If you’re like me and grew up in an area without bears, the prospect of meeting one on the trail is just as terrifying as it is exciting. There is nothing that can take a camping or backpacking trip from 0 to 100 like running into a bear. Bear spray is your number one defense against a hostile or aggressive bear, and the main ingredient in bear and pepper spray is cayenne. However, a long-held theory is that spreading cayenne pepper around your home or campsite can deter bears, so you don’t have to So, does cayenne pepper by itself do anything to keep bears from coming near you or your campsite?
Does Cayenne Pepper Deter Bears?
Using bear spray is more than 98% effective at deterring bears. This leads many people to conclude that cayenne pepper (powdered, like you’d find in the spice aisle at a store) itself might be a good thing to spread around their campsite. Does spreading pepper- or any other substance- around your campsite do anything to keep bears away?
Spreading cayenne around your campsite or spraying your tent with bear spray will have an effect that is 100% the opposite of what you want. Just like you can tell that a restaurant has great food the moment you walk in, spreading pepper around your campsite will let a bear know there is something delicious nearby. Bears have a powerful sense of smell, so you want your tent and campsite to be as odor-free as possible.
Don’t spread cayenne pepper around your campsite- it will not deter bears! The only reason bear spray works is because it is a high concentration that gets right in their face. Spreading pepper around your tent is like seasoning it- an all-around bad idea.
Pepper Spray and Bear Spray
Pepper spray and bear spray are pretty much the same thing, but you shouldn’t bring pepper spray on a backpacking trip. It doesn’t have the spraying distance or power that bear spray has. Bear spray, though, can spray from up to 30 feet away and discharge 8 ounces of highly-concentrated capsaicin directly into a bear’s face. If you’re worried about how to respond to a bear encounter (just like I am), pick up some bear spray before you head into bear country.
How to Bear-Proof Your Campsite
What’s even better than using bear deterrant? Never having to use it in the first place. The best way to do this while you’re hiking is to simply be aware of your surroundings, and make a little noise as you travel. That way, you’ll notice a bear when it’s far off, and it will hear you coming- reducing the chances of you accidentally startling it.
But, what about when you’re in your tent? How can you ensure that you won’t wake up to a real-life nightmare: a bear trying to enter your tent? First of all, these encounters are incredibly rare, so you won’t have a ton to worry about. If you’re not smart about it, though, you will be risking one of these encounters. So, it’s important that you take care to bear-proof your campsite when backpacking in a national park or elsewhere in bear country.
Is Camping in Bear Country Safe?
Generally, it is very safe to camp in bear country. Each year, there are only 11 bear attacks in all of North America, which includes the massive bear-filled wilderness of Canada. There are over 300 million visitors in America’s National Parks System and 16 million in Canada’s each year. Clearly, my fear of bears is a bit unrealistic.
If you’re in bear country, especially grizzly bear country, you still need to take proper care to avoid a dangerous encounter. The 11 people who are involved in attacks each year are the ones not being responsible- if you’re acting foolish, you might be adding your name to that number!
Which National Park has the Highest Bear Population?
Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina has the highest bear population of any national park. There are about 1,500 black bears roaming the woods in the park, far more than any other. This is because black bears need less land than grizzlies, which means they live in higher population densities. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also quite massive, meaning it can hold more bears than nearly any other.
Yellowstone National Park area has almost 550 grizzly bears, the highest concentration of grizzlies in any national park. If you’re looking to snap a picture of a grizzly, Yellowstone is the place to be!
What Smells Will Deter or Attract a Bear?
There are certain smells that repel bears very effectively. Practically any cleaner- ammonia or bleach-based, as well as pine or citrus-scented sprays, are known to be unattractive to bears. While you’ll never see anyone recommend you douse your tent in bleach, maybe spraying it with a bit of Lysol isn’t such a bad idea. Just don’t think that this is a perfect solution; in fact, it’s not even really worth doing- it’s just an option.
The smells that bears love include citronella candles, any and every food item, as well as scented toiletries. If you keep any of these things near or inside your tent, you’re advertising your campsite to bears.
How To Bear-Proof a Campsite
The safest campsites are the ones that bears simply aren’t interested in, because the campers have taken the proper measures to make their campsites, in the eyes of bears, utterly boring. That’s what we’ll talk about in this section.
3 basic steps to bear-proofing
While there are a lot of things you can – and should – do to prevent your campsite from attracting bears, the following three steps will cover you in the majority of situations. However, the deeper you hike into bear country, the more you want to be cautious. If you want, you can read more in my quick guide to bear safety while hiking, but the bare basics are as follows:
1. Hang a bear bag, or better yet, get a bear canister
Odor-proof food containers are crucial to safety in bear country. Get a bear canister or a bear bag and length of rope. Hang your food at least 12 feet off the ground, at least 200 feet from where you pitch your tent. That way, if the bear smells anything enticing, it will be far away from you.
2. Change clothes after dinner
Don’t sleep in the same clothes you cooked or ate dinner in. Even if they look clean, your clothes can hang on to the tiniest scents- scents that a local bear will notice. Bears have noses that are 100 times more sensitive than humans, so they’ll catch even the smallest whiff of chili mac on your shirt! Change clothes after dinner and store your cooking clothes either in an odor-proof bag or with your food canister. The same goes for your dishes!
3. Keep your campsite well-lit
Man-made lights are, believe it or not, one of the best ways to keep a bear from coming near your tent. You can get a strip of bright led lights that charge with a USB and hang them on the outside of your tent as you sleep. They won’t be bright enough to disturb your sleep, but they will be noticeable to furry creatures and help them stay at a safe distance!
Encounters with brown or grizzly bears aren’t something that you need to fear when you’re on the trail in a National Park. They are, however, something you need to be prepared for. This means carrying bear spray, an air horn, and knowing how to safely set up camp. Spreading scents isn’t really effective and some scents, like cayenne pepper, do the exact opposite of repelling! At the end of the day, though, there is no cause for fear or anxiety!
First posted April 2021