookstore and very likely have far more actual field experience over a longer period working professionally in bear habitat and with bears than anyone on this forum.

So, my skeptical approach to "outdoors how-to books" is based on real experience. There are VERY few Grizzlies in the "Lower 48", about 1000 and there are about 2500 in the region of B.C. where I was born and raised, this out of about 20,000 in BC as a whole. So, I think my comments are valid and may prevent someone from wasting money on crap like Angier's books.


I do not doubt your experience, your post may seem to come across a little strong to those of us who do not have your level of experience, sometimes we do not have the base of knowledge needed to filter out the crap. I have spent a lot of time in the woods, and have lived out for short durations, long enough to realize I have a lot to learn.

You seem to feel (as I do) that many books of this nature are written by well meaning people, many of whom do have experience in the field, but are written in an idealistic approach, vs. a purely practical one. Would that be a correct statement?

Are there any books you would recommend?


I have several books on bears, I enjoy reading and learning, but I see a "gap" in the information provided by these books when I compare what I read, to the information I have gotten from my acquaintances who work in wildlife management, the guys who actually work with these animals and others of course, every day.

It seems as if the authors of these types of books desire to temper their wording a bit so as to not offend those who have a Pollyanna view of the wilderness.

I love the wilderness, it holds great beauty and wonder, it can also be dangerous. I do not take the approach that some seem to take, such as: "The chances of something like that happening is so slim, why are you so worried?"

These are often the same people who buy lottery tickets, just in case.

Most everyone I have talked to here at Trailspace seems to have a balanced view of the subject although we differ on the fine points.

I still have a lot to learn I'm sure, and like others I read a lot for the lack of a direct mentor, I try my best to talk with people who work with animals in the wild, and take their perspectives into account when reading books.

A lot of the published info seems to me to be a filtered, generic version for the masses.

It's one thing to read a book or two and say, I'm prepared! I've got the proper gear, and understand about bear safety, and another, to be in an actual encounter with something like a bear, and realize how small and puny you are in comparison.

As I have said before, I have backpacked for more than 20 years with no aggressive bear encounters, but I stood in a trout stream with one before (Polk Co. TN), it was a tense, defining moment for me that helped ground my opinions in a more realistic way.

Like being in a car accident, it's extremely real when it happens to you. It doesn't matter much what others say about the risks at that point.

The issues of bear safety are complex and opinions, even from experts vary widely and seem to have evolved a great deal in the last few years. Working as a cinematographer, I was fortunate to film Toklat grizzlies in Denali, Alaskan Brown bears at McNeil River, and have had a number of other encounters both in the US and Canada over the last 40 odd years. I was even charged(a feint) by a sow with two spring cubs in Yosemite. Nowhere, including the latter, did I feel my life was in danger. Even in Yosemite. Every bear encounter, including the one I had last week on a canoe trip in Canada, is unique. So to, bears have distinct personalities, just like family dogs. Bobbi's article is correct, bears have great powers to sniff out food, perhaps even greater than 100 times better than ours. The key to discouraging bears, is not to smell like a supermarket. Many backcountry users have the habit of wiping their food smell covered hands on their pants. A bit of cheese on a pant leg and a bear will try it, just to see if it really is food. Hopefully, you won't be wearing the pants at the time. Food placement is also another consideration. In Canada's Barrens, there aren't any trees big enough to hang food, and the small sized backcountry canisters are totally inadequate for extended trips. We also double zip lock all food and place our containers off of game trails. A bear doesn't want to walk through an alder thicket any more than you do. Reading about bears is certainly helpful, but as Trouthunter alludes, there is no substitute for the real thing. And the more you encounter bears, the less your apt to panic, and that enhances your bear/human encounters in positive way.

I should add as a postscript to the above post, that there are so many publications and studies about how to survive in bear country, I have yet to see one on how to survive in moose country. Seriously, there have been more deaths from human/moose encounters in the last 100 years, then there have been deaths from human/bear encounters. Bears are potentially dangerous, just as that hungry squirrel can be, but a moose isn't just a a real life Bullwinkle.

I should add as a postscript to the above post, that there are so many publications and studies about how to survive in bear country, I have yet to see one on how to survive in moose country.

Great suggestion, Erich! Maybe we can do a piece on what to do when encountering moose, mountain lions, and other animals.

Grizzly Bears are beyond potentially dangerous, as the three attacks within the past month here in BC should indicate to anyone. Several VERY experienced, working, professional outdoorsmen I know and have known, guys with decades of serious, solo, wilderness experience have been mauled here and they take these bears VERY seriously, as do I.

