Traveling & Camping in Bear Territory
Bears are big, beautiful creatures that inhabit most of North America. A distant encounter with them can be exhilarating, and the type of wildlife experience many outdoors people seek when they go venturing. On the other hand, a close encounter with these predators can be downright terrifying and dangerous. Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll discuss how to plan and safely execute a trip in bear country, and what to do when you come across a bear in the wild.
Bears are generally wary of humans and will usually leave a place as soon as they smell, see, or hear human presence. A big fear is sneaking up on a bear unannounced or finding a mother bear with her cubs. Startling or imposing on them is when they become most dangerous. And always remember, no matter how cute or docile they look, bears are unpredictable, wild animals.
Bear encounters are increasing, and not because bears are roaming further - we are. As humans encroach on bear territory in new ways, including photo op’s and ‘off-trail’ hiking experiences, bear populations are threatened. They will respond with more intense fight or flight responses, which can put either the bears or people in danger. More people in the backcountry also means more things are being left behind. Unfortunately, bears will eat just about anything when they’re hungry; glass, plastic, and metal, for just a few examples. And just like us, consuming these items can lead to serious health issues and even death.
For bears that get a taste of human food, it’s something they will never forget. Remember the first time you had ice cream? Have you ever stopped wanting it? It’s like that for bears too. These bears become desensitized to people and can become aggressive, quickly; they are now known as ‘problem bears’. Sadly, these bears must be killed by park rangers to ensure no future attacks. To avoid this, it’s our responsibility as wilderness travelers to keep our food and products to ourselves.
Using the Leave No Trace 7 Principles minimizes our impact when venturing and helps wildlife populations thrive. While we advocate for following all 7 Principles, when it comes to bears, we especially encourage you to Dispose of Waste Properly and Respect Wildlife. ‘Pack It In, Pack It Out’ or ‘Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Pictures’ are easily remembered sayings that remind us to clean up after ourselves. And when it comes to respecting wildlife - we’re visitors in their home, please be considerate by giving all animals a buffer space and ‘Observe Them, Don’t Disturb Them’.
Spending Time in Bear Country
Are there bears where you’re headed? If you don’t know, make a point to check. Some agencies and regions will also require the use of Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) approved containers while in their backcountry. Search for your area on our Trail Finder to find more information about bears and canister requirements.
We also recommend contacting the area’s managing agency before you head out. By talking to rangers beforehand, you’ll be able to determine if bear lockers or poles are installed at campsites, if carrying bear spray is recommended, and where current bear activity levels are at. If bears are being regularly sighted in the region, consider changing your plans.
A quick note about bear spray. Bear spray is a highly concentrated, non-lethal pepper spray that is commonly carried for protection when venturing in bear country. Keep your bear spray on your person (not in your pack) at all times! Counter Assault and SABRE both have bear spray kits that come with belt holsters, and you should check out this video by the Be Bear Aware Campaign on how to properly use your spray.
Two pro-tips for your pre-trip: wash your sleeping bag and tent in unscented detergents, and don’t wear or bring scented items that turn you into a huge, smelly huckleberry.
Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk - this is when bears are most active.
Hike in groups - you make more noise and look more formidable.
Don’t let small children or pets wander or run too far ahead.
Make noise as you hike - every so often yell or sing to the bears, come up with your own bear song or jingle as you hike.
Don’t whistle, use an actual whistle, or scream to try and deter bears, as this can sound like a distressed animal and can actually attract bears to you.
Bear bells are great in theory, but they’re not loud enough to alert bears to your presence until you’re already too close for comfort and not worth your hard earned money!
Your bear spray should be easily accessible at all times - a bear's not going to wait for you to pull it out, so don't put it in your pack!
Be aware of your location and surroundings
Blind spots and bends in the trail, noisy streams, strong or changing winds, and thick vegetation can hide you from bears. In these moments, it’s especially important to be noisy and cognizant.
Berry patches, fishing spots, spawning areas, and animal carcasses are all food sources for bears! They will defend them, so be extra cautious if you find yourself in any of these locations
Choosing a campsite
Don’t camp in areas where there are signs of recent bear activity - fresh tracks, scat, parallel claw marks on trees, or saplings broken part way up the trunk (bears rub themselves on trees to mark areas with their scent).
Avoid camping near thick brush or natural food sources, and avoid camping away from trails as bears use them too!
Keep odors at a distance from your camp.
