Camping in bear country may sound exciting and attractive to some people, however, many more avoid doing it because they fear bears. They are afraid of encounters with bears that may lead to confrontation, injury or worse… Certainly, they are right to some extent. Yes, bear encounters can be extremely dangerous for people. However, bears seldom attack people and these attacks turn into a life-threatening situation even more rarely.
It’s a pity that myths and misconceptions that often lack factual information have created unnecessary fear. Gaining more information and knowledge about these fascinating animals will help you understand them and their behavior and will make camping and hiking in bear country safer. Though, keep in mind that bears do not behave like robots so you can never predict with 100% certainty what a bear is going to do in a certain situation or at a certain time. One of the main reasons for this is that bears learn from experience (like people do). As a result, each bear is able to tailor its response to a specific situation. Generally, instincts, experiences, and other traits of a given bear all interact in a specific environment to produce action.
Photo by Mike Erskine
Table of Contents
#1 Camp well away from any cover for bears
Both black and brown bears are normally wary animals that prefer to approach uncertain situations by using landscape features as well as trees and bushes for cover. In addition, bears often use trails and roads made by people especially at night when it is unlikely to encounter any humans. Sparsely vegetated river or stream edges, beaches, or ridges are also among their travel routes. Whenever there aren’t any constructed trails available, bears develop their own tunnel-like systems or modify game trails made by other animals. Therefore, you’d like to avoid camping in the middle of or just off a trail through dense bush. It’s best to camp in open areas – well away from any covers for bears.
In grizzly country (don’t do that in black bear country since black bears are much better at climbing trees than you are), you can camp next to an escape tree. You may not be 100% safe there but there is a good chance the grizzly (brown) bear won’t be able to follow you if you can climb up well above the bear’s reach (at least 6-7 meters). Certainly, some brown bears have been seen climbing 15-20 meters but these are exceptions.
#2 Sleep in a tent
Sleeping under the stars, while camping in bear country, isn’t recommended. The data shows that in most cases of bear encounters at campsites, people who were injured (and killed) slept in a sleeping bag without a shelter. Sleeping in a tent while backcountry camping around bears provides some protection and reduces the risk of being charged.
Leave half a meter or so between you and the tent wall in case a curious bear decides to bite or claw the sides of the tent. It’s probably testing to see if something edible is inside. Also, some campers prefer to sleep with a knife for a quick exit from the tent if a bear tries to enter and attack them. Have a bear spray (for self-defense) and a flashlight (bright illumination helps to check the area for bears) and you will be much safer in your tent. You should also know in advance how to use your bear spray so that you’d be able to act quickly in case of a bear attack. If you aren’t prepared, it will be much more difficult to fight back in a timely manner.
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#3 Keep a clean camp
Many experts recommend separating your sleeping area, your cooking area, your washing area, and your food-storage area at least 100 meters apart from each other. All cooking, food-hanging, and washing have to be away from camp and downwind.
Keeping total cleanliness is very important when camping in bear country. Food and rubbish odors attract scavenging bears so don’t place food inside your tent. Carefully plan your meal quantities so that you don’t have any leftovers. If there are any leftovers, they should either be burned thoroughly (this can be done only for small bits of combustible leftovers and garbage) or stored into sealed plastic bags. Practicing low-impact hiking and camping would certainly help you.
Photo by Camotrek
#4 Store your food in a bear-resistant food container
It’s important not to allow bears or other animals such as deer, marmots, squirrels, mice, and various birds to take advantage of your improperly stored food. Proper food storage is essential for the safety of humans and bears. Bears have an extremely acute sense of smell – 2100 times better than human’s and 7 times better than blood hound’s. Both black and brown bears are opportunistic animals that can eat nearly anything. These omnivorous creatures will take advantage of easily available food sources so you need to make sure that you store your food and leftovers into bear-resistant containers. This means that any unopened food (the same goes for leftovers as well as for any tampons used by menstruating women), toiletries, soap, deodorant, and medications should be properly stored in a bear canister.
Leave the bear box at least 100 meters away from your camp – on the ground in a flat, level area to ensure that if a bear finds it, it won’t be able to knock the container around or roll it down a hill. Remember that bear-resistant containers only work if they are closed and locked. Any improper practices can result in property damage, loss of food, or personal injury to yourself or to parties visiting the area later. If you don’t have a bear canister, you can keep your food and other scented items suspended from a branch (or between two trees) at least 3-5 meters above the ground and 1.5 meters away from the tree trunk.
