Avoiding Bear Problems in the Backcountry

Avoiding Bear Problems 1

By Carley Fairbrother

I went on my first backpacking trip when I was 19, and since then, solo backpacking has been an important part of my life. It does shock people sometimes, though. One of the first things people ask is, “what about bears?”

On the other end of the spectrum, I hear people talking about their bad habits and saying, “I’ve been doing it like this for years, and I’ve never had a problem.”

Both these mind frames can really ruin a trip. On one hand, the fear of bears can hold people back from immersing themselves in nature, but on the other hand, being too relaxed about it can result in disaster. We need to put in place things that result in avoiding bear problems.

What we really need to bear in mind (pun intended) is that bears think a whole lot like us. We have similar food preferences, we’re both curious, neither of us are great hunters, and we’re both pretty darn smart. It makes sense that we run into each other so often in nature. It’s helpful to keep those similarities in mind when considering avoiding bear problems and dangerous situations.

Avoiding Bear Problems 2
Berries – a favourite food of humans and bears

 

On the Trail

Like us, bears want to avoid other large predators. It’s their instinct to avoid us, and knowing where we are will allow them to do just that. They don’t like being surprised, and running into a potentially harmful creature like a human may trigger some aggressive behaviour.

Avoiding Bear Problems 3

A lot of people like to bring bear bells with them so that they are constantly making noise. However, I’ve heard of accounts of bears coming to inspect the curious noise. This is unlikely to create an aggressive encounter, but it’s something to keep in mind. The main reason I don’t use bear bells is that it stops me from hearing my surroundings. Aside from the fact that I love the peace and quiet of the forest, I feel a lot more comfortable if I can hear a large creature moving around in the underbrush. Instead, I opt for yelling periodically – something like “Hey bear ” or “Way O.” This also lets other people on the trail know that I am human. All a part of avoiding bear problems as I go about my business.

 

Avoiding Bear Problems in Camp

Bears usually wander into camp because they’re hungry – no, not for human flesh, but for whatever delicious meal the humans have been cooking up. Bears have very similar food preferences to us, though they are significantly less picky. This means that you have to watch out for things like your garbage and sunscreen too. To keep your camp safe, follow these three rules.

Avoiding Bear Problems 4

 

 1. Store your food (and other smelly stuff) properly

When it comes to storing food, it’s important to put it somewhere where a bear isn’t going get to it. Anything that smells, such as chapstick, toothpaste, dishes, sunscreen, and garbage should be stored with your food. Some folks say to put the clothes you wore while cooking in the bear cache, but I don’t think that’s necessary unless you’ve spilled food on them or have been gutting fish all day. And yes, a bear can smell your candy bar, so don’t even think of trying to store it in your tent for a midnight snack. When it comes to how to store your food, there are a few options.

Avoiding Bear Problems 5

 

Use the bear cache provided: A lot of sites that are maintained by parks will have bear caches already set up. They can come in the form of big metal lockers, a cable and pulley system, or, if you’re lucky, an old rickety ladder leading up to a sketchy platform. Use these if you can. If those aren’t available there are other options.

Avoiding Bear Problems 6

 

Hang it from a tree:  This is probably the most common method. It’s a pain in the butt, but all you need is a waterproof bag and some rope. There are a number of ways to hang food, the simplest being to throw something weighted (I use my water bottle) over a tree limb, tying one end to my food bag, pulling it up, and tying it off to a tree trunk. Of course, there is always the risk that I’ll lose my water bottle in a tangle of branches, and it can be hard to get it far enough away from the tree trunk using this method. Speaking of which, your food bag should be 2 m (6 ft) or more away from the trunk and 3 m (12 ft) above the ground to actually get it out of reach of a bear. Make sure your bag for this method is waterproof.

Avoiding Bear Problems 7

 

Use bear proof canisters: If you like camping in places with no trees (or small trees), hanging food from a tree is obviously not going to work. Even in some forested areas, bears, being the smart critters that they are, have managed to figure out that getting that yummy smelling bag down from a tree isn’t actually that hard. As a result, many busier parks, particularly in the United States, now demand that food be kept in a bear canister. This saves you the trouble of hanging it from a tree, but they are heavy (at least 1 kg/2 lbs) and bulky.

