You and your friends are packing up the wagon for some car camping in the great outdoors. In addition to a couple of tents and multiple sleeping bags, you've packed a cooler full of burgers and hot dogs to slap on the campground grill when you pull in for dinner. And you've stuffed your daypack with peanut-butter-flavored granola bars and a chocolaty trail mix for tomorrow's long hike. One thing's for sure, the eating's going to be great on this trip -- that is, unless one of Mother Nature's most fearsome and powerful creatures decides it wants to share the wealth.
Whether you're car camping like these folks or backpacking deep into the woods, you need to take preventive steps to avoid a bear encounter. A bear's sense of smell is seven times stronger than a bloodhound's [source: American Bear Association]. It uses this acute sense to shop for a mate, detect threats and, most importantly, locate food. If a bear smells your hotdogs sizzling on the grill, it might decide to pop in for a visit.
A bear may lumber into your campsite for attractants like food and trash -- and even your scented lip balm. Obviously, you can't go without eating while you camp, but you can manage odors to promote bear-free camping quarters (more on that later).
But first, we'll take a look at why sounds (or a lack thereof) will attract bears to you.
If you're really desiring a visit from Yogi, turn off your boombox and speak in hushed tones. Bears are not big fans of noise -- not necessarily because they prefer the idyllic, quiet life of the forest or hate rap music, but because they really don't want to be around people.
At your campsite, make your presence known. Many hikers, backpackers or simply people who aren't interested in bear-sponsored plastic surgery wear bells or loud chimes in bear country. Turn music on, scream at your campmates or yodel at the top of your lungs; anything that works to keep bears apprised of your whereabouts. Chances are, they'll be more than happy to wander far from you in search of food.
Speaking of food, let's look at how bears' appetites can cause them to seek out some friendly company around the campfire.
Camp in a Bear-friendly Location
While you're hiking through the wilderness, the idea of a beautiful open valley beside a roaring river may seem like the perfect place to pitch your tent. You can grab some blackberries for your morning pancakes, catch a salmon for dinner and pick some wildflowers in between.
Unfortunately, the same pastoral landscape that attracts hardy campers also attracts hungry bears. Natural food areas (around dense vegetation) are the food court of the forest; check around areas for animal-made trails to see if wild friends are making regular visits. Look for signs of bear scat, or trampled areas, torn apart logs or claw marks on nearby trees.
It's not just location but also season that will bring curious bears into your campsite. Read on for details about how particular seasons or periods of environmental strain can attract bears to your camp.
Camp When Bears are Hungry
The location of your campsite is important, but you should also be aware of the timing of your camping trip. Naturally, most of us camp in the spring, summer or early fall -- coincidentally, right when bears are up-and-at-'em between hibernations. While camping during bears' active times is a necessary evil when it comes to camping conditions and weather, you can still guard against bear activity to a certain extent by being conscious about times that bears might be under more strain due to hunger.
Camping after a mild winter might leave you more vulnerable to bears seeking food; a less strenuous winter means stronger elk, deer and other game. Late winter snows can also prevent a good berry crop. A lack of weak and susceptible prey along with bad foraging opportunities can quickly produce hungry bears, likely to be bolder around happy campers with seemingly endless supplies of energy bars and sizzling morning bacon.
And don't be surprised when that bacon does attract a bear. Read on to learn how you can find yourself hosting your own teddy bear picnic if your campsite smells delicious.
Sleep Where You Cook
After you've cooked up some beans and corn on your camping stove and roasted marshmallows over the fire, the smell of food is likely to linger for a while. You might enjoy the aroma of your meal for a few hours. Coincidentally, all the hungry bears in the area will also find the odor appealing.
For this reason, it's best you don't sleep where you've cooked. In fact, your tent should be about 100 yards (91 meters) away and -- even better -- upwind from where you made dinner. Your cooking equipment should be strung up or stored in a canister along with your food, trash and toiletries. And make sure you don't sleep in the same clothes you were wearing as camping chef. That's as good as slathering yourself in corn pudding before you go to sleep. Instead, you should store those clothes with the rest of your strong-smelling gear.
And speaking of smells ...
Do Things That Smell
As we've said previously, a bear's sense of smell is keener than a dog's. While leaving food around in general is a terrible idea, it's also not a bad idea to keep your odorous activities to a minimum.
While cooking over a campfire is bound to emit some smells, others can be avoided. Lotions, deodorants, scented soaps and perfumes are all going to pique the attention of your not-so-friendly neighborhood grizzly or black bear. Pack your toiletries in doubled plastic bags or airtight containers. Be sure to bring extra containers for leftover food or garbage so it's not sitting around (more on that later).
One bear urban legend that persists says they're attracted to the scent of women during menstruation; this hypothesis has never been conclusively proven with black bears or grizzlies [source: Yellowstone]. However, menstrual blood has been shown to elicit a behavioral response in polar bears, so if you're camping in the North Pole and are a post-adolescent female, forewarned is forearmed [source: Cushing].
There is one natural odor that'll definitely draw bears to you. Next up, why you should heed the call of nature with care when camping in bear country.
Pee Where You Sleep
Conventional wisdom might lead you to believe that urinating around your campsite is a good way to mark your territory. Certainly no bear would cross into the claim you've staked with your own excrement, right? Actually, wrong -- the opposite is true. Urine odor attracts bears. So you should do your peeing far from the campsite or dispose of the waste elsewhere.
