Bears are one of the major things that scare people about camping in a tent or spending time outside. While bears aren’t as much of a threat as people make them out to be, bear-proofing your tent and your campsite is essential if you want to avoid a negative encounter on your next outdoor adventure.
To bear-proof a tent, you’ll want to set up your campsite so that your cooking area and tent are at least 200 feet apart. Be sure that you never bring food or other “scented” items, like toiletries into your tent at night. Instead, secure your food and other smelly items in a bear canister or bear hang and keep your campsite neat and tidy at all times to dissuade bears from stopping by.
Bear-proofing a campsite is a skill that takes time to master and effort every time you head out on a camping trip. Up next, we’ll walk you through what you need to know about bear proofing a tent and offer some top tips for minimizing the chances that a bear will decide to wander through your campsite.
How Rare Are Bear Attacks?
Bear attacks are really, really rare. According to a 2011 study, approximately 63 people were killed by black bears in the United States and Canada from 1900 to 2009. A 2019 study published in Nature found that there were 183 grizzly bear attacks in North America between 2000 and 2015, the vast majority of which happened in Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon.
Of course, any bear attack or fatality is a sad and tragic event, but when you consider the sheer number of people that spend time outside, the chances of being attacked or killed by a bear are infinitesimally small.
That being said, bear attacks do happen. Most black and brown bear attacks happen because a bear is hungry and wants a bit of whatever you’re having for dinner or because the humans involved somehow (usually accidentally) got between a female bear and her cubs.
Other times, the bear was startled and decided to attack, rather than running away, the latter of which is their normal response to being frightened.
While there are some predatory attacks (i.e., when a bear stalks humans for food), bear biologist John Beecham states that these are really quite rare and that they are the exception, not the rule.
Will Bears Bother You In A Tent?
Generally speaking, bears don’t want to be around you any more than you want to be around them. Since most black and brown bears are really just looking for food, they usually only bother people in a tent if they smell something tasty inside.
This means that not storing food and other “scented” items, such as toiletries, in your tent can go a long way to preventing bears from wandering into your tent area in the first place.
With bears, avoiding an encounter is the key. A bear usually won’t just walk up to your tent to say hello, so if there’s a bear outside your tent, it’s likely looking for food.
Following bear safety protocols, like storing your food in a bear canister or in a bear hang (more on that later) can prevent bears from bothering you in a tent at night while camping.
Will A Tent Protect Me At All From A Bear?
Unless you happen to own a tent that’s made from reinforced steel, it’s unlikely that your tent will protect you from a determined bear. Most tents are made from a thin piece of nylon or polyester fabric, which a bear can slice right through if they’re on the lookout for food.
That being said, this shouldn’t be a cause for alarm or a reason why you decide not to go camping. As we’ve mentioned, bear attacks are really, really rare, and following proper bear safety protocols when you’re camping in known bear country can do much more to protect you from a negative bear encounter than most people think.
Steps To Take For Preventing Bears From Being Interested In Your Tent
The key with bear-proofing a tent is to stop bears from being interested in your tent in the first place. This comes down to setting up your camp properly and storing your food so that bears don’t have access to it at night. Here’s what you need to know.
How To Set Up Camp In Bear Country
One of the most important things you can do when backpacking through bear country is to set up your camp properly.
In a frontcountry campsite at a designated campground, you probably pitched your tent pretty darn close to your kitchen. However, in known bear terrain, you’ll want to pitch your tent at last 200ft (60m) – or about 70 adult paces – away from your kitchen and from water.
A good way to set up camp is to identify a good tent site that’s at least 70 paces from the nearest water source (this is normally a requirement on most public lands). Then, walk at least 70 paces away from both your tent site and your water source and find a nice place for a kitchen.
Since cooking food produces a lot of food-based aromas, keeping all of that confined to one area that’s away from where we plan to sleep for the night can limit the chances that a bear is going to wander over to our tent.
Hopefully, the bears stay far away anyway, but if they do come to our campsite, we’d rather they traipsed around our kitchen, stepped on our stove, and enjoy the view rather than come knocking on our tent door at night.
How To Store Food To Keep Bears Away From Your Tent
The second aspect involved in bear avoidance while camping is proper food storage. Since bears are usually just hungry, they’re often attracted to campsites because they want a little nibble of whatever you had for dinner.
We don’t want bears to eat human food for 2 reasons:
- Human food is not part of a normal bear diet and doesn’t provide the right nutrition for them to survive.
- Bears that eat human food quickly become habituated to humans. This highly increases the chances that they’ll start to linger around popular campgrounds or towns or attack someone. When this happens, the bear is almost always euthanized, which is not a pleasant situation for anyone involved.
