Bears pose a significant safety risk for campers in the US, Canada and certain parts of Europe, Asia and South America. Encounters with them can prove dangerous if you do not know the latest advice on how to avoid bears while camping.
This article is your one-stop shop for expert-recommended bear safety strategies for camping trips. It condenses the most up-to-date research and guidance so that you can keep safe when out in the wild.
We’ve grouped our advice into three key categories: “before you go”, “setting up camp” and “in an encounter”. (Plus: read to the end for a useful print-at-home infographic with essential advice on how to repel bears while camping).
NOTE: Black bears are much more common than grizzlies, but everything in this article applies to both.
Before You Go
Choose the Right Tent
It’s a common misconception that bears have limited vision. In fact, research from the University of Tennessee has shown that bears can see at least as well as humans.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to be careful about the colour and design of the tent you take with you into bear country. Although it won’t protect you from an attack, it might help to prevent one altogether.
You should avoid brightly colored tents, especially ones with a single block of color. These will stand out to a bear even at night (research suggests that bears have excellent night vision).
On the other hand, studies have found that bears (like humans) have difficulty spotting camouflaged objects. This means that, if you’re camping in a wooded or green area, your best option is a drab or dark green camouflaged tent. Any army surplus store will carry a wide selection of good quality and highly durable models to suit your needs.
You should also make sure that your tent and other camping gear matches your expected conditions. Study this simple guide on how cold is too cold for camping when preparing for your trip.
NOTE: The material your tent or tarp is made from is an important consideration when buying camping supplies. If you’re unsure what type will suit your expected conditions best, check out our handy guide.
If a bear doesn’t catch your scent in a camo tent, it will likely not notice you. This leads on to our second key area of preparation: smell.
Avoid Fragrant Soaps and Shampoos
While bears’ vision is similar to ours, their sense of smell is most certainly not. Scientists estimate that bears can smell 4 to 5 times better than bloodhounds. This equates to a sense of smell 2,000 times stronger than humans’.
An awareness of bears’ powerful noses is fundamental to understanding how to avoid bears while camping. It boils down to this: when in bear country, you need to be very careful about how you smell
Soaps and shampoos are often fruit flavored, and they are designed to smell as strong as possible. Though nice in city life, smelling like a giant strawberry is obviously a problem when you’re near hungry bears looking for food.
It’s a good idea to use unscented shampoo and bodywash before and during your trip. We recommend Attitude shampoo, which you can get online. It’ll clean your hair effectively and it’s dermatologically sensitive. More importantly, it’s biodegradable.
Some shampoos and bodywashes will harm animals and habitats when they drain into the ecosystem. So always check the label to make sure that any product you use in the wild will not harm the environment.
NOTE: If you run out of shampoo or soap while you’re camping, you can even make your own, using available natural resources. Check out our handy list of camping hygiene hacks for this and other useful tips.
For more advice on managing bear-attracting odors, read our next tip.
Setting Up Camp
Store and Cook Food Properly
Food can be detected by bears from miles away, and it’s essential to plan out your campsite with this in mind.
Your tent should be placed at least 70 large paces away from your cooking area. Food should be left there, rather than in your tent. Similarly, any clothes that may retain the smell of cooked food should also be left in your cooking area. This way, if a bear scents your food, you will not be standing—or sleeping—in its way.
Make sure you thoroughly clean any containers and cooking equipment that comes into contact with food. This isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds, so it’s good to set out a cooking hygiene plan before you go. Our guide to camping dishwashing hacks will help you do this.
When you’ve cleaned and packed away your food, balance a pot or something metallic on your bags or containers. This will wake you up if a bear raids your camp and knocks it over, giving you time to react.
Another top tip is investing in bear canisters, which are metal containers to store your food in. While they can be bulky to carry, they are more or less bear-proof. Hang them over a branch 70 paces or more from your camp. We recommend following Andrew Skurka’s useful guide, which sets out what to look for when buying canisters.
Bear canisters are designed so that bears cannot easily fit them into their mouths. If you hang them as high as your arms can reach, they will have difficulty grabbing hold of them. Hopefully, your food should still be there in the morning!
NOTE: Hanging canisters high up also has the advantage of keeping your food out of reach of rodents.
If you’re new to the outdoors, it’s a good idea to read this list of 10 simple hiking tips for beginners.
Set Up an Electric Bear Fence
Lightweight and easy to set up, bear fences will give you peace of mind that you have a defense in place.
