In addition to obvious signs like animal tracks and scat there are a few telltale signs to indicate if there are bears in the area. For example, last year, while camping in a new location on the Rim, I found a hillside, not far from camp, that was covered with large rocks that had been flipped over, which I found interesting. I began to wonder if perhaps there were bears in the area, because being omnivores, bears will often flip rocks and dead wood over in an attempt to get at tasty grubs, and other insects.
At the same time, I found a large patch of huge, bright orange mushrooms that I wanted to photograph. I was hoping to take pictures of the different stages of mushroom development as they emerged from the soil. Unfortunately, when I went back the next day to get my shots, I found the mushrooms I wanted to photograph utterly destroyed and pieces of half chewed shrooms all over the place. At this point I was sure there were bears in the area, even though I had seen no tracks or any other signs.
Anyway, I told my husband about what I found and that I strongly suspected we were in prime bear country. Well, as usual, he didn’t believe me, and said that the mushrooms were probably ate by chipmunks…….. Okaaaay. I admit, I do scare easily in the woods and normally when we’re camping I have a tendency to hear strange things late at night, which my husband claims is just my overactive imagination. But I know better……. the woods are full of things that will eat you! As It turned out, on day 10 of a 12 day campout, he spotted 2 young bear cubs scrambling up the hill where I had found the overturned rocks the week before.
As for me, after I was totally vindicated with the bear sightings, I didn’t say a word – not even an “I told you so!” I just kept quiet, secretly smiling to myself – thinking about the next time I spotted some dangerous wild animal approaching our camp. I won’t say a word! Not a peep! I will just quietly slip into our truck, and lock my husband outside to deal with “my imagination”. With a wicked little smile on my face, I’ll teasingly dangle the only keys to the truck, and watch him run around the vehicle a few times, bear close on his heals………... What’s that Honey?..........A Bear is chasing you?................ What Bear? All I see is a cute cuddly little chipmunk…………..
Seriously though, here are a few bear safety tips you may want to follow when camping or hiking in the wilderness.
1. First of all, keep your camp clean and odor-free. Don’t leave food out (including pet food), and be sure to store it in bear resistant containers or in your vehicle. Remember that most National Parks now require you to store food in approved containers that can either be purchased or sometimes rented for short stays. If you are planning a camping trip in bear country, you may want to check out the following companies which sell bear-proof containers:
2. When camping in the backcountry, explore potential campsites before setting up your tent to make sure you are not camping near an animal carcass. This is the mistake we made at Bear Patch. If was only at the end of our camping trip that we discovered the carcass of an elk about 150 yards from camp. This explains why we had so many bear encounters during that 2 week trip, even though we took the proper precautions with our food and garbage.
3. Try to avoid hunter’s camps if possible. Be aware that sometimes hunters will field dress deer, or other animals they have killed and discard unwanted pieces of the carcass near their camp. The trimmings will certainly attract hungry bears to the area. I can’t even count the number of times, we thought we found a nice place to camp, but was forced to move on after we discovered it was used as a hunter’s camp.
4. NEVER keep food in your tent, as bears have a great sense of smell, and may decide to surprise you in the middle of the night. Last year there were several instances of campers being attacked and even killed while sleeping in their tents. On a side note, if you and your spouse don’t get along, and you just can’t stand the sight of them anymore – spread a little peanut butter under their sleeping bag!
5. Do not bury your trash. But instead, find a nice tree far away from your camp and hang it high up on a branch where the bears can’t reach it, as shown in the photograph below. We always try to hang our trash at least 100 yards from our campsite when possible so bears won’t be attracted to our camp. Remember to pack out any trash you generate!!
6. If you are hiking, it is a good idea to hike in groups and make a lot of noise as you walk along a trail, so that you don’t surprise a bear. You may also want to buy some EPA-approved pepper spray or bear repellent containing Capsaicin. If you are forced to use pepper spray to protect yourself from an aggressive bear that is actively stalking you, remember that most sprays are only effective at short distances - 25 feet or less.