When I first started working professionally in the BC bush, age 18, in 1965, the locally born, oldtime packers, guides and camp crew were ALL more afraid of a Cow Moose with a newly dropped calf than of Grizzlies. We were charged by one ugly old girl on my 21st birthday up near the Kananaskis Summit in the BC-AB Rockies and we got the hell out of there right quick as she meant business!

There is FAR TOO MUCH "advice" on the internet about animal encounters and there are very simple techniques to avoid trouble. It is, IMHO, much better to learn these and use them than to debate "tactics" until you are so confused that you do the wrong thing in an encounter and get chomped.

Caution, harsh metallic noises, avoidance of areas with fresh sign and a calm demeanour if a sudden encounter happens, will save your azz far more often than all the "bear spray", "bear bangers", "bear bells" and assorted bulls**t, that enthusiastic amateurs recommend. I like an airhorn and, where I consider it necessary, an appropriate gun, IN MY HANDS, but, this is only for those who have the skills to use it.

I once guided a photographer to get some bear and other animal pix in the spring, just before I went into my summer bush camp, alone, for three months. He was a backpacker and had done some hunting in the USA; when I worked him within 20 yards of a group of bull Elk, still wearing antlers, he was so excited that he forgot to remove his 35mm lens cap!

I tried to get him on a blonde Grizzly I found with my old Zeiss, but, when I then saw two little dudes with her, I decided that she needed her space more than he needed photos. Bears are my lifelong passion among animals (plus my Rottweilers), but, I ain't taking chances with them and have never had a problem.

So what do you use to make harsh metallic noises - pots?

So what do you use to make harsh metallic noises - pots?

That's a great way. Whistles work well too. Here at our environmental center we bang 2 empty 5 gallon water jugs together. Talk about 'yer loud and obnoxious sound...sheesh!

We used to get round, lidded tobacco tins from our dads and put about 3 medium pebbles in them and use these to warn bears along our fishing creeks. We also used metal backpack cans equipped with squirt hoses/nozzles for fire fighting, packing fresh water to the remote fire L/Os and even to hold "slashburning" fuel, 20% gasoline mixed into 80% diesel fuel to get the huge piles of logging debris burning at this time of year, to prepare sites for reforestation the following spring.

Beating on these will make a racket that bears seem to dislike and they will slowly leave, end of problem. I also have whacked the 10 gal. steel cream cans full of water while attached to my BCFS issue "Trapper Nelson No. 3" packboard with my axe or Pulaski and this makes a noise that they also seem to find unacceptable. Striking the 100lb. propane tanks with a shovel, smacking two saucepans together, or, banging your axe against any metal object will all USUALLY make bears saunter off and let you get where you need to be.

I used to wear a WWI Canadian Corps whistle which my grandfather had used to signal his troops at Courcelette and Passchendaele as he was a Canadian officer in that tragic conflict. I blew this like my life depended on it one evening at dusk on the Bulldog L/O old road, near Castlegar, BC, when I encountered and stood, unarmed, within ten yards of the largest Grizzly I have ever seen. He was not impressed, gave me a contemptuous look and slowly walked uphill to where I had to go.

I am not much into whistles after that and some other experiences and now carry a Freon horn and these can be useful, but, watching where you go AND leaving an area with fresh sign is still the most reliable means of avoiding trouble.

Most attacks could be prevented IF people would WATCH where they are and check for godawful smells, big tracks and fresh poop. Banging your light pots together as you retreat from an area containing a bear, is, IMHO, a VERY good practice and yelling, screaming and cracking rocks together helps as well.

"When in Bear Country: The Actions of Dumb People are the Cause of Smart Bears!"

The difference between the 'intelligence' of the bears at Philmont Scout Ranch and the National Parks is phenomenal.
The way we do 'Bear Bagging' (using bear cables strung between two trees) at Philmont, is similar to the illustration above, you could never get away with at a National Park such as Yosemite, because the bears would get your food and it would be illegal, you must use bear canisters in Yosemite.

This is entirely due to the training of the Crews by the Philmont Rangers, and the Crews actually following through with the training.

In normal 'non-tourist' wilderness locations using the above illustration may work just fine, and it usually does, it all depends on the bears.

But when you come down to the root cause of 'smart bears', it is not a 'bear-problem' it is a 'people-problem', or closer yet... 'problem-people'.

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