Camping in bear country doesn’t have to be scary! Just as long as you understand bear behavior and how they bears act or react towards people. But, before setting out on your camping trip, know there are important bear safety rules you need to know to keep you and your family safe at your campsite.
Bears are quite intriguing and fun to watch. They are notoriously comical and playful. Especially when camping in bear country, don’t let their cuddly appearance and clown-like behavior make you believe they are all that.
While bears 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 enjoy camping in bear country but also how to prevent bears from showing up for dinner or drinks at your campsite.
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Camping in Bear Country?
Bear Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life!
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 in bear county 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.
When or why do bears attack?
Most bear attacks occur in the summer months when campsites are occupied and hiking trails are more populated. Bear attacks 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. Bears don’t just attack just for kicks. There’s certain elements that agitate bears or may instigate a bear to attack.
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 bears in the wild.
Inspect your campsite first for bear evidence
Before pitching your tent or deploying your RV’s slide-outs, take a good look around your campsite.
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.
And last, be aware about camping near fresh natural water sources. Bears gravitate to water features for them to fish and drink.
Be vigilant and cognizant
When camping in bear country, always be on your toes and be extra observant. Bears can be quite sneaky without making their presence known. Especially bear cubs and young bears can meander into your campsite day or night.
So, always keep your ears open and keep a good lookout for bears. 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 wearing a bear bell while others claim 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. They talk about bear safety while hiking or camping in bear country:
“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 accessible reach
There are certain bear attack precautions and familiarization before using bear spray or bear pepper spray.
When you’re either hiking or camping in bear country, your bear spray should be within easy reach at all times. The best place is to wear your bear spray on your belt where you can easily access it immediately.
Bear spray is not intended to be used as a long range deterrent. Most bear sprays reach up to 20-30 feet and should only be used as a last resort should a bear get too close.
Bear spray has a direct spray stream that you aim and expel only if the bear advances, charges or acts aggressively towards you in close proximity.
Another point to make is bear spray is not a personal body repellent like insect repellent. Bear spray should never be used on humans, pets or other wildlife.
Before heading out to go hiking or camping in bear country, make certain your bear spray is EPA approved and designed specifically to curb off bears.
Also, check your bear spray’s expiration date. Over time, bear spray can lose its’ potency. You certainly don’t want to find that out on the trail when you need it most when hiking or camping in bear country.
✰ OUTSIDER TIP ✰ Bear spray has been effective in significantly reducing the number of bear attacks with severe outcomes. Parks Canada shares how to use bear spray, when and where you should store it, so you’re ready in case of a bear encounter:
Always keep children close by when camping 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 bear safety tips at a level of their comprehension but not so to scare 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, you surely don’t want them leaving a trail to your campsite.
And, make absolute certain you clean up any remnants that are left on the table or have fallen to the ground. Again, the last thing you want is to leave a trail leading right to your campsite, tent or RV. Even the smallest morsel may attract a bear even 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.
And lastly, do not scream nor allow your children to scream when they see a bear or a bear enters your campsite. This will only startle, agitate and may even encourage the bear to act aggressively. Bears do not like high pitched screams or voices.
Do not allow your pets to wander when camping in bear country
We get it, your dog wants to enjoy the freedom of camping too. However, allowing your dogs and/or cats to wander may get them bringing an uninvited guest to your campsite.
And of course, you don’t want your dog or cat becoming a bear’s lunch or dinner. So, protect them and yourself by properly restraining them while they are outside camping in bear country with you.
In other words, keep your pets on a short lead. And never leave your pets outside unattended; even if they’re in a cage-like kennel or dog play yard.
Another tip when camping in bear country, make certain you pick up your pets’ food dishes immediately after they have eaten. Do not allow leftover food sit out. Again, bears can smell even dry kibble.
Also, thoroughly clean and stow them along with all pet food and snacks, natural chew bones and antlers, and natural animal products in bear odor-proof bags.
✰ OUTSIDER TIP ✰ Stay up with your Campground Pet Etiquette: Camping Rules for Dogs and Cats even in the backcountry.
Cooking outdoors while camping in bear country
We all can appreciate that cooking outdoors is one of the ultimate enjoyments of camping. However, you need to take certain precautions before grilling that steak or making s’mores while camping in bear country
First, never cook next to your tent, RV or vehicle. This goes for overlanding, car camping or motocamping vehicles.
You should place your grill or camp cook stove at least 50-100 yards from and downwind of your campsite, 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?
Always keep your campsite clean when camping in bear country
I know I sound like a broke record but bears can smell upwards to 20 miles away.
So, it’s ultimately important to keep your campsite picked up and clean. This means not leaving food or scraps, food wrappers, bags or containers outside or even in your tent. You need to clean your camp stove or camp grills ridding them from food and grease..
Make certain to police your campsite thoroughly after every meal; especially after an evening of s’mores or a friendly game of marshmallow wars. Because bears love sweets! And I guarantee, they love marshmallows and chocolate.
Make sure all chip bags, soda cans and even your beer are not left outside. Don’t leave your hiking pack that may have trail snacks out either.