You may also want to practice using the pepper spray on moving targets such as on your spouse, or small children who drive you crazy by kicking the back of your car seat while you are driving. Keep practicing until you are comfortable with aiming the pepper spray……… And yes, I do have a wicked sense of humor!
When aiming the pepper spray make sure that the nozzle is pointed away from you and that you don’t spray into the wind or you may incapacitate yourself – it has happened! I have also heard of inexperienced campers who end up sleeping outside under the stars because they sprayed their tent with pepper spray to keep the bears away. This obviously doesn’t work and will most likely make the tent uninhabitable!! Pepper spray isn’t like mosquito repellent and should only be used when you are being threatened by an aggressive bear. Most importantly be sure to check the expiration date. Any descent sporting goods store should carry bear repellent. The following are a few links to companies that sell pepper spray:
7. If you happen to encounter a bear, NEVER run as this will just trigger the predator-prey chase response. Slowly back away and put as much distance between you and the bear as possible. Again, if your spouse is with you and they haven’t seen the bear, use them as a decoy. Have them stand still with their back to the bear, while you pretend to take a photograph of them. Slowly back away while claiming you are just trying to get the camera in focus…….and then make your escape.
8. If you have pets, and your car is close, put them inside your vehicles ASAP. I have heard that bears will kill dogs when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, we have to stake our dogs out because they have a bad habit of chasing ATVs and cars. Being tied down they couldn’t escape and wouldn’t have a chance if a bear decided to attack them. So at the first sight of a bear in the area, the first thing we do is put our dogs in the truck.
9. A bear’s body language will tell you a lot about their mood and intent – For example, sometimes bears will stand up on their hind legs. This normally isn’t aggressive behavior. Most of the time, they are just curious and checking things out, sniffing the air for strange scents and trying to get a better field of vision.
10. Bears that are making huffing noises, chomping or bearing their teeth or lips, or angrily swiping at the ground with their massive paws are warning you that they are aggravated because you are in their territory and are much to close. An aggressive bear may lock on to you and lower its head and lays its ears back before attacking. If a bear charges, stand your ground, as some bears just make bluff charges. Climbing a tree, (and I have foolishly considered this) may not help either as most bears can climb trees.
11. I have heard that if you are physically attacked by a bear, to lay flat on the ground to protect your belly, with legs slightly spread apart, and your hands folded in back of your neck, with elbows pointed forward to protect your face and head. By laying very still, hopefully the bear won’t feel threatened and may abort the attack. If you are wearing a backpack, you may want to leave it on, as it may offer a layer of protection. If the bear has stopped the assault, play dead for awhile until you are sure it has gone.
12. If laying still doesn’t work, use whatever is available to protect yourself, such as rocks and sticks. On a side note, I have thought about this quite a lot- about what I would do if attacked by a mountain lion or some other super-predator. It seems to me that protecting your head and neck is of prime importance because when making a kill, lions will most often go for the head or throat in an attempt to crush or close the windpipe which incapacitates their prey via lack of oxygen. Either that or they will snap the neck of their prey. Either way, the outcome is gruesome…….
13. Finally, If you ever spot baby bears in the wild, NEVER EVER approach them. They may seem cute and cuddly, but I always get a little nervous when I see bear cubs, because I know that means Mama is in the area, and there is nothing more dangerous than a mama bear protecting her cubs. Even if you aren’t real close to the cubs, mama bear may still perceive you as a threat to her babies and will run several hundred yards across an open field to chase you away. Remember bears are great runners, and can cover distances with great speed (> 35 mph) and very little effort. You can’t outrun a bear, and they have earned their status as a super-predator.
Camping in the wilderness, and enjoying nature is a wonderful pastime, but you have to be aware of your surroundings, and be prepared for potential dangers you may encounter. Even though I am a bit of a scaredy cat, there is nothing in the world I would rather do than explore the wilderness, and stand in awe of those special places that upon discovery, take your breath away!! Well I guess that’s it for now………. I think it’s time to cuddle up on the couch, turn on the TV and watch “THE EDGE” for the hundredth time!