Camping is a wonderful way to experience the outdoors, but having a bear visit your campsite can result in more adventure than you bargained for! However, by following a few simple steps, you can keep yourself and any curious bears safe and healthy.
Know Before You Go
Before you head out to your campsite, do some research on the area to determine if it’s bear country and if so, what kind of bears you might encounter. There are different protocols for black bears versus grizzly bears, so this is important!
Additionally, check to see if the campground has bear poles or metal food lockers, or if bear canisters are required, so you know exactly what gear to bring. Depending on where you are camping, you may be encouraged or required to carry bear spray, or it might be prohibited altogether.
For example, in Yosemite National Park where there are only black bears, bear spray is not permitted, but there are strict guidelines about how and where to store your food. On the other hand, in Glacier National Park you are encouraged to carry bear spray, but food storage rules are laxer.
I visited both of those parks in the past year and found out that Yosemite black bears have learned to open car doors (with the handle or by simply smashing the door), so you have to use a bear canister even inside your car, but the bears in Glacier have not yet figured out that skill, so food is safe in the car there.
There’s A Lot More Than Bears To Think About
As if bears weren’t enough, there are a whole lot of other critters that can invade your campsite and steal food, destroy belongings and otherwise wreck a good time in the wilderness. If you or your camping pals were hiking earlier today, chances are that their socks, hiking boots and other pieces of clothing contain some amount of sweat. This is an attractant to several critters who will seek it for the salt content sweat contains. This means you may have to either store these clothing items in a vehicle or tie them into a bag and hang that in the air with your food.
An Ounce of Prevention
There are several preventive measures you can take when camping in bear territory to avoid a confrontation altogether, which is obviously the ideal outcome.
Avoid Bears on Your Way to the Campsite
If you are driving straight up to your campsite, this does not apply, but if you are hiking in then, you will need to use caution to avoid surprising a bear.
Ideally, hike with a group of 4 or more people and stay reasonably close together, as this will deter a bear from attacking. Talk as you hike in, especially in areas where sightlines are limited, for example in a stand of thick trees, when approaching a blind corner on the trail, etc. If bears can hear you coming, they will most likely move away on their own to avoid a confrontation.
If you are hiking alone, it is especially important to make noise. It might feel silly but sing or talk to yourself as you hike. Your voice is the most easily identifiable “human” noise, whereas bears will not recognize bells, whistles, and other noise-making devices as a human approaching.
Finally, avoid screaming or bellowing as bears can mistake these noises for an injured animal, and may come running in your direction looking for a tasty snack.
Give Your Campsite The Once Over Before Unloading Gear
One of the best ways to invite a bear to your campfire dinner is to be the next set of campers at a campsite that was left messy by whoever was there before you. We’re not talking about vacuuming the cement pad and hanging air fresheners above the fire pit. What we are saying is that if there is any garbage lying around – food scraps in particular – you will want to get those gathered and stored away in a proper trash container. Wrappers that once held foods such as beef or any kind of meat you will want to get rid of as soon as possible. A tidy campsite minus food smells will keep the bears away until you start the camp stove or campfire.
Proper Food Storage
First and foremost, you should never leave food out and unattended. The only time your food should be out is when you are actively cooking or eating it. Bears are less likely to approach a camp if you are there, so it’s safe to cook and eat, but never leave out leftovers or food of any kind for longer than necessary.
By storing your food properly, you will avoid luring the bears straight into your camp. Bears have a sense of smell that is roughly equivalent to a bloodhound’s, so if you have something yummy-smelling in your campsite, you can be sure a nearby bear will sniff it out.
The most effective way to keep bears from getting into your food is to use a bear canister. These are essentially super tough, portable, hard-sided containers that will prevent bears and other hungry animals from accessing your food.
Although they are relatively heavy and bulky for backpacking, bear canisters are the surest bet for keeping food safe, and they are easy to bring with you for car camping. Simply place your food and scented items in the canister and place it 100 feet from your campsite. Marking the container with neon or reflective paint will make it easier to find.
Some campgrounds and backcountry campsites conveniently provide metal food lockers. Anything with a scent should be stored in these lockers. This includes toothpaste, scented lotions, dishes and cookware (even once they are washed), stoves, dry food, beverages, etc.
