Camping in bear country doesn’t have to be scary as long as you understand bear behavior. But, before setting out on your camping trip, know that there are some important “bear aware” rules you need to know to stay safe.
Bears are quite intriguing and fun to watch. They are notoriously comical and playful. But don’t let their cuddly look and clown-like behavior make you believe they are all that. While they may appear as big and fuzzy gentle giants, bears are still wild and can be potentially dangerous animals.
So, let’s take a look at how you can still enjoy camping but also how to prevent bears from showing up for dinner at your campsite.
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Camping in Bear Country? Helpful Camping Safety Tips!
Understand Bear Behavior
Learning to recognize bear behavior is key to safe camping in regions where bears live. Bears are typically most active during the summer months before sunrise and around sunset. They tend to nap during the late morning and afternoon.
In populated areas such as campgrounds and camping areas, bears typically (but not always) prefer coming out at night to avoid people. That’s not to say that they won’t wander into your campsite to find food.
Why or when bears attack?
Most bear attacks occur in the summer months when campsites are occupied and hiking trails are more populated. And they happen mostly due to people not understanding their behavior.
Though rare, if a bear attack does occur, it’s because they are hungry and looking for food, protecting their bear cubs, or if they’ve been startled.
So, if you want to camp and want to avoid the worry of bear encounters, the best time to go camping where bears are predominant is in the winter or early spring months when they are hibernating. But then again, you may miss seeing them in the wild.
Check out your campsite first
When you arrive at your campsite, before pitching your tent or deploying your RV’s slide-outs, take a good look around. If you notice bear scat, bear tracks, scratched logs or trees, or remnants of a dead animal carcass, you probably won’t want to camp there.
Also, when inspecting the perimeter of your campsite, if you notice berry bushes, lively grasses and rotting logs, get out of there because those are what bears eat. As well, you may want to think twice about camping near fresh natural water sources because bears love to fish and drink.
Be vigilant and cognizant
When camping in bear country, you must always be on your toes and extra observant. Because bears can meander into your campsite day or night. Always keep our eyes and ears open. This means leaving your headphones at home or in your RV or car.
Make noise and be heard
Bears typically don’t like human contact. Some campers and hikers swear by bear bells while others say they don’t make enough noise to indicate that you’re a human. So, even if you do have a bear bell, we suggest making additional noise like talking in a normal voice or even singing.
But, if a bear comes into close range of you or your family, it’s best to heed and act upon this advice from the National Park Service:
“Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second.
Bears may also react defensively by wooﬁng, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear.
A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.”
Keep bear spray within reach
There are certain precautions and familiarization before using bear spray. Also known as bear pepper spray, you should keep it within easy reach at all times while hiking or camping in bear country. The best place is to wear it on your belt where you can access it immediately.
Make certain your bear spray is EPA approved and designed specifically to curb off bears. It is not a personal body repellent like insect repellent. It should also never be used on humans or pets.
Bear spray is not intended to be used as a long range deterrent. Most bear sprays reach up to 20-30 feet. It should only be used as a last resort should a bear get too close. It has a direct spray stream that should be aimed and expelled should the bear advance, charge or act aggressively towards you.
Before heading out to go camping in bear country or take part in other outdoor activities, familiarize yourself with selecting bear pepper spray and by knowing how to properly use bear spray to deter an aggressive bear.
Always keep children close by in bear country
The first thing you should do upon arriving at your campsite (or even before) is to teach your children not to wander away from your campsite. Explain all of these bulleted points at a level of their comprehension. But, do so without scaring them.
Instruct your children to eat only at the picnic table or inside your RV. Because children are notorious for dropping food, crumbs and food wrappers, make sure you clean up immediately. The last thing you want is to leave a trail leading right to your campsite, tent or RV. Even the smallest morsel will attract a bear up to 20 miles away.
If a bear enters your campsite, stay calm and talk to them in a normal voice, pick up or hand-hold your children; guiding them slowly to the inside your RV. Do not scream, nor allow your children to scream, as this will only startle and encourage an act of aggression from the bear. Bears do not like high pitched screams or voices.
Keep pets contained and restrained
You certainly don’t want your dog or cat becoming a bear’s lunch or dinner. So, protect them (and you), by properly restraining them if they are outside, even if they are with you. Never allow them to wander from your sight or be left unattended outside.
Another bear country camping safety tip, make certain you pick up their food dishes immediately after your dog or cat has eaten, clean and stow them. This includes animal bones or animal products your dog may be chewing.
Read more: Cool Camping Gear for Dogs and Cats
Cooking outdoors in bear country
While cooking outdoors while your camping is one of the highlights of your camping experience, you need to take certain precautions before grilling that steak or making s’mores.
Never do you want to cook near your RV or tent. You should place your grill or cooking at least 50-100 yards from and downwind of your RV or tent. I know that sounds like a long distance however, do you really want a bear to come share your meal with you?
Keep your campsite clean
As mentioned several times in this article, bears can smell upwards to 20 miles. So, it’s important to keep your campsite picked up; leaving no food or scraps, food wrappers, bags or containers outside or even in your tent. This includes coolers with food, or camp stoves or grills with grease or food remnants on them.
