Camping in bear country comes with gorgeous scenic views, but it also comes with… bears! Here’s what you need to know to stay safe and protect yourself and your gear.
A few years ago, I went on a bike ride in the Gallatin National Forest, which began ten feet from where we parked for the night in West Yellowstone. I saw bear tracks on a dirt trail not 100 yards from our RV.
Needless to say, it put my senses on high alert.
As soon as I returned to the RV, I ensured we were doing everything right not to lure that bear back to our campsite.
Be Prepared, Not Scared
Please don’t take the information in this article as “fear-mongering.” Wild animals are part of every nature experience.
Just remember, it always pays to be prepared.
It's a sad fact of life that there are camping fatalities and injuries every year because of bear attacks.
During peak season, at least one bear every week is put down by game officials somewhere in North America because it strayed into a campground. Unfortunately, most incidents arise because of irresponsible humans who left food out.
So, this article is to help protect you and the bears whose home we are visiting!
But despite the headlines and all the warning signs, bear incidents are really rare. Hundreds of thousands of campers and RVers enjoy wilderness camping in bear country without even seeing a bear.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn’t take precautions. My wife and I have never had an incident. But we take the rules very seriously.
When camping in bear country, you will almost always see campground signs advising you that bears are in the area. Heed their warnings!
Camping in Bear Country with Dogs
If you travel with dogs, there can be other problems. Dogs antagonize bears, especially mother bears with cubs.
You need to have your dog on a leash outside whenever camping in bear country.
In fact, even on a leash, dogs are prohibited on many trails in national parks that have bears. For instance, as you'd learn in our Yellowstone Travel Guide, almost every hike or trail in Yellowstone prohibits dogs.
Dogs are usually allowed in campgrounds and on most paved areas near stores but always check first before planning your visit and day’s activities.
How to Store Food When Camping in Bear Country
Almost all campgrounds in bear country provide bear-proof food storage boxes at each site.
We don't want to see bears get put down. And we don't want bears to put people in danger. So, be sure to use these bear-proof food storage boxes!
From the National Parks Service and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department, I've compiled the following rules and suggestions for RVing in bear country.
- Never store food outside or near your RV. After cooking and eating, bring all food inside.
- Keep your area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables.
- Keep all items with strong odors (i.e., toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) inside the RV and out of reach of bears or the bear-proof containers available at most campsites in bear country.
Camping in Bear Country Safety Tips
Here are some additional tips that we strongly suggest you follow if bears live in the region.
- Keep your dog on a leash or rope at all times. Never leave your dog outside at night while you sleep in the RV
- Close windows and lock your vehicle and RV when you leave your campsite and at night before you go to sleep.
- If a bear does come near your campsite and no rangers are around, get in your RV or vehicle. Yell at the bear. Honk the horn. Play loud music, bang pots, and pans. Do not try to approach it.
- If you will be spending time in bear country, get a can of bear spray. Bear spray is a super-concentrated, highly irritating pepper spray proven to be more effective than firearms at deterring bears.
General Hiking Precautions in Bear Country
Most bear encounters do not happen in campgrounds. They occur in the backcountry while people are hiking.
You should never hike alone.
Two or three people are best. Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make noise.
Most bells are not enough to warn a bear away. Calling out and clapping hands loudly at regular intervals are better ways to make your presence known. Hiking quietly endangers you, the bear, and other hikers.
A bear consistently surprised by quiet hikers may become habituated to close human contact and less
likely to avoid people. This sets up a dangerous situation for both visitors and bears.
Additional tips when hiking:
- Tracks, bear scat, and shredded logs are all signs you’re in bear country.
- Be alert at all times, and leave your headphones at home. Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk, when the wind is in your face, visibility is limited, or you’re walking by a noisy stream. A firm clap or quick shout warns bears that humans are in the area.
- In late summer and fall, bears need to forage up to 20 hours a day, so avoid trails that go through berry patches, oak brush, and other natural food sources.
- Keep dogs leashed, exploring canines can surprise a bear. Your dog could be injured or come running back to you with an irritated bear on its heels.
- Keep children between adults, and teach them what to do if they see a bear. Don’t let them run ahead or fall behind.
- Double bag food, and never leave any trash or leftovers behind. Finding treats teaches bears to associate trails with food.
- Never approach bears or offer food. If you’re lucky enough to see a bear, watch from a safe distance and enjoy this very special experience. If your presence causes the bear to look up or change its behavior in any way, you’re too close.
What to Do If You Encounter a Bear
Maybe you've heard us tell the story of our close encounter. If not, head on over to our YouTube Channel and watch this video.
- Stand still, stay calm, and quietly back away and leave. Do not make aggressive eye contact. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route.
- Never run or climb a tree.
- If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.
- If a bear stands up, it is just trying to identify what you are by getting a better look and smell.
- Wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly. If the bear huffs, pops its jaws or stomps a paw, it wants you to give it space.
- Step off the trail to the downhill side, keep looking at the bear, and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.
What to Do if the Bear Approaches
A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. If you are approached, do the following:
- Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.
- Get out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about 40 feet away
- If the bear attacks, don’t play dead! Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended themselves with penknives, trekking poles, and even bare hands.
Best Bear Spray
To be clear, Chuck says bear spray is the best choice for stopping a charging, attacking, or threatening bear. The bear spray he recommends is called “Counter Assault.”
Chuck also said it works on all types of bears and that “it’s effective on any animal that breathes deeply and has eyes, and lungs, and nose.”
He said it works because it’s powerful and able to shoot 25-30 feet – something to keep in mind considering bears can move at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.
If hiking in a group, every person should have their own can.
Have You Ever Gone Camping in Bear Country?
Please share your experience in the comments. We can all learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. And if you want to just enjoy watching the bears from the comfort of your home – enjoy this BEAR CAMP from Explore.org
Mike and Jennifer Wendland's Yellowstone Travel Guide
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