Why is this so important? Once bears get a taste of human food, it alters their foraging habits and makes them more likely to raid campsites in the future, which can eventually lead to the bear being deemed dangerous, and ultimately the animal being put down.
Keeping a cooler of food for tomorrow’s meals just inside your tent so you can keep an eye on it is just plain dangerous. Instead, you should get in the habit of hanging food out of reach of bears. Depending on where you are camping, you may be lucky enough to be at a campsite that furnishes campers with hanging poles. Even if you have to improvise, be sure to have at least 50-feet of good quality rope to get your food high enough. You can do this by running a rope between two trees and hang the food on the rope so that it is suspended between the trees.
Designate A Cooking Site Away From Where You Will Be Sleeping
Speaking of food smells when you are cooking, you will want to plan your outdoor kitchen carefully. The ideal situation is to have your camp stove no less than a few hundred feet downwind from your campsite. Sure, it may wreck the cozy atmosphere but it will also keep food smells away from where you bed down for the night. Also, when cooking, be sure to only prepare as much as you and your fellow campers intend to eat. Leftovers are an open invitation for Yogi and Boo Boo to make an unscheduled visit to do some clean up of their own.
Here’s One Just For The Ladies In The Camping Party
Wild animals will be able to tell if you are about to have, are in the middle of or just completed your period. It has nothing to do with mood swings, the tongue-lashing you gave the Park Warden last night or that your jeans feel a little tight these days. Wild animals have an extremely sensitive smell and bears, in particular, are attracted to menstruating women. This may be a good reason to schedule your camping trip around your cycle and if that is not possible, it is safer for you to use tampons instead of external pads to ward off unwanted visitors to your tent.
The Signs To Watch Out For
Um, okay. So we’ve gotten this far. Your campsite is as close to bear-proof as you can get it. But how will you know if a bear has been nosing around the campground in the first place? Here are a few things to look for that should tip you off that you’ve had someone other than Uncle Charlie tiptoeing around your tent and surrounding area while you were sleeping.
1 – Scat
For the newbs out there, scat is bear poop. They tend to leave it all over the place in much the same fashion as a calling card so you will know quickly if a bear has been around if you see any scat around your campsite. It’s not easy to tell the difference between a black bear or grizzly scat but a general rule of thumb is that if you have discovered a large pile of bear poop, it’s probably from a grizzly. Avoid touching it with your hands. Not that you would, but you never know.
2 – Tracks
Much like trucks and dirt bikes, tracks are a good indicator of some kind of activity. This is where you may want to bone up on your identification skills as black bears have different tracks compared to grizzlies. Claw length will help you some but if we found bear tracks of any kind in our campsite we wouldn’t be spending much time trying to figure out what species had left them. Bear tracks are often a signal to tear down your camp and go home.
3 – Carcasses
While out hiking around the wonderful wilderness not far from your campsite, you may spot some unusual bird activity. If you see a number of crows, ravens or other scavengers in an area of close proximity you may have come across a carcass of an animal that has been left behind by a bear. Two things should come to mind: more than one hungry bear will feed on a single carcass. Secondly, if you end up finding a half-buried carcass, that will be the work of a grizzly who tried to stash leftovers for later. In either case, get out of there as quickly as possible.
4 – Markings
Bears like to leave signs behind to let other bears know who is roaming in a particular section of the wilderness. They are often referred to as territorial markings and are typically found on trees. Remember that tree a little ways back on the hike yesterday that looked like it had been clawed by Wolverine in a movie? That would have been the claw marks of a bear – or many different bears over the years – posting that you are in their piece of paradise.
5 – Diggings
This is a habit of grizzly bears that happens only in the spring and fall. What they will do is dig up bulbs, roots, tubers, and even ground squirrels. The patch of land where a grizzly digging is located will be quite large if there has been repeated digging activity in the same spot over a series of years. The dirt that will be excavated by the grizzly can clue you in on how old the digging is if some of the dirt has been tossed onto living plants in the immediate area. While a dig site may be exciting to discover, grizzlies will come back to them so you shouldn’t spend an extended period of time trying to identify the roots or tubers that have been uncovered.
What To Do If You Encounter a Bear
Sometimes encountering a bear is unavoidable, even when you take precautions. If you do see one, never approach it. Back away slowly while keeping your eyes on the bear. Even if you only see an adorable cub, get out of there quickly — a dangerous mother bear is certainly nearby.
