Spotting a bear while hiking is both a beautiful and terrifying experience at the same time. On one hand, bears are absolutely incredible creatures to view in the wild. On the other hand, bears can be dangerous. Luckily, attacks are rare. This guide explains how to avoid bears while hiking or camping in bear country. We’ll also share some bear safety tips to help you stay safe if you do encounter a bear. We’ll cover trip planning, food storage, bear spray, different types of bears, bear behavior, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Planning a Trip in Bear Country- Research to do before your trip and gear to pack.
- How to Avoid Bears- Safety tips for hiking, cycling, and camping in bear country.
- How to Store Food in Bear Country- Food handling and storage safety.
- What to do if you Encounter a Bear- How to reduce the likelihood of an attack and what to do if you are attacked. This section also includes info on the different types of bears.
Planning a Trip in Bear Country
While planning your hike, you’ll want to take some time to research the bear situation in the area that you plan to visit. While the general bear safety guidelines stay the same, each region has slightly different rules depending on the types of bears that are present, the level of risk, local bear habits, the type of ecosystem, etc.
Local regulations tell you how you should store your food. For example, some parks offer bear boxes or poles at the campsites where you can safely stash your food so bears can’t get to it. Sometimes you are required to use a rigid bear canister.
Local regulations also tell you which bear safety gear is allowed or recommended. Bear spray is prohibited in some parks and encouraged in others. You’ll want to check the legality before you go. For example, Yosemite National Park does not allow bear spray while Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Teton National Parks recommend it. Generally, you only need bear spray in areas where Grizzlies live.
You’ll want to research the local regulations at your destination to ensure that you pack the proper food storage and safety gear. Sierrawild.gov is an excellent resource for this if your trip is in the US. Occasionally, rules vary within the different parts of a single national park. Make sure you research each place you plan to hike or camp before your trip so you have the most up to date information and don’t accidentally break any park rules.
You also want to know which types of bears are present. Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, and polar bears all behave differently. Your reaction in the event of an encounter depends on the type of bear you’re dealing with. We’ll look at some species-specific bear safety tips later on in this guide.
How to Avoid Bears While Camping or Hiking
In some parts of the world, bears are surprisingly common. If you camp or hike often enough, you’ll eventually spot one. The following tips will help to lower the likelihood of a dangerous encounter.
- Hike in a group- Avoid hiking alone in bear country. Bears are less likely to attack a group of people. Particularly groups of four or larger. There is safety in numbers when it comes to bears.
- Make noise while you’re hiking- You don’t want to surprise a bear. Talking, shouting, clapping, or singing every once in a while lets the bears know you’re coming. Many hikers shout ‘hey bear’ repeatedly. Alternatively, you could use a bear bell or air horn or knock your trekking poles together. Keep in mind that bear bells may or may not be effective. You should also consider your surroundings when making noise. If you’re hiking near a loud river or in the wind, a bear may not be able to hear you. Increase the volume of your noise in these situations.
- Don’t make the wrong kinds of sounds- Avoid whistling, blowing a whistle, or screaming bear country. These sound like an animal in pain. This can attract bears and trigger a predatory response.
- Avoid walking around in the early morning or late evening- This is when bears are out and about looking for food. Particularly during the spring and summer. If you’re hiking in a high-risk area, you might want to skip the sunrise or sunset hike.
- Ask park rangers about bear safety- These people are experts on the area. They can tell you about recent sightings, things to look out for, places to avoid, food storage, and more. Park rangers are an excellent resource for information. They know the region better than most anyone else. They’re usually friendly as well.
- Carry bear spray- This capsaicin-based aerosol spray deters charging bears by irritating their eyes and respiratory system. Carry it in a holster on your person at all times. Never in your pack. The reason is that you may only have seconds to pull the spray out and use it. Before your hike, consider testing your bear spray out by quickly pulling it out of the holster and disabling the safety. You can also spray a bit downwind to get used to the feel of using it. Chances are you won’t need it but it’s best to be prepared.
- Be extra cautious around blind curves in the trail, near running water, in dense vegetation, and in the wind- These are all situations where you could accidentally surprise a bear because they may not be able to see, smell, or hear you coming. This could trigger a defensive response if you surprise a bear. Exercise caution in noisy or low visibility areas.
