No morning should ever start at 6 am with a bear rummaging through your campsite. That is exactly what happened to a group of people camped across the lake from us. How do we know this?
We were woken up by the yelling. The sound carried across the still waters and blasted through our earplugs. We were out of the tent, running down to the shore in an adrenaline fueled sprint, clutching our bear spray. By the time we got to the shore, the yelling had stopped and we heard pots and pans banging. By this time we knew exactly what was going on at the site. The banging soon turned into talking so we knew the crisis had passed. It was only about an hour before we saw two canoes paddling away from the site.
A few days later when we were leaving the park we stopped to ask the Rangers what had happened. Apparently the campers had arrived late in the day – they had battled thunderstorms all day and were exhausted. They ate dinner and left their plates and garbage by the firepit and crashed in their tents. They thought that they were safe from bears because they were on an island. Unfortunately they woke to a mother bear and two cubs cleaning up their dinner leftovers.
In this case it was lack of knowledge. Bears have the largest number of scent receptors of any terrestrial mammal. They can actually smell food from over 2 miles away (a very conservative estimate). And they swim well which means islands are part of their territory.
So what do you do?
I want to stress that we are not bear experts, but we can share a few tips we use to help reduce the risk of bears visiting our campsite. For dealing with bear encounters we recommend you turn to the experts. I like the Bear Smart website but a quick search of terms like “black bear behaviour” will give you lots of information.
I have what I call “a healthy fear of bears”. I have carried pepper spray (Counter Assault) for years. My fellow paddlers use to call it “a bear condiment” – they said it would just help the bear enjoy it’s dinner. NOT FUNNY! They have since all bought bear spray so I forgive them. We keep the spray in the kitchen area during the day and in the tent at night and on the outside of our packs during a portage.
If you take pepper spray camping know that it is the last line of defense – do everything you can to move yourself away from the situation first. The spray is said to reach 32 feet and spray for up to 9 seconds. You want to avoid getting hit with the spray yourself so consider the wind direction. Finally, make sure kids respect the spray.
In addition to bear spray a few people we camp with have used bear bells – the idea is the bells jingle while you walk so you don’t startle a bear on a portage.
Bear Bangers have also been recommended, but we haven’t tried them (yet). These Bangers make a loud gunshot sound which, in theory, will scare the bear away…unless of course the banger lands and discharges past the bear and scares it toward you. Hmmm – not ideal.
A Few Tips
We have seen a few bears on shore while paddling – I always find it a bit surreal seeing something that big walking through the forest. Our goal is to keep them from walking through our site.
A few years ago there were two “bear wise” posters on the information board at a boat launch – one posted by the Provincial government and one by the Federal government. Unfortunately the information conflicted.
One sign said something like “Always pack your garbage out – never burn garbage because the smell will attract bears to your site.” The other sign said something like “Always burn your garbage, packing it out will attract bears.”
We opt for the garbage storing but only until we have a good fire going, then we burn everything we can. The key is to have as little garbage as possible which means planning meals well so you don’t have leftovers. In some cases you may be called on to take a second helping of dinner even if you are stuffed – what a sacrifice.
- Put your tent up far away from the eating and cooking area – if possible.
- Always eat outside your tent.
- Keep food far away from your tent – even toothpaste.
- Check your pockets and your packs before crawling into your tent. I once accidentally spent a night with a backpack full of snack food in the vestibule – it was left over from a hike earlier in the day.
- Change your clothes before going to bed so you are not sleeping in the clothes you wore when you cooked dinner.
- Look for signs of bears when you arrive at your site.
- We arrived at a site to find a destroyed tent and another time a pile of bear fur at the base of a tree. We stayed at these sites but were hyper-alert.
- Fresh bear scat is a dead giveaway. Look for large piles of scat containing seeds (of whatever is currently in season).
- Make some noise when you first arrive at a campsite.
- Some people talk or sing on a portage – but if you enjoy the quiet of the forest, stay alert.
- Talk to your fellow campers and have a plan so everyone knows what to do if your group encounters a bear.
- If you camp with a dog, know the behaviour of your dog.
- Do you think the dog would chase a bear – then run back to you – leading the bear to you? Will they stick with you? Would they come when you call them?
Food Barrel Tips
- Take a mix of bleach and water (50/50) in a small Nalgene or spray bottle and wipe down the outside of your food barrel at night – this will remove food smells from the outside of the barrel so it isn’t interesting to bears or other animals. It is a good idea to wipe down your table as well.
- Use barrels for food storage only.
- I know it’s tempting to use it as a table or cutting board but the key to keeping your food safe is to avoid any food smells on the outside of your barrel.
- Keep your food in the barrels and the lid on and locked at all times, even when you are preparing or eating meals.
- Add a cotter pin to secure the lid – this won’t stop a bear but will slow down a raccoon.
- Hang your barrel or tie it to a tree far back in the woods away from your campsite and canoes.
- Keep food away from your tent and canoe.
- Hang food bags – there is a lot of debate about hanging barrels. If you do decide to leave your barrel on the forest floor, use a rope to attach it to a tree – this may help it from being rolled away.
- Good example instructions for hanging food. Note: Never stand under the food pack – we learned the hard way that the branch can break – danger!
- Good video on Bear Bagging by the Happy Camper.
- Another fun Happy Camper video about dealing with a bear that does come into your site.
My love of back-country camping always trumps my fear of bears.
Awareness and some preparation was the first step in dealing with my fear. The key – be alert and prepared rather than fearful. I have also learned that the longer I stay in the forest the less I worry.
I started wearing earplugs at night – this may seem counter intuitive, but it blocks out the little sounds that wake me up – lying awake in the tent gives my imagination time to get the best of me. I am confident a bear at the campsite will wake me even if I am wearing earplugs.
I also try to remember that red squirrels sound big from inside a tent. I have a friend who had to get out of her tent to rescue her fellow campers from the frog that was jumping at the side of their tent – they were quite sure it was a bear.
The most important piece of advice – don’t let your imagination keep you from enjoying the great outdoors! If I can camp with my well developed fear of bears, anyone can!