Black bear peering through foliage
Bears are always looking for easy calories. Don't get caught off guard! Courtesy USFWS

5 Mistakes to Avoid While Camping in Black Bear Country

Top 5 Mistakes People Make When Camping In Black Bear Country

No one wants to make mistakes, especially when it comes to something like camping in black bear country. But if you decide to adventure into new territory and don’t do your research, you’re very likely to do just that. 

Since you’re here, it’s probably safe to say that you’re ready to put in the work to be prepared. After reading this article, you’ll be sure to avoid the top 5 mistakes you might’ve made otherwise. 

Let’s dig in!

Camping in Black Bear Country Mistake #1 – Assuming Black Bears Are Harmless

While some of us are instinctively cautious of bears of any kind, others may fall prey to the idea that black bears are essentially harmless. The grizzly is the one always getting portrayed as the big bad guy, after all. Compared to them, black bears seem small and unimportant. 

But just because it’s not a grizzly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respected. 

In a study done on non-fatal black bear incidences, more than 200 conflicts were identified over a 17-year period. Black bears have been responsible for 24 deaths in North America over the past 20 years. 

They’re not harmless. 

This doesn’t mean that they’re terrible creatures, of course. In keeping with many people’s assumptions, they ARE less likely to show predatory behavior than grizzlies. And, because they’re smaller and have less power behind them you ARE more likely to walk away from a confrontation with them relatively intact. They also almost exclusively engage with humans when provoked. That means you hold a lot of power in this equation. 

Taking black bears seriously can and should lead you to make wise decisions that will minimize the chance of having any conflict at all. And, in the off chance that something DOES happen, it will ensure that you’re prepared to manage the situation.

A black bear in an east-coast forest using its powerful nose to pick up scents on the wind.

Camping in Black Bear Country Mistake #2 – Leaving Food Unprotected

Black bears love an easy meal as much as the next guy. Eating your leftovers or ready-to-use ingredients would absolutely make their day! That’s why some black bears develop a taste for human food and a habit of visiting campsites to forage.

Food habituation is a major cause of human-bear conflicts among all sub-species. In fact, that same study of non-fatal conflicts with black bears found that 74% had experienced previous bear damage or food rewards in the area. 

So what exactly is food conditioning?

It’s what happens when bears receive positive reinforcement for certain behaviors revolving around human food. It looks like black bears tipping over flimsy garbage cans and rummaging through scraps. It looks like breaking into cars, raiding campsites, and following hikers.

They do all that because they tried it once and it paid off. After one or two instances of easy-access human food, bears get wise. That’s why it’s super important to practice proper food storage EVERY time you visit bear country. 

What are some ways people slip up in this area?

They use bags instead of canisters

Bear hangs have their place, but it’s been found that bears are pretty savvy about how to access them. Using a bear proof canister, like a BearVault, ensures that any bear that tries to get your stash won’t be rewarded. That prevents problems not only for yourself, but also for future visitors. 

They keep food too close

Having a bear proof canister means bears won’t get your food. But it doesn’t mean they won’t try! Keeping food, used wrappers, or other things that smell interesting near your sleeping quarters will attract bears right to you. Always store attractants at least 70 paces away from your pillow. And don’t forget that toothpaste, deodorant, and other scented hygiene items should be included in this plan!

They toss scraps

Scraps don’t belong on the ground when you’re in the wild. Yes, of course banana peels decompose… eventually. Sure, it’s not like you’re dropping a granola bar wrapper. But leaving food scraps of any kind is not only potentially damaging to the native ecosystems, it’s also a great way to teach bears that campsites and hiking trails are a great place to forage. Do yourself and everyone that comes after you a favor and pack out your scraps.

They leave food unattended in camp

Sometimes a nearby trailhead calls your name and you just have to answer it. But you can take a few minutes to make sure breakfast is all cleaned up and everything is back in its properly stored position. Pack up leftovers, scraps, and dinner ingredients in your vault and put it back in position, away from camp. That will help make sure you come back to an intact site! 

Black Bear in bushes

Camping in Black Bear Country Mistake #3 – Not Bringing Protection

Mistake #1 often feeds into this mistake. Because people don’t take black bears seriously, they forgo taking precautions like keeping protection handy. Why go to all that trouble if black bears aren’t a big deal, right?

But there’s no good reason not to carry bear spray with you when camping in black bear country. It’s not that big or heavy. Why not bring it along? 

Before you carry it though, you should know how to use it. It is, after all, a dangerous substance. Instances of malfunctions have resulted in multiple injuries and you don’t want to  suffer from an accidental discharge.

Treating it right is also important so it doesn’t let you down in a conflict situation. Make sure to store it at the proper temperature and check it for expiration or leakage before excursions. Just imagine what it would be like to be facing down an aggravated black bear and discovering that you only have a second or two of stream left in your canister. What a bummer! 

Take black bears seriously and make sure you have what you need to protect yourself if anything does happen. 

Camping in Black Bear Country Mistake #4 – Camping in High-Activity Spots

When it comes to back country camping, where sites aren’t designated, the freedom to choose can be a beautiful thing. Hopefully, you’ll be pairing that with a healthy dose of knowledge and awareness. 

As you search for the perfect spot, consider more than just the amount of shade and whether or not there will be a rock digging into your back at 2 am. When you’re camping in black bear country you need to look for a few other things. 

Here are some signs to avoid when choosing your campsite. 

Fresh scat

Here’s what bear poop looks like. The rule of thumb is that the wetter it is the fresher it is. If it’s not thoroughly dried, consider it ‘fresh’ and keep on trekking. Both recent and current weather will play into how quickly it dries out, so there’s some judgment to be used here. 

An image of black bear scat with berries.

Fresh food sources

It might sound idyllic to rest your head in the midst of ripe blueberries, smelling their sweet scent as you drift off to sleep. But seriously, guys… If you sleep in the middle of a high-calorie food source, you’re just asking for trouble! 

Claw marks and footprints

Similar to the poop issue, the age of pawprints can be judged according to how wet the ground is. Claw marks in trees will also give you an indicator of how much bear activity there is in the area. Squishy prints and frequent claw marks? Try putting in a couple more miles and see how it looks down the trail. 

Camping in Black Bear Country Mistake #5 – Failing to Learn About Bear Behavior

When you venture across borders it makes sense to learn about the culture of your destination. You google extensively in order to avoid offending your hosts. You try to learn mannerisms that will communicate respect. You make a mental list of what not to do.

It really shouldn’t be any different when venturing into black bear country. 

This is their backyard. Their territory. We would all do well to learn about their behavior and know how to read their body language in case of an encounter. 

Knowledge is power. So arm yourself with the knowledge of bear behavior! Knowing what to watch for if you run across one of these incredible animals can give you confidence and make the experience safer. 

Black Bear Country is Perfect for Camping

When you avoid making these mistakes the vast expanse of black bear territory will open up for you to explore. From the Appalachian range in the east to the peaks of the Pacific Crest Trail way out west, you’ll find the beauty of nature waiting to be embraced. 

Go ahead and make some of your own mistakes. Maybe try something that doesn’t involve a bear as an active participant though. How about a rain fly incident instead?

Happy adventuring! 

Author Profile

Jessica Cockroft

Jess merges her passion for words and an insatiable longing for adventure as an outdoor freelance content writer and marketer. When she’s not busy stringing words together you’ll probably find her planning another camping trip for her crew of kids or taking care of the homestead. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram, as well as on her own website.  

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