Truth be told, camping or backpacking in bear country isn’t that different from camping and backpacking anywhere else. There are a few things you need to do, be aware of, and remember, though – and that’s why I put together this list.
So, take a look at the 11 tips below if you’re prepping for a trip into the woods where these incredible (and sometimes deadly) animals live. Nothing on the list is groundbreaking or brand-new, but that’s kind of the point of bear safety!
Bear Safety When Backpacking and Camping: Remember These Things
1. Bear Spray is always a good idea
If you’ve read anything else I’ve published on this site, you know I’m a big fan of bear spray even though I’ve never had to actually discharge it. Bear spray is effective, safe-ish for bears (much like human pepper spray, it sucks but they get past it after 30-45 minutes), and it provides a valuable sense of security.
Bear spray is easy to find in bear country; it’s sometimes even sold at gas stations! You can learn more about how bear spray works and find the best bear sprays here.
2. Your bear canister can usually be rented (often for free)
Bear canisters are essentially just plastic jugs that you stuff your food and other odorous items into. They’re not exactly odor-proof (close, though), but they are bear-proof. They lock shut and are impossible for a creature without thumbs to open; the plastic is also tough enough to withstand the efforts of a curious bear.
Buying a bear canister can be pretty expensive, which is why it’s so nice that most national parks will let you check one out for free at a ranger station. If you’re camping in bear country, make sure to check whether a ranger station near you lets you rent bear canisters – I think they figured it’s cheaper to lend out canisters than it is to constantly rescue injured backpackers. Any way you get it, a bear canister needs to be part of your backpacking gear checklist any time you’re in their neck of the woods.
3. Listen to all the rules, all the time
Life is full of rules. Most of us know that you don’t have to follow every rule 100% of the time (who among us hasn’t done a rolling stop in the last month?). But, when you’re in bear country, the rules become a lot more important.
- if bear canisters are required, use one.
- If there is a bear-proof storage locker at your campsite, use it.
- If there are signs posted about bears in the area, heed them.
This is, honestly, the most important thing about hiking, camping, or backpacking in bear country. You don’t have to be an expert survivalist or zoologist; rather, you just need to follow the rules of the area. Bear attacks are incredibly rare, and most of the ones that do occur involve somebody doing something they weren’t supposed to do.
4. Bear hangs might be overrated
Bear bags and bear hangs are another form of safe food storage. The basic idea is that you use rope and a ultra-tough bag to store your food at night by hanging it from a tree, high enough that a curious or hungry bear can’t reach it.
Before bear canisters became the dominant food storage option, bear hangs were ubiquitous. Nowadays, however, I’ve started to notice discussion about the overall value of bear hangs compared to canisters and food lockers. The idea is that, because a successful hang requires the user to hang their bag at a certain height and distance from the tree trunk, a high rate of user error makes the method ineffective compared to bear canisters.
That said, many distance hikers and thru-hikers use bear hangs to save weight, and they run into almost 0 issues. All this to say, if you aren’t confident in your abilities to perfectly hang a bear bag, you’re likely better off with a canister. I use canisters, because they’re free to rent and I like things to be as easy and error-proof as they can be.
5. Use your voice
The louder you are, the safer you are. While you shouldn’t be obnoxious (looking at you, hikers who constantly play loud music from Bluetooth speakers), using your outside voice is a great way to stay safe. The reasons are simple: bears, mountain lions, and moose all have great hearing, and they will usually avoid getting too close to you… but only if they know you’re around.
So, talk with your hiking buddies, sing, and whistle from time to time. I love the silence of the backcountry, but when I get nervous about bears, I try to be chatty!
6. Don’t freak out when you see a bear
Panicking, turning heel, and running away is pretty much the exact opposite of what you should do if you stumble upon a bear. If you somehow see a bear and it’s too close for comfort, the best thing you can do is remain calm.
If the bear looks aggressive, remain calm, put your hands on your bear spray, and try to make yourself as tall as you can. Most bears are either curious or warning you to keep your distance; they almost never have an interest in a fight. If you panic and run, however, you are communicating something that might lead the bear to chase you.
The National Parks Service has a great write-up on bear safety, one far better than anything I could write in this short article. I’d suggest giving it a read before you hit the trail.
7. Bear horns are great for peace of mind
I have a slightly less-than-healthy fear of bears; while I think it would be incredible to see one far off, anything closer than 300 feet is too much for me. That’s why, in addition to bear spray, I carry a bear horn when I’m deep in the backcountry.
Bear horns let out a short “toot” that can be heard for about half a mile. Even if a nearby animal doesn’t know how to interpret the sound, they will know that something is nearby and will likely keep their distance.
I’d be careful using a bear horn on heavily-trafficked trails, since it can be kind of annoying for other hikers. But, if you’re in a place where you know the nearest group will be a mile or more away at all times, a bear horn is perfect for peace of mind.
8. Change clothes after cooking
When you cook, the odor from your food will inevitably wind up on your clothes. If you wear those same clothes in your tent, you’ll have brought the odor with you. Bears don’t usually know you’re inside a tent, and if they smell food nearby, they’re likely to check it out.
So, after you cook your dinner, change into your sleeping clothes to keep your sleeping area smell-free. You don’t have to put your day clothes anywhere special; the food smell on your clothes isn’t that strong and can be contained by keeping your clothes in a closed pack.
That said, I usually put them in a small garbage bag and stuff it in the bottom of my pack for the night. That way, there is very little chance that a bear will get a whiff of what I had for dinner.
The point is: the clothes you had on when you cooked should not be the clothes you have on at bedtime.
9. They’re not nearly as cute up close
In 2021, a woman in Yellowstone excitedly moved toward a bear so she could take a picture. It didn’t go that well, as the bear charged directly toward her before veering off. It was a warning, known as a “bluff charge”, and it meant that this woman was pretty lucky (although she did go to jail for it). Here’s the video:
While it is downright thrilling to see a bear in the wild, you should never try to get closer. However close you are when you spot the bear is plenty close – approaching a bear will usually be interpreted as a threat, and a threatened bear is a deadly one.
10. Keep food and scented items out of your tent
This is one of the most important rules of camping in bear country: there should never be any food inside your tent. The same goes for scented items like deoderant and perfume. Keeping these items in your tent increases your chances of waking up to a bear pawing at your tent walls dramatically.
Most recommendations and park rules say that you should store your food at least 200 feet away from your tent overnight. This allows a nearby bear to check out your food stash without having to risk a deadly encounter. Keeping food in your tent makes that possible encounter a guaranteed nightmare.
You might be able to safely keep/eat a small snack in your tent, but it should be buried very deep, and it shouldn’t be very odorous. For example, a handful of trail mix won’t get you killed if you eat it carefully and bury it deep inside your pack, but beef jerky has too strong a smell to be totally safe. Even then, it’s better to simply leave 100% of your food in a 100% safe area.
11. Keep kids and pets closeby
Children and dogs can’t be counted on to respond appropriately to a close-up bear encounter. if you aren’t close enough to scoop up your kid the moment you see a bear, you are too far away. The same goes for most dogs; unless your dog was raised in bear country, there’s no way to know if they’ll be safe or stupid when they see a bear.
As a parent or dog owner, it’s your responsibility to keep them safe and lead them away from trouble. So, whenever you’re in bear country, be extra vigilant and never assume that an area is completely safe. That way, everyone on the trail can have a good time, and nobody winds up the subject of a hastily written news article!