Running into bears while camping can be a harrowing experience. An encounter with a 240-pound black bear has a way of reminding you humanity isn’t always at the top of the food chain. Fortunately bear attacks are rare—you’re twenty times more likely to be killed by a cow than a bear in any given year. Having said that, most of us are more likely to camp in bear country than the local dairy pasture, so it’s important to know how to deal with bears while camping.
What Attracts Bears to Campgrounds?
Bears who learn to associate campgrounds with food tend to become increasingly aggressive. They want food, they expect food, and they’re not about to let anyone get in their way. Such bears have become habituated to humans, which makes them very unpredictable. So, what attracts bears in the first place?
In a word, food. Bear in mind (no pun intended) that a bear’s idea of a potential meal is quite varied. he’s not just attracted to your leftover freeze dried camping food—campgrounds offer a host of potentially edible goodies for bears, including:
- Human or pet food
- Cooking pots and utensils
- Cooking oil
- Stove and lantern fuel
- Unopened canned beverages
- Cosmetics and lotions
- Insect repellant
Not counting garage, most of the items in this list fall under “camping essentials.” As you’re unlikely to go camping without them, you should take steps to keep such items away from bears. This isn’t just a safety precaution, you’re doing the local bears a favor too. Bears that become campground threats often must be destroyed.
What to do to Discourage Bears While Camping
- Use campground-provided bear-resistant food storage boxes.
- Store food in hard-side vehicle if storage boxes not available.
- Use bear resistant backpacker food caches.
- Keep pets leashed. A bear who won’t normally approach humans might think differently about attacking the family dog.
- Cooking areas and food storage area should be at least 100 yards away from sleeping areas when hiking in the back country.
- Keep a flashlight and bear spray in your tent at night.
- Sleep in your tent, not out in the open.
- Set up camp away from trails, berry patches, fresh bear sign and carcasses.
- Pack out all garbage and food scraps.
The list of what not to do isn’t as long, but is just as important:
- Do not sleep in clothes you used for cooking. That beef macaroni chili you made for dinner smells good to any passing bear.
- Don’t bury garbage or food scraps. Pack your trash out of the area or dispose of it in bear-resistant garbage areas.
- Do not try to get nearer to bears to take photos.
- Don’t pack in aromatic foods such as bacon or fish. Raw or cooked, they’ll attract bears.
- Never, ever, bring food into your tent.
Surviving a Bear Encounter
Generally speaking, bears try and avoid humans. If you do encounter one while hiking, it will most likely run away. If this happens, walk away in a different direction to avoid further encounters.
If the bear doesn’t run, remain calm. Do not run. Running may trigger the bear’s predatory instincts, and you cannot outrun a bear. Instead, make sure it knows you’re human and not potential prey. Talk calmly while holding your arms out from your sides and waving them slowly up and down. Don’t make direct eye contact with the bear, but do keep a close eye on it.
If the bear doesn’t leave, it may be indifferent, threatened, or in a predatory mood. The last two are, obviously, the most dangerous. Territorial or aggressive bears may chomp their teeth, slap the ground with their front paws, weave their heads, make a woofing noise, or smack their lips and salivate. Continue to act nonthreatening, keep talking, and slowly back away. Keep an eye on the bear, and don’t turn your back until it can no longer see you.
If the bear approaches you, it may seem calm, with its ears forward and not making any noise. This is predatory behavior. Stand your ground, talking and waving your arms slowly. When the bear stops, back up slowly. Wait to see if the bear backs up too. If it does, keep backing away, stopping if the bear starts approaching again.
Territorial / defensive bears and predatory bears are both capable of attacking, but their intentions are very different, which means your response should be too. For aggressively defensive bears, your best chance is to lie flat on the ground, using your arms to protect your head and neck. Keep your backpack on to protect your back. When the attack ends, do not get up until you are certain the bear has left the area. Getting up too early may trigger a second attack.
Lying down for a predatory bear isn’t going to work—if he thinks you’re prey you’ve essentially served yourself up to him. If he doesn’t back off, switch tactics. Yell, make yourself look as big as possible, and try to convince him you’re too much trouble to bother with. Grab a stick to wave if you can. If forced to fight, stand your ground and focus attacks on his face. If you have bear spray, use it.
Despite these rather grim suggestions, bumping into bears while camping rarely results in conflict. Both you and the bear are likely to go your separate ways, even if you’re both a little shaken by the encounter.