- If you see or smell a dead animal carcass, get out of there- Bears could be nearby. They sometimes feed on the same animal for multiple days. Also, keep an eye out for circling birds overhead and avoid the area if you spot any.
- Avoid hiking and camping in areas that bears frequent- Stream beds and berry patches attract bears. Avoid these areas if you’re hiking in an area with a high bear population. If you have to hike through these areas, move quickly, keep making noise, and stay alert.
- Use proper food storage technique- Keep your food, fuel, and anything with an odor packed away. Bears have a strong sense of smell. I’ll talk much more in-depth about food storage in the next section.
- Watch out for fresh signs of bears- Footprint, scat, dead animals, and markings on trees are all signs that bears have been in the area. If you see these, stay alert and keep moving.
- Control your children and pets- Their noises and movements can trigger a predatory response in a bear. They are also smaller so the bear could consider them easy prey. If you spot a bear, pick up your child or pet, no matter how far away the bear is.
- Avoid wearing smelly perfume, sunblock, lotion, deodorant, etc.- If you must use cosmetics, use unscented options. Bears aren’t just attracted to food. They are attracted to anything with an odor.
- Stay alert and aware of your surroundings- Keep on the lookout for bears at all times while you’re hiking. Also, try not to zone out too much or listen to music through your headphones.
- Avoid leaving your backpack or camp unattended- Odds are, there is something smelly inside your pack or tent that could attract a bear. When you’re around making noise, the bears will be less likely to approach to investigate.
- Stay on the trail- In heavy traffic areas, bears may avoid the trails because people are constantly passing through. If you run into problems, help is closer as well. Someone is likely to pass by sooner or later.
- Never approach, sneak up on, or surprise a bear- This should go without saying but bears don’t like surprises. They can trigger a predatory or defensive response. If you must take a photo, do so from as far away as possible then back away and leave until the bear goes away.
A Note About Bear Spray
Bear spray is a capsicum based aerosol pepper spray that is used to fend off aggressive bears. It is designed to irritate the bear’s eyes and respiratory system to a point that the bear is temporarily incapacitated. The bear cannot see or smell when hit with the spray. This gives you time to escape. Best of all, bear spray does not permanently injure the bear.
Most bear sprays have a range of 15-30 feet and spray for 5-10 seconds before the can is empty. To use it, you pull a safety clip then depress the lever and spray directly at the attacking bear’s face to make it go away. When using your spray, make sure you’re spraying downwind. This way, it won’t blow back into your face.
If you’re looking to buy a canister of bear spray, I recommend Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray. It offers a good price to quality ratio. This 9.2 oz bottle offers an incredible 35 foot range.
Note: Bear spray does not work like bug spray. You can’t spray it around camp preemptively to keep the bears away. In fact, the smell of bear spray could attract bears. Use it only in defense in the event of an attack.
How to Store Food in Bear Country
The most important thing to remember while camping in bear country is to take the proper precautions with your food. Bears have an excellent sense of smell. In fact, it is believed that a bear’s sense of smell is as good or better than a bloodhound. Also, they aren’t picky eaters. Items bears are attracted to include:
- All food- even foods that are unopened and sealed in a package.
- All beverages- even canned drinks like soda.
- Cookware and utensils- even if they appear clean they can still carry food residue and odors. Particularly porous materials like plastics and wood.
- Toiletries- toothpaste, soap, bug spray, lotion, etc.
- Garbage- it could have food residue.
- Fuel- camp stove fuel, for example.
- Oils- vegetable oil or lantern oil, for example.
Basically, anything that has an odor could potentially attract a bear. To be safe, you must properly store it in a way that bears can’t get to it.
Food Storage Options
Before setting up camp, you should securely store all of the above-listed items in a location that is bear-proof. The storage location should be at least 100 yards away from your campsite. Suitable food storage locations include:
- Bear canister- This is the simplest solution. Make sure you choose a bear canister that is approved for the area that you plan to visit. Ask the land managers for more information on approved canisters. More on bear canisters in the next section.
- Bear proof food storage box- These are often installed in campgrounds in areas with a high concentration of bears.
- Your vehicle- Bears usually won’t try to break into your car to get food except under extreme circumstances or if the bear has grown accustomed to humans.
