Hiking and camping in bear country can be daunting. Just the thought of rounding a corner and spying on a giant bear on the trail or helplessly listening to one rummaging around your campsite in the middle of the night is enough to discourage many people from venturing into the backcountry in bear regions.
Bear safety is something every hiker and camper should learn. With the proper precautions, knowledge, training, and respect for the incredible wild beasts, hiking and camping with bears can swing along the pendulum from utterly terrifying to thoroughly exciting.
In this guide, I’m going to give you some valuable bear safety tips so that you can have the safest possible time backpacking, camping, and hiking with bears. You’ll learn the difference between a brown bear and a black bear, how to hike with bears, how to camp with bears, everything there is to know about food storage in bear country, and how to prevent and react to a black and brown bear encounter.
For the sake of this blog post, I will focus on black, brown, and grizzly bears, as they are the most prevalent throughout North America. 🐻
Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Campers
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Black Bears Vs. Brown Bears Vs. Grizzly Bears
First, what’s the difference between black bears and brown bears? It can be a bit difficult to discern the difference because black bears can be brown in color and brown bears can be black in color. So here are some ways to tell the two apart!
Black bears are the most common bear found in North America, and they are also the least aggressive. They feed mostly on insects, berries, and fruit.
Qualities that make black bears stand out are pointed, tall ears, short claws, a straight face profile, and a lack of a shoulder hump. Many black bears are actually brown in color so identification is also not reliable by fur hue alone.
Brown Bears and Grizzly Bears
Did you know that brown bears and grizzly bears are actually the same species? The characteristic that differentiates the two is that grizzly bears, a subspecies of brown bears, are found inland and don’t have access to a coastal-based diet. Brown bears are found along the coast and feed mostly on fish, plants, berries, and other small mammals. Since they are the same species, I will be referring to them both as brown bears for the rest of this blog post.
Brown bears have a shoulder hump, short, rounded ears, a concave face profile, and long claws. Many brown bears can be so dark that they appear black so identification is nearly impossible by fur hue alone.
Where Are Bears Found in North America?
Black bears are found in many states in the USA, some parts of Mexico, and a generous portion of Canada.
Brown bears are found in northern and western Canada, Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Refer to the chart below to see exactly which bears are found in which states and provinces!
Hiking With Bears – How to Hike Safely in Bear Country
Since bears are unpredictable and wild, it’s not always possible to determine how they might react to every given person and situation. But outdoor experts and seasoned hikers can usually agree that by following these bear safety tips, hikers can give themselves the best possible chance of avoiding an unwanted bear encounter.
Hike in Groups
Hiking in groups of three or more gives you an elevated chance of avoiding a bear encounter.
Bears don’t want to be around you any more than you want to be around them. The more people that are in your group, the greater the chance that the bear will hear you coming – by your footsteps or voices – and will avoid gravitating toward your direction.
Also, the more hikers in each pack, the higher the chance that someone will spot or hear a bear, and the entire group can react accordingly.
Hike in the Daylight Hours
Bears are generally most active at night as that is the time when they are foraging for their next meal and hunting their next prey.
Hiking at dusk and dawn is not advisable in bear country. If you’d like to catch a sunrise or sunset, make sure that you hike in a group, make a lot of noise, and try to avoid trails that crawl through dense forests and are riddled with frequent tight corners and switchbacks. Wide-open, sparse trails devoid of trees and plants are ideal for avoiding a shocking bear confrontation.
→ READ NEXT: Night Hiking Tips 🔦
Both species – humans and bears – are perfectly content with not interacting with one another.
One of the reasons that a bear would attack a human would be due to its surprise, triggering its natural defense mechanism. If you are quietly hiking around thick forests with persistent twists and turns, you may unintentionally startle a bear, and it could attack simply because it was caught off guard.
To avoid this, generate as much noise as possible. Sing, shout, clap, and scream “heeeeelllloooo!” every once in a while to alert the bears and grant them the chance to flee before either of you lays eyes on the other.
