Bear-Proofing Your Campsite


I was traversing the alder thicket, to try to get to one of the many Bald Eagle nests we were monitoring. Despite having hacked a trail a few days earlier, visibility was exceptionally limited. If I could see more than a few feet ahead of me, it was a lot. As I turned a corner, my nose was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar scent.

It was then that I noticed the patch of black fur barely visible through the bramble. It would seem that I had stumbled upon a sleeping bruin that somehow managed to remain unconscious despite the ruckus I created by crashing through the brush. I started to back up slowly when he opened his eyes—I don’t know who was more startled, me or the bear. Luckily for me, he shot up and took off at breakneck speed for the hills before I had a chance to ponder my next move.

"The trainers covered interpreting bear behavior, such as what visual cues may indicate an animal was aggressive."

Before embarking to a remote field camp in Alaska’s Prince William Sound for a Field Season with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Migratory Bird Unit, I was given a multi-day crash course on bear safety. Being in the heart of bear country, and thoroughly outnumbered, they wanted us to have as many tools as possible to protect ourselves. The trainers covered interpreting bear behavior, such as what visual cues may indicate an animal was aggressive. They went over natural food sources to avoid so our paths didn’t cross, such as freshly ripened berries or streams overflowing with spawning salmon that provide a veritable all-you-can eat buffet. And, most importantly: isolating these food sources in an effort to not create a reason to visit our camps.

Although my classmate and friend, Garret Grilli, was working on the other side of the continent, he had similar advice. He spent a portion of his career in Natural Resources in New York’s Shawangunk Mountains, dealing almost exclusively with Human-Bear conflict with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Some of his job entailed trapping and relocating nuisance bears to less inhabited areas, but the goal was to not let it get to that point. Proper containment of food and other items that might appeal to a bear’s sense of smell was the key to avoiding these encounters. When I asked him about the key to avoiding these critters in your campsite, he said, “A bear bin for food or trash; suspended with rope in the air greater than 15' over a tree branch at night. Keep anything scented—food or otherwise (including toothpaste)—in a bag inside the bear bin. If you don't have a bear bin, keep it in a backpack suspended in a tree.” He added, “That is always my advice.”

The bears I encountered in Alaska were very different than the individuals in more populated areas. More often than not, when we encountered each other, the bear would flee from the unknown biped who had wandered into its territory. On the other hand, bears that interact regularly with humans have often come to associate them with food sources. Evidence of this can be readily seen in areas like Northern New Jersey, where conflicts have sky-rocketed in recent years. Garbage night signals the dinner bell to these bears, as they have been conditioned over time to go after the easy meal. Similarly, sloppy campers in the back country have taught some bears that people equal food.

Hiking in a group is safer than hiking alone. 

The key to minimizing encounters with most animals is minimizing how attractive your surroundings are to them. As mentioned earlier, bypassing ripe berry patches when you are hiking in bear country is always a good idea. And staying away from protein sources such as streams with runs of fish is certainly prudent. Hiking in a group is safer than hiking alone. Another step you can take to minimize the risk is to announce your presence to the animal community as you go about your walk. As you and your group progress down the trail, take turns yelling “Ya Bear” or “Hey Bear” at regular intervals so you don’t surprise them with your presence. Obviously, they won’t understand what you are saying, but the unfamiliar noise is often enough to scare them away.

In case it is not enough, there are repellents that can save your skin if the need arises. Firearms are carried by many in areas of high bear density, but they are certainly not the only choice. And in many situations, they are not always the best choice. For them to be effective, you need to train consistently with them. And all that training may not mean much when you are in one of the highest-stress situations you may encounter in your lifetime.

For these reasons, many experts recommend carrying bear spray. Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray is certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, an organization comprising representatives of many Natural Resource agencies. This spray projects about 30' in a cone pattern so you can hit your mark with just a modicum of hand/eye coordination. And it will spray for about 7.2 seconds, so you can have plenty of time to find your mark. It also contains 2% of active ingredients, which is as high as the EPA will allow. The holster keeps it handy so it will be there when you need it.

So, what do you do if you see a bear? That answer depends on if it sees you. If not, turn around and head back, or make an extremely wide circle around it. If it is close by, or aware of your presence, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm. Actual attacks are very rare. The bear may approach, or stand on its hind legs. These are signals of curiosity, not aggression. Wave your arms and speak in a loud, low-pitched voice. You can choose to stand your ground, or back away slowly. Do not run; you cannot outrun a bear, and doing so may encourage it to chase you. If the bear is following you, stop walking away.

Photo by © Hillari Denny

A bear may charge you. It may be difficult, but you must not run. Most charges are "bluff charges" intended to intimidate an intruder. Again, running may stimulate the bear to chase and you cannot outrun them. Do not try to climb a tree, unless you can get 30' up in a matter of seconds. Bears are impressive climbers as well; you don’t want to find out how good as you are trying to scurry to safety. Standing your ground, and waving your arms and speaking in a loud, low voice are once again the right actions here. The bear may come within feet of you before it veers off, leaving you shaken, but unharmed.