This is probably the most important part of this entire post. While the common belief is that if you run away screaming – partly because you are frightened – you’ll be safe, it is the worst reaction you can have. Instead, you should do the following:
1 – Stop
Whatever you are doing, you must stop so that you can fully focus on the bear and give your mind an opportunity to clearly assess the situation.
2 – Speaking Softly
Your next move is to identify yourself using a calm and appealing tone. No, you don’t say something like, “Hi, my name is Cheryl Foote and I’ve been camping in your backyard for the past two nights. It has been wonderful.” What you should be saying is something along the lines of “…Hi, there nice big bear. I am just about to leave the area so you can carry on with whatever you had planned without me in your way.”
3 – Back Away
Slowly back away from the area and into the direction you first arrived on the scene – unless the bear followed you there.
4 – Walk
Here’s the big one: Walk. Don’t run away. Walk away slowly and keep watching the bear to see how it will react.
How To Tell Black Bears From Brown Bears
Despite their names, both black and brown bears can range in color from blond to black, so fur color is not necessarily a distinguishing feature. Instead, look at the bear’s profile. Brown bears (also called grizzly bears in the United States) have a distinct shoulder hump, small round ears, and a concave facial profile, whereas black bears have no shoulder hump, taller ears, and a straight facial profile.
If an attack is imminent, your course of action will depend on what type of bear you are facing. Let’s break it down.
Black Bear Attacks
If a black bear approaches you on a trail or in your camp, raise your arms to look larger and yell loudly. If you are cooking, bang pots together and throw non-food items in the bear’s direction to scare it off. Should the bear continue to approach, carry your food items with you as you back away.
Ideally, do whatever you can to keep your food away from the bear, but if the bear persists and seems mainly interested in the food, drop it as a last resort and continue to move away.
If the black bear attacks, do NOT play dead. Instead, fight back aggressively using whatever is at hand — rocks, sticks, trekking poles, your fists, etc. Aim for its eyes and nose. In areas where bear spray is permitted, use it as a last resort to create distance between yourself and the bear.
Brown/Grizzly Bear Attacks
Grizzlies will often stand on their hind legs to assess you, in which case you should talk calmly and back away slowly while avoiding eye contact. They may also do what’s called a bluff charge, where they will huff loudly and leap towards you with their ears up. In that case, stand your ground and continue talking to the bear. Get your bear spray ready if you have it, and NEVER run from a grizzly.
If the bear decides to attack for real, it will flatten its ears back, lower its head, and charge silently. Use your bear spray when the animal is 30 feet away and aim low so that the spray doesn’t go over its head. As hard as it is, try not to panic and spray before the bear gets within range. Most sprays empty in 7-9 seconds, and it’s a good idea to save some spray in case of the bear charges again, so use short bursts.
If your bear spray doesn’t work for some reason or you don’t have it with you, play dead when a grizzly attacks. Lie on your stomach or in child’s pose and protect the back of your neck with your hands. If the bear rolls you over, just keep rolling until you are back on your stomach.
These sprays are made with red pepper derivatives and are designed to be an eye and respiratory irritant that repels attacking bears at close range. Keep in mind that the spray will also be unpleasant for you if it happens to blow back in the wind!
Bear spray is effective from about 12 to 30 feet and bears charge very fast, so I suggest keeping the spray clipped to your belt if you are camping in areas where bears could be present. If you have to dig for the spray in your car or tent, it could be too late by the time you find it.
As ridiculous as it sounds, practice unholstering your spray and removing the safety pin. A quick draw could prevent you from being mauled or worse! It’s important to note that bear spray is NOT a preventive spray — spraying down your camp will not prevent bears from approaching, will result in a very unpleasant camping experience for you, and might even attract bears. Bear spray should only be used if a bear is staring you in the face.
Keep in mind that bear spray is illegal in Yosemite National Park and some other areas where only black bears are present. When you are researching your destination ahead of time, be sure to check whether spray is permitted.
By following these guidelines, you can keep yourself and local bears safe while camping by avoiding contact whenever possible and being prepared in case of an attack. Remember that most bears will skedaddle when they see, hear, or smell humans so the presence of bears in an area shouldn’t deter you from having an amazing camping experience!