Camping in bear country is always a bit disquieting.
Yet, if you follow bear safety best practices, your chances of running into a bear are very slim indeed.
Today, I’ll show you not only how to keep bears away from camp, but also how to avoid bears while hiking and what to do if you do encounter a bear.
How to Keep Bears Away from Camp
Use these top bear safety tips to keep bears away from your campsite.
Select the Right Campsite
Make your campsite as “uninteresting” to bears as possible.
Basically, you want to select a campsite that bears are more than likely to avoid.
For example, avoid selecting a campsite near berry patches or other bear food sources. When I’m camping in Grizzly bear country, I take this one step further and camp far away from water sources.
Look for other signs of recent bear activity. Avoid camping near bear scat, claw markings on trees, or bear tracks. Don’t camp anywhere near an animal carcass.
Be Careful With Cooking
Bears have incredibly powerful noses. They can detect food smells up to at least 2 to 3 miles away, if not much farther.
If you’re camping at a developed campground, it’s usually okay to cook on your campsite’s fire ring or on your cook stove on a picnic table.
In the backcountry, however, many experts advise you to take the “Bear-muda Triangle” approach to cooking your food well away from your tent.
The general consensus is keeping your camp kitchen at least 100 yards away from your sleeping area.
The third point on the Bear-muda Trinagle is food storage – this should be at least 200 feet away from your sleeping area and cooking area.
For dispersed camping with a car, I usually feel comfortable cooking nearer to my tent, unless I’m in an area with heavy bear activity.
Finally, if you’re extra worried about furry visitors, I recommend avoiding meals with strong scents like bacon.
Keep Your Campsite Clean
Be careful to avoid spills while cooking. Clean up spills as soon as they occur.
Clean your cooking supplies immediately after you’re done using them. Pick up any trash used for cooking or cleaning up.
Most backpackers eat and clean their cooking supplies in their cooking zone – 200 feet away from their tent.
Remember that bears have the best sense of smell of almost any animal. So, consider changing your clothes after cooking, especially before retiring into your sleeping bag for the night.
Some campers prefer to pack along an extra pair of clothes just for cooking when camping in bear country.
Proper Food Storage Is a Must!
The most important thing you can do to keep bears away from camp is to properly store your food. Here are your options.
- In a Bear Container – A bear-resistant canister is the best camping food storage for most backpackers. These hard-sided devices are lightweight and odor-proof. Never keep a bear canister in your tent – always stash it 100 feet or more away.
- Hang Your Food – Creating a bear hang is the old school food storage method. Hang your bear bag in a suitable tree at least 15 feet off the ground and ideally 15 feet from the tree trunk. Pick a tree at least 200 feet away from your tent.
- In a Car or Food Locker – Keep your food in a cooler or hard-sided container in the trunk of your car while car camping. Storing food inside of an RV or hard-sided trailer or in a campground-provided bear-proof food-storage locker are additional options.
Remember that food isn’t the only thing that attracts bears. Anything with an odor, including trash, hygiene products, and even chapstick should be stored with your food at night.
Additionally, never leave food or cooking supplies out unattended. It’s important to properly store all food items as soon as you’re done using them, even when car camping at a developed campground.
Don’t Forgot About Bathroom Smells
Pooping in the woods is part of dispersed camping and backpacking.
When using the cat hole method, make sure that you take care of business at least 200 feet away from camp (as well as 200 feet away from water sources, trails, and other campsites).
For the pack-out method, seal your wag bag and put it with the rest of your trash in your food storage area. The same goes for toilet paper.
Before You Get Into Bed…
Check your clothing before getting into your tent at night.
Some backpackers prefer to change clothes before bed to ensure not even a hint of food smell enters their tent when camping in bear territory.
Even if you’re at a developed campground, it’s wise to double check your pockets for anything that smells – gum, breath mints, candy, and even toothpaste are all no nos.
Don’t Forget About Your Pets
Keep bears away from your campsite by storing all pet food with your food in a bear-safe storage method.
The same goes for pet waste. If you can’t dispose of it right away, store your used doggie bags with your trash.
Feed your pet well away from you campsite at your own cooking/eating area. Even a few pieces of stray kibble can potentially attract bears.
What About a Bear Fence?
Using a bear fence for camping is uncommon, but might be worth considering.
Personally, I think most campers are fine without them. The big exception is hunters camping in bear country.