If you are hiking solo, don’t be afraid to sing, clap, or talk loudly to yourself. Saving your life is significantly more important than other people’s opinions, assumptions, or judgments that they may make about you and your silly bear call.
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Pay attention to the environment that you’re wandering through. This is true anywhere, but it’s especially crucial in bear territory.
Trails with running water, dense vegetation, frequent switchbacks, and even gusty winds and hammering rainfall, can all trigger bear surprises due to them not being able to hear you coming.
Make sure they can see, hear, or smell you. If running water is nearby, or strong headwinds and pounding rain are swirling the landscape, you’ll need to be even louder. If you are winding through narrow switchbacks or dense forests, you’ll need to escalate your voice and noise level. The flatter and more exposed the trail is, the less frequently you’ll need to make your bear call because your range of vision will extend further.
As you hike, watch out for fresh bear scat, prints and tracks, and carcasses on the trails. These are all indications that a bear has recently been in the area and may either be returning or is somewhere nearby.
Here’s a great article on how to identify and distinguish bear scat. The same website has another great article on animal print identification. This way, you can differentiate between animals like bears, bobcats, or even mountain goats!
Carry Bear Spray
Carrying an EPA-approved bear spray like this one provides a last result of protection should you get attacked by a bear.
Bear spray isn’t like a bug repellent; it shouldn’t be doused on you or your gear to deter bears. (This action may actually attract bears). It should only be used in the event that a bear begins to approach or attack you.
While this spray may just save your life, don’t allow its presence to grant you a false sense of security; always stay aware of your surroundings and follow all other precautions as you hike in bear country.
Always place your bear spray in a spot where you can access it right away. In the event of a bear attack, you don’t want to be rummaging through your pack in search of your spray; the delay could cost you your life. The bear spray I’ve linked includes a holster for the spray so that you can clip it to your waistband or pack’s hip belt for easy access.
Also, before you venture into bear country with your spray, make sure you know how to use it. Practice discharging a spare one at home.
PRO TIP: Some parks, such as Yosemite National Park, do not allow bear spray. Research the rules of the park or area that you will be exploring before you go.
Keep Your Dogs and Children By Your Side
It’s important to not allow your children or dogs to wander ahead of you or lag behind. Keep them directly in front of you or beside you so that they don’t unintentionally surprise a bear.
Avoid Trail Running in Bear Country
Trail running is also strongly discouraged in bear country as chances of provoking an attack or surprising a bear escalate dramatically.
If you do decide to trail run in bear country, make sure you don’t run alone, don’t wear earbuds, and make lots of noise as you run.
Not only does littering violate Leave No Trace, but the act can quite literally leave a dangerous breadcrumb trail right to you.
If you drop a trail of food crumbs or trash, a bear will pick up on the scent and could follow you in search of a second helping.
Keep your food sealed in your backpack unless you are actively eating.
Camping With Bears – How to Go Camping and Backpacking Safely in Bear Country
Properly Store Your Food
Whether you’re in the frontcountry or backcountry, storing your food correctly in bear country is crucial.
Human food is dangerous to bears for many reasons: 🍓
1. By eating human food, the bears will lose their preference for natural food sources, like berries, plants, fish, and small mammals, and they will begin craving unhealthy “people snacks” like cookies and chips.
2. They will gradually lose their fear of humans, making them more likely to approach people in search of more food.
3. Their actions will become even more aggressive and unpredictable, posing an even greater risk to the public.
4. The chances of euthanization escalate, and the bear population will dwindle at an even quicker rate.
According to the NPS, studies have shown that bears that lose their fear of humans have a shorter life expectancy than bears that feed on natural sources and are afraid of people. Once bears grow comfortable around humans and lose that fear, they will want to be around people frequently, making it even more likely that humans will get approached or attacked, and more likely that bears will have to be put down.
That being said, bear storage was invented to help reduce the attraction and temptation that bears feel around our food. By not being able to smell or be granted access to our food and other scented products, bears will be more likely to maintain a sizeable distance.