 

Use bear resistant bags: Bags such as the Ursack are made of tough, bear resistant fabric. They are light and easy to stuff into your bag. The drawstrings are very strong, and allow you to tie the bag to a tree. The downside is that a bear will be able to crush your food, and probably get a tooth or two through the fabric. As a result, most of the parks that require bear canisters do not allow bear resistant bags. This is, however, my preferred method. If I’m camping in the forest I will put it in a 20 L dry bag and hang it from a tree. If I’m camping in the alpine, I will hide it outside of my camp and try to tie it to a rock or a dwarfed tree.

 

Odour Proof Sacks:  There are a number of companies that make odour proof sacks. The most popular is LOKSAK’s OPSak. I’ll admit that I haven’t used them, but many people swear by them. This should be used in combination with one of the other methods, and not a replacement for it. I’ve heard of people keeping their food in a “smell proof” bag in their tents. Bears have an amazing sense of smell; some sources say that a bear can smell a carcass upwind from up to 30 km (20 miles) away. Sorry, I but I trust a bear’s nose over a piece of mylar. However, many of these bags are very light and make an excellent supplement to your food bag or canister.

 

2: Store your food away from camp:

Don’t get caught up in idyllic campsites on TV and movies where happy campers are roasting their hotdogs over a fire with their tents only a few feet away. Evidently, movie makers don’t know much about camping in bear country. Sleeping near anything that smells like food is a bad idea.

Don’t do this in bear country
Planning your camp area

 The last thing you want is to draw a bear into camp. This means cooking and storing your food at least 100 metres (or yards) away from your tent. You also want to minimize the smell around your food to reduce the chances of a bear finding it. This means eating 100 metres away from where you are storing your food. Essentially, your camp should make a triangle, with each side at least 100 m apart. If you need help estimating distances, that’s about 120 steps. Unfortunately, some sites are set up with a cooking area or fire pit right next to the tent pads. Evidently, it’s not just Hollywood who don’t know much about camping in bear country. If this is the case, still try to find somewhere else to cook.


3. Keep you camp clean:

Going through all these precautions aren’t going to do you much good if you’ve left a bunch of smelly morsels of food around. Try really, really hard not to spill, and pick up what you can if you do. Don’t bury leftovers or put them in lakes or streams, even if you think they will decompose easily. Aside from bear concerns, this could attract a variety of unwanted critters and disrupt the ecosystem. Pack your leftovers out or store them and eat them for breakfast the next morning. Try to eat every bit of food before washing your dishes; heck, lick your plate if you need to (no one cares about table manners in the backcountry anyway, right?). Remember, leaving a mess not only puts you in danger, but also the people who camp there after you. Plus, no one want see little bits of your ramen noodles in the stream.

Don’t burn garbage or leftovers.

 

If you follow these rules, it will go a long way to keep you safe. Bears are just like us but hungrier, and better at smelling things (okay, they also have bigger teeth and shorter tempers). If you keep food smells away from camp, store you food properly, and make noise while you hike, the only time you are likely to see a bear is from a safe distance. While following bear safe principles aren’t guaranteed to keep you safe, the vast majority of bear attacks happen when people haven’t followed them.

 

To see all about avoiding bear problems in video form please take a look at the video below:

 

Carley Fairbrother is the creator and host of the YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods, geared at getting adults outside and connecting with nature.

After a seven year career as a backcountry park ranger, she returned to school to get her Bachelor of Education and dedicate her life to helping kids get outside.

She loves to travel, but is most at home in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

She enjoys hiking, climbing, canoeing, building forts, and eating bugs.

70 thoughts on “Avoiding Bear Problems in the Backcountry

  • September 17, 2017 at 3:41 pm
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    You are very brave while camping with bears in the backcountry. I am really getting goosebumps while reading your post. Taking can of bear spray is a good idea but never known of this. Also bear proof cansisters and hanging food on the tree is a great advice. You are true that never store too smelly things in tent. Nice tips.

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  • September 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm
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    This is the most comprehensive guide to avoiding bear problems I’ve seen- up until now I thought you either played dead or roared at them (take your pick!?). We saw bear footprints in the snow in Bulgaria but have never been to the USA backcountry; would absolutely love to visit somewhere like the Appalachian trail! Thanks for the tips, especially the one about not having fires in camp- would totally not have thought of that!

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:12 am
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      Thank you. I’m glad you got lots out of this. Hopefully it will never happen, but if you do run into a bear, then the best thing to do is talk to it in a firm voice. If it does attack, it’s best to play dead against a grizzly and fight back against a black bear. If you do head to the US backcountry, and go to an area with lots of bears, you might consider getting yourself a can of bear spray. It’s very effective at stopping a bear before it gets to you if it decides to attack.

