Trek Southwest - Hiking and Camping the Desert Southwest

How to Camp Safely in Bear Country

in Odds and Ends

Camping in the American Southwest means you’ll be in bear country at one point or another. I suppose if you stuck to desert-only areas you might avoid them altogether, but you’d be missing out on some really gorgeous places. The good news is that to learn how to camp safely in bear country you really need to remember only one very important point – prevent bears from gaining access to your food or other personal products.

How to Camp Safely in Bear Country

And while that sounds simple enough, you’ll probably need a little bit more information to fully understand what I mean. The true gist of it is that to camp safely in bear country – you need to actively keep a clean camp at all times.

Here in the Southwest, it’s very unlikely that you’ll run into anything other than a black bear. And the good news is that black bears scare off more easily than grizzly bears. The bad news is that black bears are just as persistent as grizzlies at trying to get your food.

A bear that has sampled human food will come back again and again. The bear will have habituated to humans and habituated bears can become aggressive bears. And sadly, aggressive bears are usually killed to prevent them from endangering humans.

How to Camp Safely in Bear Country

Bears are super smellers. Their sense of smell is about seven times stronger than a dog’s. They can detect odors more than a mile away. Bears are omnivores and will eat whatever they can find. In fact, the variety of what bears consider delicious is sort of surprising (at least to me anyways.)

What Bears Like

  • People food
  • Pet food or livestock food
  • Garbage
  • Cooking pots and utensils
  • Cooking oil or propane fuel
  • Unopened (!) or open canned beverages
  • Cosmetics, bug spray, lotion, toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen
  • Scented feminine hygiene products
  • Bird seed and hummingbird feeders
  • Tablecloths (with food spots or smells)
  • Camp stoves and barbecues
  • Coolers
  • Dish soap, dish towels, or washcloths
  • Gray water bucket or pail
  • Clothes you wore to cook or eat in

How to Camp Safely in Bear Country

Bears are intelligent and curious with good memories. And when they’ve been rewarded with food of any type – they’ll be back. Over and over again until forest rangers are forced to act to prevent them from causing harm.

7 Things to Always Do

1. ALWAYS store food and other items when not in use.

Store food and other things from the list above in one of four ways.

  1. A bear-resistant box provided by the campground where you’re staying.
  2. A hard-sided vehicle’s trunk or cab (never the open truck bed) or a hard-sided RV. Tent trailers and tents do not keep bears out. Same goes for coolers – they actually can attract bears.
  3. A bear-resistant backpacker food cache (which must be stored at least 100 yards from the sleeping area).
  4. A bear bag suspended from a tree (called a bear hang.)

Some campgrounds with high bear presence might even supply you with a pole that is intended for you to hang your bear bag from. But if you choose to use a bear hang (or you’re in the backcountry and don’t have any other option) and there is no pole to utilize, you can use one or two trees. You’ll need about 50 feet of rope and you should aim to have your bag hang 10-15 feet off the ground with at least 4 feet from each vertical support (or tree!) Your bear hang should be at least 100 yards from your tent or sleeping area. But further away is better if possible.

Check out this article with 5 different ways to hang a bear bag – it’s one of the most comprehensive posts I’ve seen on the subject.

2. Always keep pets on leash.

This is just smart anytime, but even more important when you’re in bear country. Bears don’t like dogs and can cause them to act more aggressively. Keep your dogs leashed and in control at all times.

3. Always keep bear spray and flashlight in tent.

At night, keep a can of bear spray and a flashlight in the tent with you. That way you’ll be prepared in case of an unexpected visitor or if you need to venture out to use the bathroom.

3. Always sleep 100 yards from cooking area/food storage.

I’ve heard this called the bear triangle. Sleep 100 yards away from your cooking area which should also be 100 yards away from your food storage area. All three areas should form a triangle that neatly separates the different zones and keeps you and your sleeping family away from where bears are most likely to explore at night.

4. Always sleep in your tent, not in the open.

It’s best to sleep in a tent versus the open air when you’re in bear country. Here in Arizona – it’s good practice anyway because of snakes and scorpions.

5. Always pick a strategic campsite.

If you’re backcountry camping – don’t pick a site that is near a trail, a berry patch, an animal carcass, or any signs of bear activity. Even if you’re tired, move along. Better safe than sorry.

6. Always ensure garbage is packed up.

At a campsite – all garbage must be secured in bear-secure trash cans. In the backcountry – make sure you pack out ALL trash you brought with you. This is another reason to bring as little trash with you as possible.