Bear storage is required in many parks throughout North America, and is strongly recommended in other places. Sometimes bear storage is recommended or required even outside of bear country to deter smaller, less harmful critters and rodents such as raccoons and squirrels.
Be sure to check online or with a local ranger about bear storage requirements before beginning your adventure.
WAYS TO STORE YOUR FOOD IN BEAR COUNTRY
Bear canisters are the most effective and safest way to store your food in the backcountry.
They are quite heavy and can be awkward to stuff in your bag, but they are the most widely accepted method of storing your food in North America.
I carry a BearVault, and I definitely recommend getting one. They now offer four different sizes to meet the needs of your specific trip duration! From day hiking to weeklong backpacking adventures, you’ll be able to safely store your food and scented items.
Ursacks are popular among ultralight backpackers.
Ursacks are bags that are designed with puncture-proof materials that protect your food and scented items from bears and other small critters.
Though Ursacks are a major weight and space saver, these bags are not widely accepted and approved by many park services. Refer to the chart above or visit this link to see which National Parks approve this method of food storage.
Hanging a bear bag is also common among ultralight backpackers and is more widely accepted than Ursacks.
But this method, while lightweight, can actually be a bit of a pain. Hanging a bear bag takes extra effort, precision, and added materials, and must be done properly to be considered effective and legal.
If you’re in a high alpine area or dry desert landscape that is devoid of trees, you may struggle with finding a location to hang your bag. But if you’re camping in a heavily forested area with plenty of hanging options, and the park accepts this particular bear storage, this method could suit your situation.
You’ll need a waterproof stuff sack with a drawstring cord, 50 feet of rope, a throw bag, a locking carabiner, and a twig.
Many established campgrounds in bear country will provide bear lockers at each campsite.
Store all of your food, toiletries, drinks other than water, dishes (even clean ones), feminine hygiene products, and other scented products in the locker anytime you are not actively using the items.
Another car camping option for food storage would simply be your vehicle’s trunk. Don’t forget to lock your car!
Properly Set Up Your Campsite
As displayed in the graph above, arrange your sleeping space, food, and kitchen area in a triangle formation.
Your tent, food, and kitchen setup should all be at least 300 feet apart from one another, and the food and kitchen should be downwind from your sleeping area.
If you have a bear canister at camp, aside from making sure it is 300 feet downwind from your tent, place the canister on flat, level ground, away from cliffs, hills, or water sources where it can be knocked off or swept away. Keep it propped against a tree or tucked between some boulders or logs to ensure that a bear can’t use its paws to pick it up or maneuver it away from your campsite.
NOTE: This arrangement isn’t always possible in the frontcountry, especially if you have a small campsite. The most important thing to remember is that your bear canister should never be inside your tent or even beside your tent. Stow it as far away from your tent as possible. Also, cook as far away from your tent as possible.
Keep a Clean Camp
Do not dispose of any waste at your campsite. Lock all trash securely in your bear canister or bear bag, or if you’re staying at an established campground, utilize their bear-proof dumpsters.
Use unscented soap to clean clothes and dishes. Empty all dirty water into a 6-inch cathole away from your tent. Use a strainer to capture any stray scraps of food and toss those remains into your trash bag, not the cathole.
Never wear clothes to bed that you’ve eaten in. Crumbs could’ve dropped on your shirt or spills could’ve congealed on your pants, which could attract a bear when they come foraging through campsites at night. Keep those dirty clothes in your bear canister and pull on a clean outfit to wear when sleeping.
What Should Be Stored in a Bear Canister or Bear Bag?
While this list isn’t extensive, these are the main items to toss in your bear canister or bear bag. Never leave any of these items unattended in your backpack, in your tent, or at your campsite, day or night.
- Drinks other than water
- Toiletries, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, lotion, cream, feminine products, wipes, soap, lip balm, and deodorant.
- Vitamins or flavored tablets that might normally live in your first aid kit, such as chewable Pepto, Advil, or Tums.