Make certain to police your campsite thoroughly after every meal; especially after an evening of s’mores. Because bears love sweets! And I guarantee, they will want your marshmallows and chocolate.
Make sure all chip bags, soda cans and even beer are not left outside. Don’t leave your hiking pack that may have trail snacks out either.
In other words, make your campsite look sparse. While it’s okay to leave your camp chairs, camping tables, camp mat or outdoor carpet out (but make sure you clean them), everything else should be stowed inside your RV. Don’t think that big Rubbermaid tote and cooler are bear-proof.
Stash your trash in bear country
Bears are notorious for foraging and digging in the trash. So, it’s important to secure your trash properly and out of bears’ reach. If you need to hang your trash outside, tie up a bear resistant bag at least 10 feet off the ground and at least 5 feet away from a tree.
If hanging your trash isn’t feasible or attainable, either stash your trash in a bear box or dispose of it in a proper bear-proof waste container. Whatever you do, never leave your trash outside or accessible.
Stow food in bear lockers or bear boxes
While bears are accustomed to eating their normal diet consisting of fish, bugs, berries, roots and grasses, they may wander into your campsite because they smell something palatable. This is why it’s essential to stow all food in a campsite bear box.
Especially if you’re camping in a soft sided camper or tent, you need to store all food, including your cooler, backpack, etc. in the bear box at your campsite. If you have room left over, it’s smart to place your portable grill, cooking supplies, pots and pans and yes, even your trash.
If you are leaving for the day, take your food, cooler and anything that has food or even grease on it with you. Store them in the trunk of your car or inside your truck.
Lock your RV, toads and tow vehicles in bear country
That said above, bears can smell things that are inside RVs and vehicles. So, you will want to thaw that steak or hamburger in your refrigerator instead of on your countertop or in the sink. And don’t leave that half bag of beef jerky or gummy bears sitting on the front seat or on the dash.
Since bears are extremely curious, they will find their way into cars or even RVs to get to the odor that’s attracting him.
As funny as it may seem from afar, bears have been known to actually open unlocked car doors. So, as you see, it’s imperative that you never leave any food or other inviting scents in your car, RV (and tent) that may lead to them destroying your property in search for food.
Other things that attract bears
Food isn’t the only thing that attracts bears. Simple things like scented soaps, toothpaste, sunscreens, bug repellents, candles and even perfumes can also lure bears into your campsite. In other words, anything with even the most subliminal scents may invite an up close encounter with a bear or two.
Never entice, feed or interact with bears
Have you heard of that saying, ‘never poke the bear’? Well, it’s because bears don’t like interaction except with their bear family. Bears, like all wildlife, are unpredictable and can become aggressive even without provocation.
Never should humans entice or lure, antagonize, feed or interact with bears. This also means stay far away from bear cubs because as the saying goes, ‘you don’t want to mess with Momma Bear!’
Also, feeding wildlife only makes them dependent upon humans for food. That may encourage acts of aggression just to get to the food. But also, bears may become reliant on human for nourishment thus, won’t know how to live and eat as they were intended.
In the event of a bear encounter
If a bear decides to come visit your campsite, it’s imperative that you remain calm. Pay constant attention to his movements and behavior. Speak in a calm normal voice to identify yourself that he recognizes you as a human.
If he doesn’t turn away, slowly back towards your RV (while talking to him calmly), go inside and secure all doors and windows. Never should you take your eyes off of nor should you run or turn your back on the bear.
Report Bear Activity
If you see a bear in the campground or your campsite, you should contact your local Park Ranger, campground office or Camp Host. This will help alert and protect unsuspecting campers.
Report exactly where you saw the bear or bears, how many and brief description of the bear’s approximate size, weight and color. You can gauge a bear’s size and weight by comparing him to a nearby boulder or his height by tree markings or bushes. Also, make sure you report if the bear is wearing a tracking collar or ear tag.
Leave No Trace
While the pack in-pack out rule applies to all outdoor activities and camping, it’s extremely important to practice leave no trace in bear country!
This goes for everything you bring in; food, used paper plates, empty food bags, wrappers and containers. Again, it bears repeating (no pun intended) that bears have an incredible sense of smell. Even the smallest crumb or morsel will attract their curiosity.
This includes anything you dump on the ground. So, dumping out a half can of beer or soda is even a huge no no in bear country. Because they will gravitate towards that sugary or odd smell.
Even as innocently dumping your camping dishwater can attract bears. Always take extra care by fine straining your dirty dish water; collecting the small food particles and throwing them away instead of lying on the ground.
Camping Hack: Wipe your dirty dishes with paper towels followed by an antibacterial wipe. This will help eliminate food residue that may end up in your dishwater. Then, seal them in a zipper bag and put them into a bear proof bag. Either store your bear proof bag in a bear box until it’s time for you to leave your campsite.
The big rule of thumb when camping in bear country is to be very extremely cautious of anything you or your family may drop that may attract bears. Pack in Pack out! This means everything.
Final thoughts on camping in bear country
It may seem like a lot of forethought, planning or work to camp in bear country. However, if you take these cautious measures, you and your family can enjoy camping outdoors with wildlife. Just be aware of what you may be sharing your campsite with. Never become complacent with food. And always remain calm if a bear decides to pay you a visit. Trust me, they aren’t coming for a hug.