Camping in Bear Country

Bears are opportunistic omnivores with incredible senses, and in the scent-driven world that they live in, they rely on their nose to find their next meal. Because of this sense of smell, it’s extremely important to be "bear aware", and maintain a clean campsite on your summer camping adventure.


Growing up, "bear" was not a normal word in the vocabulary whenever my family was camping or at the cottage. But as time has passed, the word has become more and more popular as sightings of black bears in southern Ontario continue to grow. In a place where bears were once non-existent, or at least during our time, people are now unsure of how to deal with their presence. Where we once put our trash in a wooden box by the side of the road when we left after a long weekend, there is a metal structure, bolted down that only those wiith small fingers can access. It has become as much about changing the attitudes of the people, as it is about the bears.

Whether you are camping in black bear or brown bear country, it is important to be aware of your behaviour and surroundings.

10 tips for camping in bear country:
  1. Select an appropriate campsite. Use designated sites when available. Avoid areas near berry patches, dead animals, streams/waterfalls and wildlife trails, and watch for bear signs (footprints, scat, tree scratches, etc.).
  2. Never approach wildlife. Give wild animals plenty of space (at least 100 meters). Watch for bear cubs especially, and be sure to never get in between a mama bear and her  babies. Bears may become aggressive if they feel their young are threatened. 
  3. A fed bear is a dead bear. Do not feed the wildlife - their natural foods are much healthier. Once an animal becomes accustomed to being fed by humans, they become a threat to public safety. Keep the animals wild. 
  4. Keep your sleeping gear and tent free of odours. Never cook or eat in or near the tent. Store the clothing you cooked in with your food. If possible, cook at least 100 meters downwind from your sleeping area.
  5. Pack all garbage back out of wilderness areas. Do not bury garbage as bears can easily locate the remnants and dig it up. If burning food, ensure every last bit is burned. Store garbage in a tight container, with your food.
  6. Use a flashlight at night and make noise when out walking. This will reduce the likelihood of surprising a bear.
  7. Listen to park officials. If a park official tells you to avoid a certain area, please listen to them. They are the professionals.
  8. Carry bear spray. When sprayed directly in the animals’ face, it causes eye and respiratory tract irritation. Before spraying, ensure you have read the instructions and have the ideal wind conditions (i.e. you don't want to spray it in your own face).
  9. Dog safety and behaviour. Keep your pets on a leash at all times and never leave them unattended. Store their food and dishes properly. Also keep an eye on your dog’s behaviour - they will be the first to tell you if you are in the presence of a “visitor”. 
  10. “Bear proof” your food! Store all food and scented items (see list below) in bear resistant food storage facilities where available, or create a bear hang in the trees (instructions below). 
It is important to note, you cannot entirely ''bear proof" something. There is always the chance a crafty bear will come along and destroy what stands in its way. The idea is to create something that is resistant or deterrent, something that the bear will have to put way more effort into than what it's worth. And, even if you are not in bear country, these tips are still good to follow as there may be other hungry critters out there, such as raccoons, mice and squirrels.

    Items that are considered bear attractants:
    • Food and beverages
    • Coolers, food storage containers
    • Garbage
    • Pet food/dishes
    • BBQ grease
    • Perfumed items (soap, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.)
    • Wastewater from cooking and washing dishes
    • Tablecloths, napkins, etc.
    • Cooking utensils (pots, dishes, cups, etc.)
    • Clothing that you cooked/ate in

    To properly hang your food, follow these steps:
    1. Place all food and scented items (those on list above) in a waterproof stuff sack. Our favourite bag to use is The North Face Base Camp Duffel.
    2. Find a sturdy branch, about 20 feet from the ground.
    3. Tie a rock to the end of your rope, and throw it over the branch.
    4. Tie the end of the rope to your sack, and haul it up towards the branch. The bag should be at least 12 feet from the ground, 6 feet from the branch and 10 feet from the trunk of the tree.
    5. Tie the other end of the top to a nearby tree trunk or branch. Make sure it is a tight knot.

    This diagram is not to scale - it simply demonstrates how a bear hang should look. What works for us may not work for you, so please do your research on alternative methods and practice hanging a bag at home beforehand. 

    There are so many things to consider when camping in bear country that this post could have easily been a series in itself. Please note, I am not a bear expert. Having worked at a zoo that cares for black, brown and polar bears, as well as living and camping in bear country, I have learned a thing or two about their behaviour.
    Have you camped in bear country? Do you have any advice or questions about camping in bear country?


    Enjoy this post? Check out more from my Camping Month series:
    Favourite Camping Memories
    10 Reasons to Go Camping
    Favourite Camping Gadgets

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