How to Keep Bears Away from Your Campsite: Safety Practices to Prevent Unwelcome Encounters

Communing with nature is one of the best things about camping. Unfortunately, you don’t always get to choose what you commune with and when. Sometimes you see a few harmless squirrels playing in the trees. Other times you witness a 600-pound bear tearing apart a cooler. Knowing how to keep bears way from your campsite is valuable information if you’re looking to avoid the latter.

If you camp in bear territory often enough, you are most likely going to run into one eventually. After all, there are more than half a million black bears in North America, and you can add healthy populations of brown bears and grizzlies to that number in certain regions.

Bear encounters are not always unpleasant but they can go badly on occasion. Since the year 2000, bears have killed twenty-seven people. Most of these deaths can at least partially be attributed to bad decisions made by humans. With a little planning and good campsite selection, the risk of bear attack goes down significantly. See also our must-read piece on how bear spray works to ward off attacks.

The best way to avoid bears when camping is to carefully consider your prospective campsite and scour the area for signs of bear activity before pitching your tent. Bears are huge animals. If they frequent the site you will see signs of their visits.

Clues That You are in Bear Territory

Keep an eye on these clues so you’ll know if you just stumbled into bear country:

  • Bears love to rub up against trees. It feels good and it’s a great way to let their friends know they have staked out their turf. If you see trees with the bark rubbed off the trunk between two and six feet off the ground you can assume a bear has used the tree as a scratching post. Choose a new spot.
  • Most bears view rotten logs as a smorgasbord of grubs and other tasty insects. If your location includes ripped up logs, you are probably in the middle of a bear buffet and should probably consider moving.
  • The easiest way to walk through a dense forest is along a game trail. Animals know the easiest way over, under, and through rough terrain and they stick with the same pathways for generations. Naturally, camping on or near a game trail is not advised if avoiding animals is your goal. That’s like camping on the shoulder of a freeway and being surprised when cars come by.
  • When bears visit they eat. Then, they leave scat. Bears are large so their scat is easy to spot. If you find some in your immediate area it is a safe bet that your odds of being visited by a bear are high.

Good Site Features for a Bear Free Environment

When choosing a campsite look for a wide-open space, away from dense vegetation. Bears are sneaky. If they can approach your site under the cover of underbrush they will.

And, by the time you know they are there it will be hard to avoid a confrontation. Forcing the bear to cross an open space will make them tentative and will give you some warning if they come calling.

What Attracts Bears

To avoid bears it is important to understand why they are coming to your campsite and how they know you are there. Bears have no natural predators in the wild. They spend their day doing one thing; finding food. If they locate a snack, they will attempt to eat. They are not used to anything stopping them.

Bears are relentless and fearless in their quest for calories. They regularly wade in and take kills from wolves and mountain lions when they feel like it. If they are willing to risk angering fierce predators they are not going to think twice about swiping a human’s picnic basket.

Bears find you with their sense of smell. It is seven times more powerful than a dog’s. The longer you put the smell of potential food in the air, the more likely they are to find you and pay you a visit. This is why the best way to avoid bears in your campsite is to control how much odor you are putting out and where the odor is coming from.

Check out our must-read article on how to prevent wild animal attacks from happening.

Packing to Avoid Bears

Much of bear avoidance happens when you are packing for your trip. Keeping in mind that controlling odor is paramount to avoiding bears, choose products with no, or limited, odor.

For example, while floral hand sanitizers smell nice, unscented versions do the same job and won’t act as a beacon to unwanted visitors. The same can be said of unscented dish soap, deodorant, and other camp staples.

Packing in bear country

Make sure you are equipped with a way to contain smells after items are used or worn. Packing large sealable bags is another great way to contain smells as are plastic garbage sacks. Planning a menu which won’t leave you with wet garbage can go a long way toward reducing smells around the campsite as well.

To avoid bears you will need to pack a bag to hold your food. Large dry bags work great for this purpose but a duffel bag will do in a pinch. Pack every food item in its own sealable bag before stowing it in your large food container. This will serve as a double layer of protection against smells escaping. Do checkout out our review of the top bear canister to prevent any untoward incident in camp.

The Bear Free Campsite

You can’t eliminate every smell so planning your campsite around the inevitable aroma of food is a must. To do this you will need to establish three zones. One for sleeping. One for cooking.

And, one for storing your food. Each area should be one hundred yards apart if possible. This way, if a bear finds your food and stays all night having a late supper, you will be at a safe distance and unlikely to be dessert.

