Bears stalking your roof top tent campsite at night can cause your gut to drop with anxiety and fear, especially when you know exactly why they’ve chosen your camp over others.
So, are roof top tents safe from bears? While not a completely bear proof and solid sided structure, roof top tents are still able to keep you safer than a typical ground based tent setup. Roof top tents were invented for overlanding across the African deserts and to keep campers safe from predatory animals like lions and hyenas.
I’ve camped in bear country numerous times throughout my life, and had never faced any problems until my first run-in just a couple years ago: a forgotten-about half-bag of coffee grounds and some leftover pancake mix buried deep within the bed of the truck, and a cracked open camper shell window.
I woke in the night to hear the bear sloshing around boxes on metal, and I pitied our neighboring camp as I assumed they hadn’t sealed their food in their bear can. It was to my shock and utter fear when I then watched a small black bear slither out of the window of our camper shell, and head straight towards my ground tent.
He got within 5 feet of my face when, luckily, the bear got distracted by something else and moved away. I was left petrified, sitting up, unable to breath, and cursing our stupidity for not triple checking the truck for food.
My second run-in with bears happened only last year, while camping with my infant son in our rooftop tent (RTT). I had gone to bed early with my baby, and my fellow campers stayed up by the campfire for a few hours longer.
When they all decided to turn it in, they took care to make sure all food and aromatics were in the bear can… except, they then failed to properly latch the can (it was an especially difficult can to latch).
Late in the night, I sat up straight in our RTT and looked down below, to see a very large black bear helping himself to the entirety of our food stash. When he grabbed a large tupperware full of munchies and took off in the night, my husband dared to climb down our ladder and latch the can, so the bear couldn’t return and continue his feast.
As he was crouched down with his back to the camp, a second bear appeared and began to run towards him. As I screamed, my husband quickly stood up, clanging firewood and a metal pot until the bear turned and ran away.
Stupidly, our bear spray was in the cab of the truck.
Our friends, who had been sleeping in a ground tent within just a few feet of the bear can, got up, started a fire, and didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
I write out these memories with pure embarrassment and shame, not only for the danger we put ourselves in, but for causing harm to the bears. A fed bear is a dead bear, making them dependent on raiding campgrounds, and puts all campers in direct danger.
These events have caused me to become beyond-paranoid about keeping a clean, food-free camp, to carry bear spray at all times (and within reach), and to have other forms of bear deterrents at hand, especially now that I have my child to consider.
We got our RTT in preparation of several nights camping through grizzly country, and I refused to believe for even a moment that we were safer on the roof than we were on the ground. Luckily, we didn’t have any incidents while camping in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming.
But there was a very real difference in fear that I felt between being face-to-face with a black bear in the ground tent, versus looking down on the bears from our RTT. With the latter event, I was able to strategize my escape, whereas in the former, I was afraid the pounding of my heart was going to cause the bear further intrigue.
Now, let’s dive into the specifics of what you need to know while RTT camping in bear country…
Bear Precautions and Roof Top Tents
The number one way to protect your camp from bears is to keep food and aromatic products out of, and away from, your tent. But if bears do come sniffing through the area, they aren’t likely to become curious by faint smells of the deodorant or chapstick you’re wearing if you are sleeping several feet above their noses, thereby decreasing your risk of attack.
It is important to remember, however, that bears are excellent climbers and will have no trouble climbing on top of your car or truck if they want to. Bears can easily tear open sealed vehicles if they think there might be food inside. Take all precautionary measures and do not keep any food or aromatic products in your RTT, or in your vehicle, and do not sleep in the clothes that you cooked or prepared food in.
How To Store Food While Overlanding
Many overlanders have spent a lot of money and effort installing fancy stoves, fridges, food storage, and other kitchen items in the bed of their truck, but while in bear country it is advised to not use them, especially if sleeping in a RTT above your vehicle. You’ll want to remove all of these items to store in a bear can, or to use at least 100 yards from where you sleep.
Most campgrounds in bear country will provide bear cans for you to store all food and aromatic products in, and it is required that you use them. Speak to your camp host for details about local bear activity and their specific recommendations or requirements to keep the campground safe.
However, when overlanding through the backcountry, you will need your own bear-proof storage. There are many high-quality coolers that are certified bear-resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), but they require locks to be considered secure.
Yeti Tundra Coolers and Pelican Elite Coolers are both extremely durable coolers that meet the bear-resistant standards by the IGBC. Yeti also provides Bear Proof Locks that are IGBC Certified to pair with their coolers.
Bear Bags have been in use for millennia to keep food away from bears and other predators, but many campgrounds no longer consider this the safest tactic, especially when bears are experts of their territory. Most campgrounds prefer you use their provided bear cans.
But when in backcountry, Bear Bags are an excellent deterrent from a camp invasion, as long as they’re hung correctly.
Bear Bags should be hung about 100 yards from your tent, and hung from a branch at least 15 feet above the ground, and about 10 feet away from the vertical support (such as a tree). You may need at least 50-70 feet of sturdy 1/8 to 1/4 inch braided nylon cord to properly secure a Bear Bag. Dark-colored cord is harder for a bear to spot.
