When you go camping you are essentially a guest in the space that many wild animals call home. It can be wonderful to experience nature and view some of the Earth’s creatures in their natural habitat. However, some of those creatures may become unwanted campsite visitors.
Bears typically tend to avoid people and keep their distance. Although, bears that are attracted to campgrounds or human dwellings may become aggressive and bold in their search for food. Therefore, it is important to take steps to keep bears away from your campsite to keep you and your companions safe. In this article we will discuss various measures you can take to keep bears away, these include:
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Safe Food Storage
Most bears are lured to campsites by the smell of food. This includes human food, pet food, and garbage. Bears will chew or tear through almost anything to obtain the food that they can smell. As a camper, it is not only your responsibility to prevent wild animals from being lured by your food items but it is also for your safety.
Bears that smell food will often become bold and aggressive in their search. They can tear through tents, backpacks, bags, and even damage vehicles. There are precautions you can take to keep from inviting bears (and other animals) to your campsite.
Storing any food that you may have properly is one of the most important steps you can take to keep away bears. There are even special storage devices designed to conceal food odors and keep animals from getting to the contents held inside.
You never want to leave your food unattended, during the daytime or nighttime. This is especially true if you are leaving your campsite to hike, fish, or participate in other recreational activities. If you do leave your food, make sure that it is stored securely.
If you are at the campsite, it is best to keep your food in a cooler or your car unless you are cooking or eating. It is never a good idea to bring food inside your tent. The residue and odor can attract bears, especially at night, which can lead to a dangerous situation for the tent’s sleeping occupants.
If you are leaving your campsite or settling in for the night, there are a few ways in which you safely can store your items. These include bear bags, a bear canister, a bear locker, or even your vehicle.
Traditionally, anything that could contain food and be suspended qualified as a bear bag. This included a sturdy garbage bag or a cloth bag. The bag could then be lifted off the ground and hung using a tree and some rope.
Today, bear bags have gone beyond solely a garbage bag and have become more sophisticated. Current bear bags include waterproof dry sacks, carbon fiber smell proof bags, and even Kevlar bags.
A dry bag may be marketed specifically as a bear bag or not, regardless of its advertised purposes it will work just as well. Dry bags are used to seal out water and keep your belongings dry when partaking in water activities like kayaking or boating.
They have a heavy-duty seal in order to make them completely waterproof. When storing food, this tight seal will keep help lock in smells. Dry bags can also be folded or rolled into a compact form for carrying and storage.
Smell proof bags are similar to garbage bags but have a tighter seal and are made of more hefty materials. Unlike dry bags, they are not reusable. They usually have a zippered closure to completely seal the bag and are typically waterproof, humidity-proof, and sand/dustproof.
These trap odors inside, but it is vital not to let the outside of the bag touch any food or scented items. If the outside comes into contact with a scent it is no longer odorless. Scent-proof bags are most commonly used as liners for a dry bag or another type of cloth bag.
The most specialized bag is a bear-resistant bag. They are constructed from bulletproof materials such as Kevlar making them tooth and claw resistant. Some bear bags advertise that they do not have to be suspended from a tree, but instead can be secured to a tree trunk located a safe distance from the campsite.
No matter your choice of bag type, you will most likely want to suspend it from a tree limb. There are many guidelines and methods of hanging a bear bag that can be found online. If provided, hanging your bag from a bear pole or cable is another option.
Some campgrounds and portions of land or forest do not allow bear bags but require a bear canister. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges require that any scented items must be stored in a bear canister.
A bear canister is a hard-shelled plastic container with a screw-on lid, as humans should be able to open it but animals will likely not. Some are clear and some are not, they come in various sizes, and a few require a tool to unlock the lid.
Bears have in some instances been able to unscrew a canister lid, but this is rare. In most cases, they will not be able to bite or tear into the container and will move on after a while. Because of their sturdy composition, you do not have to suspend in the air.
Bear canisters are rigid, so they connect be compressed down or mold to the number of goods you have to store. However, if you are trekking in a canister required area you must have one. If stopped by a ranger and found not to have a canister you will likely receive a fine or penalty.
Bear lockers are similar to canisters in that they are rigid containers used to keep bears out, but they are large and typically immobile. They are often provided by the campground or forest services.
These metal lockers can be communal or individual. They often feature locking mechanisms to prevent animals from getting in and out. There are many different ways to store your food. Regardless of which one you choose, be sure to always properly store your food whenever you are not eating or cooking.
Keeping a Clean Campsite
Your food also plays a role in attracting bears when it comes to cooking. Not only do the actual food items need to be secured but anything that comes into contact with your meat, grains, or produce needs to be either cleaned or stored.
It is important to clean your cookware and dining ware as soon as you are finished with it. Everything should be cleaned either in a provided water source or a natural one a safe distance away from your campsite.
Your cooking area should be located at least two hundred feet away, downwind of your tent. It should also be at least two hundred feet from your food storage area. This setup is known as the “Bear-muda” triangle. Leaving food in your cooking area, or even food residue on your cooking and dining items will certainly attract bears.
Once you are done cooking and cleaning your dishes, change your clothes. Wearing soiled clothes, especially into your tent, is a recipe for luring unwanted guests into your personal space. The clothes you cooked in should be sealed and stored along with your food items.
Keeping your cooking site clean is not the only aspect of maintaining a tidy campsite. Don’t leave any trash such as wrappers, peels, or used paper towels lying around. Pick up any food or garbage that falls on the ground and dispose of it properly.
Any biodegradable food leftovers should be burned or buried a safe ways away from your campsite. It is important that you meticulously gather every scrap of food and/or trash. Be sure to clean and dispose of items downwind and away from your tent.
