What You Need To Know About Bear Safety When Camping: Myths & Facts
Bears are surprisingly common in the United States, and in North America in general. Different types of bears are more frequently seen in some areas than others. Even if you are camping somewhere bears are less likely, it is important to be careful.
Bears are mammals, and are often misunderstood. In movies, they are sometimes portrayed as bloodthirsty killers, while in others they are dim-witted and friendly. The Teddy bear spring from the imagination of a toymaker who admired President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who designated most of the national parks in the U.S. All of these have something in common, though-- an inherent misunderstanding of the creature.
Wild Bears Traits
Bears are like most animals. They:
Usually avoid humans
Only seek humans if they know people have food
Eat mostly plants
Eat meat when it is easy to get
Would rather be safe than aggressive if they can
Are protective of their babies
Black Bears vs Brown Bears
Black vs Brown bear comparison
Both breeds can be brown, black, or even white! This color change is more likely in black bears.
Most black bears are black, and most Grizzly bears are brown.
Black bears are smaller.
Black bears are more easily scared.
Both are nervous and shy.
Both are easily scared.
Both live mainly on berries, leaves and other plant food.
Above is an image of a brown (grizzly) bear.
Above is an image of a black bear.
If you know these things about bears, you are already well on your way to camping safely in bear country. As the rangers at Yellowstone National Park (a popular bear-spotting location) will tell you, “Your safety cannot be guaranteed, but you can play an active role in protecting yourself and the bears…”
Prepare for bears before you go camping!
Where are the Bears?
Grizzly bears prefer colder climates, although they still enjoy the bounty of summer food. They can be found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, and of course, Alaska. Lower regions are just too warm for them.
While Grizzlies sometimes venture inland, they prefer the coast or areas near lots of water. This is especially true in Alaska, where the inland areas are much colder and more barren. In other states, Grizzlies look for rivers, lakes, and other large bodies of water.
Areas with lots of water offer several benefits to Grizzlies:
- Access to drinking water (of course!)
- More abundant berry and fruit growth
- A wider variety of edible roots
- Fish, which can be easier to catch than creatures on land
- Higher numbers of prey (everything needs water)
Black bears are very similar. They prefer coastal and water-centric areas for the same reason. However, Black bears do not range as far north as Grizzly bears.
The problem with bears’ preferences in territory is that bears are, well, territorial. Bears like to know they are king (or queen) of the roost, especially during mating season. Bears will sometimes tolerate much smaller bears, though.
If you are travelling and a bear acts aggressive, it is likely being defensive about its territory or cubs. Use your knowledge of territorial bears- play small and act weak, like a young bear.
Bears are omnivores. They’ll eat just about anything. Some of bears’ favorite foods are:
- Fruit, berries & roots
- Small mammals (when they can get them)
- Any human food (sugar smells great!)
- Offal (leftovers from hunters and fishers)
- Human’s trash
Many of a bear’s food choices are made based on smell. Bears see as well as humans and smell much better- think of a hound’s sharp snout! Keep this in mind as you pack meals and snacks for your trip. Aromatic foods like fish and bacon are risky to cook in bear country.
Packing Safely For Camping In Bear Country
The best road to bear safety starts at home. Do your research and pack accordingly.
First, check to see if you will be camping in bear country. Some places, like the Buffalo River National Park, are now seeing bear activity where it has not existed for decades. Bears travel up to 500 miles a year following food if they don’t have a territory, so this isn’t surprising.
Next, get all of the information you can about your campsite. Many camping areas in bear country offer bear-safe features, like:
- Bear-proof food storage
- Ideally located campgrounds
- Bear activity updates
- Designated cooking areas
These are most common in places like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and Montana state parks.
Bear-proof boxes are big, and can hold a week’s worth of food for a family. They will not hold a cooler. However, they are reinforced to withstand bear attacks, so bears have learned to leave them alone.
Many parks locate campgrounds far from berry brambles and other bear-heavy areas. These are an especially good choice if you are camping with children or pets.
Bear Activity Updates
All state and national parks in bear country, and some local parks, offer regular updates on bear activity. Some parks will close trails during times of high bear activity, while others will just notify visitors to be cautious. Be sure to read all signs.
