How To & Tips | July 2021

A Guide to Car Camping in Bear Country

We are drawn to the wonders of bear country. From hot springs to aspen forests to prominent mountains and flowing trout streams, bears live in stunning spaces. As more of us take to the road this summer in pursuit of these wild places, it is essential to understand bear safety as well as how it applies to us — even from the comfort of our own car.

Keep a Clean Camp

Above all else, when car camping in bear country, the most important practice is to keep a clean camp. Maintain a small footprint and reduce your impact. The stakes are higher in bear country because, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Therefore, the repercussions of a dirty, unkempt camp could cost a bear his life. It is the campers’ responsibility to keep their camp free of trash and other wildlife attractants.

Be diligent about collecting all the trash from the day. Use bear-proof trash cans or dumpsters, when available. If bear-proof trash cans are not available, secure your trash in a sealed container and store it in your car. That granola wrapper that you threw in your pocket earlier could be enough to grab the attention of a bear, or at the very least, a curious mouse.

After a trash-free camp comes organization. Separating your gear from your kitchen and food supply sets you up for success when it is time to bear-proof your camp. And believe it or not, compartmentalization goes a long way when camping out of your car.

Ideally, you have ample storage during the day to access your gear without jeopardizing comfortable sleep at night. Plastic bins or duffel bags are great ways to keep you organized. An inflatable and modular mattress, like the Luno Air Mattress 2.0, allows you to pack it down and store it during the day as well as transform your space into sleep mode at night. Truly the best of both worlds. Finding a system that works for you is key, and ultimately, your camp will remain uninteresting to a foraging bear.

Secure your Smellables

In bear country, everything is smelly to a bear. The basics include food, trash, soap, sunscreen, toothpaste and pet food. Identifying and grouping your smellables together makes it easy when it is time to bear-proof your car.

Once you have identified your items that have an odor, it is important to come up with a plan on where and how to store them when you leave for the day or turn in for the night. The most convenient and realistic solution is to put your smellables together in a sealed container and store the container in your car. If you are storing these items in your car, remember to roll your windows up and lock the doors any time you leave your car unattended. Car window screens are a great tool to keep curious bears from sneaking a peak into your vehicle, while also giving you a little bit of privacy and warding off the hot summer sun.

If you find yourself camping in an established campground and there is a metal, locking bear box available, use it! This is ideal when securing your food and other smellable items during the day or at night. Bear boxes are great because they will even free up space in your car for a better night’s sleep.

Secure your smellables, and designate a plan for cooking. If it is available to you, cook away from your car and do not sleep in the clothes you cooked in. When in doubt, classify it as a smellable and store it. Plan to leave the extra smelly foods at home - Aunt Linda’s tuna fish salad is tasty, but it is best enjoyed away from bear country. It’s just safer that way.

Hanging a bear bag is always a good option when camping in heavily trafficked bear country. Ursack bags are a great option for hanging several days’ worth of food and they are an alternative to a bear canister if you are hiking in the backcountry. When purely car camping, hanging a bear bag can be slightly inconvenient and troublesome, especially if you have a lot of food or if there are few trees. However, it is always a good tool to know and a great extra step to keep your campsite clean.

It just takes one instance of a bear accessing food in camp to become habituated. So be prepared and spend the extra time bear-proofing your camp and car.

Know Before You Go

A little research goes a long way and familiarizing yourself with local regulations can help ease your mind when stepping into bear country. Gathering information on seasonal precautions or wildlife closures can help you better plan your trip and keep you safe out there. The National Park Service has great tips for safe hiking, and park rangers and local gear shops are always good resources. Inquire about any recent sightings and encounters when you arrive. Gather more information and enjoy your time worry-free.

Some campgrounds with heavy bear activity require hard-sided vehicle camping, so it is important to go into your trip with the proper expectations.

When traveling with pets, always follow the rules and keep your pet under control and within sight. Leashing your pet is as much for their safety as it is for the safety of the wildlife. Pets can be a deterrent or an attractant for bears and generally, a deterrent for wildlife. Just because you do not see them, does not mean they do not see you. Keep Fido close, just in case.

A Quick Note on Bear Pepper Spray

There are several misconceptions around bear spray. Bear spray is a non-lethal, highly potent pepper spray designed to stop an aggressive bear if it is charging at you. It is not a repellant and should not be sprayed on your tent, gear or skin. Bear spray is easy to pick up and can serve as a life-saving tool. Be confident and careful when carrying bear spray. Check out Yellowstone National Park’s video on how to safely use bear spray.

Plan to always carry bear spray in grizzly bear country. While you are hiking, bear spray should be accessible outside of your pack with the safety engaged. When car camping, keep the bear spray in a designated spot that is easily accessible yet safely stored. Be mindful of leaving the can in a hot car during the day (the cans are under pressure and can explode if they get too hot) or within reach of children. You should never have to use your bear spray, but if you find yourself confronted by an aggressive bear, you will be happy to have it.

Do not let a fear of bears keep you from exploring new places. When you travel in bear terrain, be bear prepared and bear aware. Rest easy and safely enjoy those comfortable nights in the great outdoors.


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