- Hanging from a purpose-built pole or cable- These are permanent structures in some campgrounds designed for hanging food.
- Suspended off the ground from a tree- Ideally, suspend your food 10-15 feet off the ground and at least 4 feet away from the trunk of the tree. Hanging your food should be your last resort. To find out why, check out this great article from andrewskurka.com.
- Bear bag– If a bear canister is not required where you plan to camp, another option is to carry a bear bag. These durable soft bags are designed to protect your food from bears, rodents, raccoons, and other critters. The main benefit of a bear bag over a canister is the fact that it’s much lighter and takes up less space in your pack. One of the more popular options is the Ursack Major.
Never leave food out in the open or unattended. Once a bear develops a taste for human food, it can begin to crave it. If this happens, the bear may get bolder and begin entering other campers campsites in search of more human food. At this point, the bear will have to be killed for the safety of other hikers and campers.
A Few Food Related Bear Safety Tips
- Never sleep with food in your tent- A bear can easily tear through the thin walls to get to the food.
- Never eat inside your tent- The smell can remain long after you’re done eating. This attracts bears.
- Don’t cook or eat at your campsite- Keep food odors as far away as possible. At least 100 yards is recommended. You don’t want to draw bears into your campsite with the smell of food near where you sleep.
- Try not to sleep in the clothes that you cooked in- The smell can remain in the fabric long after you’re done cooking.
- Don’t pack foods that have strong odors- For example, fish, cheese, bacon, etc. Bears can smell them from a long way away.
- Remember to properly store non-food items- The smell of your toiletries, fuel, and garbage can all attract bears.
- Cook and store your food at least 100 yards from your camp- You don’t want to lure bears to your campsite with the smell of cooking food.
- Never feed bears- Again, if they develop a taste for human food, they’ll have to be killed for our safety. If they aren’t killed, they may approach other camper’s sites seeking human food.
A Note About Bear Canisters
These rigid, portable lockers protect your food, toiletries, trash, and anything with an odor from hungry bears while you sleep. During the day, you store your ear canister in your backpack. You use your bear canister at night while you’re sleeping. Store it at least 100 yards from your campsite.
Use of a bear canister is mandatory in many places where bears are known to occasionally obtain and eat human food. For example, you’ll need one if you plan to hike the John Muir trail and part of the Pacific Crest Trail. For a map of food storage requirements, you can download the map from sierrawild.gov here. To find out exactly which food storage canisters are allowed, you’ll have to check with the land managers.
Most bear canisters range in size from 7-12 liters. They are designed to accommodate 4-5 days worth of food and your toiletries. I like BearVault Bear Canisters. They are clear so you can see where your food is inside. You can also use them as a seat around camp.
For more info, check out this awesome guide to bear canisters from Andrew Skurka.
What to do if you Encounter a Bear
If you spend enough time camping in bear country, you’ll encounter one sooner or later. Luckily, attacks are rare. Most encounters end peacefully. Your ideal response depends on the type of bear you encounter, its behavior, and whether or not it has spotted you.
Types of Bears You May Encounter While Camping (Listed from Most to Least Dangerous)
- Polar Bears- These are the most dangerous bears. Luckily, they only live in the extreme North where only the most hardcore outdoorsmen camp. For more info, check out this article about polar bear safety from Bearsmart.com.
- Grizzly Bears- These guys are most commonly found in Alaska and Western Canada. They are also found in a few parts of the Northwestern US in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington state. You can identify a grizzly by the large hump on the shoulders.
- Brown Bears- Grizzly bears and Brown bears are the same species. The term Grizzly is just used in North America. Brown bears are found in much of Russia, Scandinavia, Central Asia, China, and a few pockets of Europe such as Romania and the Caucuses.
- Black Bears- Smaller than grizzlies, black bears inhabit most of Canada and the US. They are the most common type of bear in North America. You can identify a black bear by their tall ears and lack of shoulder hump.
- Bear cubs- Regardless of the species of bear, you don’t want to get between the mother and her cubs. This could trigger a defensive attack.
What to do if the Bear Hasn’t Spotted You
Quietly back away. Stay calm. Keep your eyes on the bear but don’t make eye contact. Don’t turn your back on the bear. There is no reason to make the bear aware of your presence or approach. Just get out of there.
