to Camp in Black Bear Country
L. Rogers, PhD provided by the Wildlife
brochure may be downloaded and distributed.
It was originally published in 1988 by the U. S.
Forest Service under the title "How
To Live With Black Bears" by Lynn
Rogers. The author updated the text on
September 28, 2001, and changed the title to
reflect the fact that the brochure is mostly about
a black bear can
be one of the most memorable experiences of a
wilderness vacation. Bears seem almost human at
times, partly because of their high intelligence
and partly because they can stand and sit like we
do. Their diet is also somewhat like ours, so
fruit and nut shortages are problems for them just
as they were for primitive people. In years of
crop failure, black bears are almost as quick as
chipmunks to overcome their fear of people and
seek out food. And they are extremely adept at
getting it. They have color vision, acute hearing,
and a keen sense of smell. They learn quickly and
can remember feeding locations for years. They can
climb trees, bend open car doors, and pry out
windshields. They readily swim to island
campsites. They adapt their lifestyles to the
availability of food, often becoming nocturnal to
avoid confrontations with us rather than sleeping
at night like they usually do.
way to prevent food pilfering in bear country is
to avoid the bears. That means by-passing
campsites with bear tracks, fecal droppings, and
scattered garbage. Bears are regular visitors
there. But if you must camp at such sites, keep a
clean camp. The less food odor in your camp the
less chance the bears will linger when they make
their rounds. Wash dishes immediately and dump the
water away from the camp. Completely burn any
edible garbage, including grease, rather than
burying it or throwing it in a latrine.
black bears will not enter a tent with people in
it, but it is still a good idea to keep food and
food odors out of tents and sleeping bags. To be
on the safe side, wash food from your face and
hands before going to bed and hang clothing beyond
reach of bears if it has food or cooking grease on
it. Perfume may mask human odor, preventing bears
from knowing a person is in the tent.
food lockers and portable bearproof containers
provide the best protection for your food and are
far superior to any alternative. An
outfitter who outfits hundreds of groups each year
switched from canvas food packs to portable
bearproof containers three years ago and says he
has not lost any food to bears since.
Bearproof food containers are lightweight and
their price is competitive with canvas packs.
best thing to a bearproof food container is to
store food in the trunk of your automobile or in
sealed plastic bags suspended from a line between
Some campsites have lines or horizontal poles 20
feet above the ground. Sling the food
bags over the line or pole so they hang 5 feet
below it, at least 10 feet from the nearest tree
trunk, and at least 12 feet above the ground.
Bears have been known to leap from tree trunks to
snatch food bags, and large black bears can reach
up nearly 9 feet without jumping. Slinging
the bag over a branch is less effective because
bears can break small branches and climb out on
large ones. If a branch must be used, sling the
bag far out on the tip of a branch larger than 4
inches in base diameter. Bears sometimes chew
through ropes to get hanging food bags, so it is
best to counterbalance the bag with a second one
to avoid tying the rope where a bear can bite it.
To retrieve counterbalanced bags, use a long stick
to push one bag up so the other will descend to
Most campers do not see a bear, especially in
years when natural food is abundant.
But when natural crops fail, bears recognize some
human foods as worth trying. Where
bears are camp-wise, hanging food might be only a
delaying tactic to give you time to personally
protect it. Pans hung on the food bag can alert
you. Nonburnable garbage should also be hung and
should be packed out when you leave.
learn that coolers, backpacks, food bags, and
other containers might contain food. Keeping empty
containers out of sight (in a car trunk or away
from camp) or leaving them open so bears can see
that they are empty will reduce property damage.
If the containers smell of food, hang them with
the plastic food bags to prevent bears from
carrying them off. Food odors in empty containers
are minimized if the food was packed in plastic
bags that can be taken out of the containers and
hung. When leaving camp, tie tent flaps open so
bears can easily check inside.
bear in camp requires caution but is not cause for
great alarm. Most are timid enough to be scared
away by yelling, waving, and banging pans. But a
few are too accustomed to people to be bothered.
Many people have lost their food and vacation by
being timid. Campers experienced with black bears
simply chase them away before the bears settle in
to eating a week's supply of vacation food. They
make sure the bear has a clear escape route and
then yell, wave, and rush to no nearer than 15
feet of the bear. This is especially effective
when several people do it together. If alone, a
person might create the illusion of numbers by
throwing sticks through the underbrush. Don't feed
the bears or try to pet them. Touching a wild bear
can elicit a nip or cuff.
bear mothers may bluff-charge, but they rarely
study by the National Park Service showed that
bears sometimes are harder to chase after they
have begun eating. Some bears in that study gave
low intensity threats when people slowly
approached closer than 15 feet, but all bears that
were chased retreated. No visitors were attacked.