Designate a separate cooking area, far from your tent (100 yards, aka 100 paces, is a good distance), and try to make it downwind (the wind blows from your campsite to your cooking area.)
When brushing your teeth, make sure to follow this distance rule!
Never leave food out or unattended. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night - wildlife is always looking for its next meal.
Do dishes with unscented soap; strain out any food bits and add them to your garbage.
At night, always have a flashlight on you when you’re out and about, the same goes for bear spray. When turning in for the night, keep your spray handy in your tent or shelter.
When camping in front-country campgrounds:
Don’t assume that just because there’s a lot of people around that bears won’t come around too! In fact, the bears in the area are probably used to humans in some capacity.
Unless labeled as such, coolers are NOT bear resistant.
Camping around another group that isn’t following proper bear precautions is certainly a tricky situation. If you’re comfortable, ask them to clean up their camp for the safety of everyone. If you’re not comfortable, it’s best to move your camp at least a few hundred yards away.
Food & Scented Item Storage Techniques
When traveling and camping in bear country, properly storing your food and other scented items is high on the priority list. It drastically decreases the chance of an unanticipated bear encounter or creating a ‘problem bear’. Careful storage can also save you from going hungry on the hike out!
What needs to go in your storage system?
The easy answer, everything with a smell!
Food - no matter how well it’s wrapped or packaged.
Toiletry Items - including toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, chapstick, sunscreen, feminine products, deodorant, soap, mosquito repellent.
Cookware, stove, and utensils - no matter how well you think you cleaned it.
The clothes that you cooked in - it’s good hiking etiquette, especially in dense bear country, to have one set of cooking clothes that always goes into your storage system.
And for all the fishers out there, any clothes you handled or cleaned your catch in.
Garbage - all of it, even a single candy bar wrapper can be the difference that brings a bear rummaging through your camp.
If you don’t have access to composting toilets or to a trowel to dig 6-8” catholes away from water sources, make sure you’re carrying your waste out with you in Blue or WAG Bags. Those bags should go into your storage system.
And in general, please follow Leave No Trace and area guidelines for properly disposing of human waste while hiking.
Pet Items - pet food, chew toys, and other smelly-pet related objects need to go into your system
Different Storage Systems
There are multiple different ways to store your scented items - bear canisters, bear bags, hanging them up high, and installed storage lockers. Each has its time, place, and proper technique.
Bear canisters are hard sided, portable containers that make your food and scented items inaccessible to bears and other critters. Their lids are secured in different ways, but generally they require opposable thumbs/the use of tools to open - basically they’re like child-safe lids for bears. Many areas require their use, and often they need to be approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC).
While thick and bulky, bear canisters really do provide the best possible protection outside of immobile bear lockers. Canisters come in a variety of sizes and materials - ABS plastic versions like these from Bear Vault and Grub Can are highly popular for their cost effectiveness and have both been given the thumbs up by the IGBC!
Carbon fiber canisters, like the Bearikade Weekender, while expensive, are becoming more popular for their weight savings - though it’s important to note, the Bearikade is not yet IGBC approved.
Using a Bear Canister
Before heading out, paint your canister with reflective colors or put fluorescent tape or stickers on it to help you find it in low-light conditions.
Bear canisters can be a tight fit for all your scented items - eat bulky items or poke tiny holes in air-filled items (that you’ll eat within a day) to reduce the volume of items you need to pack in it.
When in grizzly territory, it’s a good idea to also store your food in scent-proof bags, like these from SmellyProof and Lopsak, then put them in the canister. (Note: to be effective, you need to avoid contaminating the outside of the bags with any scents - no spilling!)
As an added bonus, because of their heavy-duty construction, they also double as a seat.
Keep the canister near the bottom of your pack and close to your body. This will help distribute the weight and avoid making your pack top-heavy.
When you’re finished cooking and eating for the night, pack your canister with all your scented items.
Find a suitable place for your canister.
Make sure the canister is at least 200 ft. from your camp (300 ft. is better!).
Place the canister on the ground, preferably hidden in thick brush.
Don’t place the canister near a ledge or lakeshore - there are plenty of stories of them being knocked off a cliff and never seen again.
Don’t place canisters against hard objects (rocks/stumps) - bears can use their weight and the hard object to break into the canister.
Place your canister with the lid side down - this will help stop rain from seeping in and make the top less visible for gnawing.