If you are carrying bear spray, slowly and quietly get it ready just in case the bear notices you and decides to charge. Remember, bears are fast. If the bear spots you and decides to attack, it could be on top of you in a matter of seconds.
What to do if the Bear Has Spotted You
- Stop walking- You don’t want the bear to begin approaching you.
- Talk calmly to the bear- Use a low monotone voice. Do not yell, scream, or make any high pitched sounds. These can make you sound like prey. Do not attempt to imitate the bear’s sounds by growling. The bear can interpret this as a threat. You want the bear to know that you mean no harm and that you are not food.
- Slowly raise your arms up and down- You want to show the bear that you aren’t another bear or a prey animal. You also want the bear to know that you aren’t a threat. Don’t make any fast movements. Note: some experts disagree with this point. They claim that raising your arms could make you look like an animal with antlers which is a bear’s pray.
- Don’t run- Bears are natural predators. Their instinct tells them that you are prey if you run. They will chase you and most likely catch you. Grizzly bears have been caught on video running at 35 miles per hour. Olympian Usain Bolt can run 27 miles per hour. You cannot outrun a bear.
- Make yourself appear as large as possible- spread your jacket open. The bear may think twice before attacking if it thinks you’re larger than you actually are.
- Pick up your dog or child immediately- They can react to the bear in an unexpected manner and trigger an attack. The bear could consider them prey as well.
- Prepare your bear spray if you have it- If the bear decides to charge or attack, you want to be ready when it gets within range (15-30 feet).
At this point, one of three things will happen:
1. The bear runs away
Bears are actually pretty timid animals. They generally don’t want to fight you or eat you. If the bear just runs off, walk in the opposite direction to put some distance between yourself and the bear. You don’t want to risk another encounter in case the bear changes its mind and wants to take a closer look at you.
2. The bear looks in your direction then continue on with whatever it was doing
This is a common response if you didn’t spook the bear or enter its territory. In this case, back away slowly while continuing talking to the bear. You shouldn’t turn your back to the bear until you are out of sight of each other.
While looking at you, the bear may stand up on its hind legs. This isn’t an aggressive action. Bears do this to get a better view and smell of you. They’re curious.
Even if the bear seems indifferent to you, never approach for any reason. Just get out of there as calmly as possible. Remember, do not run or yell.
3. The bear stops what it’s doing to stare at you or starts walking toward you
In this case, stop and observe the bear. You want to determine what type of bear you’re dealing with before you react. Your response depends on the behavior that the bear is displaying and the type of approaching bear. The approaching bear’s behavior will fall into one of two categories: Defensive or Predatory.
Defensive Bears- Usually Grizzlies or Brown Bears
This type of bear feels threatened by your presence. It probably feels that it needs to defend its cubs, food, or itself from you. Signs indicating that a bear is defensive include:
- Growling or woofing
- Scratching the ground
- Moving its head back and forth
- Popping its jaw
- Laying its ears back on its head
Often times defensive bears bluff charge. They run at you and veer off or stop short. They may do this many times. Possibly from different angles. The bear may even knock you down. This is done to gauge the level of threat that you pose.
If you observe any of the above behaviors, get your bear spray ready. Grizzly bears and brown bears are most likely to act in a defensive manner.
The best thing you can do if you encounter a defensive bear is to continue talking to the bear and wait for it to stop approaching. At this point, you should slowly begin walking backward away from the bear. Try to walk in the direction of higher ground. This can help you by making you appear larger to the bear. It will be less likely to attack.
Once the bear stops following, continue walking and get as far from the bear as possible. You don’t want to risk another encounter.
What to do if a Defensive Bear Attacks You
If the bear begins to charge, aim your bear spray and spray the bear in the face when it gets within range of your bear spray (usually 15-30 feet).
If the bear charges you and knocks you down, the best thing you can do is to play dead. This is a worst-case scenario type of reaction. Only play dead if you absolutely can’t walk away from the bear or it knocks you to the ground while charging.
When you play dead, you want to lay face down on the ground with your hands covering your neck. If you’re wearing a backpack, keep it on for added protection. Spread your legs so the bear can’t flip you over. If the bear manages to roll you over, continue rolling until you’re on your stomach again. You want to remain as still as possible until the bear goes away. Fighting back usually just makes things worse.
