Can a bear get into a tent? A practical safety guide

Grizzly bears at play. Can a bear get into a tent. You bet your life they can

Returning to your campsite to find a bear at your tent is scary. So much so that it is likely to ruin your whole day. Bears can and do get into tents very easily. They are invariably searching for food but may also be attracted by the scent of perfumes and other toiletries.

Man is inside his tent when a black bear comes to call

Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to avoid the danger of these wild animals. It’s possible to enjoy the great outdoors without any bear interactions by being proactive using camping safety protocols.

Camping is a favorite pastime enjoyed by people around the country. While there’s something magical and refreshing about being out in nature, you must be on-guard for animals that call the forests their home. Watching out for snakes, fox, and moose will keep you busy, but you can’t forget about bears.

Bears are one of the most dangerous animals that you may encounter while on your camping excursion. When a bear comes into the camp, they only have food on their mind. They’re not there to attack you, but if you get in their way, then they will defend themselves.

If you have a vacation planned in the great outdoors, then here are some things that you need to consider. Bears can get into your tent or your car, so you must know how to handle these situations appropriately to stave a deadly encounter.

Where are bears found?

There are three types of bears that you will most likely encounter in the United States. The American Black Bear is by far the most populous, but the grizzly and brown bear are abundant too.

Black Bear in the Forest
Black Bear in the Forest

A grizzly is, in fact, one of the subspecies of the brown bear. There are a total of 86 different types of brown bear.

Cute brown bear resting its head on a rock
Cute Brown Bear – Don’t be fooled

Grizzly and black bears were once found all over the United States from Alaska all the way down to Mexico. Today, the most significant concentrations can be found in Alaska and Western Canada, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t appear in any wooded terrain. Black bears are found all over the country, even in areas like Ohio, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Of the 50 states, they are found in 40 of them.

It’s estimated that there are about 55,000 grizzly bears, 120,000 brown bears, and 600,000 black bears in the United States and the Northwest Territories of Canada. However, Alaska is a grizzly and brown bear hotspot. Though not as abundant as Alaska, states like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming also have a generous bear population.

Where are bears found while camping in the US?

There are four parks in the continental United States where an encounter with a grizzly or brown bear is possible, but don’t forget that black bears live here too. These parks include the following:

  • Glacier National
  • North Cascades
  • Grand Tenton
  • Yellowstone
Grizzly in Glacier National

All these parks are on the northwestern side of the country, where the climate tends to be favorable for bears to live.

Now, if you travel to Alaska, then your chances of a bear encounter of some kind increase. Grizzlies and brown bears can be found in the following parks:

  • Yukon-Charley Rivers
  • Glacier Bay National
  • Wrangell – St Elias
  • Gates of The Arctic
  • Noatak
  • Kobuk Valley
  • Cape Krusenstern
  • Bering Land Bridge
  • Denali
  • Lake Clark
  • Alagnak Wild River
  • Katmai National
  • Aniakchak National Monument
  • Klondike Gold Rush
  • Kenai Fjords

Remember, bears travel and can be anywhere. While the most significant concentrations have been seen in these areas, it doesn’t mean that you cannot encounter a grizzly bear anywhere else. When it comes to black bears, they can be in any park across the country. They are the most abundant of all bears in the US, and they freely roam about with no consideration of the climate.

How you can be safe around bears?

If you see a bear, don’t assume that they will automatically attack you. Many people encounter bears without incident, especially black varieties. However, should a grizzly or brown bear attack you, lay very still, and play dead. It’s easier said than done when you are being attacked, but the bear will stop when they feel that they have killed you. Don’t rush to get up after a bear is done with you. You should lay still until you are 100 percent sure the animal is gone.

Watch this famous YouTube video for a strange encounter with a grizzly.

If a black bear is attacking you it is probably because they are defending cubs. Try to avoid any confrontation. Bear spray is preferable to risking any physical contact.

If you have no other option (and I mean no other) you could attempt to kick or punch them in the muzzle. These bears are very sensitive in this area, so they will usually run when hit.

When any bear is standing looking at you, they are more curious than threatening. The best thing to do is to stand very still and keep quiet.

If the bear is not moving, then slowly move to the side and out of sight. You don’t want to make any sudden movements or startle them. Whatever you do, don’t feed them, or drop any backpack you have. Pick up your children if they’re small, and slowly move away. In most cases, the bear will move on too. Deadly encounters happen when people run or challenge the bear in any way.

If the bear charges towards you, wave your arms at them and make lots of noise. Waving your arms identifies that you are a human and not a threat, plus it makes you look taller. Black bears will almost always avoid a confrontation.

Grizzly bears are more dangerous. Always try to avoid getting too close to a grizzly. Carry bear spray. Practice using the spray. Remember, confronting a bear, in any way at all, should be avoided if at all possible.