Set one up in a ring around your tent, and the system will repel an approaching bear with up to 6,000 volts of electricity. The batteries are often rechargeable (some models use two AA batteries), and manufacturers claim that they can last up to five weeks—but plan for less.
Though expensive, models like this Udap kit are well worth the investment if you are a regular camper. Make sure to follow the instructions carefully. You don’t want a disconnection to cause the current to stop flowing in the middle of the night.
NOTE: Remember that snow and storms can damage your fence in the night. Tree branches and tall grasses may also interrupt the current. Make sure that you keep these risks in mind when scouting for your campsite. You want somewhere a good distance from trees and tall vegetation, with ground soft enough to drive your fence posts deep into.
It’s also a good idea to wake up in the middle of the night to check that the fence is functioning.
Even with a fence in place, you should also practise the food storage techniques laid out in the previous section.
Plan an Escape Route
What if the worst comes to the worst and the sound of an approaching bear wakes you up in the middle of the night? Though this is very unlikely, you’ll need to choose your campsite with this situation in mind.
When setting up camp, consider how your surroundings might help or hinder you in a midnight bear encounter. While you can’t outrun a bear, the chances are it’ll be more interested in your food than you. If your tent is a good distance from your cooking area and food store, this gives you time to make a hasty exit if the bear comes towards you. (See the final section of this article for specifics on what to do in an encounter).
Reading terrain correctly is key to understanding how to avoid bears while camping. You don’t want to be camped near anything that might block your escape.
A cliff face or rocky outcrop too near your tent might leave you with no choice but to get too close to the bear. So when picking a campsite you should look for somewhere relatively open.
But being close to tree cover is also helpful. Trees provide a good place to hang your food, and they will also allow you to get out of sight of the bear quickly. (It helps if you’re also downwind of the bear).
If you do end up waking up in the middle of the night with a bear outside your tent, you’ll need to have memorized our next set of steps.
In An Encounter
Like dogs, bears have a tendency to chase things that flee, and they can easily outrun a human. So breathe deeply and hold your ground.
If you have properly cleaned your dishes and packed away your food, the bear may lose interest and leave of its own accord. It’s often enough to simply stay silent and wait for this to happen.
However, if several minutes pass and the bear is still in your camp, you need to change strategies.
Bears associate high pitched sounds with prey, so speaking in a low and loud voice will identify you as a human. Bears do not normally seek to attack humans, so doing this is usually enough to encourage it to back off.
A similar strategy is to leave your tent and wave your arms slowly above your head, while still talking in a low voice. This will make you appear larger to the bear (although not threatening) and hopefully frighten it off.
If the bear begins to approach, you’ll need to progress to our final and most important piece of advice.
Use Bear Spray
Bear spray is an essential item when camping in bear country. It has the same chemical composition as pepper spray, but it is far more potent. Unlike pepper spray, bear spray devices emit a much larger cloud of gas, so they do not require a great deal of precision to be effective.
For this reason, bear spray is significantly more effective than a gun in the event of an attack. Research shows that it successfully deters over 90% of bear attacks, whereas firearms are effective in only 50% of cases.
Bear spray is easier to use (just point and spray), requires no reloading and has fewer safety risks. It will also not kill the bear, making it a more ethical weapon too.
Use it only to deter an advancing bear. Spray it directly at the bear’s face, and leave the area as quickly as possible once it takes effect.
NOTE: Walking sideways is preferable to running away or walking backwards, as some people recommend. It will allow you not only to maintain visual contact with the bear but also to keep an eye on where you’re treading. This would be a terrible time to trip over and noisily crash to the ground!
Grasping how to use bear spray effectively is an essential part of learning how to repel bears while camping. Just remember these three key tips when using it:
- Store It Correctly: Keep it out of direct sunlight, and check the expiry date.
- Keep It Close: Attach it to your belt in the day and have it beside you at night.
- Check The Wind: Do not spray into a headwind as it will affect you too.
Although the risk of a bear attack has increased in recent years, it remains very low. On average, there are only two to five fatal bear attacks every year in the US. While this sounds like a lot, it is in fact a tiny proportion of the number of campers and hikers in national parks (see the infographic below).
If a bear approaches your campsite and you have followed all of our guidance on how to avoid bears while camping, it is extremely likely that you will be perfectly safe. So read this article carefully, make your campsite bear-proof and enjoy your trip!
For more essential advice on what to do if you encounter a bear, check out our infographic below.