Avoid Strong Smells
Food items are not the only things that can carry on the wind. Bears can also be attracted to scented bug sprays, lotions, perfumes, and body sprays. You should try to use odorless or unscented products as much as possible when camping in bear country.
Citronella candles, commonly used at campsites to deter pests, have been known to attract bears. Anything that has a scent should be stored with your food items in a bear bag, canister, or locker. Don’t bring scented items into your tent.
Keeping Yourself and Your Pets Safe
To stay safe, you should avoid smells, practice good campsite hygiene, and properly store all of your items. Choose a campsite that is upwind from your cooking site and storage area. Locate a safe area to camp, one that is not located in a raspberry patch or area of potential interest to a bear.
Take note and heed any signs notifying you that you are in a bear prevalent area. Before setting up your tent be sure to check for trails, tracks, or broken branches that could be a sign of bears routinely moving through the area.
Interestingly enough, bears seem to be attracted to bright colors. Keep this in mind when packing clothing items and even regarding the color of your tent. Try to make yourself and your campsite as uninteresting to bears as possible.
Pets add another concern when camping. Never leave your dog or pet unattended when you are camping. Try to minimize barking or animal noise as much as possible. It is also beneficial to have them on a leash at all times, especially when hiking, even if they typically mind very well.
Your pet’s food should be stored using the same methods as storing your food and scented items. Do not leave any uneaten food out and be sure to clean all of their dishes.
Cleaning up after your pet is part of maintaining a clean campsite. Bears can smell other animals poop so be sure to bag it (biodegradable bags that can be buried are best) flush it, or dispose of it safely along with your other trash.
When out and about with your animal it can be helpful to attach a bear bell to their collar. This will alert bears in the area that you and your pet are moving towards them and give them a chance to vacate the area before an interaction occurs.
Tools for Protection
Highly potent bear spray is considered to be the optimal tool for protection against bears. If you are camping in bear country you should bring bear spray with you and keep it in your tent. Before heading out read the instructions and familiarize yourself with how to use it.
Bear spray is typically extremely irritating to all types of bears. When used, it should decrease the length and intensity of the attack. Many professionals including biologists and forest rangers depend on bear spray to keep them safe when in bear country.
A firearm is strongly discouraged when it comes to bear attacks. In many cases, firing a weapon at the bear increased the animal’s aggression and the severity of the attack. Due to bears size, you will likely only wound the animal and make it exceedingly angry. It has been found that even bears who were fatally wounded had enough time to inflict serious damage to the person who fired the weapon.
Bear Species You May Encounter
You are most likely to come across a black bear or a type of brown bear. Kodiak bears and Grizzly bears are in fact brown bears, but their habitat sets them apart. Grizzly bears live inland and due to eating mostly shrubs, berries, and scavenged carcasses they are a bit smaller than coastal dwelling brown bears.
Kodiak bears are found in Alaska’s Kodiak, Afognak and Shuyak islands. This isolation and access to a rich food source have actually changed their genetic composition. They are a physically giant subspecies of the brown bear and can grow quite large.
Brown bears are tan in color, Grizzlys having the signature whitish tipped grizzle, while black bears are black. In general, brown bears are much larger than black bears, standing at 6.5 feet when compared to the black bears 5 feet.
Brown bears can weigh a hefty 350 – 800 pounds, heavier than the 110-400 pound black bear. One of the largest ever Kodiak bears weighed a whopping 1,500 pounds.
Brown bears also tend to be more aggressive. Rather than running for safety during a threat, a brown bear will go on the defense. Because of their relatively solitary nature, brown bears prefer not to come into contact with humans.
Other important facts include that brown bears can indeed climb trees, albeit rather slowly. These bears are also known to charge in the face of perceived danger.
Black bears tend to be a bit more tolerating of humans. They are generally skittish, running away when they sense danger. Black bears are great climbers, often seeking safety up a tree. However, their shy personality does not negate the fact that they are very strong animals.
It is highly unlikely that you will see a polar bear. Yet, they do inhabit the northern lands of Alaska. The National Park Service provides a useful tool concerning parks with known bear populations and their species: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/parks-with-bears.htm.
Blue is grizzly and orange is black bear
According to their map, below are the locations in which one or more bear sightings have been reported:
Black bears are the most prevalent. They cover most of the United States (including Alaska), much of Canada, and as far south as Northern Mexico.
Grizzly bears predominantly inhabit Alaska. Outside of that, they are in the western United States, focused around Montana, Wyoming, and the Yellowstone-Teton area. Sightings in other states are very rare and though they may have once had a population they are now considered extinct.
Kodiak bears are isolated to Kodiak Island in Alaska and some of the nearby islands. Polar bears are found in the northernmost reaches of Alaska and are also found in Canada.
Because of the expansive nature of bear populations, specifically the black bear, it is always wise to be prepared and follow proper procedures concerning your campsite to avoid contact with any bear species.
Should you encounter a bear, have an escape plan. It is best to try and move away from the animal quickly but calmly. A sturdy building or even a vehicle can be a safe place to protect yourself while waiting for the bear to move on.
If the bear initiates an attack be prepared to defend yourself. This is when bear spray can come in handy. Attempt to scare off the animal and spray it if necessary.
After the attack, be sure to report what happened to a forest or park ranger or emergency personnel. They typically like to document incidents to note the species and make sure they are not dealing with a nuisance animal that has a history of attacks.
Hopefully, if you respect nature and her animals by safely storing your food, keeping a clean campsite, and taking measures to protect yourself and your pets you will have an uneventful and bear-free camping trip.