Wilderness Camping in Bear Country
One of the greatest things about living in British Columbia is the vast wilderness area available for adventure and exploration. In certain parts of the province, you can literally wander for weeks in the backcountry without seeing another person. Bears, however, are another matter. In the backcountry of B.C., you will almost certainly be venturing through the range of numerous black bears and, in many regions of the province, grizzly bears. For many people this is a scary proposition, but by taking a few precautions and being aware of your surroundings, you can mitigate the risk of a dangerous encounter.
Location, Location, Location. We’ve all heard this saying regarding real estate, but it applies equally well when trying to decide where to set-up camp in bear country. When selecting a place to pitch your tent it is important to recognise a few things that might increase the chances of an unwanted nighttime visit by a bear. Firstly, look to see if there is a lot of fresh bear sign (tracks and poop) near a possible camping spot. Bears will often frequent a certain area for a reason and seeing lots of fresh bear sign indicates there is something about that spot they like. If you happen to notice lots of bear sign, move on to another area with less or no sign. Secondly, avoid camping on or near game trails. Although bears can and do travel randomly through almost any terrain, they will often choose to take the path of least resistance, which in many cases is a well-worn game trail. Camping on a game trail in bear country dramatically increases the chances that a bear will wander into your camp and during the hot summer months, bears travel mostly during the cool of the night. Lastly, avoid camping near obvious bear food sources. For example, camping in the middle of a prolific huckleberry patch or along side of a stream teaming with salmon increases the chances of a bear encounter.
Food and Cooking Bears are thought to have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth. If something has a smell, a bear will smell it – often from a great distance. Of course, not all smells will attract bears, but the smell of food certainly will. As such, it is important that you take some precautions with food storage and cooking when in bear country.
The first thing I’d recommend is try and bring foods on your adventure that are in sealed packaging (like commercial dehydrated meals). The less smelly your food, the better. Even so, even the faintest smells may attract a bear, so it’s best to assume that whatever food you have has enough scent for a bear to detect. Also consider things like toothpaste and soap might smell enticing to a bear, so storing such items with your food is probably a good idea.
The most important rule regarding food is NEVER STORE IT IN YOUR TENT. When not actively cooking, all foods should be stored together in a dry bag and kept 50 metres -100 metres away from camp. Storing food suspended at least 5 metres off the ground is ideal. Of course, some areas don’t have tall trees, or any trees at all. In that case, just hang your drybag on a shrub, but try and keep it off the ground to discourage rodents.
When making meals, try and do your cooking downwind of and some distance from your tent. Even small bits of spilled food on the ground can attract a bear, so keep that in mind. Never cook in your tent. Also, if fires are permitted where you’re camping, consider burning any smelly food packaging that can be safely burned, but be sure to pack-out any residual material.
Alarms and Barriers It’s difficult to fall into a deep sleep when you’re listening for the arrival of an unwanted visitor and getting a good sleep can be a challenge for many in bear country. For those who find it difficult to sleep, getting a perimeter alarm can be a game-changer. There is a product called the Pack Alarm Pro that allows the user to run a trip wire around the perimeter of their camp. If a bear or other animal walks through it, an alarm goes off and an LED light turns on. The alarm is very loud and not only is it guaranteed to wake you up, but it will likely scare away any bear who trips it.
The other option is an electric fence. There are some lightweight options that can be carried by a backpacker and are large enough to surround a tent with a three-wire electric perimeter. Bears hate electric fences, and they work very well, however, even if your camp is surrounded by an electric fence, you should store your food as described earlier.
What if the Worst Happens? Sometimes you can do everything right and things still go wrong. What then? What should you have to protect yourself and what should do?
The first thing I would recommend is a bright headlamp with fresh batteries. If it’s the middle of the night and you suddenly find yourself with a bear in camp, you will want as much light as possible. Make sure you keep your headlamp near you in a handy location, so you don’t have to spend too much time searching for it in the dark.
Next to light, bear spray is an essential item. Headlamp on and bear spray in hand, you are now ready to defend yourself if necessary. Bear spray will do you no good if you’re inside your tent and the bear is outside but attacking. The best thing to do is unzip your tent door and look outside. Yelling and shouting might scare the bear away, but often the bear will only retreat a short distance. If you are camping with others, try and group together and act as intimidating as possible. Bang together pots and pans if you have them.
If the bear charges, unload all your bear spray directly into its face. Once the bear retreats and if permitted, build a fire, and tend to it the remainder of the night. In the morning, leave the areas as soon as possible and report the incident to the Conservation Officer.
Is it Worth It? Absolutely! Although the prospect of a bear attack (especially at night) is horrifying, the reality is thousands of people spend countless days and nights in the backcountry each year and very few ever have a problem with a bear. Bears are an integral part of the wild places many of us love exploring and their presence adds to the wildness of our world. Be cautious in bear country, but don’t be afraid.
Be mindful of the things you can do to minimize a negative bear encounter and get out and enjoy the beauty of wilderness!