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Camping in Bear Country

You’re going camping in bear country?? The idea of being out in the woods often conjures up ideas of wild animals and how they may want you for their lunch. I’m not going to lie to you, there is a danger of having a misfortunate encounter, those statistics do exist. In most cases however, those unfortunate circumstances are related to lack of experience and poor judgement. The best way to prepare for camping in bear country is to be educated and sensible (otherwise known as “don’t be stupid”).

As we’re moving into camping season I thought I’d prepare a little article about camping with bears and hopefully there’s something in here you’ll benefit from.

I’ve spent time in wilderness areas across North America and I’ve had the privilege of encountering bears along the way. There are three species of bears in North America, the Black Bear, Grizzly Bear and Polar Bear. The most common is the American Black Bear. The black bear can actually be various shades of black, white and brown and is found in all provinces and territories in Canada except PEI. Sometimes people determine the type of bear by it’s colour, but as noted, this is not always accurate.

camping in bear country

Bears are not as unpredictable and dangerous as you may think, and for the most part they just want to be left alone.They’re normally shy, and have very little desire to interact with people and in most cases try to avoid us. They exhibit very predictable behaviour which can be beneficial to people who may come into contact with bears, especially those of us travelling into wilderness areas whether hiking or out on a wilderness canoe trip. Bears are not ferocious, mean or malicious – these are human characteristics.

Camping in bear country

When camping in bear country one of the most important things to know is that bears have a “critical space” area around them that they may defend. Once you’ve entered a bear’s critical space, you’ve forced the bear to act – either to run away or be aggressive. Knowing this helps the camper understand how they should behave while in a bears environment. Be sure to make enough noise that a bear will know you’re around so that you don’t surprise one or accidentally wander within its critical space. 

If you do encounter a bear, don’t think that you can outrun it. Bears can run more than 60 kilometres an hour, and they can do it up hills, down hills or along a slope. To put that in perspective, that’s 15 m/sec or 50 ft/sec – more than twice as fast as we can run. It will likely be a very frightening moment for you but remember that if you see a bear, don’t run – face it and appear as large as possible by standing tall and extending your arms. At first start off announcing yourself to the bear to let it know you’re there, it will likely leave the area once it sees you. If it hangs around and you aren’t able to change your route to avoid the bear you can try yelling at the animal in hopes of scaring it away. The best option is always to slowly retreat from the animal and modify your plans, remember: you’re in the bears home, you’re the guest, so give it some space. 

Bears are curious animals and will investigate strange odours, noises and objects to determine if they’re edible. So it’s important to keep those things away from your campsite and especially out of your tent. One mistake I always see people doing, when camping in bear country, is storing snacks in their backpack – remember snacks are food too! Store all food in the animal-proof facilities when they’re provided or, hang your food and garbage out of reach of the bear and out of your campsite. Hanging your food isn’t always an easy process, but do your best and get your food up off the ground and ideally away from the trunk of the tree (remember bears are great climbers). Use 100-feet of rope to hang your food between two trees well away from your tent/cooking area. Keep your fire pit or camp kitchen clean and free of food residue to the best of your ability. Toothpaste and other items with fragrance should also be stored with your food items. Just remember, if it smells or tastes nice, keep it out of your tent. 

It’s nearly impossible for a bear to make its daily excursions without walking through someone’s private property. Bears may travel hundreds of kilometres in their search for food. If you’ve stored your food and garbage properly, the bear will likely move on. Remember, problem bears aren’t born, they’re created through mismanagement of human food and garbage. If bears are hanging around, something is attracting them.

Never approach a bear, even if it’s a bear cub and don’t try to get that great photo by walking closer and closer towards a bear.

Now the scary last point of this article, if you are attacked, fight back. Carry with you and use bear spray, a rock, a canoe paddle, logs or your hands and feet. Whatever it takes. If you are overcome by a bear and find yourself on the ground you can continue to fight or curl tight into a ball to protect your stomach, and use your arms to protect your head and neck. There’s no question that this is the last place we want to be when out on a trip so remember the earlier points in this article, be smart with your food items and always give a bear its space.