How to Be Bear-Savvy When Hiking and Camping

Bears are generally afraid of people and rarely attack unless provoked. To avoid unwanted confrontations while hiking or camping, brush up on your bear etiquette.

By Reader's Digest Editors
Grizzly Bear© Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

While bear attacks get lots of media attention, most of them are actually caused by inappropriate human behavior, according to the Center for Wildlife Information. Indeed, bears are generally afraid of people and rarely attack unless provoked (you are 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear). To avoid unwanted confrontations while hiking or camping, brush up on your bear etiquette.

The most common types of bears are grizzlies and black bears. Grizzlies are most common in Canada and the northwest United States, including Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Washington. They are usually at least 6.5’ in height. Black bears are more common and can be found in all 50 states. They are slightly smaller, with shorter claws. Here are some tips for dealing with both varieties:

Make noise while you walk. Clapping your hands, singing, ringing bells, or speaking loudly will keep you from surprising a bear. Surprised bears are more likely to react aggressively.

Do not take your dog with you. A dog can provoke a bear and send it your way.

Carry bear pepper spray. This should be your first line of defense if a bear attacks. It creates a large cloud that will usually stop a bear in its tracks.

Never ever feed or approach a bear.

When you see a bear stand up, it is not attacking but trying to see, hear, and smell you better. Talk firmly in a low-pitched voice while backing away. Avoid direct eye contact, as bears may perceive this as a challenge or threat.

Keep children with you on the trail at all times. If you see a bear, immediately pick up small children while you assess what to do.

Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. A startled black bear will often send her cubs up a tree while she stands guard at the bottom. This gives you a chance to walk away without a confrontation. Never come between a mother bear and her cub.

If attacked by a bear, do not run. The bear will think you are prey and will chase you.

Do not climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers.

If a bear touches you, drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. Stay still and do not struggle or scream. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels you are not a threat. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.

When camping, make sure to set up camp in an open area away from dense vegetation.

Before you set up camp, look around for discarded food or for signs that bears have been around, such as bear tracks, poop, or scratched trees. If you see these signs, look for a new campsite.

Be scentless. Bears are attracted by smells, so use fragrance-free shampoos and soaps. Insect-repelling citronella candles actually can attract bears.

Keep all food, even wrapped food, in bear-proof containers at least one hundred yards from your tent. Garbage and the clothing you wear while cooking should also be stashed this far away. Wash all utensils immediately after use.

Clean up after yourself. Don’t jeopardize campers who follow you by leaving food around.

Plus: Tips for Camping and Cookouts


Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail

  • Your Comments

    • Mr.Man

      Use a death machine or a hunter killer drone people

    • Oreogomez

      yup nothing says safty than a 300 remeton rifle or 12 gage shotgun 

    • Cfredcrawmer3

      Spent three weeks hiking Alaska’s backcountry n never had a surprise encounter with a bear.  Based that on making noise & applying reasonable caution…delightful time, & yes we carried a heavy duty canister of pepper spray

    • MSrebel

      While hiking they say wear bells on your backpack or shoes to jingle and make a racket, to alert bears. Others say that just serves as dinner bells for hungry nomadic killer bears, who knows?

    • BARF

      So, after my last bear broke through two front doors, that wasn’t enough. It went around to the 
      backyard and broke through two back gates and then through a window that was much too small.
      Alot of blood. Amazing that it ate everything in the cabinets and fridge and didn’t leave a scratch
      on the wood. We recieved a very large check from our insurance company. So the next time, I’m
      in a quandary. Let it eat my kitchen and and collect the cash, OR put a 44mag in it’s brain and me
      go to jail. Actually, at the moment I’m having a HUGE beaver problem!!!! Destroying my Aspen
      trees next to the river. Anybody out there got a recipe for barbecuing beaver?

      • Gunluvr

         Confronted by a bear threatening your family and you’re worried about going to jail?

      • MSrebel

        Sure do. And its a good one!

    • James Caldwell

      Nothing says ‘Bear Safety’ like a .500 Smith&Wesson.

      • Gunluvr

         Pepper spray, 44 or 500 Magnum with heavy 3 or 400 grain bullets should do the trick.

      • MSrebel

        I hear rubbing bacon grease and blueberry jelly over your face and arms is a good repellant. At least that’s what my ex -wife swears by.

        • Shicli5

          That’s why she should be your ex-wife……..she would like the bear to do what she didn’t have the guts to do……………………

        • Shicli5

          That’s why she should be your ex-wife……..she would like the bear to do what she didn’t have the guts to do……………………