Therefore, knowing how to store your food properly will not only keep bears away from your tent, but it will help ensure that the bear population in our favorite camping areas stays healthy and strong.
Food Storage Options For Camping In Bear Country
When you’re camping in bear country, you have a few food storage options to choose from.
However, it’s important to note that some public lands have very strict requirements about what you can and cannot store your food in. These include some of the most popular national, state, and provincial parks and forests in the United States and Canada.
It’s your responsibility as a camper to know the requirements for whenever you happen to be. Breaking the rules can result in serious consequences from local authorities, especially if a bear gets into your food.
Here are the 4 primary ways that you can use to store food in bear country, depending on your location.
A bear canister is a hard-sided container that’s been designed to prevent a bear from getting the food inside. Most are made from hard-sided plastic with special lids that bears just can’t open.
While bears can and do try to play with these canisters to get the food inside, when used properly, they are highly unlikely to be successful.
The downside to bear cans? They’re heavy and bulky. But, they’re also rodent-proof and very easy to use.
Bear Hang/PCT Method
In areas where a bear canister isn’t required, but bears are still present, some land managers will require that you use a “bear hang” to keep hungry bears from eating your food.
Bear hangs are a popular option among lightweight backpackers because they just require a length of rope, a couple of carabiners, and a bag for your food. Unfortunately, they’re not very effective if you’re camping above treeline, and they won’t do much to stop rodents from eating your snacks at night.
Here’s a video that explains the process:
Bear-proof coolers are fairly new in the camping world, but they’ve become popular in developed campgrounds. Most companies, like Grizzly Coolers, that sell “bear-proof coolers” get their products certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), who tests these coolers on real bears.
That being said, these coolers aren’t allowed everywhere, so check the regulations at your campground before you buy one for your next trip. Additionally, the IGBC states that these coolers need to be locked with a padlock to prevent bears from accessing the food inside.
Some campgrounds in national parks and national forests will have purpose-built steel “bear lockers” in place for food storage. A general rule is that, if there’s a bear locker at your campsite, you have to use it.
These bear lockers are pretty good at stopping bears from accessing our food, and their use is required by many land managers. In campsites where a bear locker is available, storing your food in a car is generally not allowed, so be sure that all of your food fits inside the locker at night.
Can Bears Smell Through Ziploc Bags?
Ziploc bags are not smell-proof and a bear can easily smell whatever you’re storing inside.
If you’re looking to store your food inside a smell-proof bag within your bear-proof hang, canister, locker, or cooler, the Loksak OPSAK is a solid choice. These odor-proof and reusable storage bags help seal off any food smells for added peace of mind while camping in bear country.
What To Do If You Hear A Bear Outside Your Tent
If, despite your best efforts, a bear still comes wandering into your campsite, the first thing to do is speak in a loud, firm voice. Most bears will get startled by this and run away, as they are generally afraid of humans.
Although such a situation is very rare, should a bear start to attack you in your tent, the National Park Service recommends fighting back. These bears often see people as prey, so more defensive actions, like playing dead, generally won’t help.
Should You Keep Bear Spray In Your Tent?
Bear spray is an excellent tool for deterring an aggressive bear if you know how to use it and if it’s accessible when you need it.
Since bear spray is helpful in a bear attack, you’ll certainly want to have it nearby at night. However, it’s generally best to store your bear spray in the vestibule of your tent, rather than right next to you. This is because it’s possible, though not likely, that you could accidentally remove the safety tab on the bear spray as you toss and turn at night.
If you hear a bear outside your tent at night, the first thing to do (after speaking in a loud voice) is to grab your bear spray so you’re prepared should things go awry.
Keep in mind that if you use the bear spray in your tent during a bear attack, it will likely also get into your eyes and all over your skin. In these situations, once the bear is gone, the National Park Service recommends rinsing out your eyes and skin with cold water for 15-20 minutes to reduce the stinging effects of the pepper spray.
Also, some parks, like Yosemite National Park, don’t allow you to carry bear spray within their boundaries. So, check in on local regulations before you head out for your next trip!
Final Thoughts About Camping In Bear Country
Camping in bear country can seem scary, but with the proper precautions, it is often a very enjoyable experience, especially if you get to see bears from a safe distance.
When I camp in bear country, I always set up my campsite so that my kitchen and tent area are separate. I’m meticulous about ensuring that all food and smelly items go in my bear canister or my bear hang (what I use depends on the regulations where I’m camping) at night.
Anyone looking to camp in known bear habitat should be just as meticulous as preventing a bear encounter is the best way to ensure that your trip into bear country goes off without a hitch.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.