Planning on spending some time in the great outdoors this summer? High five (and remember to bring the natural mosquito spray!). But while you’re at it, don’t forget that some critters were there first, and it’s up to you to look out for the safety of the local wildlife and yourself. While Smokey the Bear wants you to prevent wildfires, you also need to be alert to the risks human-bear interactions pose. They can end badly for you and for bears, and that’s not a fun way to end a camping trip.
Black and brown bears are found in many wilderness areas throughout the US — in fact, you may be hoping to spot some on your trip. These animals are naturally very curious, but they’re also hungry as they are storing up food for the winter. Furthermore, some bears may be feeling protective because they’re dealing with cubs. That’s a bad mix, and you don’t want to get caught in the middle. It’s important to keep your distance from bears and instead appreciate them via a camera with a telephoto lens.
Here are some small tips on how to stay safe in bear country this summer:
1. Be alert to your surroundings
People are often attacked while hiking by a bear who is startled, so make lots of noise — thump your walking sticks, talk, sing, and give local wildlife plenty of notice that you’re coming ’round the mountain. If you see prey, a carcass, or cubs, get out of the area quickly, because a bear may perceive you as a threat.
Scratch marks, scat, rocks or logs that have been rolled over, and of course bear tracks are all signs that a bear lives in the area. You might choose a different trail for safety — and if you decide to keep going, make sure to stay watchful.
2. Don‘t hike or camp off-trail
Bears get it. They see the areas that humans have established, but they consider the rest of the woods their own. If you go off-trail, you may end up near a den or in another sensitive area.
3. Leave the smells at home
Bears have an extremely sensitive sense of smell. Use scentless personal care products, and pack dry foods that don’t have a strong odor. Vegetarian snacks and meals are a great idea.
4. No pets
We know you love your cat, but she’ll be happier at home. Pets are specifically banned from many National Parks and other wilderness areas, so don’t bring them along. They could attract bears or cougars.
5. Stay together
Don’t go alone — and keep your group together. A scattered group can look like easy pickings. If you do encounter a bear, stick together, speak in low voices, and wave your arms slowly to identify yourselves as humans. The bear may run, in which case you can move off in the other direction. If the bear moves toward you, stand your ground.
6. Separate your sleeping and food areas
When you camp, set up your tent at least 100 feet away from the area you’ll use for prep work, cooking, and eating. Do not keep food in or around the tent or in your car. Instead, bag it (many companies sell bear bags) and suspend it from a tree or a pole provided for that purpose. Ideally, it should be 10-15 feet up, and at least 4 feet away from supporting branches or beams. You can also use bearproof containers, although be aware that they may be thrown or mauled by a frustrated bear.
Also, cook smart — skip strong-smelling foods, pre-plan meals and package them individually, and avoid leftovers. Don’t wear the clothes you cook in to bed, either.
7. Don‘t feed the wildlife
Whether it’s a bear, raccoon, skunk, cougar, or anything else, it’s surviving just fine on its own. Feeding wildlife isn’t good for them, and can attract them to camping areas, where the risk of a negative interaction with a human increases. Animals that have been repeatedly fed may end up being shot by Park Rangers faced with no other choice for stopping a persistently curious or obnoxious animal, and that’s a tragedy.
8. Bear spray
No, it’s not made by L’Oreal. But it can save your life in an emergency. If a bear starts poking around your tent or getting in your face, don’t run — use bear spray as a deterrent. Stay with your group and make noise, toss rocks and sticks to deter the bear, and generally try to convince it to head for greener pastures. If the bear won’t leave, retreat slowly to safety.
9. Report incidents to rangers
Don’t worry — rangers don’t go from ‘one report’ to ‘death warrant.’ But they do like to know what the local bear population is up to, and your reports can help them look out for the safety of other campers, hikers, and visitors. If necessary, rangers can also help you retrieve your belongings.
10. Pack it out
Be nice to other campers and park staff: Remove your refuse. In addition to doing your part to keep the park beautiful, you’ll also minimize the sources of food that might drawn in local bears.
Photo credit: Jitze Couperus.