If a bear comes to your tent, the first thing to remember is not to panic—hundreds of campers, hikers, and hunters have close encounters with bears every year, and bear attacks on humans are exceedingly rare for both black bears and North American grizzlies.
If a bear comes to your tent, you can repel them from campsites with loud, startling noises and large body gestures since most bears spook easily in contact with humans. If a bear persists, bear spray or a gun can be used to deter or stop the bear. Bears that approach camps are often put down as a danger to humans.
Chances are if a bear comes across a campsite, it is either just passing through or was attracted by the scent of food. Young bears or bears that have been hand-fed by humans are especially vulnerable to this. Read on to find out more about what to do if a bear comes to your tent.
What to Do When A Bear Approaches the Tent
How you handle a bear coming to your tent depends significantly on the circumstances. If you’re lying in your tent at night and you hear the telltale snuffling and grunting of a bear rifling through the camp outside your tent, you’re in a much different position to protect yourself than someone who is sitting in their camp during the day when a bear walks up.
Here are some ways to react when a bear stumbles into your campsite:
- Be quiet first. Often, once a bear realizes there are humans present, it will take off. For many wild animals, their fear of humans outranks their desire for a free meal. Being quiet can also help you verify that it is a bear that is approaching your tent if you hear one outside at night. If you see a bear approaching your tent, standing still and watching it can allow it to pass on peacefully. This is the best option. Try not to be afraid, as animals can sense fear.
- Then use your voice. If a bear approaches your tent or your campsite and won’t move on, the first thing to remember is that the top deterrent to a bear is the sound of a human voice. Start waving your arms and shouting without advancing towards the bear if it approaches you in camp. In your tent, if a bear comes closer, start yelling or use an air horn to startle it.
- Get your bear spray or gun ready. Try not to use either unless the bear starts trying to rip the tent open with you inside it because if you shoot bear spray inside a tent, you’re hitting yourself as much as the animal. With regards to a gun, remember, unless you’re loaded for a bear, a glancing wound from a lighter weapon is just as likely to anger a bear as it is to drive it away.
- Do not confront the bear but stand your ground. If a bear approaches your tent, it may not be in an aggressive mood, but if you attack it and put it on the defense, that is not a battle you’re likely to win. On the flip side of that, do not run away from a bear. As with many large predators, this can initiate a prey drive or the impulse to chase.
- Don’t run. No matter what species of bear you’re up against, bears can run approximately 35 miles an hour. At full blast, the average person can only run around 10-15 miles an hour. That means if a bear runs after you, it is going to catch you. Running only excites a bear’s predatory impulses and causes it to see you as food.
- Know when to fight back. If a bear won’t back away from your tent or continues to advance towards you in your campsite, retaliate against the bear with bear spray or a gun. A face full of bear spray will drive most bears away quickly. If you have a gun, try firing a warning shot first before shooting the animal. This is usually enough to drive off all but the most predatory of bears.
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When you’re trying to repel a bear from your tent, it’s a good idea to be as conservative with your efforts as possible. Most bears will not attack a person directly even if they’re raiding a campsite for food that was not put away correctly, but they might become aggressive if they try to rip open a tent looking for more food and find sleeping humans instead.
If a bear does physically attack you in or around your tent or assaults the tent itself, it’s important to fight back as loudly and as fiercely as you can with whatever you have at hand—a gun, a rock, a flashlight, or camping utensils. Aim for sensitive areas such as the nose and eyes. Never forget that a bear who has become bold enough to rip open your tent sees you as food, and nothing else.
While bear attacks are rare, bear attacks are also disproportionately fatal in comparison to other wild animal attacks when they do occur. So it’s vital if you’re camping in bear country that you know the correct way to camp to deter curious, hungry bears and how to drive one from camp if you do come across one in the backcountry.
Different Kinds of Bears and Their Behavior
When trying to decide how to deal with a bear that has approached your campsite, it’s important to distinguish between the two major types of bear that people in North America are likely to encounter while camping: the black bear and the grizzly.
Polar bears are also present in North America, but most recorded polar bear attacks have occurred in or near towns. They are also not as many attacks because fewer people cohabitate with polar bears than other types of bear.
While black bears are smaller and shier than their larger, more intimidating grizzly cousins, a black bear advancing on a human is more likely to be in a predatory mode than a grizzly. Under normal circumstances, black bears avoid humans to the point that you aren’t likely to know one is in the area even if you passed right by them. If one approaches you and isn’t deterred by the sound of your voice, you’re probably in trouble.
Grizzly bears are less shy than black bears but are less afraid of humans and more likely to attack a human defensively (or just because they came across them in the wild). Polar bears are the most dangerous and aggressive of all bears—while they cause more fatal attacks against people than any other species of bear in North America, they are also the only kind of bear that is known to attack humans in the middle of a town in broad daylight.
How to Prevent a Bear from Investigating Your Tent
Hunters and fishers are much more likely to encounter bears than regular campers since they are often accompanied by the smell of fresh kills that draw the bears in. However, there are also ways that people inadvertently draw bears to their campsites that can put them at an unnecessary risk for bear attacks.
Here are some of the ways you can adjust your camping methods to avoid bear encounters:
- Keep food and other scented items stored safely away. This doesn’t only include aromatic food such as meat and cheese but also dried goods, pet food, cooking oils, canned sodas, cosmetics, or anything else with a strong and unfamiliar smell that might attract a curious bear.
- Keep sleeping tents away from the cookfire. You want at least a hundred feet between any place where you store or cook food at the camp and the tents where you sleep, just in case a bear does come calling. Many people are only aware of a visiting bear in the night by the sign of tracks around the cookfire the next morning. Don’t sleep in the clothes you cooked in.