      Reply
  • September 12, 2017 at 2:47 am
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    I can’t even imagine coming face to face with a real bear. My brother did on the grounds of his property.

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:49 pm
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      Luckily, I think bears think the same thing about us. If you are making lots of noise in bear country, chances are you’ll only ever see a bear from a distance.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 7:58 pm
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    Oooo so many helpful tips!!! As much as I like camping, the one thing that always scares me is large animals like bears getting into things

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:21 am
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      I think that’s a more realistic fear than worrying about them attacking, which is what many people fear the most. Luckily us humans have come up with plenty of clever ways to keep the critters out of our stuff.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 7:03 pm
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    This is the most informative post that I have read about bears. I actually didn’t know most of it. Yes, camping can be a problem with bears around but you gave great solutions too. Bear bells look helpful.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 4:43 pm
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    I have never been camping before, it is not that I am scared of bears 🙂 but I never had the chance to do so.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 7:22 am
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    These are some really great tips! We don’t have many bears where we hike and camp. We have to be more aware of Moose which can be just as scary!

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:25 am
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      I completely agree! Actually, I think I’m more scared of moose. I’ve twice had to reroute a run because there was a moose who wouldn’t get off the trail.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 4:23 am
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    I have never heard of doing bear bells before. Sounds like an interesting method to keep bears away. But I am with you and I like to hear the sounds around me. I really like your various methods of dealing with food. Usually, I do the one with tying up the food in the tree. Great other ideas though.

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:46 pm
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      The rope is definitely the most common method. I love my Ursack, but they aren’t cheap, and I still usually hang my food anyway for the extra protection.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 2:45 am
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    Great tips for a beginner camper like me! I’ve heard from a friend that bears and people safely coexist in parts of Tennessee. We just need to know each other’s habits better. 😉

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  • September 11, 2017 at 2:03 am
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    Really great safety tips. This is a must-read for new campers and seasoned ones alike.

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  • September 11, 2017 at 1:23 am
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    Nice no-nonsense list of ways to avoid bears. I love hiking as well, but have never been to bear country. Although I’ve been apprehensive in the past, your advice seems to be the perfect inspiration to just get out and do it!

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:08 pm
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      Yes, don’t let bears hold you back from getting out there. They will happily stay away from you if they know you are coming and aren’t leaving food out for them. Happy hiking!

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  • September 10, 2017 at 11:24 pm
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    Yes!! Moving from the UK to Canada was an eye opener when it came to wildlife as we don’t have much more than Foxes and badgers in The UK but you have to respect that here, you’re in their territory often. I’ve seen bears (black bears not grizzlies) here and you have to stand still and allow them to do their thing and move on, generally they want nothing to do with us but they can be aggressive if their cubs are nearby.

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    • September 13, 2017 at 5:02 pm
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      Agreed, a healthy bear will usually move along as soon as it knows a human is around. We just need to respect them.

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  • September 10, 2017 at 9:58 pm
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    These are some really good tips that people who like to camp should really take heed. I didn’t know that they made bear proof canisters, I may have to buy some for when my family I finally get to go camping

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  • September 10, 2017 at 8:36 pm
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    Thank you for dispelling some myths about camping and about giving us sound advice on how we can avoid running into bears. They are beautiful creatures but I wouldn’t want to run into one!

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    • September 13, 2017 at 4:54 pm
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      They are beautiful creatures. I love seeing then in the wilderness from my car or from a long ways away.

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  • September 10, 2017 at 5:26 pm
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    Great tips! I’m probably on the overly worried side, but get annoyed at the cavalier attitude that it will never be an issue! Stay safe and all is good 😉

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    • September 11, 2017 at 2:26 am
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      Ya, I see a lot of people who seem to think that just because it’s never been an issue before means that it won’t be in the future. It drives me nuts. Happy camping!

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  • September 10, 2017 at 5:25 pm
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    This is great information! They are beautiful creatures but good to know more about them. I’d be a little scared seeing a giant bear I think!

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    • September 11, 2017 at 2:28 am
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      I still get an adrenaline rush when I see one, even from a distance, but usually (if it’s from a distance) I’m happy to see them. Like you said, they are beautiful creatures. Happy camping!

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  • September 10, 2017 at 5:21 pm
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    I think its important to be knowledgeable about the local wildlife when camping! It can really save you!

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    • September 11, 2017 at 1:16 am
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      It definitely is. It doesn’t matter where you live, being armed with knowledge about the local wildlife can be a life saver.

