If you’re an avid camper, one thing you need to learn is keep those bears away from your campsite. This includes the tent, bedding, clothing, food, vehicle…basically, anything and everything related to a camping trip. The bears you meet up with in the woods “bear” no resemblance to friendly characters like Yogi Bear or Smokey the Bear. They won’t hesitate to attack if you are between them and a food source.
For camping and bear safety, the most important thing to know is how to keep your campsite from being a bear-magnet. We’ve got some basic tips to share that will help you do this. It’s also helpful to know what attracts bears and what to do if you encounter one. Bear deterrent camping practices will help you and your fellow campers enjoy the beauty of nature without worrying about your safety or your supplies.
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What Attracts Bears?
Although bear attacks on humans are very rare, they are more frequent than in the past. This is because their natural habitat has shrunk as new construction has encroached on forested areas. This has led to the loss of feeding ground as well as habitats. The main reason bears seek out your campsite is because they are hungry. During hibernation, bears go without food for six to seven months. When they wake up, they’re ready to make up for lost time!
Unfortunately, bears can also become habituated to humans because of the many well-used hiking trails that cut through their woods. And campsites that see a lot of traffic each year are bound to have a few careless campers who end up leaving food for bears to forage. Once a bear has found food at a particular site, it won’t forget. Bears are intelligent animals and creatures of habit.
How to Choose Your Campsite
The first step in bear-proofing is choosing a campsite that’s unattractive to bears. Check out the area for any sign of bears, such as torn-apart logs, claw marks on trees or bear droppings. If you see trampled bushes, that could also mean a bear has been in the area recently. While you’re scouting for signs of bears, look for nut-bearing trees or berry patches that might attract the furry behemoths.
Next, set up your campsite in a “bear-muda triangle” with the sleeping, food storage, and cooking/eating areas at each point of the triangle. Make sure the wind is blowing away from the sleeping site and toward the food-related corners of the triangle, keeping least 100 yards between the three sites. This is the best way to prevent waking up to find a bear at your tent.
Bears avoid open areas and prefer heavily wooded spots and thickets. Find a spot with sparse vegetation and few trees to set up your camp, and this will decrease the likelihood of an unpleasant encounter. And though it may seem picturesque to camp beside a stream, that’s another no-no. Bears and other animals will come to the stream to drink and catch fish, and you don’t want to be there when they do.
How to Keep Bears Away from Your Campsite
If you want to know how to keep bears away from your campsite, one way is to make a lot of noise. Crank up the music, yell at each other across the campsite and play loud games that make you whoop and holler! Bears don’t like a lot of noise, and they prefer to stay away from humans unless they’re lured by the smell of food.
A perimeter defense system can also help protect a camp from bears. Too heavy to carry for a hiking/camping excursion, they are more suited to a settled campsite. Some of these are electric fences designed to shock the bear and scare it away. More humane systems use a tripwire to set off a siren and strobe light, achieving the same effect.
If you’re car camping with a vehicle nearby, that gives you a secure place to store garbage. All waste should be double-bagged in tightly sealed black garbage bags. Storing these in the trunk gives an added barrier against detection. If you’re worried about a bear attacking your car, you can spray the trunk and bumper with an animal repellent that’s available at home improvement stores.
Don’t store any fresh food in your car, though. Bears are pretty good at messing up cars that have food in them, no matter how tightly sealed. Eating in the car during the drive to camp is also not a good idea. Long after any food odors have ‘disappeared’, bears can still smell them.
Bring the Right Gear
Bear safety while camping starts with getting the right kind camping equipment. Although there really is no bear-proof tent or sleeping bag, some are better than others when it comes to wilderness camping. The best way to bear-proof your tent is to make sure there’s not even a crumb or drop of food, drink or candy in it.
Getting the right tent equipment
Having a tough and thick sleeping bag can make a difference if you do experience a bear attack. If nothing else, it will buy you enough time to grab your pepper spray to repel the bear. It’s also important to bring plenty of flashlights and batteries for when you leave the tent at night. Keep a canister of bear spray and a working flashlight in your sleeping bag if you’re camping in an area that has a healthy bear population.
Binoculars are also helpful because they can help you detect a bear nearby if you’re not sure one is there. If you do see one, all the campers should yell loudly and bang pots and pans together to make noise and scare the bear away. If this doesn’t work, another handy camping tool is an air horn. The loud blast should be sufficient to get rid of your unwelcome visitor.
