6 Tips for Safe Camping in Bear Country

My first black bear encounter

With plenty of water, and food-filled day packs, we headed away from our campsite in Sequoia National Park. First we hit one of the parking lots in the campground. Even that parking lot of Sequoia National Park was a treat to pass through. I felt like I was at the bottom of a bowl, surrounded by mountains littered with trees. I stopped and turned around in a circle, taking it in from every angle.

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At the far end of the parking lot, we studied a map on a big board covered with tips and advisories. Once we figured out which way to go, we took off in the direction of our trail.

The wide, gravel-covered path started at the bottom of a small hill. This was the trail that would lead us through the Giant [Sequoia] Forest, and to the famous General Sherman Tree. We planned to hike on after seeing the great tree. To where, we weren’t completely sure. Any long and strenuous hike would do, as long as we were in this unbelievable place.DSCN2171

We had hiked for only 15 minutes when Rhesia spotted a black blur, down the hill, in the trees. She called to me. She was sure it was a bear, but I wouldn’t believe it. I backpedaled, while reaching for my camera (just in case). That’s when a small bear came into view. It was jet-black, bow-legged, and digging for insects. We stared. The bear eventually looked up and saw us, but seemed unaffected by our presence.

We didn’t panic. We were equipped with knowledge about what to do in situations like these. I had done online research before we left, and we had been spotting “How to deal with a bear” advisories all over our campground. We stayed calm. We watched, we listened, and then we moved on down the trail.

We saw three more bears on that trip. My heart pounded every single time, but we knew what to do, and we did it. No danger.

I felt incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to see black bears in Sequoia National Park, and to have been prepared enough to know what to do. I want to pass on what I learned from my experience, as well as some tips I gathered from some other sources.

6 Tips for Safe Camping in bear country:

Before I begin, I’d like to direct you to the National Park Service website. It has so much information about American national parks and the wildlife in them. If you type in the name of the national park you will be traveling to, there should be plenty to learn on the National Park Service website alone.
I’d also like to say that these tips are not only for your protection, but for the protection of the bears, as well. Bears that eat human food can become aggressive, and in some cases are required to be put down. Here is a link with information from the National Park Service about bear safety on trails and in campgrounds.
Okay, let’s talk about bears! Did you know that black bears live in 41 out of 50 U.S. states? We share so much space with these incredible creatures. So, how can we do it safely?
  1. Examine your campsite for traces of bears.

Whether you’re settling into a designated campsite at your local campground, or just pitching a tent in a spot that looks good out in the woods, be aware of your surroundings. If bears have been traipsing through your new temporary home, you might want to consider moving to a different spot.

Here are some signs that bears have been hanging out in your new hang out:

  • Trees with rubbed, scratched, or missing tree bark
  • Paw prints or animal-made trails
  • Dead logs that have been ripped apart
  • Bushes with berries missing or scattered underneath
  • Piles of poop
  • Animal carcasses

2. Keep your campsite clean.

Bears are curious, and they have noses that work way better than our DSCN2162people noses do. In fact, Americanbear.org says that bears can detect odors over a mile away. If that’s the case, they can definitely smell your dirty campsite!

And it’s not just food you should be aware of. Anything with a scent is fair game for a bear. This includes booze, dirty dishes, and even toiletries like soap and shampoo. Unfortunately, this stuff isn’t safe in your car either (unless you’re okay with a few broken windows, dents, and bear paws all over your stuff).

My best advice:

  • When you arrive, remove any garbage that previous campers may have left behind.
  • While you’re there, keep it tidy.
  • When you leave, leave no trace.

3. Store your food properly.

Sealed and doubled up plastic bags of food may only work for so long before a bear smells it and tears right into it. Coolers of food may keep your snacks at the right temperature, but most coolers don’t fool bears. IMG_8219

That said, I’m sure you’ve heard of campers hanging their food. It’s not for fun. It’s necessary. Do it! Here is a long, but informative YouTube video by Black Owl Outdoors, with instructions on hanging food from a tree.

If you’re not into hanging your food, you could always rent or purchase a bear canister. These (sometimes even human  proof) devices are designed to keep bears out of your food and away from you and your campsite. Bear canisters are handy for storing in your backpack while you’re hiking or just to keep in your campsite with you.

REI has a great article called Bear Canister Basics with tons of information about where, when, and why to use a bear canister.

Furthermore:

  • To purchase a canister: Check out this review on bear canisters on Backpacker.com.
  • To rent a canister: Call the park or the campground where you’ll be staying. If they don’t do rentals, they should at least be able to recommend a local place to rent one from.

Note: Depending on the campground, you might be in luck with bear-proof bins already supplied for you in your campsite. Call ahead of time to find out.

4. Cook food away from your campsite.

The American Bear Association says to cook food 100 feet (downwind, if possible) from where you are sleeping.

Easier said than done, right? I have to say, I have broken both of these rules on certain occasions. There is not always room in a busy campground to be cooking somewhere other than your campsite, and it is most definitely not convenient. It is, however, the safest way to cook when you are camping.

One night, after dinner, a black bear walked right past us, through the middle of our campsite. I yelled a warning to the next campsite over, and after a whole lot of pan clanging, hand clapping, and shouting, the bear ran off. Later that night, while everyone was asleep, the bear came back through the campground. It wandered around, looking for food and scratching at bear bins. Once again, the neighboring group had to scare the bear off.

I have definitely been more careful, after that night!

5. Be aware of local bear activity.

Parks stay up to date on this kind of stuff. Call ahead to the park or the campground to ask about recent wildlife activity. You can also talk to a park ranger, or check the message boards on the way in.

The message boards are good for alerting you about other important things in the parks too. When I was recently camping in California, there were missing person reports, recent bear activity and wildfire updates, as well as plague advisories. It’s important to be aware of what’s going on in the area where you will be camping.

6. Don’t panic if you encounter a bear.

Bear attacks are rare. They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. You’ll be less likely to cross paths with a bear if you follow the tips above, but nothing is ever full proof.

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How to handle a black bear encounter in your campsite:

  • Remain calm.
  • If you see a bear some distance away, make some noise to let it know you are there. Do not approach the bear.
  • Make sure the bear has a clear escape route, so as not to endanger other campers.
  • Make yourself big and wide by stretching your arms out and spreading your feet apart.
  • Make loud noises, bang pots and pants, and clap your hands.
  • Warn others around you that there is a bear in the campground.
  • If the bear attacks, fight back.
  • Do not run! Bears are way faster than you. Stand your ground!

Here is a great article called “How to Bearproof Your Camp” by Cliff Jacobson, with detailed information about avoiding bears, staying safe, and what to do if you encounter one.

I would like to remind you that these tips are specifically for black bear encounters. Grizzly bears are bigger, and can be more aggressive. You need to handle them differently.

Thanks so much for reading!

If you need me, I’m just Two Tents Down!

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