Also, be coherent about what you leave in your cooler that sits outside. You really should store it in your campsite bear box or inside your car trunk or camper. Don’t think for a moment that big Rubbermaid tote and cooler is bear-proof.
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, car or vehicle.
Stash your trash when camping in bear country
Bears are notorious for foraging and digging in the trash; especially at night when no one is around to tell them otherwise.
So, it’s ultimately necessary to secure your trash and food 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 your food in bear lockers or bear boxes at your campsite
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 intriguingly delicious.
According to the National Park Service in their information on bears and food storage advisory, bears are super smart. They can recognize and associate coolers, grocery bags and camp stoves with food.
So, food and anything that has a scent, even non-food items, should be stored in these smell-proof bear boxes or animal proof containers.
This is why it’s super important to stow all food or anything that has a scent. Even toothpaste and deodorant can attract bears to your campsite!
Also, especially if you’re camping in a tent or soft-sided camper, you need to store all food, including your cooler, backpack, etc. in the bear box at your campsite or hang from a tree limb.
If the onsite bear box has lots of room, it’s also smart to store your portable camp grill, camp stove, pots and pans and cooking tools inside as they have scented residue on them. And yes, even your trash.
Items you should place in campsite bear boxes or bear proof lockers are:
- Trash and recyclable containers, bottles and cans
- Toiletries such as soaps, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, first-aid kits, baby wipes, lotion, hairspray. Scented AND unscented health and beauty supplies
- Scented tissue, air fresheners, candles, insect repellent, cleaning products
- Pet foods and bowls, leashes and pet toys.
- Tobacco products
- baby car-seats, baby bags and diaper pails
- Any food item, including dry goods
- Any beverages, whether they are opened or closed.
- Coolers, food storage totes and food storage containers.
- Camp stoves, cooking tools, and pots and pans.
If you are leaving your campsite for the day, pack everything in the bear box or hang from a tree away from your RV or tent.
But if there’s not enough room in the onsite bear box or there is none on the premises, store at least the non-food items in the trunk of your vehicle.
I say, ‘trunk’ as bears are notorious to even look in car windows and spot your cooler or items mentioned above.
In other words, don’t leave anything out that may attract bears when camping in bear country!
Lock your RV, toads and tow vehicles when camping in bear country
As I touched on above, bears have this amazing super power to smell anything miles away. This is reason to keep things properly stowed inside containers inside your locked car trunk or RV.
Don’t leave anything they can see in the front or back seats. Since bears are extremely curious (and calculating!), they will find their way into cars or even RVs to get to things that they perceive to be food.
In other words, it’s extremely imperative to never leave any food or other inviting bags of chips, beef jerky, half eaten sandwiches or Burger King wrappers. Bears are smart. They are known to associate certain items with yummy food.
Thus, if they can get into your car, RV and tent, know they will investigate, eat and destroy everything and anything. Which is reason to lock all vehicle doors and leave no windows open.
Other things that attract bears when camping in bear country
Did you know that 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.
This is why, even in your RV, you should store your food and the aforementioned airtight containers. But they should also be kept in scent-proof bear resistant bags, bear vault or stowed in your onsite bear box.
I know this sounds like I keep repeating myself here but it bears repeating (no pun intended). Anything with even the most subliminal scents or strange aromas may invite an up close encounter with a bear, two or the whole family!
Never entice, feed or interact with bear when camping in bear country
I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying, ‘never poke the bear’?
Well, it’s because bears don’t like interaction except with their bear family. Bears are unpredictable and can become instantly aggressive from provocation or agitation.
Never should humans entice or lure, antagonize, try to feed or interact with bears.
This also means staying far away from bear cubs. If you see bear cubs, get away immediately. Because as the saying goes, ‘you don’t want to mess with Momma Bear!’
Also, feeding bears, or any wildlife for that matter, only makes them reliant upon humans for food. Which, in itself is dangerous for the animals. Human food is simply not healthy for bears. But also, offering food may encourage or actually invite bears to act aggressively.
So, despite what you see at zoos of people throwing marshmallows and left over morsels, DON’T FEED THE BEARS!
In the event of a bear encounter
If a bear visits your campsite or comes in close proximity of you:
- Always remain calm
- Don’t shriek or make loud shrill noises can’t may startle a bear
- Do not run away or make sudden escaping movements
- Pay constant attention to his movements and behavior
- Speak in a calm normal voice to identify yourself that he recognizes you as a human
- Do not approach, chase or antagonize the bear
- Get away from bear cubs
- Never turn your back on the bear
If the bear doesn’t turn away, while talking to him calmly, slowly back towards your RV, go inside and secure all windows and doors.
Report bear activity and bear sightings at campgrounds in bear country
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 and staff.
Report the bear sighting location and how many bears. Also, give as best 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 you see the bear 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 principle; especially 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.
✰ OUTSIDER TIP ✰ 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.
A 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.
✰ READ MORE ✰ LEAVE NO TRACE: Pack in Pack Out Rules of Camping
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. Bears aren’t cuddly nor are they coming for a hug.
For more information on camping with bears, check out the National Park Service “Staying Safe Around Bears”.
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