- Bug spray
- Dishes, both clean and unclean
An easy way to determine what goes in your bear canister versus what can be left out is to ask yourself: does this item have a scent?
If in doubt, store it in the bear canister/bag.
How to React to a Bear Encounter
General Tips on How to React to Any Bear Encounter
- Never approach a bear.
- Stay as far away from cubs as possible. Momma bears whose young are nearby are the most protective, and therefore, the most aggressive.
- Back away from a bear slowly if you spot it before it spots you. Don’t attract any attention to yourself, and stay as quiet as possible until it is out of sight.
- Put your hand on your bear spray to be ready to grab it if the bear begins to approach or attack.
- Don’t discharge your bear spray if you simply spot a bear. It could trigger an attack that could’ve otherwise been a harmless encounter.
How to React to a Black Bear Encounter
- Stay facing the bear and walk away slowly.
- Yell loudly, bang pots, or throw objects to try to scare off the bear.
How to React to a Brown Bear Encounter
- Talk to the bear calmly while backing away slowly.
- Do not make eye contact.
How to React to a Bear Attack
How to React to a Black Bear Attack
- Discharge your bear spray first.
- It’s important to NOT play dead in front of black bears.
- Do NOT turn away and run.
- Make yourself look large by holding your hands high and shouting at the bear.
- Throw objects or your fists at the bear and aim for its snout and eyes. Kick the bear’s face and use any weapon at your disposal to defend yourself.
How to React to a Brown Bear Attack
- Discharge your bear spray first.
- Play dead if the bear spray doesn’t work, or if you don’t have any. Leave your backpack on and drop to the ground, stomach down. Cover your head and neck with your hands and arms, spread your legs, and stay very still. If you don’t have a pack on, you can still follow the same guidelines and fold into the fetal position, cover your neck and head with your hands, and spread your legs to ensure that the bear can’t roll you over. Don’t make any noise or sudden movements. Wait until you can’t hear the bear anymore before getting up and leaving the area.
- Do NOT turn away and run.
- Do NOT fight back unless absolutely necessary. Fighting back will make the attack more aggressive, but if it is your last result, fight for your life.
IMPORTANT: Report ALL bear encounters and attacks to park authorities as soon as you can!
Bear Safety Tips: Overview
If you like things simple, concise, and straightforward, this section is for you! Here are many of the highlights and takeaways from the blog post:
- Hike in groups of two or more.
- Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk.
- Make lots of noise when hiking.
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t trail run in bear country.
- Carry bear spray and make sure you can easily access it.
- Purchase a separate can of bear spray that you can practice discharging before your first bear country trip.
- Don’t drop crumbs or trash on the ground.
- Properly store your food and scented products in a bear canister, Ursack, hanging bear bag, bear locker, or vehicle trunk when camping and backpacking.
- Set up your kitchen and food storage areas downwind from your sleeping area.
- Always camp 300 feet upwind from your food storage.
- Always cook your food 300 feet downwind from your sleeping area.
- Never wear clothes to bed that you’ve previously eaten in. Store those clothes properly in a bear canister or bear bag.
- Bury your dirty dishwater in a cathole at least 300 feet away from your sleeping area. Scraps need to be strained and packed out, not buried.
- Use unscented soap to wash your clothes and dishes at camp.
- If you see a black bear, slowly back away while yelling at it and throwing objects.
- If you see a brown bear, calmly talk to it and do not make eye contact.
- Use your bear spray as your first line of defense against a bear attack.
- You can play dead in front of brown bears but NOT black bears.
- Never turn away and run from a bear.
I hope this bear safety blog post helps ease some of your worries and hesitations about hiking and camping in bear country!
While the wilderness is definitely unpredictable and can be relentlessly unforgiving at times, if you follow proper precautions and safety measures and take the time to learn and retain the necessary response to various scenarios, you could set yourself up to be potentially bulletproof in avoiding a dangerous bear conflict, or, if the worst happens, you just might be able to pull yourself out of the situation alive and have one heck of a wild story to share.