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Camping in a Bear Country: What to Do If You Encounter a Bear
Published: Feb 03, 2021
Camping in a bear country is very risky compared to places where there are no bears. Indeed, campers may encounter them while backpacking, and even around the area of their camp. Thankfully, you can still control or restrain bad things from happening in such situations.
When camping in a bear country, you should be watchful of your noises and food. If possible, don't let the smell attract them, and schedule your backpacking plans ahead. Avoid them as you can, and always carry a bear spray with you to defend yourself.
There are still a lot of tips we will discuss in this article. We covered different breed of bears, tips on how to avoid them, and what to do when you encounter one. This also includes methods to discourage them, and signs that a bear is stalking you.
Two types of bears you might encounter while hiking
If you encounter a bear when camping, you should know what kind of bear it is, as different breeds have different behaviors. There are two types of bears you might encounter in the woods: black and grizzly. Black bears have high-pointed ears, flat shoulders, and short nails, while grizzlies have shoulder lumps, short ears, and long claws.
Bears are a common animal living in many isolated places. There is a high possibility that they are present if you choose to camp in this kind of areas. If you encounter one, there are specific things you should do, which are not generally effective with all types of bears. Therefore, it is best to identify the bear you have in front of you first.
Black bear looking for food
- Black bear
When we say “black bear,” it doesn't mean that all of them are black. Based on our research, they can either be black, brown, white, or even bluish-black. It is somehow hard to determine their differences from grizzlies due to the similar color variations.
Color may be one of the characteristics that could hint what type of beard it is, but their body structure determines their identity. Indeed, black bears have high-pointed ears, with a straight face shape on the sides. Other features to observe are their flat shoulder and short nails.
You can also tell the presence of bears in the area of your camping spot by their footprints. Black bears' tracks are smaller than those of grizzlies. The prints of their toes are closer to their claws.
Grizzly bear in the wild
- Grizzly bear
Similarly to black bears, grizzly bears cannot be perfectly determined just by looking at their colors. Their color can also be black or light brown. However, they are bigger than black bears.
The features you should pay attention to on grizzlies are their shoulder humps, concave-shaped face, and short and rounded ears. Their claws are also longer than that of black bears. These attributes are the contrasts with what you can notice on black bears. Grizzly bears are present in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and western Canada.
The footprints of grizzlies are larger than that of black bears. Contrary to the latter, grizzlies' toe prints are far from their claw tracks.
How can you tell if a bear is stalking you?
You will probably see their footprints around the area you travel to. Another thing to know is that they are present in places you pass by when you are backpacking. They will usually show signs that are too obvious for us humans to determine.
According to our surveys, most hikers haven't encountered any bears yet. But, a few people expressed that they just know the bears are stalking them. The bears' tracks and also their presence are the main indicators. They also told us to be very observant when camping in bear countries.
What to do if you encounter any bears?
If you happen to spot bears along the way, avoid them, especially their cubs. Walk closer together, and don't provoke them. Protect yourself with bear spray if they attack you in your tents. We advise you to consider to cancel your camping plans if you find it dangerous to proceed.
- Avoid them
They are not humans, so you can't simply approach and greet them. You don't know what they will do to you. They may identify you as a threat, and will put yourself in danger if that happens.
- Stay away from their cubs
We are not experts when it comes to animals, but we all know that they are very protective of their babies. Mother bears or sows can suddenly attack you if you go anywhere near their cubs. And if you happen to see the bear before it notices you, distance yourself gradually. Maintain your sight on them while retreating.
- Travel closer
Not closer to the bear, but together with your companions. If you are in a group and you are scattered widely, the idea will be useless if something bad occurs. As much as possible, travel closer to each other, so that the bears can see you are with a group.
- Don't proceed if it's really dangerous
When you start backpacking and you have already spotted the presence of a bear, just maintain a huge gap between you and them. Of course, we hope it won't happen, however, in some instances, it can be difficult for your group to continue on its path. If you feel in jeopardy, pull out, and cancel your camping trip. Life is more important.
- Avoid provoking them and defend yourself
This applies especially if they attack you in your camping area or if they follow you. Defend yourself before they assault you, so that they will leave you. Always arm yourself with a bear spray, and carry it around within your reach.
What to do if you see a black bear?
If you encounter a black bear, don't play dead. Try to lift your arms and shout or make noises, as it can scare them off. Place your food away from your camping site, or leave it if they are following you. Don't let them go anywhere near you, and fight back by throwing objects to hit their nose and eyes.
- Lift your arms and shout
They don't totally determine your capabilities, so simply lifting both arms and shouting loudly might scare them off. While doing this, prepare and think of what are the next things you should do. We cannot totally ensure you that they will leave you alone after this.
