With warmer weather and melting snowpack, outdoor enthusiasts are enjoying camping and hiking trips in Colorado’s many scenic locations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff are frequently asked what someone should do if they encounter a bear while out camping or hiking. Whether you are visiting Colorado for a vacation or are a long-time resident, it’s important to be aware of how to discourage human-bear encounters and how to avoid potential issues before heading out to live life outside.
First and foremost, when recreating in bear country you should remember that bears are not naturally aggressive toward humans; in fact, most bears are inherently wary of people. Physical encounters between humans and bears remain exceptionally rare.
“Bears are incredibly smart animals, and are more likely than not to just leave the area when they hear humans nearby,” says J Wenum, Area Wildlife Manager for CPW in Gunnison. “However, if a bear is accidentally cornered or surprised, or has lost their normal fear of humans, it may react differently.”
Interactions generally occur when bears become too comfortable around humans, often because of an easy or reliable food source, such as improperly stored camping supplies. When bears lose their fear of people, it may lead to them causing damage to property such as cars or RVs, or creating conflict with people at campsites or on the trails.
Bear sows are also very protective of their young and may react negatively to people if they believe that their cubs may be in danger.
“People need to understand how to be bear aware while camping and hiking in order to help prevent any issues,” said Wenum. “Bears are part of the wild places that make Colorado special, so we ask people to take some steps to keep them wild. That means keeping a clean campsite and vehicle, using bear boxes or canisters, respecting trail signage and considering carrying an air horn or bear spray in the backcountry.”
Camping in Bear Country
When camping in bear country, the easiest way to avoid bears is to ensure you have no attractants at your campsite. Whether car camping or hiking into the backcountry, there are actions you can take to minimize your chances of an encounter.
- Safely store food: If it smells good enough to eat, a bear will try to eat it. Store food, beverages and toiletries in airtight containers and place in provided campsite lockers, lock in your trunk or use bear-proof containers stored away from your tent.
- Stash your trash: If a campground provides bear-proof trash receptacles, use them often to keep your campsite clean. If no trash receptacles are available, double bag your trash and lock it in your vehicle, or use a bear-proof container when backpacking.
- Keep it clean: Scrape grill grates after use, clean all dishes and utensils, and ensure you have cleaned up any waste near your site. Never bring food or anything that smells like food – which includes toiletries, sunscreen and even clothes you wear when cooking – into your tent.
- Lock it up: Be sure your car or RV windows are closed and your vehicles are locked whenever you leave your site or before going to sleep at night.
- Follow signs (and instincts): Whether printed signs or natural signs such as tracks or scat, if you have evidence that a bear has been in the area recently, leave and choose another campsite.
If a bear is seen in your camp, try your best to haze it away with loud noises such as yelling, banging pots and pans together or using your car horn or an air horn. Be sure to notify the campground host and other campers.
Hiking in Bear Country
With their tremendous senses of smell and hearing, bears will usually be aware of your presence well before you are aware of theirs. Their natural instinct will be to leave before you realize they are in the area. However, understanding bear behaviors and being aware of your surroundings will help you avoid unwanted encounters on the trails.
- Hike with friends: Conversation and extra noise will alert bears to your presence and make them more likely to retreat. If your group includes furry friends, keep dogs leashed at all times. Not only will an unleashed dog be more likely to be injured, the instinct to return to its owner may bring an aggravated bear right back to you.
- Stay alert at all times: Leave your headphones back at your campsite, be extra cautious at dawn and dusk, and pay closer attention to visuals when hiking in an area with noise from running water or heavy winds.
- NEVER feed a bear: Never approach a bear of any size for any reason, especially to feed it. Double bag food and pack out all food waste to avoid encouraging bears to see trails as a food source. Do not think “natural” waste like apple cores or banana peels are okay to leave behind – they are certainly not natural treats for bears.
- Respect forage areas: If your usual trail runs through berry patches, oak brush or other known food sources, be extra vigilant. Make extra noise by periodically clapping or calling out to alert bears to your presence.
If you’ve done everything above and still manage to surprise a bear on the trail? Stay calm, stand still and speak to it in a firm tone of voice. The bear will most likely identify you and leave. Never run from a bear!
If the bear does not leave, slowly wave your arms over your head trying to make yourself look big and continue speaking to encourage the bear’s exit. If the bear huffs, stomps or pops its jaws, that is a sign that it needs space. Continue facing the bear, slowly back away and keep moving away slowly until the bear is out of sight.
If the bear approaches before you have a chance to try to force its exit, stand your ground. Yell or throw smaller rocks in the direction of the bear. If the bear gets within 40 feet, utilize bear spray. If a bear attacks, do not play dead – fight back with anything available, including trekking poles, small knives, or even your bare hands.
If you’re heading out to enjoy the Colorado outdoors, remember that most human-bear interactions are relatively benign; bear sightings and watching normal bear behaviors from a safe distance are an incredible sight for most outdoor enthusiasts. Staying bear aware on the trails or at your campsite, and keeping respectful distances for photos and viewing, keeps these interactions safe for humans and bears alike. For more information on camping and hiking in bear country, visit cpw.state.co.us/bears.
Written by Rebecca Ferrell. Ferrell is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.