Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

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.

All of the authoritative books on bears seem to agree on one thing: if you’re close enough to a bear to cause it to change its activity pattern, you’re too close, and in possible danger.

―Dennis R. Blanchard

First, I want to state that bear attacks are rare; you’re much more likely to be attacked and/or killed by another human than a bear. However, your odds of not being attacked by a bear are even better if you practice bear safety.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

This article is to help protect you and the bears whose home we are visiting!

Despite the headlines and all the warning signs, bear incidents are really rare. Hundreds of thousands of hikers and campers enjoy the wilderness in bear country without even seeing a bear.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions.

When camping in bear country, you will almost always see signs advising you that bears are in the area. Heed their warnings!

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 whenever camping in bear country.

Even on a leash, dogs are prohibited on many trails in national parks that have bears. In fact, Bear Country or not! You can read about the national parks that do allow dogs and under which conditions at 12 Dog-Friendly National Parks.

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.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to store food when camping in bear country

Almost all campgrounds in bear country provide bear-proof food storage canisters 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 containers!

National Parks Service and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department list the following rules and suggestions for RVing in bear country.

Food rules:

  • 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.
  • Hanging food in trees is the traditional method of storing food while camping in the backcountry. The better alternative is a bear canister—a portable, hard-sided food locker.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping in bear country safety tips

Here are some additional tips that I 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.
  • Never hike alone. Two or three people are best. Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make plenty of noise to make them aware of your presence.
  • 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.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional tips when hiking

  • Bear 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 lag 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 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.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you encounter a bear

  • 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

Chuck Bartlebaugh is perhaps the top expert in bear safety and bear/human interactions in North America and founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign. 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.

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.

Worth Pondering…

Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby!

—James Rollins, Ice Hunt