Bears and Campsites

By Tom Mitchell
© 2023 by Wild M Brands, LLC. All rights reserved.

Camping allows us to disconnect with busyness and reconnect with nature at ground level, enjoy a warm campfire at night, and wake to cool, crisp mornings in fresh air. However, one aspect of camping that can evoke a mix of excitement and concern are bear encounters.

Understanding Bears

The most common bear species encountered in North America are black bears and grizzly bears. While their behavior and habitat differ, they share some fundamental traits. For example, they both are highly intelligent, curious, and possess a keen sense of smell. Both are attracted to anything remotely edible. Both will protect their young cubs. It is essential to remember that bears are wild animals and can be dangerous. The grizzly bear is a more aggressive species than a black bear, but both have been known to attack humans. The majority of bear attacks occur because bears feel threatened or are protecting their young.

Bears at Campsites Wild M Brands

Unprovoked attacks can occur, but they are rare. Here are three recent reports of unprovoked attacks:

  • A man was recently killed in Yavapai County, Arizona while at his campsite where he was building a remote cabin. A black bear attacked and killed him as he sat on his front porch of the new cabin. A neighbor finally shot and killed the bear.
  • In 2022, a California woman was killed in western Montana by a grizzly bear that returned to her campsite an hour after she had repelled it, attacking her in her tent while she slept.
  • In 2022, a woman and her daughter near Gatlinburg, Tennessee were attacked by a black bear while in their tent, suffering injuries from the attack.

There are several documented bear attacks where the bear may have considered someone a threat, or a threat to its young cubs. Often, hunters will encounter bears because they are (of course) in the bear’s habitat, they’re stalking for game quietly and can surprise a bear, or they’re field dressing a big game harvest and handling fresh meat.

So, what can a camper or hiker do to help prevent a bear encounter, attack, and what should one do in the event of a close encounter, or attack?

1. Respect the Bear’s Habitat

Bears are most frequently encountered in campsites because they are attracted to the smell of food.

  • Keep your campsite clean and free of food debris, even the smallest of crumbs, or any packaging that had contained food.
  • Store all food securely in airtight totes AWAY from your sleeping tent.
  • Dispose of waste by burning it or sealing it in airtight containers.
  • Do not discard meat bones or the most minute food scrap or unused fruit and vegetables around your campsite.

Food items must be stored in bear-resistant container that is sealed airtight or hung 10 to 15 feet high in trees or on a pole at least 100 feet away from your sleeping area. This is so a standing bear cannot reach it. Make sure it’s at least four feet out from the trunk or pole so the bear cannot climb the tree and reach the container.
It is not just what humans would consider food that bears are attracted to either. Bears can also be attracted to any garbage, used cooking pots and utensils, cooking oil and lantern fuel, cosmetics, deodorant, and toothpaste. Remember, bears are curious animals and anything with a food-like scent or odor is attractive. Their scent detection is seven times greater than the best dog’s ability to smell and at much greater distances.

2. Make Noise

Bears typically avoid human encounters, but surprising them can be dangerous. Make your presence known by making noise while hiking or moving around the campsite. Clapping, talking, or singing (or just saying HEY BEAR on occasion while hiking) can alert bears to your presence, giving them the opportunity to avoid you.

3. Handle Food Properly

When it comes to food, it’s crucial to follow best practices:

  • Cook and eat away from your sleeping area to minimize food odors near your tent.
  • Avoid cooking foods with strong smells, such as fish, near your campsite.
  • After meals, clean up thoroughly, and wash your dishes away from your sleeping area.
  • Store Smelly Items Properly:

Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell, so it’s essential to store anything with a strong scent securely. This includes toiletries, such as toothpaste, soap, and sunscreen, as well as items like garbage and pet food. Storing these items in bear-resistant containers or locking them in your vehicle can help prevent attracting bears to your campsite.

4. Carry a Weapon and Know Regulations

Different states, areas, and campsites have specific guidelines and regulations regarding bear safety and what weapons can be possessed by a camper or hiker. Familiarize yourself with these rules before your trip. Some campsites may require the use of bear canisters or specific bear-proof containers for food storage.

  • Bear Spray: Use of bear spray has shown to be effective in repelling an aggressive bear, however, the bear often does not leave the area, or returns to the encounter.
  • Firearm: Use of a firearm will depend on the area’s regulations. It is important to use the right caliber to kill the bear quickly if you are attacked. Aim for shots in the chest area.

What if you are face-to-face with an aggressive bear or under attack?

  • If you encounter a bear while hiking or at your campsite, it’s essential to remain calm and avoid direct eye contact. Never run from a bear, as it may trigger their predatory instincts. Instead, back away slowly, speaking calmly to the bear as you do. Creating distance and allowing the bear an escape route will likely diffuse the situation. Do not look the bear in the eyes, and back away slowly. Running makes you prey.
  • If attacked, tuck into a fetal position and cover the back of your neck and head, keeping your pack on (if wearing one).
  • Regardless of the level of aggression, and even if you thwarted an attack or encountered an aggressive bear, leave the area. Bears will often return. Report any aggressive bear behavior to authorities

Conclusion:

Camping in bear country can be an exciting and rewarding experience. By understanding bear behavior, respecting their habitat, and following proper safety precautions, we can enjoy our time in the wilderness while coexisting peacefully with these majestic creatures. Remember, the goal is to protect both the bears and ourselves, ensuring a harmonious relationship between humans and nature’s neighbors. So go ahead, plan that camping trip, and embrace the wonder of the wild, knowing that you are well-prepared to share the landscape with bears.

Below are some useful articles you may find helpful.

https://www.nps.gov/articles/bearattacks.htm#:~:text=Cover%20your%20head%20and%20neck,to%20it%20or%20its%20cubs

https://wildlife.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wsb.1403#:~:text=In%2062%25%20(8%20of%2013,Smith%20et%20al.

https://www.ammoland.com/2019/03/pistols-or-handguns-used-to-defend-against-bear-attack-95-effective-63-cases/#axzz5qa0wK1Gp

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