On one of my first cross-country road trips, I got stuck in a four-hour traffic jam outside Nashville. I was traveling with my best friend from Arkansas to Mount Mitchell State Park in North Carolina. The traffic jam caused us to arrive at camp after midnight. As we were driving toward the park entrance, we saw a big burly black bear. I was ecstatic to see a bear so soon into the trip but wasn’t sure what to think about camping near one.
As we rounded the corner and the campground entrance came into view, we found a locked gate with no way inside. As a newbie camper, I didn’t know to let the park know that we’d be late. We decided to sleep in the car, but I worried about spending the night so close to our food. The next morning, we awoke to the park ranger knocking on the window. I asked if bears can break into vehicles. The answer? Yes, they can (but luckily, they didn’t!).
Camping in bear country comes with a different set of expectations, rules, and responsibilities. These are for both your safety and the safety of the bears. Here’s everything you need to know about how to camp in the territory of the American black bear and the brown bear—the two most common bears to encounter in the United States.
Plan Ahead and Prepare for Bears
Researching your destination and the bears you might encounter is the best way to prepare for a trip to bear country. For example, when I’m camping in Arkansas, I can store my food in coolers and locked plastic boxes underneath a picnic table. In North Carolina, I keep my food in a hard-shelled vehicle (a bear can tear right through a convertible or soft-topped Jeep).
But when recently camping at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, a vehicle wasn’t enough—all food and scented items were stored in a bear box at my campsite. Even at trailheads, there were bear lockers to store food since the bears can break into vehicles while you’re on a day hike.
Each destination is different, and knowing the proper food storage protocol will prevent headaches. Most parks in bear country will list their bear-proof storage requirements on their websites. If they don’t, be sure to ask the camp host or a park ranger what their specific rules and guidelines are.
Why Food Storage Matters
Food storage rules and regulations are in place to keep campers safe, but did you know they help bears, too? A popular saying among outdoor enthusiasts is, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Although this phrase may conjure an image of someone holding out a granola bar to a bear, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Bears are opportunistic, and food that is not properly stored can look like an easy snack. The more easy snacks there are, the more the bears are going to be hanging around. And the more bears hang around, the more potential for bear encounters.
If a bear becomes habituated to human food, at best, the park will relocate the bear to a spot further from the campground or trailhead. Often, bears that are too comfortable around humans—having been lured in by the promise of a bite to eat—are killed in the name of safety. These deaths are highly preventable, often requiring only proper food storage and simple camp cleanups.
Proper Food Storage: A General Guide
While specific regulations and guidelines can change based on your location and which kind of bears you’re likely to encounter, there are a few basics to proper food storage, no matter where you’re camping.
Be sure to store food and all smelly items in a secure place. Depending on where you are and what kind of bears are nearby, this can be as simple as using an air-tight container or a locked hard-shell vehicle or as intense as a metal bear box provided by the campground. In areas where bears will do whatever they can to reach your food, you might need a bear canister. Bear canisters are bear-proof containers designed for backpackers but can also be used to store food when car camping or RVing. If a bear canister is required, the local land managers will let you know by posting it at the campground or alerting you when you make your reservation.
Bears have a great sense of smell and can’t necessarily discern whether an aroma comes from a tasty morsel of food or your tube of sunscreen. That is why it’s important to store your smelly items like toiletries, lip balm, and lotions with your food. Other smelly items include food waste, scented trash bags, empty food containers, and pet food and treats.
Keep a Clean Camp
Keeping a clean camp is one of the best ways to keep bears from ambling through for a visit. In addition to properly storing your food, be sure to dispose of your trash properly. Do not burn any trash or food waste. Even if food waste seems to be completely burned in a campfire ring, it can leave behind a residue that attracts bears and other animals.
If you have leftover food, dispose of it in a trash can—do not throw it into the woods or the area around your campsite. Even small bits like food particles and grease poured in an “out of the way spot” can be a siren call to a bear.
What To Do If a Bear Comes Into Your Camp
In most places in the United States, the bear entering your camp will be an American black bear. In that case, you should identify yourself by speaking calmly. This lets the bear know that you are human and not prey. The National Park Service recommends staying calm and picking up small children immediately. Then, back away slowly while making yourself look as big as possible. Do not make eye contact. Always be sure to leave the bear an escape route so that it doesn’t feel trapped.
If you’re in the American West, you may be camping in grizzly bear (brown bear) territory. Unlike American black bears, which rely on climbing trees to avoid predators, grizzly bears rely on their size and aggression to protect themselves. When camping or hiking where there might be grizzly bears, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray. Bear spray is a non-lethal, high-powered pepper spray designed to be sprayed into the face of an upcoming bear. It’s a powerful deterrent, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for property safety precautions like properly storing your food and staying aware of your surroundings.
With a bit of preparation and careful attention to food storage protocols and guidelines, camping in bear country is a breeze. By not giving a bear a reason to visit your camp, you’re not only keeping yourself safe but the wildlife safe, as well.