Basically, a bear fence is a lightweight, portable electric fence to keep bears away from your campsite. It won’t hurt or kill curious bears – just scare them away.
This video shows you what camping with a bear fence in bear country is all about.
How to Avoid Bears While Hiking
If you’re anything like me, one of the best parts about camping is taking day hikes on nearby trails.
That’s why I wanted to give you a super quick rundown on how to avoid bears while hiking in addition to my tips on keeping them away from camp.
Make noise as you hike. It’s best to hike with a partner so you can talk amongst yourselves.
The idea is to give bears warning you’re coming. Chances are they’ll scamper off before you even know they’re there if they hear you from afar.
Make noise even if you’re hiking alone. Singing or talking to yourself is an option. Or, just loudly say “hey bear” at regular intervals along the trail.
Bear bells, although common, aren’t usually loud enough to be effective.
Naturally, these same bear safety tips can be applied to backpacking.
What to Do If You Encounter a Bear
Bears don’t like humans so they’ll usually flee before you even see them.
However, they are unpredictable, especially when startled. This is why it’s so important to prevent bear encounters in the first place by making noise while hiking and camping to alert them to your presence.
But what if you do encounter a bear in the woods?
The most important thing to do is stay calm and never approach them. Back away if possible, giving the bear plenty of distance and keeping your eyes on them at all times. Don’t turn your back.
Get your bear spray ready while backing away. Watch the bear’s behavior for any indication they might charge. Remember mom bears with cubs are most likely to attack.
Black Bear Encounter
If a black bear advances, try to scare them off. Yell at them, throw objects, and raise your arms. Group together into a tight mass if with others.
If the black bear continues to advance, use your bear spray when they are within 30 feet of you. Proper use of bear spray should stop the bear.
If you don’t have bear spray or bear spray doesn’t work, the last resort for a black bear attack is to fight them off. Be aggressive. Don’t play dead. Aim attacks at their eyes and nose.
Grizzly Bear Encounter
If a grizzly bear is standing looking at you, stay calm. It’s assessing you as a threat. Talk to it soothingly, do not make eye contact, and back away. It’s vital to appear unthreatening.
If the grizzly bear advances, continue to retreat. If it’s ears are up, it’s probably a bluff attack. It will bound towards you and stop. Never turn and run. Stay as calm as possible and get your bear spray ready. The bear will usually huff during a bluff.
But, if the grizzly’s ears are flat, it’s in attack mode. Another indicator of an impending attack is a silent bear is that’s not huffing.
Now, it’s the moment of truth – the bear will likely attack. And, when it does, you must remain calm until it’s within 30 feet of you. Then it’s time to use your bear spray. Aim low so you don’t miss.
Situations like these, whether with a black bear or grizzly bear, illustrate exactly why it’s so important to know how to use your bear spray before you enter bear country.
If all else fails, lay down on your stomach (or in a cannonball position) and play dead. The hope is the Grizzly will sniff you or give you a quick nip and get bored. Protect the back of your neck with your hands.
If the bear flips you over, roll back to your stomach as quickly as possible to protect your vital organs.
What About Firearms for Bear Defense?
Hiking or camping with a gun is another option for bear defense.
Although this is uncommon in the hiking, backpacking, and camping communities (from my experience, at least), some people feel most comfortable with a firearm as backup.
Because I don’t have much personal experience with this option, I encourage you to look elsewhere for information on using a firearm for bear defense.
A Final Word on Bear Attacks
Here is a common saying regarding survival during a bear attack:
“If it’s black, fight back. If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s white, goodnight.”
This quote suggests fighting back during a black bear attack and playing dead during a Grizzly (brown) bear attack.
Furthermore, it goes on to imply that a meeting with a polar bear really doesn’t have a happy ending. Just say goodnight, you’re almost certainly not going to make it.
Luckily, most of us don’t venture into polar bear country!
It’s Not All About You…
Remember, camping bear safety isn’t only about you.
Although your safety is of course of utmost importance, keeping bears away from camp also benefits the bears.
Bears that get into human food develop a taste for it. They become overly reliant on it. And they tend to seek it out over natural food sources.
In short, they become “problem bears.” At best, problem bears are moved to a new location. But, unfortunately, all too often, they’re simply euthanized.
So, let’s practice proper bear safety and food storage to help keep both ourselves and bears safe!