When camping, whether you’re in your backyard or in the backcountry, you will often encounter all types of wildlife. You may spot deer or rabbits as you travel through the wilderness. Your campsite may also get the occasional visitor such as a raccoon looking for something to eat.
One campsite visitor you do not want to have is a bear. It is not uncommon for bears to wander into campsites after being attracted by the scent of food, or a camper accidentally setting up camp in a place with high bear activity. These encounters can often end in tragic results if you are not prepared on how to handle such an encounter and not sure the best way to store food while camping.
The following will present some tips on how to keep bears away from your campsite, as well as some tips for if you go have an unexpected visitor to your campsite.
Choosing a Campsite
When camping in bear country, you want to have your campsite be as interesting for a bear as possible. There are a few things you can do make sure that bears will pay little to no attention to your campsite.
- Pick a spot that will upwind from your cooking and food storage areas. Also, avoid natural food sources for bears such as berry patches. This will lower the chance of bears wandering in your camp in search of food.
- When planning out your camp, try to use the “bear-Munda triangle”. This involves separating your sleeping area, cooking area, and food storage areas from each other in a triangle. Give about 100 yards of space between each point. Try to have those two points downwind from your sleeping area.
Cut Down on the Smell
The number one thing that will attract a bear to a campsite is the smell of food. A bear has an extremely sharp sense of smell, and camp pick up scents from miles away. Food is the number one priority for bears and is the number one reason for a bear to enter a campsite.
- There are a few things you can do to eliminate food smells from your site. Hang food in odorless bags high in a tree and out of reach for a bear. Pack food and leftovers in odor-proof bags and containers. Also, using airtight bags for trash, leftovers, and any clothing that might pick up food odors will reduce the attractiveness of your site.
- To create a bear hang to store your food, you will need an odor-proof and water-proof bag. Find a nearby tree and hang the bag at least 12 feet in the air and over a limb four to six feet away from the trunk. Bears are smart animals and good climbers, so the idea is to make it as difficult as possible to get to your food to where they may give up.
- Another method for storing food is to store your food in hidden spots on the ground if trees are not an option. If you use this method, make sure to use odor-proof containers.
- Bear canisters are also becoming a popular storage method. This allows campers to safely store scented items in their camp.
- Make sure to clean all cooking utensils immediately and thoroughly to avoid any residual smells. Also, make sure to dispose of your dishwater away from the campsite. Any leftover food should be cleaned up and either burned or buried to avoid triggering a bears keen sense of smell.
- Do not keep any food or clothing that you wear when cooking in your sleeping area. No snacks, food scraps, or food wrappers should be kept in your tent. Doing so may attract a bear who may easily attack you and your tent to get at whatever food you may have.
- Have a set of clothes especially for cooking and dining. When you are finished eating, change into the clothes you will sleep in and place the other set of clothes in a bag and store a safe distance away from your sleeping area. Also, make sure to change away from your sleeping area to avoid any lingering odors.
- When it’s time to clean up, make sure to do so responsibly. Make sure to collect all trash in odor-proof plastic bags. If you can do so safely, burning your trash is the best way to go. If not, many sites in bear country (like some national parks) have bear-proof trash containers to dispose of your trash.
- Keep a flashlight and bear spray in you tent with you. If a bear approaches your tent while you are sleeping the flashlight may scare it off, and the bear spray can be used to defend yourself.
The most important point in this section is to keep your campsite as clean and unattractive to bears as possible. Be meticulous on picking up and disposing of anything that may attract bears to your camp.
Many fatal bear encounters are due to human negligence. If you see bears near your campsite, do not feed them. This has the consequence of possibly encouraging the bear to enter your campsite, but it may cause them to lose their fear of humans. Once this happens, bears may approach humans as a source of food, which can lead to not only humans being harmed, but the bear having to be tracked down and destroyed.
Bear Spray and Other Deterrents
You should never enter bear country with some form of deterrent. If you encounter a bear there are a few things that can help to keep you safe.
Bear spray is a good deterrent that you can keep on you, as most come with a carrying case that can be attached to a belt. You do not want to be fumbling in your backpack when a bear is charging. These sprays create a fog from a safe distance that will keep the bear away and allow you to put some distance between you. These sprays are environmentally safe pepper spray and will not permanently harm the bear. Make sure it is bear spray, as normal self-defense spray will have little to no effect on bears.