How do you repel bears while camping?

Two things that grizzly and brown bears hate are loud music and flashing lights. While your camping neighbors might not appreciate the noise and distractions out by the campfire, some flashing lights might keep them away.

It’s important to avoid highly fragrant foods that can be attractive to them. Keep all your meals in airtight containers, and make sure your personal hygiene items are kept away. Bears have a keen sense of smell. They can follow the slightest whiff of food for 18-20 miles, so you don’t want to take any chances.

Also, while it’s tempting to relieve your bladder close to your campsite, make sure you go a reasonable distance away if there are no facilities nearby. For some odd reason, bears love the smell of human urine, and it will attract them.

Lastly, you can use a bear repellant that you can get at any camping store, or you can make a homemade version. It includes scents that bears hate and will keep them away.

What smells do bears hate?

While bears live in the forests, they hate the smell of pine. If you’re going camping, make sure to bring plenty of this scent along. Avoid any hand sanitizers or cleaners with lemon or any other fruity scent as it can attract them, thinking there is food. Bleach and ammonia are two additional smells they cannot stand, and they will avoid them at all costs. Keep in mind that you should never mix these two chemicals together as it’s dangerous.

Pepper spray is an excellent thing to carry with you when you’re camping. Should a bear get too close for comfort, then you can always spray them to give yourself time to get away.

Bears learn the areas where food is easy to get so that they will frequent those spots. Their nose is said to be more than 100 times more sensitive than yours, so they can tell when you’ve got burgers cooking or some goodies in your car. Airtight containers are imperative when camping.

What to do if a bear is outside your tent?

If you’re inside your tent and you hear a bear on the outside, then you should make no sounds or movements. Remember, they’re there to fill their belly and nothing else. Never bring food into your tent, instead hoist it into a tree. Bears can get into your car too. If you cook, make sure you wash your hands to remove the scent as they can smell the slightest hint of hamburgers or anything else on you.

When it becomes apparent that the bear is wanting in your tent, then you should talk to them in a soft, soothing voice. You need to identify that you are human. Since these bears frequent campsites for food, they become accustomed to humans versus prey.

For grizzlies and brown bears, if the sweet soft tones aren’t making them go away, then try making a bunch of noise. Banging pots and pans together as well as yelling can often scare them off. Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact with the bear. Never turn and run as it’s an invitation for them to chase after you. Additionally, spraying some pine or pepper-based deterrent can also make them leave.

What to do if a bear is at your tent?

There’s nothing more frightening than coming back from a hike and seeing a bear at your tent. However, if this should happen to you, try to slowly back away without the bear seeing you. If the bear should happen to see you, then try the trick of making as much noise as possible.

It’s advisable to always keep a couple of pots and pans or a spoon at the campsite to make noise. These noisemakers could save your life.

Should you throw rocks at a bear?

When you’ve tried the calm, sweet voice, then you need to change to an aggressive nature to defend yourself. You can throw rocks, sticks, and yell to attempt to scare the bear away. Some people might be afraid of hurting the animal with stones, but the bear is pretty sturdy, and the goal is to ensure you don’t get hurt.

Keep in mind that bears are generally shy and don’t want to interact with you. If you show them that you’re big and powerful, then they won’t want an encounter.

How to bear-proof your campsite?

The best way to protect yourself from an encounter with a bear or any wild animals is to protect your campsite. Here are some tips:

  • Use government-approved bear-proof containers – these are mandatory at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks
  • Keep your food in a hanging pack about 30 feet off the ground
  • Never leave food in your tent (no candy or gum either)
  • Leave the tent open so a bear can see that there’s no food and move on
  • Cook 100 yards downwind from your tent
  • Retain all of you packaging and food waste for disposal in an approved dumpster. Do not keep any garbage in your tent.
Bear Locker

If you are camping in an area in which you have to use the provided bear lockers, you are going to need to make sure you have a traditional, ice chest cooler. There is no practical way to run an electric cooler or a fridge cooler.

Final Thoughts

Bears are one of the great joys of camping. Nevertheless, most people will enjoy their camping trip and will never see or encounter a bear.

The key lesson is that we campers are visiting the bear’s home. It is up to us to do everything possible to be good neighbours. If we upset the bears it is us that should leave or make things right – not the other way round.

It’s good to know that what works to keep bears away will also work for vermin and other animals in the forest. Each campground has specific protocols for bear safety, and these rules are made by studying the habits of the animals in the area. Make sure you follow these regulations for your safety.

As bears and humans intrude on each other’s territories, it’s natural to expect more incidents. However, you can learn to enjoy time in the great outdoors peacefully among nature by implementing a few safety protocols.


Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.

About CampingSage

CampingSage is all about comfortable family camping in tents.  It is written by campers, for campers.

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