Let's face it, we've all got to do our business at some point. So, the best way to handle this predicament simply is to walk away from your campsite to tinkle. Or, you could even pee into some kind of bottle or container and dispose of it once you're away from your site. Also, be aware of the direction the wind is blowing when nature calls. The smell could send a signal to bears downwind. On that note, your campsite should be upwind from your urine. When you need to go number two, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) deep and squat. When you're done, cover up the hole and stamp it with your foot. Be sure to do this type of business at least 100 feet (30.5 meters) away from any water source.
Up next, what's one surefire way to attract bears to your campsite? Leave your trash out in the wind.
Leave Your Trash Out
The strong scent of trash entices bears to investigate your area. The problem is, you're probably going to create some trash, somehow, while you camp. So what can you do to make sure it doesn't lure bears? For one, don't attempt to mask the smell of trash with air fresheners, Lysol or moth balls. The smell of moth balls may not seem delectable to you, but it will double the curiosity for a bear.
You might also think it's a good idea to toss your trash into the campfire, but bears like the smell of burning trash even more than the smell of regular trash. Instead, put your garbage in airtight plastic bags and string those between two trees, at least 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) above ground and at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) away from any tree or post. The airtight bags should reduce the scent. And if a bear still catches a whiff, the bag will be too difficult for the animal to reach.
You can also store trash in bear-resistant food canisters, which are usually available for rent at most bear country campsites. Be sure to latch the box completely. At night, place the canister on the ground at least 100 feet (30.5 meters) or more from your campsite. That way, if a bear decides to bat the canister around for a while, he'll be nowhere near your tent.
Lastly, remember that bears can detect human scent for 14 hours after people leave a campsite, so clean up for your sake and for your fellow campers' sakes [source: American Bear Association].
As you can tell by now, scent is a big attractant for bears. So, if you really want to lure a bear, why not camp next to a carcass?
Camp Near a Carcass
From the outset, camping near a carcass won't seem like a very appealing prospect. After all, depending on how long the creature's been dead, it could cloud your campsite with a terrible stench. But camping near a carcass isn't merely unappealing -- it also greatly increases the likelihood that a hungry bear will plod into your camp.
Bears are just lazy enough to relish the opportunity of eating an animal that's already died. The odor of a decomposing carcass definitely will attract any bears in the area. In fact, a black bear in California is reported to have traveled in a straight line more than 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) to reach a dead deer's carcass [source: American Bear Association].
If you spot a dead animal on the trail, report it to the nearest ranger station. And don't even think about approaching the animal, no matter how curious you are. A bear may be lurking just out of your sight, guarding its find. And it won't be pleased that you're moving in on its lunch.
Your lunch, however, is fair game.
Keep Food in Your Tent
If you're looking for a furry bed companion, you should definitely eat and keep all kinds of tasty treats inside your tent.
You should never eat anything inside your tent. And you should store your food just like you store your trash -- string it between trees or put it in a bear canister. As we mentioned before, airtight plastic bags of food should be hung a minimum of 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) from the ground and 4 feet (1.2 meters) away from posts or trees, and canisters can be left on the ground, but 100 feet (30.5 meters) away from your campsite.
Leave especially pungent foods like fresh fruit and sweet drinks at home. In general, dry foods like cereal, pasta and crackers have less of a scent. Keep deodorant, toothpaste, lotion and other good-smelling toiletries out of your tent and store them with your food. Also, be sure to string up or place all pet food in a canister.
All of these are pretty good ways to attract bears, but if you want to skip the middleman, check out our final tip on the next page.
Go Ahead, Feed the Bears
Really, our fuzzy, clawed and sharp-toothed friends are not so different from us. If you go visit a friend and they hand you a piece of chocolate cake upon arrival, you're probably likely to make a return visit. In fact, you might expect that your buddy has chocolate cake waiting at the ready for you.
Bears are no different. If you really want to make a bear feel welcome at your campsite, feed it. While this may seem obvious, a surprising number of wilderness visitors simply don't see the danger in bears. When confronted with one, it seems like a decent idea to get on the bear's good side by tempting it with some marshmallows, trail mix or granola bars so you can get a closer look.
This is a very bad idea.
Attracting bears to your campsite isn't good, but at least it's accidental; luring them with food is really going to get you in trouble. Not only will the bears be happy to come back, but they may also be quite aggressive about obtaining such delicious treats again [source: Yellowstone].
To learn more about how to invite bears too close for comfort, read on for lots more information about bear safety and wilderness guides in general.
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- American Bear Association. "Senses of the Black Bear." (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.americanbear.org/senses.htm
- Center for Wildlife. "Be Bear Aware." (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.centerforwildlifeinformation.org/BeBearAware/Hiking_and_Camping/hiking_and_camping.html
- Cushing, Bruce S. "Responses of Polar Bears to Human Menstrual Odors." Bears: Their Biology and Management. Vol. 5. 1983. http://www.bearbiology.com/fileadmin/tpl/Downloads/URSUS/Vol_5/Cushing_Vol_5.pdf
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- Zuckerman, Laura. "Hungry bears smell trouble for humans in Rockies." Reuters. Sep. 29, 2010. (Jan. 9, 2012) http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/29/us-bears-rockies-idUSTRE68S4WT20100929