- Never eat in your tent or store food in it. Food should always be stored suspended ten to fifteen feet above the ground in a camper’s cache or sealed up in airtight containers in a vehicle. Food should never enter the sleeping area while you’re in bear country, period.
- Camp well away from signs of bears. That means any fresh carcasses or kills, patches of berries, riverside areas where the salmon are running, bear scat, or bear tracks. If a bear has left a partial carcass, they are likely to return the area to feed on it later.
- Always keep a flashlight and bear spray (or a gun) in your tent. If you get woken up by a bear while in your tent in the middle of the night, you’ll only have a few seconds to get these items handy to defend yourself, and it will be even harder in the pitch dark.
- Avoid strong-smelling, oily foods such as bacon, fish, and sausage. The smell of these foods travels far and can draw in nearby bears who are passing by, especially younger bears who have a more difficult time foraging on their own.
- Never leave discarded food or garbage in your campground when you pack your camp. Bears that learn to scavenge at campsites are more likely to attack campers and are more likely to be preemptively shot to prevent it. Don’t encourage bears to engage in behavior that leads to them getting shot.
- Never feed bears. While it might seem like the Instagram selfie of a lifetime to feed a young black bear that has wandered into your camp, bears that become accustomed to begging and stealing from people inevitably end up being shot to prevent them from becoming bolder and attacking humans outright. Do the bears a favor and keep your food away from them.
- Never, ever approach a baby bear. Ever. It should almost go without saying, but if you’re hiking on a trail and come across a young bear cub, an angry bear mother is not too far behind. Turn around and head in the opposite direction as quickly as you can without running.
If some common sense is used when preparing to camp in bear country and you don’t actively approach bears in the wild, the threat of a bear attack is remote.
Methods and Tools for Repelling Bears
There are several tools you can have on hand that can help prevent you from being attacked by a bear and avoid having to use lethal force against one.
Before trying to stop a predatory or curious bear with a gun, try some of this gear:
- Air horns: The loud blast from an air horn will startle most bears and other aggressive wildlife into leaving. Another benefit of an air horn is that it can also be used by campers in case they become lost, making it an excellent dual-purpose tool for the camp. It can also be used as a warning during boating activities.
- Bear bells: Bear bells are used by hikers to make noise on the trail. Most bear attacks occur on hikers because the hiker startles a bear on the trail, while a bear bell gives them plenty of warning to clear out before a person can get close to them.
- Bear repellent spray: Like mace or pepper spray, bear repellent spray is a critical last-ditch effort to drive a bear from your campsite or tent before lethal force is used. Bear spray is one of the few bear deterrent methods that has also proven effective against polar bears.
- Predator control lights: For those who are camping deep in bear country, a strobing predator control light can help drive wildlife far from camp. The downside is that a strobe light might not be that easy for campers to sleep through, either.
- A gun: No matter what type of gun is used for bear defense, it’s essential to use ammunition that is rated as being powerful enough to stop a bear. If you shoot a bear and the bear doesn’t run or drop, you’re in trouble. (I would suggest .44 Magnum or larger in a revolver, 10MM in a semi-auto pistol, 12 gauge slugs or 00 buckshot in a shotgun, .308 Win/.30-06/.270 Win/.300 Win Mag in a rifle.)
If you use precautions when setting up your camp to avoid attracting bears through scent, chances are you’ll never have to use any of your other bear-repelling gear. But in case a bear shows up, it’s always good to have equipment ready to handle the problem.
Is It Dangerous to Camp in Bear Country?
Bear attacks are dangerous, and many of the people who are attacked by bears are killed. But the truth of the matter is that bear attacks (of any species) are extremely rare.
Only a few dozen fatalities related to bears have been recorded in the past few decades, and the North American black bear only kills approximately a single person a year. Since 1900, black bears are only recorded as having killed 67 people. In other words, you’re more likely to die in a car wreck on your way to go camping in bear country than you are to be killed by a bear.
Most of the people who are attacked or killed by bears are killed in remote areas where bears are not often exposed to human contact. Bears that are acclimated to humans (also known as the kind of bears that would stomp into a campground like they own the place) are much less likely to engage in a fatal attack on people. These bears are scavengers that have learned to sponge off human campers.
Many bear attacks are not predatory and are instead classified as defensive attacks. Defensive attacks occur in some of the following scenarios:
- A camper comes across a mother bear with her cubs
- A hiker accidentally runs into a bear using the same game trail
- A camper, hiker, or hunter interrupts a bear during its meal
Bears that are more likely to raid human campgrounds are young bears, bears that have been fed by humans, and injured or elderly bears who are finding regular foraging options more difficult. Many times these bears are humanely euthanized by bear managers in wildlife preserves, as once a bear has learned to raid campgrounds for easy food, it becomes increasingly dangerous to allow around humans.
Overall, predatory bear attacks (or attacks where a human is attacked as a source of food) are very rare among all three dominant bear species in North America. It’s no more dangerous to camp in bear country than it is to camp anywhere else.
As long as you avoid bears in the wild and avoid putting them in the position where they might find the campground a tempting place to be, chances are you aren’t likely to run into a bear except through a set of binoculars. Most bears go out of their way to avoid humans when they can, which is why bear deterrents such as predator control lights and bear bells work so well.
Bear country is some of the most beautiful camping in the world, and if you make sure to set up your tent and campground properly, chances are you’ll never have to worry about a bear nosing around your tent.