Camping with bears can be dangerous. One fact that all campers in Colorado have to face is that we are sharing these areas with many different species of wildlife. Most will leave campers alone. Many won’t be seen when you are camping since we tend to scare them away. But bears can be an exception. Bears are curious creatures and have little to fear from any natural predator so they do not always flee from campers out in the wilderness like most other animals do. This can cause a variety of problems, but mostly it endangers the safety of those out camping as well as the safety of the bears themselves. If you plan to go camping in Colorado, or anywhere else where bears are present, it’s best to go prepared. Every camper should know what to do to avoid bear contact. Also you should be prepared if you do encounter a bear.
Both in spring just after hibernation and in fall right before it, bear activity around humans increases.
How to Avoid Attracting Bears While Camping
The best thing to do is is to be bear aware. This means to be a smart and careful camper when setting up and maintaining your campsite. If you can avoid attracting the attention of bears, you are unlikely to have to deal with a bear encounter. This is the best way to keep yourself, and the wildlife, safe.
Always clean up your trash!
Never leave trash outside. Most Colorado campgrounds have bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters available. If they are full or there not any available where you are camping, lock your trash in your RV or trunk of your car. If you are backcountry backpacking and neither of these options is available to you, double bag the trash you can’t burn in your campfire, make sure it is sealed, and then hoist it into a tree away from your campsite. Make sure to camouflage the bag since bears have learned to identify trash sacks, cans and coolers as possible sources of food.
If It Has a Fragrance, Put It Away
Bears have an incredible sense of smell. They literally can smell a meal up to 5 miles away. Keep in mind that it is not just your idea of food that might attract a bear. They will also smell sunscreen, bug repellent, candy, beverages, toothpaste and even deodorant. All of these things can attract a bear. This means all of these things should be stored in an airtight container and kept outside of your tent and your campsite if possible. It’s even a good idea to keep any clothes you have worn while cooking outside of your tent.
Keep the Campsite Clean
This is easily the most important one. You can lock up your trash at night but if you have littered the ground with peanut shells or there are spilled chips all over the place hiding away your trash will do no good. So campers should always keep their campsites clean. Do it out of safety, courtesy to the next camper, and because it is your responsibility as a good camper. Cleaning up anything that falls on the ground also helps to keep other nuisance animals out of your campsite as well.
Don’t leave your food out. A box of crackers with a closed lid will invite forest creatures to your campsite. A chipmunk will get inside in less than 5 seconds; camp ravens may take all of 10 seconds; and a black bear one valley over can still smell those crackers. Invest in a whole pile of the clear plastic storage containers and zippered plastic bags of varying sizes. These work great for easy, airtight storage and will keep the animals out and bears from showing up. I would also suggest that you keep a towel or blanket handy to toss over whatever is left on the table so you can camouflage it. Don’t give the wildlife a reason to bother with your camp. Be diligent, be careful and be safe while camping to help to ensure a great camping trip.
How to Handle a Bear Encounter While Camping
Regardless of the precautions you take, you may have to deal with a bear when you are out camping in Colorado. All campers should know what to do if they encounter a bear in the wilderness.
If You Surprise a Bear
Stand still and stay calm, as hard as that might seem. Talk calmly to the bear and ask it to leave. Do not turn away from the bear but check the area to make sure the bear has an escape route. In most encounters of this type the bear will sniff you, listen to you a minute and then wander away. If the bear stands up it is probably just trying to get a better look at you and smell you. Don’t assume it is attacking you if it stands up. The bear will hopefully check you out and then go on its way.
Never run or climb a tree. Period.
If you spot cubs that means there is a mother bear nearby. Leave the area immediately. Do not run or panic but keep your eyes on the bears as best you can while backing away and watching for the mother bear.
If the Bear Doesn’t Leave
If the bear doesn’t leave after a few moments, wave your arms slowly and speak calmly to the bear. If the bear holds its ground, pops its jaw or paws at the ground it wants you to retreat instead. If this is the case slowly back away from the bear, downhill if possible, and continue to back away until you lose sight of the bear.
If a Bear Approaches
If a bear knowingly and willingly approaches a camper, it may have been food-conditioned to know or think that campers have food. It could be looking for a handout, or in a very rare case, be an aggressive bear. If this happens stand your ground! It’s now time to let the bear know you are not happy about it approaching and it should leave, tell the bear by yelling at it. Shout, scream and even throw rocks or sticks near the bear to scare it off. Do not hit the bear with anything thrown or you may initiate a fight, but tossing rocks and sticks near it will help to intimidate it.
Get out your bear-spray or anything you have you can fight the bear with. Campers have successfully fended off bears with pen knives, sticks, fishing poles and even their bare hands.
If the bear approaches within 40 feet, spray it in the face with your bear spray then back away, keeping your eyes on the bear. It may panic when it is hit, so give it room to flee.
It is incredibly rare that a bear will attack after this. If it does attack, fight back with all your might. Yell, scream, kick and punch it until it leaves. Once it leaves seek immediate medical attention. Even minor injuries need to be seen by medical personnel and dangerous bears need to be reported.
Bears in your Backyard when Camping
Even though Colorado has bears, human encounters with bears are relatively rare. It’s good to keep your guard up and know what to do if you encounter a bear in order to keep you and your family safe when camping.
Never feed any wild animals, especially bears. They quickly learn that humans are a source of food and will lose all fear of humans, resulting in very dangerous situations. You should also know that bears that have been food-conditioned, which means they have learned that humans can provide food, will need to be killed by park personnel or law enforcement. This is for our safety as well as theirs. Bears, and other wild animals, need to keep their distance from us, and us from them. Even leaving trash out, coolers or food clutter around a campsite will food-condition bears. Don’t allow them access to any food whatsoever. Be diligent and safe to keep your camping experiences fun and to preserve the wilderness you love. Teach these good habits to your children, neighbors and friends that join you camping. With good outdoor habits, we can not only preserve the beautiful outdoors we enjoy today, we can actually make it better for the next camper to come through.