Outdoors 101: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country

Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: A Grizzly next to a scenic lake

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Prepare for your journey into the great outdoors, where the wonders of nature await. However, before you step into bear country, safety must take precedence.

In this guide, we’ll lead you through the essentials of hiking and camping in bear territory. But before we get into the practical details, it’s essential to grasp bear behavior.

Interested? Let’s begin.

Key Takeaways

  • Understand bear behaviors – black bears scare off but grizzlies should be given space and played dead if attacked.
  • Prepare properly – know regulations, carry bear spray correctly, and make noise when hiking.
  • Practice food safety – use bear canisters or hangs, store all scented items securely, and keep cooking/dining areas separate from sleeping areas when camping.

Understanding Bear Behavior

Prior to your bear country adventure, familiarize yourself with our two main bear neighbors: black bears and grizzly bears:

Black Bears:

Image of a black bear
  • Found in various parts of North America, so the likelihood of encountering one during your outdoor adventures is relatively high.
  • Tend to be more widespread and adaptable, inhabiting diverse regions. It’s estimated that there are at least 600,000 black bears in North America.
  • They are generally smaller than grizzly bears, with a straight face profile, taller ears, and no shoulder hump.

If you encounter a black bear:

  • Appear larger, make noise, and scare it away.
  • Secure your food.
  • Don’t play dead; fight back if attacked.

Grizzly Bears:

Image of a grizzly bear
  • Grizzly bears, on the other hand, live in specific areas, primarily in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, as well as in Alaska and Western Canada.
  • It is estimated that there are currently approximately 55,000 grizzly bears scattered across North America, with a significant portion, around 30,000 of them, residing in Alaska.
  • They are considerably larger than black bears and have distinctive features, including a prominent shoulder hump, small rounded ears, and a “dished-in” or concave face profile.

If you encounter a grizzly bear:

  • Stay calm and back away slowly.
  • Be prepared for a bluff charge.
  • Play dead if attacked.

Both black bears and grizzly bears can have fur ranging from blonde to black, so fur color alone is not a reliable indicator.

Understanding these differences is crucial for your reaction during bear encounters.

Preparing for a Bear Encounter

When you’re exploring bear country, being prepared for a potential encounter is vital for your safety and the bear’s well-being. Here are some essential steps to get ready:

1. Know the Regulations: Before you set out, find out about the bear-related regulations at your destination. Different areas may have specific rules, such as requiring bear canisters or enforcing storage regulations like bear poles, cables, or lockers. Ensure you’re aware of these rules to comply with them.

2. Bear Spray: In national parks where grizzlies live, like Glacier or Grand Teton, carrying bear spray is encouraged. However, in places like Yosemite, where only black bears reside, bear spray is not allowed. Bear spray is a powerful deterrent designed to fend off a charging bear and is proven to be highly effective. Remember, never spray your tent or pack with bear spray as it may attract bears.

Guidelines for Hiking Safely in Bear Country:

  • Avoid Dawn and Dusk: Bears are most active during these times, so try to avoid hiking during dawn or dusk.
  • Hike in Groups: It’s safer to hike with a group of four or more, as larger groups are less likely to be attacked.
  • Make Noise: As you hike, make noise to avoid surprising a bear. You can shout “Hey, bear!” periodically, clap your hands, or use trekking poles. Avoid using whistles or screams, as they might be mistaken for animal distress calls.
  • Carry Bear Spray: Bear spray is a critical tool. Keep it within easy reach in a holster, not in your backpack. Be sure to practice deploying it before your trip.

Camping in Bear Country

Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: A hiker sitting and enjoying his break

Camping in bear country comes with its own set of rules to ensure safety for both you and the bears. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Keep Food Secure: Bears have an excellent sense of smell, and food is a major attraction for them. Never leave food out and unattended. Always store your food safely during both day and night.

2. Proper Food Storage: Utilize proper food storage techniques. This can include using bear canisters, bear bags, tree- or pole-hang bags, or provided metal food lockers. Anything with a scent, from food and snacks to even empty containers and cookware, should be stored securely. Some hikers even store their stove. To delve deeper into bear canisters, check out our dedicated post here.

3. Distance from Your Camp: Cook your meals and wash your dishes (and hands) away from your tent. This prevents food odors from attracting bears near your sleeping area. Use only a tiny amount of unscented soap to minimize odors.


Prepare for your bear country adventure by understanding bear behaviors. For black bear encounters, make noise, secure food, and don’t play dead. With grizzlies, stay calm, anticipate a bluff charge, and play dead if attacked.

Familiarize yourself with regulations, carry bear spray, and follow safe hiking practices. While camping, prioritize food security and storage for safety.

With this knowledge, you can venture into bear country with confidence, but never forget to prioritize safety above all else. Additionally, think about carrying a personal locator beacon or a satellite messenger to provide an added layer of security and assurance.


What is the bear safety rhyme?

The bear safety rhyme, often referred to as “If it’s black, fight back; if it’s brown, lie down,” is a simple mnemonic device to help people remember how to react when encountering bears in the wild. When facing a black bear, which is generally less aggressive, it suggests being assertive and fighting back if attacked. Conversely, when encountering a brown bear, including grizzly bears known for their aggressiveness, it advises playing dead by lying flat on your stomach with your hands over your head if the bear attacks. While this rhyme can be a helpful memory aid, it’s essential to understand that bear encounters are unpredictable, and following local guidelines and safety precautions is paramount.

How far away can bears smell food?

Bears, whether black or grizzly, possess an extraordinary sense of smell, with the ability to detect food scents from significant distances. Black bears can typically smell food from several miles away, while grizzly bears can detect it from as far as 20 miles. To ensure safety in bear country, it’s essential to store food properly and follow food storage guidelines meticulously, minimizing the risk of attracting these bears to your campsite or trail.

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