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RVs And Bears - Safe Camping in Bear Country

Mark Quasius
Apr 7, 2014
Photographers: Mark Quasius
RV travel is a great way to get out and see the great outdoors. National and state parks are some of the most popular destinations for RV owners. There’s nothing quite like setting up camp in a cluster of trees and exploring the Park’s many hiking trails. But keep in mind: We aren’t the only ones out there. One of the main reasons travelers visit parks, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier is to see a grizzly bear in the wild.
Unfortunately, bears are widely misunderstood. Wild bears aren’t the same as the Teddy Bear on your bedroom pillow. Armed with a bit of knowledge and a lot of common sense, you’ll avoid confronting bear in a negative situation. My wife Leann and I have spent a great deal of time out west -- more than 100 days in Yellowstone alone -- and we’ve had numerous occasions to spot and interact with bears. Along the way, we’ve learned a few tips that will help you interact with bears in a safe and enjoyable manner.
Photo 2/11   |   Black bears are great foragers and are especially prone to visiting campsites. This black bear walked right through our motorhome’s picnic area but found nothing and moved into the nearby thicket.
A Bear’s Life
Bears are powerful and impressive, with an amazing sense of smell and a unique lifestyle. Everyone wants to see one bear. Basically, its life revolves around waking up from hibernation every spring and eating its way to winter. With enough body fat, a bear can hibernate and repeat the cycle all over again the following year. Bears are generally perceived to be aggressive, but in all but the rarest cases, it is not true. Black bears generally retreat when humans are present, but grizzlys are highly defensive. If they perceive a threat to their family or food source, they react with power and speed that can have deadly consequences -- for the human and bear. The key is never allow yourself to get into a situation where a bear thinks you are a threat.
What really sets bears apart from other animals is their amazing sense of smell, which is seven times more sensitive than a bloodhound and over 300 times more than a human. Grizzlies are known to smell carrion up to 20 miles upwind and can detect elk carcasses underwater. Their noses have vastly more olfactory sensors than humans, and the area of the brain that controls their sense of smell is roughly five times larger than humans, even though their brain is roughly one third the size.
Photo 3/11   |   Bears are quick learners and can force their way into most any container. Bear-proof containers are located in campsites, which will allow you access for disposing of your trash but deny access to a bear.
A bear’s life is all about eating. Coming out of hibernation, a bear is weak and undernourished. It lacks the strength or energy to run after game, so its first task is to find carrion, such as elk or bison, that didn’t survive the winter. If fish are running in nearby streams, they will go fishing. When elk calves are born during the spring, they are unable to outrun a grizzly and often become the next item on the bear’s menu. In Yellowstone, elk calf mortality rate ranges from 50 to 85 percent, depending on the year. Elk calves cannot outrun a bear until 8 weeks of age, which means, May through mid-June is when most calves are taken by bears.
Bears are omnivores, which means they eat anything. Later in summer, bears can be seen at higher altitudes searching talus slopes for cutworm moths. White bark pine nuts are another excellent source of high-protein food, much to the chagrin of squirrels that have stored away caches of these nuts for their own menu. After these sources are exhausted, the bear descends into lower altitudes to feast on berries and anything else available. This is a generalization, though. Bears are opportunists and will take advantage of whatever food source is nearby.
Grizzlys need a large area in which to forage, and generally are extremely intolerant of other bears, unless the area is rich in food sources. Black bears are smaller, don’t eat as much, and spend more time foraging rather than hunting.
Photo 4/11   |   Not all black bears are black, such as this cinnamon bear. Most cinnamon bears are mistaken for grizzlies due to their coloring. Black bears don’t have the dished face or distinctive back hump. Their ears are not as round like a grizzly and their claws have shorter, more-curved nails.
Camping in Bear Country
When camping in bear country the prime concern is proper food storage. Soft-sided campers won’t keep a bear out. Don’t store your food inside the camper where you are sleeping. Storing your food in a vehicle is not the correct method, either. Bears have destroyed parked cars, vans, and trucks to get that one candy bar left inside overnight. With their sense of smell, there’s no hiding food, and with no occupants in the vehicle, nothing will deter the bear from doing whatever it takes to gain entry. If you have a motorhome or hard-sided RV, always store food inside the RV. Many parks with extensive bear activity offer bear-proof food storage lockers in camping areas where you can safely store your food. Use care when disposing of leftover food and crumbs. Be sure to put everything in the bear-safe trashcan and click the safety catch closed. If you are in a soft-sided camper or a tent, never go to bed wearing the clothes that you wore when cooking. The bear will smell those odors retained in your clothing, and you’ll become its center of attention.
Bears will be attracted to anything. We’ve had one instance where a young bear was attracted to one of our motorhomes. It seems that some hydraulic lines were coated with a vegetable-based lubricant before being pulled through a loom. The shortening doesn’t affect the rubber like a petroleum product, but it does attract bears. We had an eventful evening trying to drive him away. Recently, at Colter Bay RV Park in the Tetons, a black bear walked right through our picnic area alongside the motorhome. It’s a good idea to check out windows first before opening the door when taking the dog out.