#5 Think in advance about how to avoid injuries and what to do if someone else is injured
Mental preparation related to injury can be useful even life-saving at certain times. Think in advance how to avoid injuries when camping or wilderness backpacking in bear country as well as what to do if you or someone else is injured. Get prepared to act quickly and without panic when a bear charges you, your companion or someone else. Have some first-aid training, a first-aid kit (if you cannot build-up one yourself and you have to buy a pre-assembled first-aid kit, we recommend this emergency trauma kit), and various means of communication such as a mobile or satellite phone, signal mirrors, etc. Especially in remote areas, these mean the difference between life and death.
Groups of four or more people can be a great deterrent to a bear. Yelling, making a lot of noise, and throwing rocks and sticks are among the things that can make you appear formidable enough to help keep bears from attacking. Large parties also have enough people so that some can attend to injuries while others go for help.
Photo by Marco Secchi
#6 Report any incidents to park rangers
If you see any signs of bear activity at the officially designated campsite (disturbed campfire remains, fresh bear scat), you may wish to leave the place and camp somewhere else. In black bear country staying there might mean only a small chance of injury, however, in grizzly country, it means that you have no choice but to leave, camp elsewhere, and report the incident to a park ranger as soon as possible.
A garbage-addicted bear can be very dangerous because it is accustomed to people’s odor and what’s more, the bear associates it with a source of food, i.e. a place where there’s food and nothing bad happens. Such bear usually strikes at night when its senses are working well while you are hampered not only by the dark but also by fear.
#7 Never keep your food storage close to the place where you will sleep
You already know about how good a bear’s sense of smell is so you needn’t test it. Bear’s ingenuity and its experience with people’s food are critical to how you store your food in bear country. Generally, camping where bears aren’t used to feeding on people’s food is much safer for you and your food cache.
Store your food well away from the place where you will sleep. If there are trees around:
- In black bear country, you can string a line between two trees and suspend your pack from the line. Don’t store food in a cache tied high up a tree trunk because black bears are very good at climbing trees.
- In grizzly country, you can choose between either of these ways for storing food.
If there are no trees around and there are still bears:
- The chances of encountering black bears are very small.
- You’re probably in brown bear country. Keep your food cache several hundred meters away from your camp. Place your food in several layers of well-sealed plastic bags if you don’t have a bear canister. Plastic bags will trap odors inside decreasing odor transmission by the wind. The package can be placed in deep crevices between rocks, submerged underwater, etc. Keep in mind that the bear may be able to see your food (even if it won’t be able to smell it) so hide it well.
#8 Avoid carcasses and do not carry smelly food
Bears have an acute sense of smell and find much of their food and many of their mates by smelling. Thus, it isn’t surprising that bears can smell carcasses from far away (some say up to 32 km or 20 miles). Avoid areas where you see or smell carcasses of fish or other animals. Seeing scavengers congregated (such as vultures, crows, raccoons, coyotes, etc.) is an alarming signal too. A bear could be around and it would probably defend its cache aggressively.
For your backpacking trip, choose foods that offer a reasonably balanced diet and are lacking in strong odors. Nuts, dried fruits, protein bars, peanut butter, pasta, and rice are among these foods. Avoid smelly and greasy foods such as bacon and fish. To reduce garbage and save some space, take food out of its original package and repackage it in plastic bags to reduce odor and to fit more food in your bear-resistant container.
#9 Don’t set up camp close to a trail bears might use
It’s not very smart to set up camp close to trails and roads bears might use. To avoid this, there are a number of indications that will tell you if there is bear activity in the area. If you’re looking for signs of bear activity, look for the following:
- Turned over surface rocks as bears search for insects under rocks.
- Torn-apart, rotten wood as both black and grizzly bears dig out insect nests from tree stumps or deadfall.
- Rubbed and claw-marked trees.
- Evidence that someone has been digging for roots, corms or bulbs. Brown bears actively do that, while black bears seldom, if ever, dig for these foods. If you find such diggings, examine the above-ground parts of the plants that have not been consumed. If they are still fresh-looking, a bear might be nearby.
In general, it’s difficult to differentiate between traces of black bear and grizzly bear activity. If the area is inhabited by both species and you find traces of bear activity, always treat all questionable signs as if it was made by a grizzly.
Photo by Hans Veth
#10 Never camp in places where food or garbage has been left
The absence of garbage with no signs of scavenging by bears is the first criterion for choosing a backcountry campsite. Bears are most likely to be found near their food as they prefer eating foods that are relatively high in nutrients and are easy to digest. Garbage and human food are irresistible to bears. So avoid camping in areas where there is a problem with bears addicted to garbage and human food. No matter what some people say, such bears can be very dangerous. Obtaining “easy meals” in campgrounds makes bears increasingly bold and aggressive. They lose their instinctive fear of humans and become dangerous.