In the morning, retrieve your canister. As you walk to it, make some noise - no one wants to stumble upon a bear first thing in the morning!
Bear bags are soft-sided storage systems made with high-density materials (often kevlar or high-weight polyethylene) that bears cannot rip through, though their teeth and claws will definitely make marks on the bags, and might crush some of the items you have inside. They are much lighter than bear canisters, and because of their flexible, collapsable nature, they are also much easier to fit inside your backpack.
Some bear bags, like the Ursack, are IGBC approved storage devices - that’s why our Montana Gear Rental Division supplies them to hikers. Other options that aren’t IGBC approved are still a good option when bear canisters aren’t required but you still need proper storage.
Using a bear bag
Don’t overstuff your bear bag - if food or items are visible, bears can get at them.
Make sure to tie the bags according to manufacturer specifications, to ensure they are secure.
These bags often aren’t waterproof - it’s a good idea to use a smell-proof, waterproof liner for added protection from both bears and the elements.
When you’re finished cooking and eating for the night, pack your bear bag with all your scented items.
Find a suitable place for your bear bag.
Make sure the bag is at least 200 ft. from your camp (300 ft. is better!).
For IGBC approved bags, they can be left on the ground, but should be secured to a fixed object like a tree or hidden under a pile of rocks as bears have been known to walk off with whole bags! Bags can also be hung up high.
For unapproved bags, they need to be hung using tree-hangs or bear poles as they aren’t resistant enough to be left on the ground.
Some areas will have tall, metal poles installed to assist with getting your scented items up and out of the way. Where those don’t exist, you can use a sturdy tree branch and rope to secure your things for the night.
Bear Pole Hang
Tall, sturdy poles are placed near many backcountry campsites to ensure you’re able to store your items up and out of the way. These poles are most often used with bear bags and dry sacks. If poles are installed, use them!
There are a couple types of pole hangs you might encounter:
A single pole with large hooks or bars at the top.
After cooking and eating, pack your bags.
Use the provided second pole to hoist your bag up and onto the hooks.
This quick video will demonstrate how to use a single pole.
Poles or trees with a cable strung between them.
Once you’re ready to turn in, pack up your things.
There will be secondary cables hanging down from the main cable - they will have a clip or carabiner for you to attach your bags to.
After attaching your bags, hoist them up, and secure the cable to the nearby poles or trees.
This video will demonstrate how to use the cables.
Traditional Tree Hang
In areas where bear poles aren’t installed, or for low-density bear populations, hanging all of your scented items from a sturdy tree limb puts them out of reach for (most) bears and critters.
How to Do a Basic Tree Hang
After you’re done cooking and eating for the night, put all of your scented items into a bear bag or a dry bag.
Find a strong tree limb that’s between 15 and 20 feet off the ground, and at least 200 ft. from your camp.
Tie a weight (rock or a light dry bag) to the end of a 50 to 100 foot piece of rope or paracord.
Toss it over the limb (this might take you many tries).
Once you’ve got the rope over, untie the weight and tie your scented-item bags to one end of the rope.
Hoist the bags up so they are at least 10-15 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk (preferably 6-8 feet out).
Tie the other end of the rope securely to another tree.
Check out this video by Leave No Trace on proper tree hangs.
A couple of notes about tree hangs:
In some parks with large or aggressive bear populations, they don’t allow this method. Their bears have gotten smart enough to chew through ropes/branches and bring the hangs to the ground.
Finding the right tree branch can take some time - and in many ecoregions, such as the desert or high alpine, proper trees don’t exist.
There are a couple more advanced techniques, such as the counterbalance method and PCT hang method, that can be more effective than the basic hang and we’ll cover them in future blogs. If you’re interested, please follow the respective links to learn more!
These are large, metal lockers that are usually placed in front-country campgrounds, as well as some backcountry sites. Place all of your scented items in them whenever you leave camp or go to bed. Make sure to close them properly or all your stuff could be gone!
Some bear lockers are placed communally between campsites. Try not to take up all the space if you’re the first group to the sites and work with the other groups to make sure everyone’s stuff is in the locker. A bear in camp is scary for everyone! And please, keep lockers clean for the next guests!
If you’re car camping, sometimes keeping food in your car is OK - check with local rangers to see what local regulations are and look for signs posted around your campsite. Bears have been known to break into cars to get at food items. A good rule of thumb - if there’s a bear locker provided at the campsite, use it!