People are often more timid at night, but bears
retreat at night as well as by day. Capsaicin
spray repellent usually persuades black bears to
leave when it is sprayed into their eyes.
Capsaicin, the active ingredient of cayenne
peppers, has long been used by mailmen as a dog
repellent. In more than 200 trials, no bear gave
any sign of anger after being sprayed, sometimes
repeatedly. Most immediately turned and ran,
stopping eventually to rub their eyes. The
repellent irritates the eyes for several minutes
but causes no injury.
bears can injure or kill people, but they rarely
do. When pressed, they usually retreat, even with
cubs. Attacking to defend cubs is more a grizzly
bear trait. (Grizzlies live only in Alaska,
northern and western Canada, and the Rocky
Mountains south to Yellowstone.) Black bear
mothers often leave their cubs and flee from
people, and those that remain are more likely to
bluff-charge than attack. It is prudent to
use caution when close to any bear, but chances of
being attacked around campsites by any black bear
are small. During a 19-year study of
bear/camper encounters in the Boundary Waters
Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, only two
injuries were reported in 19 million visitor-days.
The study included the year 1985 when bear
nuisance activity was at a record high. The two
injuries were by one bear on September 14 and 15,
1987, and the bear was killed the next day.
black bears and grizzlies can be brown, but no
grizzlies live east of the Rocky Mountains
predatory attacks by black bears are highly
publicized but rare. Such attacks have
accounted for all 48 deaths by non-captive black
bears across North America this century. Most
occurred in Canada and Alaska where the bears had
little previous contact with people, rather than
in and around established campsites.
Predatory attacks by black bears are usually
without bluster or warning. People involved
in such attacks can improve their chances by
fighting and using pepper spray.
Deaths from such attacks average a little less
than one every two years across the United States
sign of curiosity, not anger, standing helps bears
see and smell.
comparison, a person is about a hundred times more
likely to be killed by a bee than by a black bear
and a hundred thousand times more likely to die in
a traffic accident. Each year there
are many thousands of encounters between black
bears and people, often unknown to the people
because the bears slip away so quietly.
A misconception is that menstrual odors are
attractive to black bears. Actually, there
is no record of any menstruating woman ever having
been attacked by a black bear, and studies have
shown no attraction by black bears to such odors.
minor injuries, some requiring stitches, have
occurred across North America when people petted
or crowded black bears they were feeding or
photographing. Under those circumstances, black
bears may react to people as they do to bears with
bad manners, by nipping or cuffing with little or
no warning. Also, people who tease bears with food
have been accidentally injured when the bear
quickly tried to take it. Fortunately, black bears
usually use at least as much restraint with people
as they do with each other. Unlike domestic dogs,
which often are territorial and aggressive toward
strangers, wild black bears are basically timid.
injuries from black bears are minor and result
from feeding, crowding, or petting. The bear
pictured here is tame. It would be extremely rare
for a wild bear to dare to come this close.
bears that want our food sometimes bluff in ways
that appear threatening, as has been reported by
campers, picnickers, and backpackers. Hungry
bears that approach people for food often lack the
confidence to approach calmly, and they express
their nervousness and fear by lunging and slapping
the ground or a tree, blowing and clacking their
teeth, and exhibiting other blustery behavior.
Black bear lives are ruled in large part by food
and fear, and they have several ways of expressing
different levels of fear. Blustery sounds
and actions are done explosively and appear
ferocious, but I have never seen or heard of a
blustery bear coming after anyone and hurting
them. All blustery bears that I have
seen ran away when pursued.
bears have a resonant, human-like
"voice" that they use to express a range
of emotions such as fear, pain, pleasure, and
anger. In over three decades of close-up
research, I have never heard a black bear growl,
although most bear stories I have heard include
mention of a growl. A common sound that
campers hear is the low, throaty moan of fear that
bears commonly voice when they are treated.
with bears are remembered and retold for years to
come. Most campers in black bear country never see
a bear. Seeing one is proof that we still have
extensive enough forests for this wide-ranging
animal. Keeping a clean camp helps to insulate
bears from the effects of our increasing use of
the wilderness for recreation and helps prevent
bears from being needlessly relocated or killed as
Black Bears - What Backpackers Need to Know