Storing the necessities
Some necessities like medicine, sunscreen, and fuel can even be attractive to bears. It’s harmful to the animals when they find and eat drugs, chemicals or petroleum products. It can also wreck a camping trip if you have to do without vital supplies. Like food, these items should be stored in a sealed, airtight container or, in the case of fuel, in the trunk of the car.
If worst comes to worst and a startled bear lunges at you, bear spray is available for your protection. It’s made with pepper that stings the eyes and throat but won’t harm the bear permanently. Just remember that the initial lunge may be just to frighten you away. However, if the bear doesn’t stop, the spray is designed to spread outward in a cone. This makes it highly likely that you’ll get it in in the bear’s eyes and throat, giving you time to get away.
By Virginia State Parks staff (Hanging a Bear BagUploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
How to Hang a Bear Bag
Finding the location
Hanging a bear bag is one way to keep food away from pesky critters, but it’s not foolproof. To do a good job of it, you need to know where and how to hang it. Sometimes, there’s a “perfect branch” that all the campers use to hang theirs. It might be the right weight and distance off the ground or in a convenient location. Don’t use that branch! Bears can easily learn where to look for food at a campsite.
Instead, look around for a good, solid branch that’s at least twelve feet off the ground and a minimum of 100 yards downwind from the tent. Your bag can even be hung in a different area from the campsite altogether. Just be sure to avoid streams, game trails and heavily wooded spots.
Hanging the Bear Bag
To hang your bag, attach a sturdy 40-foot nylon rope to a mini carabiner and clip it onto a small bag filled with a few rocks. Throw it over the branch you have selected, aiming for 5-6 feet from the tree. Once the rope is hanging over the branch, adjust it far enough away from the tree and transfer the carabiner clip to your bear bag.
Thread the other end of the rope through the carabiner and haul the bag all the way up to the branch. Reaching as high as you can, securely tie the rope around a sturdy twig. Slowly let go of the rope, and it will stop when the twig reaches the carabiner. This method should keep your bag at least ten feet off the ground. If you need to, stand on a sturdy item like a large cooler to adjust the height of the bag.
Bear bags might not be an option if the area is treeless. Some campsites provide bear poles or locked metal cabinets if there aren’t any trees available. If you don’t have either of these options, then it becomes even more important to bring the right kinds of containers to store food and clothing.
Food Storage and Cooking
It’s only common sense to make sure that meat, cheese, peanut butter and other foodstuffs are packed in airtight containers. But things that sometimes get overlooked are less savory items like apples and granola bars. Any kind of food, whether wrapped or not, will attract our furry friends.
Airtight bags should be brought for clothing, food, trash, leftovers and anything else that has or can absorb an odor. You can also get government-approved bear-proof containers for camping that will provide an airtight seal for whatever’s inside. Bear tubes are flexible plastic tubes that will keep food sealed inside your backpack. They’re handy for long hikes when you need to bring food along.
After meals, it’s important to clean up right away. Wash all the eating and cooking utensils thoroughly and store them in a closed container. Dispose of the wash water far away from camp in a downwind direction. If there’s a common cooking area at your campground, that’s an even better alternative for preparing meals.
Bears Have an Acute Sense of Smell
Did you know that a bear’s sense of smell is seven times greater than a dog’s?
It helps with bear-proofing to choose foods that won’t attract them as much, like pasta, rice, and crackers. Avoid bacon, because it has a very strong odor that lingers. Bears like the scent just as much as we do.
Speaking of lingering scents, you may not realize it but when you cook food, the odor clings to your clothing. It’s a really good idea to wear one set of clothing just for cooking and bag it up securely the rest of the time. Don’t even change in your tent, because the food smell may linger just from your clothing being in there a short time.
Don’t bring strong smelling stuff
Another basic tip is to not bring along any unnecessary cosmetics or perfumes. The scent from these items will arouse a bear’s curiosity. Believe it or not, you will always need to keep hard candy, chewing gum and even your toothpaste and deodorant outside the tent and inside a bear bag when you don’t need them.
Maintaining a spotlessly clean campsite is a prime way to keep the bears away, along with raccoons and other pests. Every crumb and food wrapper needs to be cleaned up after meals, and food, drink, and candy should never be brought inside the tent. All food prep and cooking should be done in one area at least 100 yards from the sleeping area. Leftovers should be buried or securely bagged up as garbage.