Bears Are Scary, But They’re Rarely Deadly
Bear attacks are considered rare, and they usually occur when humans accidentally scare a bear in the backcountry. While there aren’t any statistics on bears raiding campgrounds, there are some statistics on bear attacks, in which bears make full contact with humans.
Approximately 40 million people camp in North American wilderness areas each year. Over the last 20 years, there have been a total of 29 fatal bear attacks in North America, with 15 occurring in Canada, and two in Alaska.
Worldwide between 2000-2015, there were approximately 664 bear attacks on humans, including 183 in North America, resulting in only about 2-5 fatalities annually. Globally, the attack rate is about 40 per year, with 14% resulting in human fatalities.
There have been a few recent stories of bear attacks that have gained widespread press coverage, such as the 13 year old boy who was attacked while sleeping in his ground tent. It was reported that he hadn’t left out any food or done anything to provoke the bear when it bit him on the face, through his tent.
Events like this are rare, but they do happen, and they make a good argument for sleeping in a RTT. Bears are extremely intelligent animals, and they equate campgrounds with food. They come hungry and curious, and are likely to taste anything that has a scent (like your hair), even through a tent. Being off the ground while you sleep will keep your bodily smells out of range from a typical bear.
Black Bear vs Grizzly Habitat Camping
It is important that you always take all precautions against bears, whether you are in Black Bear Country or Grizzly Country.
However, some people are more casual in Black Bear Country, cooking and storing food in the cab and bed of their truck, in their soft-shell, or in their RV, without encountering any issues.
Consider those people lucky, and if in a campground, speak to the camp host before doing so. They may provide insight to their local bears, if they are known for peeling off the sides of cars, opening doors, or smashing windows to get at a cooler, or if their bears have snatched every hanging food bag, etc.
In Grizzly Country, many campgrounds will not allow any food to be prepared, cooked or stored in any tent or vehicle, requiring everyone to use their campfires and bear boxes at all times. Soft-shells and RVs are often included in these rules.
They may be very quick to ticket you for leaving anything out, even for a short period of time (like visiting the bathroom). For them, it is imperative to keep all campgrounds clean at all times or they risk putting everyone in danger with aggressive grizzlies.
Is Bear Spray Worth It?
Yes! EPA-approved bear spray is your final line of defense against a bear, and is recommended over all other weapons, including firearms, which may worsen the attack. A bear wounded from a firearm or other weapon will become more dangerous, as it becomes defensive or aggressive, and puts park rangers and other park visitors at risk if the injured bear must be tracked down.
Bear spray is a highly effective irritant that can stop a charging bear from up to 60 feet. Pointing the canister at a slight downward angle, spray a wide cloud towards the bear and be prepared to empty the can. Do not spray on your skin, clothing, camping gear, or personal items.
Keep your bear spray in a holster within easy reach while hiking or camping, and practice pulling it from the holster and removing the safety from the trigger. You will need to act quickly if you have an encounter with a defensive or aggressive bear.
Also read: Best Bear Spray: Top 5 Proven and Effective
Does Fire Keep Bears Away?
Although black bears aren’t likely to approach when there’s a hearty campfire going, a fire alone isn’t going to stop them or grizzlies from raiding your camp. Stories are shared of people gathered around the campfire while bears steal food from nearby tables and coolers. Bears will also fearlessly investigate cooking equipment left out over a cooling fire pit, and may be likely to poke around other areas of the camp as well (such as your tent or vehicle).
What Is The Best Bear Deterrent?
The best bear deterrent is, strictly speaking, keeping your camp clean, food and aromatic products stored safely in bear-safe containers 100 yards from where you sleep. But there are a number of products that can help keep you safe in the most populated bear country.
Bears hate loud noises, so many campers carry air horns alongside their bear spray to use as a first line of defense when seeing a bear near camp. Hikers are advised to wear bells on their packs so as to not accidentally frighten a bear on the trail, and it is a good idea to wear bells even while at camp.
Some campers will keep a few hundred meters of string to hang bells around their camp to act as a signal of approaching wildlife, and to gently nudge a bear to move along somewhere else.
Electric fences are widely used and appreciated in areas where grizzlies, kodiak, and polar bears are rampant. If you are expecting an extended stay in the backcountry, an electric fence may be worth the investment to keep your vehicle and RTT bear-free.
Final Thoughts On Bear Safety While Camping in a Rooftop Tent
Bears are a very real danger and nuisance while camping, but their presence in your camp can be easily avoided. A rooftop tent keeps you from being in the direct line of investigation from a hungry and curious bear, by raising you off the ground and away from their nose and mouth. All other precautions must be taken, however, to keep your RTT out of mind from approaching bears.
With your RTT far away from food or aromatic products, it can be a comfortable and relaxing place to sleep for the whole family. Many RTTs come equipped with thick mattresses and skylights for stargazing, creating an unforgettable experience outdoors.
If bears do find their way through your camp at night, you can watch them from above in your RTT and feel fairly confident that you are out of harm’s way. With an air horn and bear spray within arm’s reach, you are as safe as you can get while camping in bear country.
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Hannah is a Branding Consultant with over 15 years of experience helping small companies build their online reach through content creation, creative marketing solutions and graphic design. She recently moved from Los Angeles to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to raise her family in the mountains.