7. Always keep your firepit clean.

Don’t leave partially roasted marshmallows, garbage, food bits, or other garbage in your firepit. If you can’t completely burn it up – don’t put it in. Or if you do and there are still remnants, ensure they are cooled off and pick out the bits and place them in the trash. And please, please do not bury your garbage. The Girl Scout in me says “leave no trace”.

How to Camp Safely in Bear Country

7 Things to Never Do

1. Never leave attractants out.

It’s easy to think “I’m just running to use the bathroom.” Or “I’m so full from dinner – let’s do the dishes later.” But in this instance, you’re better off always cleaning up when you’re done eating or using the products from the list above. Even a few minutes is enough time for a bear to get a smell of your campsite and come wandering over to check it out.

2. Never camp in a site you found “unclean”.

Don’t camp in a site that had been left unclean by the previous campers or that shows obvious signs of bear activity (scat, tree scratches, holes dug, etc.) If you find wrappers in the fire pit or cans laying around – there’s a good chance a bear was already there to check it out. You’re always better off moving to another site. If you’re in an established campground – be sure and tell the ranger on duty. In the same vein – if you can see evidence that a bear was present (with or without food stuffs or garbage) – you’re better off moving along AND reporting it to the local ranger or park attendant.

3. Never sleep in clothes you cooked or ate in.

Ever worked at a restaurant? If you have – you’ll know that food odors cling to clothes. Before you go to bed each night – put on “food free” clothes – ones you’ve never eaten or cooked in and stash your food clothes in the same place you’re storing your food.

4. Never leave food in your tent.

Absolutely no food or snacks in the tent. This applies to your toiletries as well – keep those things in your bear bag or vehicle and away from your tent. Do not even store clothes that you cooked in in the tent – they belong where the food is kept.

5. Never cook bacon and fish.

This sounds weird right? But bacon and fish have powerfully strong smells and are known bear attractants. So just leave them at home when you’re camping in bear country.

6. Never use bear spray as repellent.

Bear spray is not intended to be spritzed around your campsite or on your possessions as a repellent (like bug spray.) Its only purpose is to be sprayed at a charging bear. There is even evidence that spraying bear spray around like bug spray might actually attract curious bears.

7. Never dump gray water near the campsite.

Gray water is the water you use to wash dishes, brush your teeth, etc. It’s likely to be full of tiny bits of food or other good smelling particles that bears will be drawn to. Don’t just throw the water away right next to your campsite. If the campground has a gray water disposal area – use it. If you’re backcountry camping – go at least 100 yards away from your campsite before you toss it.

What to Do if a Bear is in Your Camp

Hopefully by keeping a super clean camp, you’ll never have a time when a bear actually wanders into your camp. But what should you do if that does happen?

The Bear Wanders into Camp

If you’re in your tent at night and you hear what you think is a bear outside your tent, your best bet is to wait patiently to see if it goes away on its own. The bear is likely to sniff around looking for food, but if there is nothing to be found, it will move on. If the animal doesn’t move along within a few minutes, make some quiet noise so that the bear knows you are there. Again, bears most often do not wish to encounter humans. They will most likely leave.

If this happens during the day, make some quiet noise and keep a watchful eye on the bear. Without turning your back on it, put some distance between you and the bear.

The Bear Begins to Act Aggressively

If the bear still has not left and in fact is getting more persistent and approaching the tent or you, get ready to get large, make noise, etc. You want the bear to run away. Prepare your bear spray for use just in case. If this doesn’t work and the bear begins to charge, use your bear spray. But please, be careful not to use it inside your tent. It won’t have the desired affect and you might get injured.

The Bear Begins to Attack You

And last but not least, if the bear spray does not send the bear running and the bear begins to physically attack you – fight back. If the bear is a black bear (which is the most likely situation in the Southwest) – DO NOT PLAY DEAD. You want to fight for your life. Grab whatever you can get your hands on and use it against the bear targeting the muzzle and eyes.


If the bear wandered through your camp and then left, plan to move to another site the next night. It is never wise to stay in a place where you have seen a bear wandering looking for food. It is very important to report this to a ranger as well in order to keep other campers safe.

Remember, bear attacks are not common. And the cleaner you keep your camp, the more likely that both you AND the bear will stay safe! Happy camping!

RobinGuest Post by Robin Laulainen. Robin writes about camping and other outdoorsy stuff at Trek Southwest, pets every dog she meets, and drinks more coffee than she should. She blogs about her other passion - creating - at Make It Yourself Girl.

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