So you’re on trail or at camp, and you see a large, moving object off in the distance. You quickly realize this hulking mass moving towards you is a bear. In this instance, there are things you should do for encounters with any kind of bear, as well as specific differences between black and grizzly bear encounters.
A quick aside: within this article, we’ve been using the term grizzly bear. Technically speaking, grizzly bears ARE brown bears. As the National Park Service points out in their article on bear identification, grizzly has been a colloquial term used to describe brown bears in the Lower 48. Lately, grizzlies are starting to be thought of as a subspecies of brown bears, due to their inland habitat, diet, and size.
In All Bear Encounters
If you notice a bear before it notices you, back away, but keep your line of sight on the bear.
Don’t approach them! Retreat, reroute, and give the bear lots of space - 100 yards or more.
Do you see bear cubs? If so, be especially cautious: mother bears will attack without warning.
Talk to the bear in a monotone, non-threatening voice.
Without sudden movements, raise your hands above your head and make yourself big.
Group up with others to look big and imposing.
Get your bear spray ready.
If the bear continues to follow you as you back up, spray a short burst in their direction - often the sound and cloud will be enough to scare them.
Postpone your trip if you can’t continue on the trail safely.
If you’re attacked in your tent, at night, or after being followed, these are dire situations - fight back using any and all means!
Grizzly bears tend to attack to defend themselves, black bears attack because they think you’re food, and they attack with the intent to kill. Because of this difference, attacks by each bear should be handled differently.
Black Bear Encounters
When you first see them:
Raise your arms to look large and yell loudly (though don’t scream!). Bang pots and pans together.
If you don’t have bear spray, grab a large, sturdy stick to defend yourself.
Even if the bear seems harmless/just curious, still try to scare it away and back away from it.
If a black bear keeps coming towards you:
When they’re within 30 feet, use your bear spray!
As a last resort, if the bear seems more interested in your food than you, drop your food. Though, please do this cautiously - and with the knowledge that rangers will eventually need to kill the bear.
If the black bear attacks, it is treating you as prey:
DON’T PLAY DEAD!!! Because black bears think you’re food, they won’t stop attacking and biting if you stop moving.
Fight back with everything you’ve got - sticks, rocks, bear spray.
Aim blows for their nose, mouth, and eyes.
Continue until the bear backs off and you can separate yourself.
Grizzly Bear Encounters
When you first see them:
If a grizzly bear doesn’t retreat right away, it’s checking you out and assessing whether you’re a threat or not.
Talk calmly, yet assertively to the bear.
Don’t try to scare the bear away by yelling or throwing things at it, and try not to make eye contact - you don’t want to be perceived as a threat.
Grizzly Bears are known to charge, but not full-scale attack, humans and other perceived threats. Their ears and head will stay perked up and they may huff and puff on their way towards you.
Have your bear spray at the ready and stand your ground. Never turn and run.
Continue talking to the bear, almost as if you’re trying to make friends with it.
If the bear turns and retreats after this charge, don’t assume you’re safe yet - continue to back up slowly and deliberately.
Full on Attacks
Unlike the bluff charge, if the grizzly is planning to attack it will lower its ears and head, and move silently.
Use your bear spray when they get to within 30 feet. Don’t panic and don’t spray too high, you don’t want the spray going over their head.
If someone in your group is being attacked, spray your bear spray at both them and the bear. This won’t be fun for the victim, but it will probably save their life.
PLAY DEAD if your spray doesn’t work, or you don’t have any.
Lie flat on your stomach, with your backpack on.
Cover the back of your head and neck with your hands.
Keep your elbows and legs out wide - you don’t want to be turned over.
If the bear does manage to roll you, continue rolling until you’re on your stomach again.
The cannonball position has also been known to work.
The bear may end up biting you, try to stifle any screams or movement, and continue playing dead.
After close or aggressive encounters with either type of bear
Take some deep breaths and collect yourself.
If you’re hurt, attend to cleaning wounds and make a plan to get out of the area.
If you walk away unscathed, sit down and take a nip (or three) from your flask.
Once you’re back to civilization, stop by a ranger station to report your experience or, at the minimum, give them a call.
Steven, the author, lives in Portland, OR and is the Head of Wilderness Data and Community for RightOnTrek. When he’s not hiking, biking, or snowboarding in the Cascades, you can catch him eating a sushi burrito and drinking a beer at one of Portland’s food truck pods.
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