Designated Cooking Areas
Bears have an amazing sense of smell. This means cooking where you will be hanging out and sleeping is a bad idea. Instead, campgrounds often offer different areas to cook.
Don’t let the fire pit at your site tempt you-- if there is a designated cooking spot, there is a reason! Use it!
Loading the Suitcase
As you pack, think about what you are bringing. It might seem obvious that food-scented perfumes aren’t a great choice (you don’t want to seem like a walking vanilla cupcake to a bear), but floral or earthy scents are iffy, too.
Put all of your toiletries in a separate plastic bag, then seal this and pack it with your food. Even innocuous items, like feminine products, often smell like food to a bear due to their processing.
Wash clothes you plan to pack in unscented detergent. Just like with the toiletries, floral or “warm” scents can attract curious bears. Be sure to use unscented dryer sheets, too. If you aren’t sure if something is scented, be safe and use products that are “hypoallergenic.”
As you are packing your kids’ suitcases, take the same above precautions as you do with your own things. Consider the toys you are packing. Try to avoid noise-making toys that sound like bears’ usual prey- birds, rabbits, or other small native animals.
One of the most enjoyable parts of camping is cooking delicious food over an open fire. If you are camping in bear country, you can definitely still do that. Simply be aware of the smells. There are just a few foods to avoid:
- Fatty cuts of beef (like ribeye)
- Other aromatic foods
Bears rely on their sense of smell, primarily, to find food. This doesn’t mean not to cook. It just means to not make it easy on them.
Brown (Grizzly) Bears
Campsite Layout For Bear Country
The first step when you arrive at your campsite should be to look around and “Be Bear Aware!” Look for signs of recent animal activity. These can be obvious or discrete. Check for:
- Paw prints
- Markings (fresh clawings on trees)
- Scat (feces- these will be piles of large round pellets)
- Bedding areas
If your campsite is clear, go ahead and unpack. There’s a simple order to do this efficiently and safely.
Unload and safely store all food.
If there is a bear box, put all dry goods there. Put fresh groceries and cooler food in your vehicle. A tent or a pop-up camper is not sturdy enough to stop a bear from getting delicious meat, cheese, or fruit from your cooler if it isn’t stored right.
Some sites come with a pole and hook. This is to hang a bag of food, and might replace the bear box. If in doubt about how to store something, store it in your vehicle.=
Designate eating and living areas.
These shouldn’t overlap. Ideally, your cooking and eating areas are at least 100 yards from your tent and hangout space.
If these areas are close together, use a bear-proof food safety system, like:
- A Bear canister
- A Kevlar bag
- Cooler locks for use on bear-resistant coolers
A Bear bag must be hung to be effective. It should be fifteen feet off of the ground and four feet from tree trunks or poles.
Set up your tent.
Maintain a “no smells allowed” rule in the tent. Don’t bring in any of your toiletries, and especially don’t bring in any food. This even includes scented chapstick.
Avoid sleeping in the clothes you cooked in, too, as you will smell like food if you do so.
Set up your fire and/ or fun area.
Put out chairs, set up games, and bring a radio. For the most part, bears don’t want to run into people. Bring a radio you can run from your camper, or a battery-operated model. You could also use a bluetooth speaker with a phone.
If bears can hear you, they will avoid you. Keep music going while you are up and about at your campsite.
Designate a kids area.
Make sure kids stay at the center of the action. Especially in popular parks like Yellowstone, don’t let kids wander off alone or stray into unpopulated areas to play. A good way to do this is to set up a specific toy area right in the middle of your site.
Designate a pet area.
To a bear, a dog can sound a lot like dinner! Many state and national parks don’t allow pets for this reason. Keep your pups inside your trailer or camper. If that isn’t an option, treat them like the kids and keep them in the middle of things.
If you meet a bear is don’t try to away. Bears are great runners swimmers and climbers.
If You Meet A Bear
The most important thing to remember if you meet a bear is don’t run. This instantly identifies you as prey. Screaming is usually ill-advised as well, even though these are probably the first two reactions you have.
There’s an old poem well-known in Northern bear country which goes,
“If it’s black, just fight back; if it’s brown, get on the ground; if it’s white, say goodnight.”