If the attack continues, you’re only option is to fight for your life. Use whatever tools you have to fight the bear off or scare it away. Hit the bear with sticks or rocks. Use your flashlight or camera flash to temporarily blind the bear. Anything goes at this point.
Predatory Bears- Usually Black Bears
This type of bear considers you food. It’s not afraid of you. The main indication that a bear is predatory is that it is quiet. It won’t show any signs of fear or agitation. If you back away, the bear will follow. Essentially, the bear is hunting you. In this case, your best bet is to act in an aggressive manner. Do not play dead.
What to do if a Predatory Bear Attacks
If you have bear spray, use it when the bear gets within range.
If you don’t have bear spray and the bear attacks, your best option is to try to escape. Look for a secure place like a car or building where you can get away from the bear.
If you can’t escape, you must fight back. Aim your counter-attack at the face and muzzle of the bear. This is the most sensitive part of the animal.
To fight off a predatory bear you should:
- Yell at the bear
- Throw rocks
- Kick and punch the bear
- Pick up a stick and swing it at the bear
- Shine your flashlight in the bear’s eyes
- Use your bear spray when the bear gets within range
- Smash things together to make loud noises. Metallic noises are best. Trekking poles work well for this.
- Use a bear horn
You want the bear to know that you aren’t an easy target. Do not play dead or attempt to run away if the bear is acting in a predatory manner. The bear will chase you down. Remember, in this situation you are the bear’s prey.
What to do if a Bear Enters Your Campsite
Encountering a bear at your camp requires a different approach than a trail encounter. A bear entering a campsite may not have any fear of humans. Some bears grow used to being around humans and eating their food and garbage. This is one of the more dangerous types of bears that you could encounter.
The best thing you can do to protect yourself from bears that enter your camp is to make sure that your food is properly stored. If the bear can’t get any food, it will usually leave after a few minutes to look for a better food source.
While the bear is searching your campsite for food, talk calmly to the bear. During this time, don’t make eye contact. Don’t yell. Prepare your bear spray. If the bear gets within the range of your spray, use it.
If the bear is outside of the range of your bear spray or you don’t have bear spray, slowly and calmly back away while talking to the bear.
Look for a tree that you can climb and slowly make your way to it without making any rapid movements. Remember, you don’t want to trigger the bear’s predatory response.
If you decide to climb a tree, you want to make sure that you can climb at least 15 feet off the ground before the bear reaches you. Try to climb as calmly as possible so as to not trigger an attack.
Remember, a large grizzly can reach 10 feet up into a tree while standing on the ground. Many grizzlies can climb trees. All black bears are able to climb trees.
Note: Some experts recommend climbing a tree. Some recommend against it because most bears can climb trees. It depends on the type of bear and the situation. In some cases, climbing a tree may be the best option.
What to do if a Bear Comes into Your Tent
This is the worst-case scenario. Bears rarely attack sleeping campers inside their tents. Having said that, this behavior has been documented. If a bear attempts to enter your tent while you’re inside, chances are you’re dealing with a hungry predatory bear. This is a bold move on the bear’s part.
In this case, you have to fight back. Don’t lie still or play dead. Don’t scream. You should:
- Use your bear spray
- Knock gear together to make loud noises
- Shine your flashlight in the bear’s eyes
- Hit the bear in the face and nose with anything you have
A Note About Choosing a Camping Shelter for Bear Country
When it comes to choosing a camping shelter for your trip into bear country, most campers agree that tents are safer than bivy sacks, hammocks, tarps, or cowboy camping. The reason is that, even though a bear can easily tear into a tent, they don’t know that. The tent confuses them. Because of this, bears rarely break into a tent while a camper is sleeping.
If you’re just sleeping out in the open, the bear can see you laying there and may attack if they’re hungry enough. In polar bear country, it is not recommended to camp in anything other than a tent.
Admittedly, I don’t have any evidence to back this claim up. I have read this claim multiple times while researching this article but can’t find any proof. It does make sense logically.
For help choosing a camping shelter, check out my pros and cons guides:
Should I Carry a Gun into Bear Country?