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  • September 10, 2017 at 4:09 pm
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    I just watched the movie Backcountry last night before I got to read this, what a coincidence! I’m confused though because I thought bears are great hunters especially the black bears because they hunt in stealth. I read somewhere that not all bears are in defense mode, some are in predatory mode and will attack with the purpose to kill and eat. These are great tips, I didn’t know that there are many products dedicated for this! You might want to add the bear spray to your list. 🙂 I agree, you should always enjoy nature but also be mindful and prepared.

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    • September 11, 2017 at 12:51 am
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      What’s even more of a coincidence is that I watched it last night. Bears aren’t particularly good at hunting (except fish…they are quite skilled fishers). Grizzlies do more hunting than black bears, and are also good at digging for burrowing rodents such as marmots. Most bears that don’t have access to the salmon run get their meat from scavenging or sometimes hunting newborn moose, deer, or caribou. Predatory attacks on humans are pretty rare, but they do happen. Only black bears have been known to try to hunt humans.

      I didn’t mention bear spray in this article because I wanted to focus on prevention, though in hindsight it might have been a good idea. Getting into what to do when you meet a bear would take up a whole article on it’s own. I did write a article on bear spray and guns. Here is the link if you are interested. https://campingforwomen.com/personal-protection-against-bears-guns-or-bear-spray/ Happy camping!

      Reply
  • September 10, 2017 at 3:51 pm
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    I have a cousin who went for a hike near where he lives and he came a little too close to the bears in the woods. He didn’t mean to, it just happened and he ran back down that hill as fast as he could. I love that you are sharing ways to avoid bear problems, I would probably freeze or have an adrenaline rush if I saw one and have no idea what to do but run or lay down!

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    • September 11, 2017 at 1:14 am
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      You cousin was lucky. Running can make the bear think that you are a prey animal and an easy meal. Bear are much faster runners than humans. The best thing to do is to back away slowly and talk to it so it knows you’re human. If it attacks

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  • September 10, 2017 at 1:43 pm
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    I have never done camping but I can totally imagine these tips to be super helpful for people who do camping on a regular basis or are planning to do it for the first time. Thanks for sharing these! 🙂

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  • September 10, 2017 at 9:36 am
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    That’s awesome that there are bear caches. And smart advice to cook away from where you’re sleeping!

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  • September 10, 2017 at 9:22 am
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    This is so cool and fascinating with really cool tips. I have always wanted to hike or camp in the North American wilderness and these tips are key. I learnt a lot through this. Will have to share this as it’s great. Bears seem so fascinating, we don’t have those guys where I am from!

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    • September 11, 2017 at 1:18 am
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      I’m glad you learned something. Guns aren’t really an option for most Canadians either, or at least they aren’t practical. I often carry bear spray in the woods.

      Reply
  • September 10, 2017 at 4:26 am
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    Our family loves getting outside and enjoy the outdoors like camping, biking or hiking. It’s good to have a little break from our smartphones, tablets, TV, and video games. Thanks for the useful tips, I’m pinning this for future reference.

    Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 7:25 pm
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    Great tips. I never would have thought about storing non-food items like sunscreen and chap stick along with my food. Thanks for the advice!

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:16 am
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      They can have weird tastes (or are just curious). Apparently, they’ll sometimes bite into gas cans too. It is a pain to have to wait until you brush your teeth to store your food though. Glad you got something out of this.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 6:39 pm
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    I haven’t heard of bear containers before. Do you have a link for it? As a scout leader, this could be tremendously helpful for me as I am constantly doing scout and camp stuff.

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:26 am
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      The link to the Ursack is https://www.ursack.com/ . If you want to compare bear containers, Amazon is probably the best place, because their are quite a few varieties. This is the cheapest I saw in a quick search http://amzn.to/2eV7Hce . They are fairly small for a whole scout group. You’d need a few of them. If you are car camping, a car is the easiest.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 6:25 pm
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    Woowww..that’s a very interesting and adventurous post. We never know about all these points about keep our camp safe from bears.

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:26 am
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      I hope it comes in handy 🙂

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 3:54 pm
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    This was such a helpful post. While I don’t camp a lot, this is the main reason why I am afraid to camp. The last thing I want is to come right onto the path of a bear. But your tips are so practical and easy to adapt for campers.

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    • September 10, 2017 at 1:13 am
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      I’m glad you got something out of it. The key is to keep your camping area clean. If you have a car or camper to store you food in, than that’s a lot easier than finding a tree, but the general idea is the same.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 3:35 pm
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    I was always told to make noise. Big animals (most animals, really) do not want to interact with humans and will go away when they hear a lot of human noise.