Bears may sniff out scented personal products, including flavored toothpaste, scented hair products, and perfumes and cologne. It’s best not to use them and store them in your bear-proof areas.
Photo 5/11   |   Grizzly bears are known to frequent streams when the salmon or trout are running. At those times, plan your hikes to avoid those areas to prevent any bear encounters.
Hiking in Grizzly Bear Country
The following tips refer to situations where the bear is making a defensive attack, which is the majority of bear encounters. Generally, it’s grizzlies because most black bear will run away when they notice humans.
Hiking in bear country isn’t as dangerous as you might think. Most visitors never even get to see a bear while visiting the parks. The odds of running into one aren’t great. When hiking in bear country, your priority is to avoid bear encounters in the first place. Check with a ranger before the hike to verify if bears have been reported in the area. On the trail, always be aware and look for bear signs, such as scat or tracks. Avoid hiking in popular bear feeding areas like alongside streams, berry patches, or large stands of whitebark pine. Make plenty of noise when hiking to make the bear aware you are coming and has enough time to move away.
If hiking in dense vegetation or other terrain where it’s difficult to see very far ahead, your odds of a surprise encounter go up. In those situations, make plenty of noise and keep your bear spray handy. In Yellowstone, 91 percent of bear attacks occurred when the person was hiking alone or only had one partner. Hiking in groups of four or more is a good idea. Avoid hiking at dawn, dusk, or evening when bear are most active.
Photo 6/11   |   Bear spray makes the best deterrent in the event of a bear attack.
When you do run into a bear, it’s important not to surprise or threaten them. Most bears will avoid humans if they hear you coming, but there are times when that won’t happen. A sow with cubs is a worst case scenario and accounts for 80 percent of all bear encounters. If you do see a sow with cubs, keep plenty of distance. She will defend her cubs if she believes they are in danger. Any bear that has recently made a kill will also defend their food cache. That’s the second situation to avoid, as they generally will not retreat when they hear you approach.
If you see a bear at a distance, you can and should avoid it. If you happen to come upon a bear suddenly, and the bear notices you, the strategy changes. If the bear moves away from you, stay still and let it move off. If the bear stands up to look at you, it might just be checking you out, and is merely curious, not threatening. Speak to the bear in a calm, non-threatening voice to further identify yourself and your intentions. If the bear continues to approach, back away slowly, preferably at an angle. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Turning away and running will trigger the bear’s prey instinct. At speeds of up to 35 mph, a bear can easily outrun any human.
If the bear gets too close, the best choice is to make yourself seem as big as you can. If you have a number of persons in your party, stand side by side, rather than in a line so that the bear sees you are a sizeable group. Waving your hands high in the air will make you seem larger, and yelling “Whoa bear,” making bear noises, or other loud noises will help establish you as being tougher than you really are.
An agitated bear will lay its ears back and will make loud huffing noises, popping its jaws, pawing the ground with its front claws, and swinging its head from side to side. It may even be add short bluff charges. The bear is just trying to communicate: It doesn’t want you here and this is your final warning. Back away calmly. If you can’t back away and the bear charges you, the encounter escalates to the next level.
Photo 7/11   |   Grizzlies have a distinct look. They are larger than the typical Black Bear with more of a dished face, round ears, and a distinctive hump over their shoulder muscles.
Most of the time if a bear charges you it will be a bluff charge. But you don’t know when it’s a bluff charge or a real attack. The best defense against an attack is to use bear spray, which is basically pepper spray on steroids. A bear attack happens in seconds. When hiking in bear country, your bear spray won’t do any good if it’s tucked away in your backpack. Keep it handy and be sure you’re trained in its proper use. If you can’t avoid the attack, you go to the next and final level.
When you can’t avoid an attack, it’s the final level. During a defensive attack, the bear is merely trying to remove a threat. In those cases, fighting back will only prolong the encounter. A Yellowstone study showed 75 percent of the time surprise encounters only resulted in minor injuries when the person played dead. In 80 percent of the cases where the person fought back they received very severe injuries. If a bear does attack you, fall to the ground, and play dead. Wait until the last second to do so. Most of the time, the bear will be more likely to break off the charge if you stand your ground. Roll onto your stomach, lie face down, and cover your neck and back of your head with your hands. Keep your arms and elbows as well as your legs, spread wide so the bear can’t roll you over. If he does, keep rolling until you lie face down again. Once the bear leaves you, remain perfectly still until you are sure the bear has left the area. This may take quite some time, especially if the bear is hanging around a kill, or is a sow that needs to gather her cubs up. Don’t rush it, or you may provoke another attack. Once you are positive the bear is gone, walk slowly from the area, but do not run.
The above tips refer to situations where the bear is making a defensive attack, which is the majority of bear encounters. But there are the rare times when a predatory bear views you as food. In those cases, do not play dead. Use the bear spray and fight back with anything available to you.
Understanding bears, using a bit of commonsense and carrying bear spray is the best protection against a negative bear encounter. By doing so, you’ll be able to enjoy you’re your trip to the National Parks. With any luck, you’ll be able to see a nice grizzly -- from a distance.

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