- Make noises with your cookware
A possible option to scare them is with sound. So, hit your cookware with a structure that can make a loud noise. Do this together with your group.
- Carry a weapon
If you don't have any real weapon nor bear spray, you can use anything from sticks to durable poles. And hey, don't wrestle with the bear with this! You can just use this to scare them off or poke to threaten them.
- Throw objects
Another technique to frighten them is to suddenly throw objects. It may surprise them, but also think that it can hurt them. We sometimes noticed this with other animals. If you are going to throw anything at them, they will either run away, or worse, fight back. So, keep in mind that this is just an option.
- Avoid leaving your food around your camping site
Food can lure bears. So, avoid placing food where they can easily detect it, because if you put it near your tents, there is a high chance they go there'll and attack you. We also recommend you to put it away from your tents or to lock it properly, where the smell won't spread.
- Leave the food behind
In some instances, they'll stalk you because of your food. So, if you happen to see them following you around while backpacking, the best thing to do is to just leave your food. This can be your last choice to prevent them from following you. Food is very alluring to their smell.
- Prevent them from approaching you
Apart from the possibilities that they will attack you randomly, sometimes, they will just invade your place. Don't trust them, even if they seem harmless in the said condition. Find a way to scare them off, or make them leave by following the other steps mentioned above.
- Be brave and fight
In some situations, a good tip is to just play dead. But you can't do this in all situations, especially with black bears. Instead, what you should do is fight and throw objects at them. Hit them in their eyes and nose, as it will possibly scare them off.
What to do if you see a grizzly bear?
You can approach grizzlies calmly if they go near you, but retreat while doing this. Don't panic, and be attentive to their ears and behaviors, as it can be a sign that they will attack you. Use a bear spray, or play dead if it doesn't work, and remain in prone position, even if they flip you.
- Approach them calmly if they go near you
Grizzly bears are different from black bears, and similar to other animals. Therefore, don't approach them in a way that they can identify as a threat. If they go near you and stand in front of you, approach them calmly. Don't engage in behaviors that can provoke them.
- Slowly retreat
While talking to them calmly, don't stare at their eyes, and gradually retreat. This can help you back away without them chasing you. Take everything with courage and an organized mindset.
- Be attentive to their actions
In some cases, they might just threaten you. When that happens, take a look at their ears, and if they rise, it will indicate a false attack to scare you. Remain on your guard in this situation, and do everything to defend yourself if this occurs.
- Panicking is a different approach to them
As suggested in the first tip, approach them calmly. Don't start by running away, attacking them first, or screaming. They will surely perceive you as a threat if you do that. If they immediately leave after they try to intimidate you, keep retreating.
- Beware of their ears and head
It doesn't mean that if they became silent, they won't attack you. This is actually a sign that they will definitely assault you. Check their ears and head. If they're low, this is the sign that they are preparing to attack you.
- Use bear spray
Prevent them go near you by using bear spray from 30 feet away. Be careful when using this, so it can affect them successfully. Be careful not to spray too high nor too early.
- Playing dead is an option
Although you can't do this with black bears, this is an option for grizzlies. If the grizzly spray doesn't work, just play dead. Lie on your stomach with your pack in your back, then cover your nape with your hands. Expand your elbow and legs to prevent your position from moving. Just remain in a prone position, even if they turn you over.
How to avoid bears while backpacking?
To avoid bears when backpacking, don't hike at dusk nor dawn. Be vigilant, and go with a group. Also, let the bears know about your presence by making moderate noises, and not too much, as it can surprise them and encourage them to attack you suddenly. Finally, carry bear spray for your protection.
- Don't hike at dusk nor dawn
In these hours, they are most likely to be present around the trails. What we can advise you is to schedule your travel before you go. This is just a simple reminder for hikers and campers, even when hiking in areas without bears.
However, in this situation, it is better to know if there are bears in the area, so that you can estimate the time you'll need to find a camping spot there. Having plenty of time to arrange and pack if you go is an advantage.
- Go with a companion
Preferably with a group, not only one person. A larger number of people has a low probability of being attacked by bears. If you are alone, you are vulnerable, and may become their target.
- Let them know that you are there
It is better to let them know about your presence than to be very silent and surprise them. They are dangerous, and their behaviors are different than those of humans. To avoid getting attacked, make a bit of noise with your group.
Avoid screaming or whistling, because they might misinterpret it and think that it came from suffering animals. As a defense mechanism, we don't know if or how they will react to this. They might assault in the middle of nowhere.