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:28 am
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      Definitely! It’s why I like to do a little bit of shouting from time to time if I’m alone.

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  • September 9, 2017 at 12:58 pm
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    WOW bear problems!! We camped last month and thankfully there are no bears in the UK! There’s no way I could cope if there were bears!

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:42 am
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      You’d get used to them, I think. Otherwise you’d never get to go into the woods.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 9:18 am
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    I’ve learned so much about avoiding bear problems by reading this post! I’m very very far from bear country, but these are so useful to know. I always thought that it was fine to cook near your tent, but now I know better! Never heard of bear canisters, or hanging the food from a tree. Are these your own photos of the bear, or outsourced?!

    Reply
    • September 10, 2017 at 12:58 am
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      They are all outsourced. I have a few decent shots from a bear viewing platform that trick people into think I was really close, but none of them were quite right for the post. There’s probably not a problem with cooking near your tent if you aren’t in bear country. I guess it might attract mice or something.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 5:31 am
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    Hahaha, the pun! These are some awesome tips for avoiding bears. I will definitely keep those in mind whenever I go camping 🙂

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    • September 10, 2017 at 12:59 am
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      I’m glad you appreciated the pun 😀

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 3:15 am
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    I walk/run and cycle on a trail where bears have been seen. I haven’t seen any yet but I’m always scared that one day could be the day. I would really rather not see one. Even after your great tips I still don’t want to meet one. I loved your camping tips. I hadn’t heard of the 100 ft triangle. I knew about the tree deal. That bear fabric is impressive too. I am in awe of your solo treks. I’ll hike but no camping for me.

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    • September 9, 2017 at 5:44 am
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      Bears have also been spotted on my running route. I’ll sometimes carry dog spray. It’s supposed to be okay at fending off black bears (and definitely works on angry dogs) and it fits into the pocket of my running pants. If you live in a country where you can get self defence mace or dog spray easily, it could be worth it for some peace of mind. It may not be as effective as the big canisters that are actually made for bears, but they are more practical for runners, especially since you are more likely to meet an aggressive dog than a bear on most trails.

      Reply
  • September 9, 2017 at 2:03 am
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    What a great read! Fear of bears has always been somewhere in the back of my mind but it’s definitely good to know how to tackle the situation. Good tip to store food when camping – have definitely heard some rustling in our food bags at night. Running into a bear would be a story to tell but I would rather avoid it! 🙂

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    • September 9, 2017 at 5:57 am
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      It might have been the park ranger. Around here, they sometimes steal coolers that aren’t stored properly 🙂

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  • September 9, 2017 at 12:14 am
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    I love camping too! These are all tips everyone needs to read. Seems simple enough but there’s always that one person lol. I pinned this for future reference as I have a big camping trip planned for spring 2018!

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    • September 9, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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      Agreed. No matter how easy a safety measure is (in any part of life), there is always someone who doesn’t think they need it. Have fun on your upcoming trip!

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  • September 8, 2017 at 9:34 pm
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    I hadn’t even thought about bears until now! And I’d never heard of bear bells!?! I’ve seen movies where families hurl their food into trees and it looks like so much work. I’m glad you don’t let the bears keep you from enjoying nature!

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    • September 10, 2017 at 1:01 am
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      It is a pain in the butt. If you are planning on backpacking in bear country, the Ursack is a great investment. It means a lot of time saved not getting the perfect hang. I still hang it, I’m just lazier about it 🙂 Happy Camping!

      Reply
  • September 8, 2017 at 8:52 pm
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    These facts were so interesting! I’m not very active and have never been on a hike or trek but it’s definitely on my bucket list to set out on an adventure and see things you’d never see in the city!

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  • September 8, 2017 at 8:34 pm
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    Omg omg you have no idea of how much I needed these facts! We love love outdoor life, hiking and camping. We are going to travel around that part of US and Canada where there are bears but we are scared to death after seeing movie clîps about bear attacks at the Yosemite NP. When we saw the food boxes for the first time we knew that this is serious! I will pin the post!?

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    • September 10, 2017 at 1:11 am
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      Great! I’m glad you found it helpful. Don’t be too scared of them. Just make noise while hiking and keep your campsite clean. It might be a good investment to get a can of bear spray. It’s not allowed in Yosemite, but it’s allowed most places, and can give you some peace of mind. A lot of parks in Canada (and probably the US, have food lockers, which make things a lot easier.

      Reply

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