This poem is roughly true in most situations. Luckily, you won’t run into any polar bears unless you camp in the Arctic!
The general goal if you meet a bear is to make it clear that you are neither prey nor a threat. It might seem odd that a bear could be threatened by a human, but it’s true.
What To Do If You Encounter A Black Bear
Overall, you are better off meeting a black bear than a brown bear. Black bears are smaller, easier to intimidate, and more skittish. If they have the chance, they will avoid you altogether! When you meet a black bear, remember these tips:
Make yourself big.
If you are wearing a jacket, lift the hem with your arms to appear larger. Wave your arms slowly up and down. You are trying to look too big to be an easy dinner! If there are kids or pets with you, pick them up (if possible) or keep them against you.
As you do this, back away slowly without turning around. If the bear pursues you, stop moving for a moment then try again.
Try to make loud, low noises. A popular choice is to say “Hey, Bear!” in a low-pitched voice as loud as you can. This warns other hikers as well. Do this at the same time as step one.
You just read this, but it is so important! Running is a key sign to a bear that you are afraid, and therefore perfect prey. Stand your ground, even if the bear charges or huffs at you. These are usually bluffs to see if you can be spooked.
Use Bear Spray
Bear spray should never be your first tactic. Most bears want to be left alone, and if you are downwind from the bear, you will be incapacitated, too. If a bear clearly is attacking, though, spray in a large “X” motion in front of the bear.
If a black bear attacks you despite your best efforts, resist the urge to run (still!) or curl up on the ground. Hit the bear with everything you have- keys, fists, water bottles. Yell and scream. You will probably be hurt, but the bear may well run.
This is your last resort and not a pleasant one. Do everything you can to avoid the situation first, like carrying bear spray and not startling bears.
Grizzly Bear Encounter
As you read earlier, a grizzly bear and a brown bear are the same thing. Like other bears, they mostly avoid humans unless they are food-conditioned by previous campers. Make noise consistently to help keep them away.
If a grizzly approaches your camp, do not allow it to eat your food if at all possible. That teaches the bear that humans = food. This endangers you and future campers.
Just like with the black bear, running signals that you are prey. Instead, try to slowly back away without turning your back to the bear. If the bear moves toward you when you do so, stop and see what the bear does.
Make yourself small
If is much harder to intimidate a Grizzly than a black bear. Don’t try. Instead, make yourself small to show that you are not a threat. Pull small pets and children close to you.
Make low noises
Try saying “Hey Bear” in a low pitch, just like with the black bear. However, do so in a normal tone of voice, not yelling. Don’t wave your arms or act intimidating.
Stand your ground
If a bear is huffing or growling, it is trying to intimidate you. It may bluff charge to see if you run. A bear with its ears up and forward is just curious. If the bear moves toward you, stay where you are or continue trying to back away slowly.
Use Bear Spray
If the bear is acting aggressive and clearly moves to attack you, spray your bear spray using the same “X” pattern as you would with a brown bear.
If the bear attacks and bear spray was ineffective (or you didn’t have any), get on the ground and curl up with your hands over your neck. If you have a backpack on, keep it on for protection.
The bear may try to flip you over. If it rolls you over, keep rolling until you are face down again. You are protecting your organs as best you can.
Encounters with Cubs
Bear cubs are very cute, but don’t pick them up! If you see or hear cubs (they sound a lot like kids crying), leave the way you came. If this happens near your campsite, get everyone inside the vehicle. Put food away or into the vehicle with you.
Bears are much more aggressive if they have cubs. They want to protect them, just like mothers protect their babies from the unknown.
Hiking When Camping
Aside from following general hiker safety, like carrying the ten essentials and knowing your trail, there are some important additions to safety in bear country.
- Travel with friends
- Wear bear bells or make noise continually
- Carry a large can of Bear Spray (personal defense spray is not a substitute!)
- Have a plan if you encounter a bear
- Use a trail register or notify rangers of your plans
- Avoid feeding areas like berry brambles during summer
As you go out and enjoy your camping, remember to Be Bear Aware and stay safe. An ounce of foresight is worth a pound of action.
“If it’s black, just fight back"
"If it’s brown, get on the ground"
"If it’s white, say goodnight”
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