- Be vigilant
Remain unguarded, but alert at the same time. If you feel that there's no protection surrounding you, you'll be watchful when traveling. We don't have superpowers thanks to which we can immediately recognize their smell and sense their presence.
- Use bear spray
Bear spray is made of red pepper oil, and can cause inflammation in the eyes and respiratory system of the bear. So, use this as your weapon, and carry it somewhere you can grab it quickly. If you are going to use this, be careful, as it can also harm yourself if the substance is blown back by the wind.
Finally, learn about the rules if you are going to carry bear spray on airplanes, or inform the person in charge at the counter.
How to discourage bears from coming to your camp?
To prevent bears from coming to your camp, keep your food and essentials in a safe place, and away from the area. Cook far away from your tents, and immediately wash the dishes with unscented dishwashing liquid once you're done eating. Any smell can lure the bears to your site.
Also, don't forget to always follow the fundamentals of the Leave No Trace principle.
There are many things you can do if you encounter a bear. But, if you can only discourage them from going near your place, do it. Prevention is better than letting them invade you and putting yourself in a bad situation.
- Put your food in a safe place
Animals have a strong sense of smell, and they can easily detect the food you brought. So, don't place it near your tent, and keep it in a storage that will prevent the smell from spreading. Use bear-resistant food containers, or hang them with a bag in the trees.
You can also use storage made of metal. Do this the whole time you are camping if you are not eating.
- Put your essentials in a safe place
Everything that you use for hygiene can be their target. So, also store that in a safe place, so that they won't be able to smell it.
- Cook away from your camping site
Aside from the natural smell of your food, cooking can spread the scent even more. The bad thing about this is that it can probably remain even after you go to sleep. So, to avoid odors, arrange your cooking system away from your tents.
- Wash the dishes immediately after eating
Since we're talking about smells, your dishes can expand food odors towards the bears. Thus, make sure to wash your dishes immediately after your meal. If possible, don't use strongly scented dishwashing liquid, as this can also lure them. Finally, separate the food residues from your wastewater.
- Obey the Leave No Trace principle
These are the most substantial rules you should follow when hiking or camping. Apply them to avoid bears. By observing the fundamentals of this principle, you can avoid harming the natural resources, and prevent the animals from putting you in danger.
Does bear spray work, and how to use it?
Yes, bear spray totally works when utilized properly. There are several factors you need to consider when applying this though. Although this can be your weapon against a specific foe, it can also be useless if incorrectly used.
When using bear spray, make sure that the distance between you and the bear is around 20 to 30 feet. Don't let the bear come near you before you spray it. It can inflame the area of their face including eyes, nose, mouth, and skin. Also, be careful with the direction of the wind, as it can backfire and spray onto your own eyes.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Do bears break into campers?
Yes, they can. There are also bears that will come nearby out of curiosity; don't let your guard down if this occurs. Generally, most bears are known to avoid people when they spot them. Some hikers we talked to told us that they didn't even know that there were bears in the area, as they kept away from them.
Will bears attack you in a tent?
Again, totally yes. The main reason why they may attract them is for your food. If they smell your food, and you placed it near your tent (Click to see our favorite tent), they can attack you. There is also a certain sound that can affect them, and make them perceive you as a threat, so be watchful of your noise. Just let them know that you are there, and avoid screaming.
What smells do bears hate?
You can deter the bears with bear spray, but there are also smells they dislike, such as ammonia and cider vinegar. You can use this to protect your food or trash bags, and to prevent the bears from coming.
Does fire attract bears?
Generally, not really. In some instances, they may be deterred by it, but sometimes, it can also attract them. We can't find a definite response about this based on our surveys and research as of this writing.
So, as we collate information from other hikers, there is actually no specific answer to this. However, the smoke produced by cooking will surely catch their attention, as well as weird blaring sounds.
Do bears attack at night?
As we discussed above, they are active mostly at dusk and dawn. But, in some cases, they also attack campers at night. Basically, they can attack you anytime if you look like a prey for them. So, just be vigilant and follow our tips to discourage them.
Will shooting a gun scare off a bear?
First of all, the gun can hurt any animal if you shoot it somewhere just to scare a bear. Second, it won't really deter them. It can actually trigger them more. We recommend you use bear spray instead, as long as you can still control the situation.
In our opinion, camping in a bear country is dangerous. But experts who know how to alleviate the situation may find it just okay. The best thing to do if you are heading in these kinds of places is do what you can to prevent an encounter with a bear. This covers the protection of your food, and avoiding the bears constantly.
If you find yourself facing an unexpected occasion, don't panic, and use the best tips you've just learned. Bears are one of the living things that make up the ecosystem. Their behaviors are unpredictable, unless you are a professional that is studying them.
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