The short answer is no. In 2012 a study by Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero was published by the Journal of Wildlife Management called “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” Essentially they found that people who carried guns suffered the same injury rates whether they used the gun or not. They also found that bear spray has a higher rate of success than guns in most situations. You can read the abstract for free here at The Wildlife Society.
More reasons that bear spray is better than guns include:
- Guns are much more highly regulated than bear spray- You can’t carry a gun everywhere that you could encounter a bear.
- Guns are harder to use- If you don’t know anything about guns, you can’t just pick one up and use it to defend yourself from a bear. There is a steep learning curve. Anyone can pick up a can of bear spray and learn to use it in a matter of minutes.
- Guns are more expensive- Even a cheap gun costs hundreds of dollars while a can of bear spray costs closer to $30.
- You can’t buy guns everywhere- Bear spray, on the other hand, is available everywhere bears live.
For more info, check out this excellent article on the topic of firearms vs bear spray from outsideonline.com.
What to do After a Bear Encounter or Attack
If you are injured during the attack, you obviously need to make your way to the nearest hospital or clinic to have your injuries treated.
If you experience an encounter, you should visit a ranger station and report it. They can use the information that you give them to help other visitors avoid bear encounters and better understand the bears living in the park. This helps everyone stay safe.
A Note About Bear Avoidance and Safety Technique
While researching for this article, I found some conflicting information regarding the best reaction for some bear situations. In these cases, I tried to provide both sides and the reasoning behind it so you can make up your own mind. Most of these techniques just haven’t been properly researched. Instead, they come from observations from people spend a lot of time in bear country. Unfortunately, we don’t have good scientific research to back up many of the techniques outlined in this article. This doesn’t mean that these techniques aren’t valid or useful. It just means that we don’t know what’s ideal for any given situation. it’s just something to keep in mind.
Also, remember that bears have a mind of their own. While there are some indications that they give of their mood or intentions, you never know for sure how they’re going to react. Bears don’t act rationally or think through a situation. They just act.
How Common Are Bear Attacks?
In this guide, I try to be as honest and rational as possible. It doesn’t do any good to exaggerate or instill fear. I’ll start off by sharing a statistic that will hopefully put your mind at ease. While researching for this article, I was surprised to learn that there have only been 29 deaths by bear attack in North America since the year 2000 according to this article from Backpacker.com.
When you consider the millions of people that go hiking and camping in bear country through America’s national parks each year, that number seems incredibly small. As long as you take some simple precautions, the risk of an attack is very slim. Most bear encounters end with the bear and human simply walking away in opposite directions.
A Few More Bear Safety Tips
- Before your trip, make sure you know how to use your bear spray properly. Read the label for instructions. Practice removing the canister from its holster. You don’t want to be fumbling around with it while an aggressive bear approaches. You may even want to practice spraying a little bit so you know what to expect if the time comes to use it.
Final Thoughts: How to Avoid Bears
Your best bet to avoid a bear encounter is to research the particular area that you plan to visit. Check for regulations regarding food storage. See if you need to carry a bear canister or if food storage options are available at the campsites. Check to see if bear spray is permitted in the area.
Once you arrive, talk to a ranger and ask them about bears in the area. They can tell you about recent spottings or encounters and places to avoid. They can also give you some more safety tips that are specific to your destination.
The best tool that you can carry to defend yourself from an aggressive bear is bear spray. It’s fairly easy to use, affordable, easily available, and most importantly, effective.
Remember, spotting a bear in its natural habitat is a beautiful experience. These are majestic creatures that usually just want to be left alone. They generally don’t want to attack you.
Millions of people spend a lifetime enjoying the great outdoors without ever experiencing a close bear encounter. There is no need to be paranoid. Attacks are rare. Having said that, being prepared and aware can help you stay safe while hiking, camping, hunting, or cycling in bear country.
Do you camp in bear country? Share your bear stories and safety tips in the comments below to help fellow campers avoid encounters.
More from Where The Road Forks
- How to Plan a Wonderland Trail Hike
- Is Camping Safe? Avoiding Wild Animals, Insects, and Injury
- Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1 Tent Review
- Down Vs. Fleece Vs. Wool for Camping: My Pros and Cons List
- Inflatable Vs Foam Sleeping Pad: My Pros and Cons List
- 21 Tips for Hiking in the Rain
- Hiking Boots Vs Trail Runners: Pros and Cons