You can ask at the visitor information center (if visiting a national park) or local land managers if there are any garbage or human-food problems related to bears in the area where you will be.
#11 Don’t cook near your tent; change your clothes
Cooking near your tent can be a huge mistake you don’t want to make in bear country. Cook well away (at least 50-100 meters) from your camp and downwind of your tent. Always wash your dishes and pots thoroughly to remove any lingering odors. Wash yourself after cooking and change your clothes before going to camp. Odor-impregnated clothes may attract bears to your camp. Don’t forget that highly odorous chemicals can also elicit bear’s curiosity so avoid using perfumes, insect repellents or cosmetics.
#12 Avoid burning excess food and garbage in a fire
As both food and garbage are very attractive to bears, you need to treat them with care. Do not dispose of food waste in the wilderness but store any food and garbage into sealed plastic bags. Some people think that they can burn leftovers and rubbish. However, it’s very difficult for food particles and garbage to be burned thoroughly. The reason for this is that burning organic matter completely requires a very hot fire, hotter than most campfires. Partially burned scrap food and garbage will still draw bears into camp.
#13 Read well-researched articles and books about bears
There are people who are too full of fear to leave their house just because they are afraid of bears. The fear of the unknown is normal. Fear based on ignorance is not. Of course, there is some danger involved in backcountry camping where bears are present. But bear attacks are rare and you can minimize the danger of a close encounter even further. Just follow our best advice. It is simple: read, read, read! Try to learn as much as you can about bears and their typical behavior. Trust me, this way, you can reduce the chances of a close-range encounter with a bear. Moreover, you will be better prepared to make informed decisions on those rare occasions when you actually encounter a bear at close range.
Below, we recommend several excellent books regarding bears. Some of these books are a must-read. For example, the first book in this list – Bear attacks. Stephen Herrero clearly knows his stuff. This book is arguably the best resource on the subject of bears. Highly recommended.
Our list of suggested readings regarding bears
- Bear attacks: their causes and avoidance by Stephen Herrero is an excellent book on how to safely interact with bears. After reading this book, you will know a good deal more than you’d known about wild bears and their behavior. The author is a highly respected researcher on bears, bear attacks, and safety.
- NOLS bear essentials is a small book that contains valuable information regarding hiking and camping in bear country. Written by John Gookin, a senior instructor at the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), this book covers the basics everyone should know.
- In wild trust by Jeff Fair is a great book that tells the story of Larry Aumiller’s (his photos are used in the book) thirty years among the McNeil River brown bears. You’ll find a lot of information about the nature of brown bears, their behavior, and how human behavior can define the way they interact with men.
- Walking with bears: one man’s relationship with three generations of wild bears by Terry D. DeBruyn is a book written by a biologist who’s spent several years observing black bears in Michigan. Though published nearly 25 years ago, this wonderful book (focused on black bears) is still relevant today.
- Polar bears: a complete guide to their biology and behavior by Andrew Derocher, a leading polar bear researcher. While this comprehensive book is full of scientific information, the author ensured that it’s also engaging making it available to a broader audience.
- Taken by bear in Yellowstone and Taken by bear in Glacier National Park by Kathleen Snow provide interesting stories (based on the official reports of bear attacks) about human and grizzly bear encounters in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park respectively.
#14 Plan your camping trip in bear country
Planning should be always your top priority, especially before long trips in the backcountry. Backpacking and camping in bear country can be particularly challenging for those who are unprepared. So, make sure that you have sufficient information about various aspects of your trip. This includes identifying the type(s) of bears active in the area where you’ll be camping and assessing the likelihood of encountering bears. This way, you could evaluate the potential risks posed by bears. Otherwise, the way you plan a camping trip in the bear country is similar to the way you prepare for a backpacking trip.
You should never go unarmed in bear country. If a bear attacks you, being unarmed means that you don’t have other options than:
- Trying to escape to a hard-sided shelter
- Playing dead or
- Attempting to fight back using heavy objects such as rocks, axes or pieces of wood
Carry a bear spray and keep it handy in case you have to use it. Some people prefer carrying a knife, but bear spray is much more effective at deterring a charging bear. The pepper-based (bear) spray is even more effective than a gun.
Bears and campgrounds shouldn’t mix because bears quickly learn new food sources. Consequently, they may view a campground full of people as an easily accessible food source. Store your food and garbage properly. Garbage-addicted bears are habituated to people and no longer fear direct contact, posing a threat to human safety. Sleep in a tent to reduce the risk of a bear attack and carry bear spray with you at all times.
Camping in bear country is a potentially dangerous challenge that has its specifics. True, bear attacks are rare and the chances of injury from a bear are very low but they do exist. Knowing and doing the right things will help you protect yourself and other people in bear country.
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