Camping in Bear Country? Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

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 safety rules you need to know to keep you and your family safe.

Bears are quite intriguing and fun to watch. They are notoriously comical and playful. But don’t let their fuzzy, cuddly appearance 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 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?  Camping Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life!

Bear Country Sign

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.

Momma and Cubs

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.

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.

Bear Tracks

Inspect 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. 

So, always keep our eyes and ears open. This means leaving your headphones at home or in your RV or car.

Bear Bell

Make noise and be heard

Bears typically don’t like human contact. Some campers and hikers swear by bear bells 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:

“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

Camping in Bear Country - Bear Spray

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 your bear spray on your belt where you can easily access it immediately.

However, make certain your bear spray is EPA approved and designed specifically to curb off bears. 

Also, 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.

Also to note, bear spray is not a personal body repellent like insect repellent. It should never be used on humans, pets or other wildlife.

So, before heading out to take part in outdoor activities or camping in bear country, be bear aware!

And, familiarize yourself with knowing how to select bear pepper spray and as well as how to properly use bear spray to deter an aggressive bear.

PRO 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

Tent with bicycle

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. 

In any case, do not scream nor allow your children to scream, as this will only startle and encourage the bear to act aggressively. Bears do not like high pitched screams or voices.

Keep pets contained and restrained when camping in bear country

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 your pets to wander from your sight or be left unattended outside.

Another bear country camping safety tip, make certain you pick up your pets’ food dishes immediately after they have eaten.

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.

PRO TIP: Stay up with your Campground Pet Etiquette: Camping Rules for Dogs and Cats even in the backcountry.

Cooking outdoors in bear country

Camp Cooking

We all can appreciate that cooking outdoors while your camping is one of the enjoyments of camping. However, you need to take certain precautions before grilling that steak or making s’mores in bear country

You should never cook next to your tent, RV or vehicle (if you’re overlanding, car camping or motocamping).

You should place your grill or camp cook stove 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?

PRO TIP: Love to grill or cook over a campfire? Check out these Top 10 Portable Grills for RVs & Camping and Top 10 Portable Fire Pits for RVs and Camping

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.

Bear Country Camping-9

Stash your trash in bear country

Bears are notorious for foraging and digging in the trash.

So, it’s ultimately necessary 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 your food in bear lockers or bear boxes

Camping Bear Box

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.

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 essential to stow all food or anything that has a scent (even toothpaste and deodorant!) in a onsite bear box or bring your own bear proof containers and bags.

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 grill, camp stove, pots and pans and cooking tools inside as they have scented residue on them. And yes, even your trash.

Items you’ll need to place in 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.

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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. Unfortunaly, bears can also smell things that are inside RVs and vehicles.

And, since bears are extremely curious (and calculating!), they will find their way into cars or even RVs to get to the odor that’s attracting him.

Strangely, bears have even been known to actually open unlocked car doors.

So, it’s extremely imperative to never leave any food or other inviting scents in your car, RV and tent that may lead to them investigating, eating and destroying your property.

So, thaw that steak or hamburger in your refrigerator instead of on your countertop or in the sink in your RV.

And certainly don’t leave that half bag of beef jerky or gummy bears sitting on the front seat or on the dash.

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Other things that may 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.

This is why, even in your RV, you should keep your food and those aforementioned sealed properly in scent-proof bear resistant bagsbear vault or stowed in an 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 may invite an up close encounter with a bear, two or the whole family!

Never entice, feed or interact with bears

Camping in Bear Country - Do Not Feed the Bears Sign

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 are unpredictable and can become instantly aggressive from provocation.

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. Food offering may encourage acts of aggression.

But also, human food is simply not healthy for bears! 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

Bear Family

If a bear visits your campsite or comes in close proximity of you:

    • Always remain calm
    • 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
    • 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

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.

cinnamon bear

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.

CAMPING PRO 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.

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.

ALWAYS LEAVE NO TRACE!

Read more: LEAVE NO TRACE: Pack in Pack Out Rules of Camping

Bear Country Be Aware

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.

Always On Liberty - Bear Country Camping

For more information on camping with bears, check out the National Park Service “Staying Safe Around Bears”.

Love camping? Check out these other camping articles:

How to Survive Winter Camping in an RV

10 Fall Camping Recipes

Create the Ultimate Outdoor Camp Kitchen

Outdoor Camping Gear for Small RVs and Campers

Top 10 Portable Grills for RVs & Camping

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