Lesson Learned: Avoiding Campsite Bears

Black bear at Springwater provincial park, before it closed

Black bear at Springwater provincial park, before it closed

When I was in my early twenties, my friend and I decided to spend a couple of days camping near North Bay, ON. This was before I became a habitual camper, so I was a little naive. I had heard that you’re supposed to store your food, stove and anything else that smells good inside your car, but living in black bear country, I had also heard of the damage that bears can do to cars while trying to extract food from them. And, since I was young and had just bought my first non-beater, I didn’t like the sound of the second possibility. So I decided to pack all of our food tightly into the cooler and place it under the bench of our picnic table for the night. My friend also unintentionally left out the clear, plastic packaging from the croissants we ate on the ride there.

We forgot to bring a flashlight, so we went to bed as soon as it got dark. I had just fallen asleep when my friend woke me silently, but frantically — there was a black bear in our campsite. And it was LOUD. And it was DESTROYING something. And it was completely terrifying. It felt like my heart was in my throat.

Panicked, I searched the floor of the dark tent for my keys to set off my car alarm and scare the bear away. My friend was so terrified that she didn’t want me to activate the alarm in case the bear attacked us. After arguing silently for a minute or two, another camper who heard the racket came out of his tent and started walking toward our campsite. As soon as the bear heard him, it took off. By the amount of noise the bear made, we assumed that it had destroyed our entire campsite! However, the bear only destroyed the clear, plastic croissant packaging (which can sound REALLY loud at night! lol), but miraculously left the cooler. It probably just hadn’t got around to the cooler before it was scared off.

Needless to say, that was the last time I ever left food of any kind out overnight while camping. It was also the last time that I’ve ever had a bear hang out in my campsite.

Campground bears know that where there are people, there is food/garbage. And, where they’ve found food once, there’s a good chance they can find it there again so they will keep checking that same place over and over. Are they out to eat people? No. Are they out to hurt you? No. Are they out to wreck your stuff and scare the daylights out of you? No. They’re just opportunistic. On extremely rare occasions, they can be dangerous, but for the most part, they’re just looking to get lucky. Like finding a charred lump of sugar in a bush (the burning marshmallow that your kid accidentally launched into the woods when he was waving the roasting stick around, trying to put out the flames). Or the piece of bread you left out for a cute little chipmunk. Or in my case, the cooler full of food left out by a twenty-something girl who didn’t want her car (her only valuable possession in the world at the time) destroyed.

Bears have a sense of smell that is roughly 2,100X better than ours. They can smell everything. So the best way to avoid all this mess is to keep a super clean campsite:

  • Store ALL of your food in your trunk. Bears are less likely to smell/see it in your trunk. If you have to keep it in the main part of your vehicle, keep your windows rolled up all the way and throw a towel over your cooler — there are reports of black bears becoming so accustomed to the camping lifestyle, that they can recognize coolers (square, red or blue bottom with a white lid) and other food items.
  • Try to throw out your garbage and recycling (including empty beer bottles) in the dumpsters/recycling facilities every night. If you can’t, store them in your trunk.
  • Store ALL of your cooking equipment in your trunk.
  • Store ALL of your toiletries (including toothpaste) in your trunk.
  • Never bring food-stained clothing into your tent and NEVER eat or bring food into your tent.
  • Try not to spill any food/beverage on the campsite.
  • Dump your dirty dish water in vault toilets.
  • Don’t leave pet food or bird seed out overnight. Bears LOVE birdseed.
  • If you’re interior camping, store your food (and anything else with a scent) in an air-tight canoe pack or barrel and hang it in a tree, roughly 15-20 ft off the ground, at least 100 ft from your campsite. Try to hang it at least 6 feet away from the trunk of the tree (not always possible).
  • If you’re lucky enough to camp at a park that has food storage lockers, use them! The only Ontario Park that I’ve seen with bear lockers is Missinaibi. Some National parks in Ontario have food lockers for backcountry campsites. (Edit: ParkBus have recently installed food lockers at Algonquin park for their riders).

Following the above suggestions will help you avoid negative bear encounters as well as other nuisance animals like raccoon and skunks. You might still have bears wander through your site, looking for food, but when they don’t find anything, they simply move on to the next site. By keeping a clean campsite, you’re also helping to prevent bears from developing these bad habits in the first place. When bears become habitual campsite-crashers, they can lose their fear of humans and their natural ability to find food. When this happens, they are often trapped by the park and destroyed.

Do your part to ensure that Wildlife remains wild!

Bear Trap at Esker Lakes Provincial park, 2011.

Bear Trap at Esker Lakes Provincial park, 2011.

Have any scary bear stories you want to share? 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Lesson Learned: Avoiding Campsite Bears

  1. Pingback: Bear Spray: What it is and how to use it | woodsywisdom

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