It has almost been a half year ago that we travelled through beautiful BC in Canada, but we can’t stop writing about it. There is simply too much to tell about this outdoor focussed country. For those of you who are planning a Canada trip we already put together some handy things to know before you go. But there is one topic we would like to pay special attention to: camping with bears! Camping in Canada as bear-nitwits was a whole new and sometimes super exciting experience for us. So here’s what our Canada journey taught us about camping with bears around.
First, let us make one thing clear: we are no experts at all. So when you are travelling to Canada or any other country where you might encounter new wild animal species, the more research you do the better. Many wildlife areas such as British Columbia, also named Bear Country, offer helpful information on their websites.
Believe it or not, Canada is home to over 60% of the world’s bear population. Grizzlies, black bears and polar bears are the three native species you could bump into. Over half of the Canadian grizzly population you can find in British Columbia, home to approximately 13.000 of these humpbacked giants. But they are also to be spotted in the Yukon, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nanavut. British Columbia is also home to most of the Canadian black bears. But with a population of 380.000 these slightly smaller species reside in every Canadian province.
Both grizzlies and black bears are omnivorous. This means that they live mainly of a diet of fish, plants and berries, AND that they are in general uninterested in eating humans and bigger animals. Especially black bears pose no threat at all as long as they are not threatened or have cubs. Grizzlies are a little more complex, but there are plenty of possibilities for bear-watching in a safe way.
Just keep in mind: a bear is a wild animal
Both black bears and grizzlies have a sense of smell, hearing and sight way better developed than ours. All bears are great swimmers, and black bears are also excellent climbers. Only grown grizzlies can’t climb trees, but they can reach a height of almost 4 metres. Also, outrunning a bear is close to impossible. Especially grizzlies can reach a speed of 55 kilometres an hour, and run uphill as well as downhill. If they wanted to, both bears are strong enough to destroy cars and tents. Luckily, bears are not the monsters they are sometimes portrayed to be, and in general they will have no reason whatsoever to do this. They will most likely avoid contact with you, and given the facts above, we suggest you do the same.
A fed bear is a dead bear
We speak of ‘food-conditioned’ bears when bears start associating humans with food. This happens when they come into contact with visitors who carelessly carry food around or even feed them. Food-conditioned bears pose a big threat once they have lost their natural fear of humans. This forces national park rangers to capture these animals and scare them into being fearful of humans again, or even to put them down. And that is the last thing you want.
Camping with bears: how-to
Camping ‘off-the-grid’ is one of the most fantastic things you can do in Canada. Only you don’t want bears disrupting your night’s sleep, right? In that case, designated campsites are a safe way to go. Luckily there are a couple of precautions you can take, if you feel adventurous.
First of all, try to look out for typical bear signs. These could be hair on tree bark, droppings, tracks and trails and trees or wood that have been clawed or bitten. Also, waterways or berry bushes might indicate a regular presence of bears. If you find any of these, you are exactly in the right spot for some bear-spotting, but please find yourself another place to camp.
Second, take good care of your food and keep it out of bear-reach. Find a camping spot that provides bear-safe food storage, bring your own bear-safe food container or hang your food from a tree branch. The food should then be at least 4 metres off the ground and 3 metres from the nearest tree. When you set up camp, your tent, cooking area and food storage should be in a triangle pattern, about 50 metres apart. Bears have a very strong sense of smell, and you don’t want them to connect any smell of food to you.
That means, everything from fish and meat to even contaminated dishwater can attract bears, so don’t leave this lying around. And don’t think packaged food will make much of a difference.
Tip: when you’re on your period, use tampons to reduce any human smell. Even spitting out your toothpaste in the bushes can leave a human-scented trail straight back to you. As can your dog! So if you want to take Bello, make sure you don’t stray from designated routes and keep him on a leash.
Face to face with a bear
Whether you are out there to catch a glimpse of Canada’s indigenous wildlife, or planning a calm day-trip without any unexpected encounters, taking the right safety measures is never a bad idea. And every National Park in Canada will give you the same number one advice: if you meet a bear, you must keep calm. Take a second to determine whether you are facing a grizzly or a black bear, and in both cases, never make eye contact. Especially grizzlies might interpret this as a threat.
How to react
Try to back away slowly and keep speaking to the bear. Try to determine if the bear is acting aggressive, and note: a bear on his hind legs is not always angry. The first thing you can do when a bear starts following is to drop something behind you. This might distract it. Is it a black bear and is it aggressive? You might want to try and scare it off by making yourself as big as possible. Waving your arms, jumping and yelling also helps.
Aggressive grizzlies however, you need to show that you are not a threat, or try to get away from as soon as possible. This means climbing the highest tree you can find, preferably over 4 metres, or assume a fetal position on your side, like a ball. But, playing dead is not always the best solution. Is the bear only defending its territory, then playing dead might help. But on the rare occasion that a bear is showing predatory behaviour, it won’t. So if it should come to an attack, there is really not much you can do other than trying to escape or fight back.
Safe camping with bears
Let us emphasise one last time that situations like we just described are extremely rare and definitely no reason for you to not enjoy your Canada trip to the fullest. We personally haven’t seen any bears during our many hikes in BC and while we stayed at designated campgrounds. Still a bit hesitant? We get you. For us, what really helped to get over our last bit of fear was carrying bear-spray with us.
What is bear spray?
Actually nothing more than the name already suggests: a spray that repels bears. It contains the ingredient capsaicin, which bites like chili peppers once it comes into contact with your eyes, nose and mouth. Needless to say, this spray is not to be used pre-emptively, but as a last resort. You don’t want to hurt anyone – bear, human or other – if not necessary.
When needed, use when the bear is within 5 – 10 metres of distance and acting aggressively. The can will spray a 10-metre-long cloud with a force of 100 kilometres an hour, and will cause an approaching bear to turn around and hit the road instantly. The idea is that you can grab for the bear spray in unexpected situations. So don’t keep it in the bottom of your backpack. Better tighten it to your belt or gear so that you can reach for it easily.
Can’t I use a bear bell instead?
To be honest, we personally have second thoughts about the effect of so called ‘bear bells’ after reading a bit about it. We even got on print in one of the national parks that they don’t work. Bear bells are an often-used tool to scare off black bears and grizzlies, and of course this is for a reason. They might alarm a bear, sure. But it is also possible that bears over the years have learned to connect bear bells to humans. So they might actually become more curious after hearing the sound. Or just stay entirely uninterested. Also, the sound can get carried away with heavy wind, so a bear bell is definitely no waterproof solution.
The waterproof solution to bear-watching
It is simple: inform yourself and enjoy. If you like, you can even join in a group tour which respectfully and safely goes bear watching. We found that all the information and reassurance we needed was provided to us by the National Parks we visited. Also, we simply asked the rangers on duty about how to act around bears. For us flatland-inhibitors, bear-country was a rough and wild and new experience. This made it exhilarating and sometimes scary at the same time. But discovering a bear (while knowing you are safe) is a magical experience that makes it all worth wile, trust us. And for the real thrill-seekers amongst us: there are plenty of safe ways to give your bear spotting trip a boost – by setting out to find the ‘spirit bear‘ for example. Good luck, be safe and have fun!