If you detect the odor of a carcass while hiking, veer away as soon as you can. Bears will be attracted to the scent because they are scavengers as well as foragers. Likewise, if you see vultures circling overhead, make a wide arc around that spot.
What to Do if You Encounter a Bear
It’s not a bad idea to get some training on bear behavior (and what to do if you encounter one) before you go camping. According to the American Bear Association, the one thing you definitely do not want to do when you see a bear is run. This might trigger the bear’s instincts and make it chase you.
These are the tips provided by the ABA
- Stay calm.
- Do not run.
- Pick up small children.
- If in a group, stay together.
- Do not turn your back on the bear.
- Back away slowly without making direct eye contact.
- Try to leave an escape route for the bear.
- If the bear follows you, yell loudly in a low voice and wave your arms around to shoo it away.
- When this doesn’t work, throw a hat or other item to distract the bear while you continue to back away.
- If all else fails, be prepared with bear spray.
National Geographic experts have another suggestion about what to do if you encounter a bear. If you can’t scare it off and it attacks you, playing dead can save your life. Statistics have shown that 75 percent of those who played dead when attacked ended up with only minor injuries. Those who fought back were severely injured 80 percent of the time. They also advise campers to practice using bear spray before going camping and to carry it in a holster so that it’s readily available if needed.
When Playing Dead Saved a Life
Karen Williams was running a marathon in June of 2016 when she was mauled by a mama bear protecting its young. The race led through a nature preserve, and Williams was three miles from the finish line in the 26-mile marathon. As she crested a rise, she saw a black bear running toward her.
Williams screamed with pain as the bear raked her with its claws and bit her neck, trying to shake her. Sensing that the screaming was making the bear angrier, she became quiet and curled up into a ball, leaving only her backpack to protect her. At the same time, the bear’s cub had crawled up a tree, distracting the attacking animal. The bear walked away, looking back from time to time. Williams thinks that the combination of her playing dead and the cub climbing the tree is what saved her life.
What to Do if You See a Bear While Hiking
To minimize your chances of seeing a bear while hiking, stay on the marked trail and travel in groups. If you stay together and hike only during daylight hours, there’s a much smaller chance of running into a bear. And a bear is a lot more likely to leave when there’s a group of people rather than one or two hikers.
Announcing that you’re there is an effective deterrent against surprising a bear. Some people wear bells on their shoelaces to alert wildlife that they’re coming. If you do see a bear and it stands up on its hind legs, this isn’t a sign of aggression. It’s just the bear showing curiosity and standing up so it can see better.
Surprising a bear is the best way to get yourself into a bad situation. Some people call out as they hike, so any bears in the area will know they’re coming. Make noise if you’re approaching the kind of densely thicketed area that bears love to hide in. Always be aware of your surroundings and look out for blind curves or noisy streams that make it hard for a bear to see or hear you ahead of time.
The Bear That Came Out of Nowhere
The consequences of surprising a bear can be dire, as one hiker found out in the Bailey Canyon Wilderness Park in Sierra Madre, California. In October of 2016, Dan Richman was running in the park when he suddenly came upon two bears. Since bears usually forage separately, it might have been a mating pair, making the situation even worse.
Richman saw a bear standing on its hind legs and started backing away, but then he realized that another bear was closer to him. In this case, yelling and waving his arms worked to get rid of the closest bear, as it turned around and began to walk away. Richman’s big mistake was deciding to run past the other bear, which grabbed his right wrist in its teeth and then bit him in the leg.
Richmond actually made it home and called 911 before realizing just how badly he had been bitten. He ended up with cuts to his feet, legs, upper body and head. The scariest cut was on his upper leg, close to the femoral artery. A few of the things we mentioned that could have saved Richman from getting mauled are:
- Running with one or two other people.
- Singing or calling out from time to time.
- Wearing bells on his shoelaces.
- Never running away from a bear.
Bear-Proof for a Relaxing Camping Experience
Some people are afraid that bears will steal their food when they’re camping. Others are afraid they’ll be the bear’s food! It helps to know that bears are shy and non-aggressive animals. They like to keep to themselves and will only approach humans in search of food. Three people have been killed by bears in Yellowstone National Park in the past five years. However, 20 million people have visited the park, meaning that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a bear.
When learning how to bear-proof your campsite, remember that there’s no guarantee you won’t see bears. That’s why it’s important to prepare for the possibility by learning what steps to take if you do encounter a bear. Humans are the ones encroaching on the bears’ habitats. It’s up to us to be good stewards of the forests and the creatures that live there.