You can also attach a bear bell to your backpack. This will make constant noise as you walk around and hike. By making constant noise,this will alert bears and other wildlife to your presence allowing them to keep their distance as well.
Another deterrent for your campsite is a bear fence. These are lightweight electric fences that can be placed around the perimeter of your camp. This will give any curious bear a 6,000-volt jolt on contact, which will be enough to change their minds about investigating your campsite further.
Being Safe in Bear Country
In North America, there are three main types of bears that you may encounter in the wild. These are black bears, polar bears, and grizzly bears. Polar bears tend to only live in the Arctic regions, so we can assume that encountering them will be less likely for most campers.
Black bears are the most common bears in North America and can be found in all fifty states. They are predominantly black in color, but can be also brown or gold in color. They tend to be gentler and avoid humans more than their cousins.
Brown or grizzly bears are the most dangerous of the three species. The two subspecies of these bears are the Alaskan brown bear and the grizzly bear. These bears can be found in Alaska, Canada, and the American Northwest. Grizzly bears can be identified by their massive shoulder humps, adapted for living in open spaces. These are the most aggressive of the species.
Now that we know the types of bears one may encounter, it is important to understand bear behavior. Understanding their behavior can help to keep an unexpected encounter from becoming a tragic accident, instead of an interesting anecdote to tell friends around the campfire.
- Bears typically do not hunt humans. They naturally try to avoid contact with humans. Usually, if a bear comes into your campsite, they have been attracted by the smell of food and their curiosity has been piqued.
- A bear standing on its hind legs is not an act of aggression, but curiosity. Bears are naturally curious animals, and the bear is only trying to get a better look at what it is seeing.
- Bears can often be laser-focused on a scent or something that interests them. Therefore they may not be away from their surroundings. The last thing you want to do is startle a bear, so it is important to make your presence known.
- Bears tend to not be territorial, but you should be aware if you are getting close to where they are living. Bears are also most active from sunrise to sunset.
- Black bears are expert climbers and are more shy around humans. They are more likely to run from a human. Brown bears are more likely to try to defend themselves and be involved in a bear attack situation.
- Bears will communicate how they are assessing a situation. They may take a defensive stance by woofing, growling, or baring their teeth and begin approaching you. You may have stumbled near their cubs, or accidentally entered their personal space. Slowly back away until the bears stops advancing, and continue backing away.
- Never turn and run from a bear, as it will trigger its predatory instincts and it will give chase. Instead back away slowly. Also make yourself seem as large as possible and make noise. If you have children with you put them on your shoulder as it will make you appear bigger, and keep them from running.
- A predatory bear will not make noise, but will approach in a focused manner. Make noise and make yourself as large as possible. Showing aggression may startle the bear and make it leave. Try to maintain a safe distance.
- Once a bear has turned from you, depart in a direction away from the bear. This will avoid the bear thinking you may be attempting to pursue them.
- If a brown bear attacks, play dead. Lay facedown with your legs and elbows spread with your hands protecting your neck. If they try to roll you on your back, roll back on your stomach. Once the bear sees you as a non-threat, they should leave.
- Black bears rarely attack, unless they are doing so in a predatory fashion. If you are attacked by a black bear the only option is to fight back. Once the bear sees that you are putting up too much of a fight they will often flee.
Keeping Yourself Safe While Hiking
There are a few things that you can do to keep yourself safe when hiking in bear country. Never hike solo, as bears will be less tempted to attack a group than one person alone. Make noise, such as ringing bells, singing, talking loudly, or clapping. Again, making noise will avoid taking a bear by surprise and possibly provoking an attack.
While many people like taking their dogs hiking and camping with them, when in bear country it is advisable to leave your furry friend at home. Dogs may instinctively go into protective mode and start barking. This could provoke a bear attack with tragic results for both you and your pooch.
Never approach a bear, especially is they are sleeping. Remember, a startled bear is a dangerous bear. If you see a bear with cubs, definitely do not approach them, as the mother bear will instinctively attack to defend their young.
These tips will ensure that you have a great experience while camping in bear country. Again, most bears will avoid humans. If you have hiked in bear country and not encountered a bear before, that is due to the bear being effective in avoiding you. Remember that the chance of encountering a bear while camping can be rare, but if you do you know how to protect yourself and ensure that both you and the bear go your separate ways in peace.