The Sleeping Camp

The best way to separate your camp is to first find a suitable place pitch your tent that allows for comfortable sleeping on flat ground and is not pushed up against thick vegetation. Give yourself plenty of room. This is going to be your primary campsite where you spend most of your time.

Make yourself comfortable. Build a fire, if permitted. Bestow this site with all the creature comforts you are accustomed to while camping. If your plan works, bears will never visit your sleeping camp.

The Cooking Camp

One hundred yards away establish a cooking camp. This is where you will do all your food preparation and eating. No food will leave this area and make its way back to your tent. In fact, you should even wear different clothes while cooking and change before you go back to your sleeping area.

After preparing a meal, thoroughly police the cooking camp. Every time. Think smell containment. It may sound like overkill but remember, bears have super sniffers. If you have food, they will come in the area. The best you can do is contain the attraction and place it far from where you are sleeping.

The Food Cache

One hundred yards away from both your sleeping camp and your cooking camp will be your food cache. For best results, you will want a tall tree because you are going to hang your food.

Find a solid tree with a branch at least fifteen feet from the ground. They may not look the part but bears are pretty good athletes and have been known to jump as high as twelve feet if motivated.

Throw a rope over the limb and hoist your food in a bag off the ground. Make sure it is at least six feet from the trunk or any other branches. Tie the rope securely to the trunk. Bears can jump but they aren’t so good with knots.

If you have garbage or food waste, secure it in sealable bags and put it into a garbage bag. Hang this as well in the same manner. Before you turn in for the night everything a bear might find appetizing should be swaying in the breeze.

If you take these precautions it is unlikely a bear will disturb you while asleep. Yes, it is possible a bear might wander by out of curiosity, but it should soon amble off toward your food. And, if your rope holds, it will leave your area when it discovers the smell is coming from a source far out of reach.

What to do if a Bear Comes to Dinner?

The flaw in this plan is that at some point you will want to eat and there will be a window where you are in the cooking camp with your food. If this happens to be the exact moment a bear wanders by, you might have a confrontation on your hands.

Fortunately, you know why the bear is there and you can use it to your advantage. Follow these steps and you should escape unscathed.

  • Abandon your food. The bear is there to eat. Nothing in your skillet is worth a fight with a wild animal. Give the food to the bear. If you are holding food when the encounter happens, throw it as far as possible in the opposite direction from your sleeping camp.
  • Do not climb a tree. Remember that bit about bears being good athletes? Well, they’re excellent tree climbers. You will not make it up a tree before the bear catches up to you.
  • Stand tall and shout. Do not turn and run. A bear will see you as prey and might decide to hunt you down. Use a firm low voice and make as much sound as possible. Stand tall and slowly walk backwards toward your sleeping camp and away from any food.
  • Keep Retreating. Bears are very fast and can easily outrun you. Never assume you are entirely safe as long as you can see the bear. Back away as far as you can safely go.

Known Bear Deterrents

In the eventuality you will come across a bear despite your planning and campsite design, there are several items that can come in handy and should make it into your pack if you are planning on camping in bear country.

  • Bear Spray: This is the best bear deterrent available. Statistically, less injuries occur during bear encounters when the person has bear spray than any other tool, including firearms. Keep it on you at all times and spray liberally if confronted by an angry bear.
  • Electric Camp Fencing: If you are going to be in bear territory for a long time you might consider one of the many electric fence products available on the market. The portable fencing encircles your entire campsite and delivers a shock to any wildlife which dares to get too close.
  • Bear Proof Coolers: Several manufacturers now offer coolers designed to be bear proof. They are made of reinforced plastic and have locks to keep even the largest camp thief out of your food.

If after all your preparations and defensive tactics you still find yourself being attacked by a bear, stand and fight as viciously as you are able. It’s possible you will surprise the animal and it will leave. If it knocks you down, stay down and cover your head. Play dead and the bear will most likely lose interest.

Wrapping Up

Camping in bear country is not impossible. In fact, tens of thousands of people do it successfully every year with no encounters and no attacks. Some of them were lucky and some of them took precautions to prevent a bad ending to a fun trip.

It’s best to be prepared and to understand what you might be facing. Packing correctly, choosing the right site, and establishing a three-zone camp will greatly reduce the odds of a bear making its way into your campsite. Bears are magnificent creatures but they are best when viewed from afar.

For more camping safety tips for you and your family, check out our article on this topic.

Have you encountered a bear while camping? Do you have any bear stories to share or tips on bear proofing your campsite? If you do, tell us about it in the comments section so we can share your experience with our readers.


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