If you are attacked by a startled bear, keep making noise and struggling! If that does not work, play dead. Curl up in the fetal position, and lie still and be silent. Surprised bears usually stop attacking after the threat (you) has been neutralized. If you have been stalked by a bear, fight back! Similarly, if an attack continues after you have stopped struggling; it is time to fight as well. Most bears are not predatory; those that are tend to be younger individuals that can be successfully intimidated. Use anything you can get your hands on: sticks, rocks, a tent pole. Keep fighting until the bear leaves.

Of course, bear spray can help prevent any of these situations from getting to this point, without any permanent damage to the bear. When a bear charges you from a distance, spray a 2-3 second burst in the direction of the bear. You want to point the canister slightly downwards and use a side-to-side motion. This puts a cloud of spray between you and the bear, through which they must pass to get to you. Continue to spray in short bursts if the bear keeps coming. If you come upon a bear suddenly, just spray at the front of the bear. The expanding nature of the spray cloud should find its way into the eyes and throat of your attacker. Keep spraying until the bear either breaks off its charge or is going to make contact. In some instances, just the sound from the can and the appearance of the cloud is enough to end the encounter.

We have covered avoiding natural food sources; now we need to talk about the ones you are carrying. As Garret mentioned earlier, one of the best ways to keep food safe is with a bear bag suspended from a tree, preferably at some distance from your tents. Many bears have learned to associate these hanging bags with food, so this doesn’t always work. Enter the bear bin; in many National Parks these containers are now mandatory. When selecting a bin, you want to look for features such as rounded edges that will not provide anything for the animal to grip or pry, and a locking system that you can open easily but a bear cannot. The Counter Assault Bear Keg Food Container is a great choice because it is certified by IGBC, as well as the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. Add the Carrying Case to provide an easy way to lash it to your pack. 

Bear also find some unusual items to be very tasty. An example of this would be petroleum products. There had been reoccurring issues over the years of bears raiding fuel caches at some of the more remote camps, resulting in emergency resupply runs. Even items such as sun block often smell interesting enough to warrant a taste or two for curiosity’s sake. Medications are often ingested as well, which could leave you without a necessity while you are out in the bush. If you’re not sure if it is an attractant, err on the side of caution and treat it as such.

Eating and cooking produce plumes of scent that can carry long distances on the wind. Because of this, always cook and eat as far away from your tent as is practical. Most experts will recommend a distance of at least 200', always downwind. This protocol extends after the meal as well, when you are washing your dishes. Even biodegradable soap can pique their interest. Store your pots, pans, dishes, and other eating utensils away from your tents. It is not a bad idea to cook and sleep in different sets of clothes to ensure all food odors are not in your tent. If a bear does approach your campsite, aggressively chase it away. Get all of the members of your party together to provide a more intimidating presence. Make as much noise as possible; using pots, pans, an air horn, whatever is available. Throw rocks in the direction of the bear and, if needed, hit the bear. Use your spray if necessary. Do not let the bear get any food; if it is rewarded it may return.

There are a number of coolers on the market now that are certified as Bear Resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, such as the Pelican Elite Cooler Series. Press-and-pull latches are easy for people to manipulate, but are almost impossible for bears to open. Molded-in hasps with stainless-steel plates allow you to lock it, ensuring you are the only one with access. With a freezer-grade gasket and 2" of insulation, they will keep ice frozen for up to ten days. The fact that they have a built-in bottle opener doesn’t hurt, either. And if it will stop a bear, then raccoons, possums, and other campground thieves stand little chance.

Researchers or outfitters who are setting up camps in areas of extremely high bear density have come to rely on portable electric fence systems. Portable is a relative term, however, as these systems are beyond what you would want strapped to your back as you traverse some rough switchbacks. Those fences are designed to be set up around semi-permanent camps that are going to be there for some time, not broken down every night. There are lighter, more compact mechanisms that still allow you to set up a perimeter around your tents or food. The Perimeter Infrared Intrusion Security Alert uses a trip wire that you run around the area you want to protect. When activated, this alarm unleashes a 135-decibel siren and strobing lights that can scare a bear off without further interaction.

There are plenty of other animals out in the woods. They are all interesting in their own right, but that doesn’t mean you want to share your meal with them. While the preceding advice was directed at bears, following it will help keep all undesired critters from ruining your trip. Keeping a neat, clean campsite is the most important thing you can do to avoid visitations from skunks, possums, raccoons, and even rats. Follow these simple steps to keep your food to yourself, and keep wild animals wild.


Awesome tips! This will work well to reference on my yeti coolers on sale website to show even a Yeti cooler is bear proof there are still percations to go above and beyod when it comes to bear proofing. 

Q: How do you tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear?

A: The black bear will climb up a tree after you; the grizzly bear will just pull the tree down!