Bears…oh how we all hope to see one. Elusive, powerful, beautiful, intelligent, and at times; dangerous, especially when you live in an R.V. whether it’s a car, a van, a travel trailer, or a huge motor home. Those of us that live in or take vacations in hard sided vehicles in bear country have a unique situation to deal with.
I’ve spent eighteen of the last twenty summers in the mountains of Colorado. I spent one of those summers in a tent and twelve or so of them in a vehicle. I’ve also boondocked alone in Grizzly bear country in Wyoming and Montana and camped in the mountains of Oregon and Washington State. Camping in bear country is not to be taken lightly, all bears can do a huge amount of damage in a very short time, yes, even black bears.
I don’t profess to be an expert on bears, but I thought I’d share some of the general rules along with a few of my own experiences with bears, and a couple of experiments I’m trying for those unwanted midnight visits from these big Bruins.
This cinnamon black bear came right up to my vehicle one evening. I was watching a movie and didn’t realize it was there until it bumped the side of my Mitsubishi. I had my window all the way down and was eating salt and vinegar potato chips, and suddenly it was right there.
When you live in the mountains you hear many stories from your neighbors about bears breaking into kitchens by smashing windows, or just walking into homes and helping themselves to the food in the fridge. In Estes Park, a bear was caught on camera helping itself to chocolate in the Chocolate Factory Store one night. Bears can tear into a home, into sheds, garages, and tip over dumpsters as though they are tin cans. I’ve seen pictures of vehicles with holes in the side where a bear has just torn in through the metal panel. Just the other day a co-worker of mine had a bear inside their car. They had left trash inside and the vehicle unlocked, and the bear had just opened the door and had a field day with the trash bags, and expressed its gratitude by leaving them a little present on the car seat.
This young bear was trespassing close to where I was working one summer, where I was selling chainsaw carved wooden bears and was known as The Bear Lady.
A lot of hiking trail heads suggest that you don’t leave any food or anything scented in your vehicle while you hike. When your vehicle is your home, that simply isn’t possible. You may have an ice chest full of groceries, and all kinds of packaged and canned foods in your van, along with shampoo and toothpaste to name a few of the many scented items bears love, and of course Bounty dryer sheets to keep away the mice. The list is endless. I admit it…when I return from a hike in bear country I always hold my breath as I approach my vehicle, hoping that it has been left untouched. (I don’t worry so much at busy trail heads, just remote locations with few people). But bears don’t only appear at trailheads, they can appear anywhere.
Here’s the cinnamon black bear ambling away. This is in the exact location that I’m camping almost every night this summer (2017), and I’ve been visited by many bears in this location over the years.
Obviously, it’s impossible to avoid bears in bear country. They are free to roam where they please, and if you’re heating up a can of tuna in mushroom soup with a can of green beans added for good measure (one of my favorite camp dishes), it’s entirely possible you’ll be banging pots together or clapping hands and yelling at a bear to scare it away.
Here are some things I do to help prevent an unwanted incident with a bear. (Please understand that in this article I’m talking about camping in a hard sided vehicle. If you have a soft sided camper or tent, then the rules are totally different and you can learn about them by going here: “Stop There – Be Bear Aware” from the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
1. A BARE campsite is the rule when camping in bear country – In other words, keep a clean camp ~ Bears have an incredible sense of smell, as much as seven times more sensitive than a blood hound and 300 times more sensitive than a human and grizzlies can smell a rotting carcass from 20-miles given the right conditions. They can even smell carcasses under water. With this in mind, the number one rule is to never leave food or trash outside your vehicle unless you are with it, including dog food and dog food bowls, even empty ones, and of course things like grills that food has been cooked on and items such as plates, even clean ones. Even stepping away for 10-minutes to visit a neighbor can be enough to invite a bear into your camp. I’ve seen travelers pile up bags of trash outside their trailers or vans for days on end in the desert before taking it into town, but in bear country, it is a huge no no. Not only are you inviting trouble into your camp, (and not just bears, but also other destructive animals like raccoons and mice) but if there is anyone else camping nearby, you are bringing the trouble to them as well.
This mother and cubs passed by my vehicle while I was parked at a friend’s house in Rocky Mountain National Park a few years back.
2. Keep your ice chest and other food items out of sight by covering them up when they are in your vehicle. Many bears have learned to recognize an ice chest and grocery bags (or anything they may associate with food) and will break into a vehicle to get at these items. Some bears are so smart, I wouldn’t be surprised if they can recognize a McDonald’s paper bag these days, so always keep any kind of food or food related items out of sight of the windows.
3. Try to keep enticing smells that are inside and around your vehicle to a minimum or store them in a bear proof storage locker if one is available (or hang them properly if there is an adequate place to do this). Smelly trash inside your vehicle is slightly better than having it outside only because it’s harder for the bear to get at, and the one thing we always want to avoid is allowing bears access to food, but if you think a bear can’t smell it, you’re very mistaken. If your vehicle is left unattended with smelly trash in it, you may return to one heck of a mess. And if the bear accidentally locks itself inside and can’t get out it will tear the inside to shreds in an attempt to escape. I’ve heard many stories and seen many pictures of trashed vehicle, and it isn’t pretty. The best option is to ensure you dispose of your trash before parking your unattended vehicle anywhere, and preferably before you go to bed at night. If the trash is in your vehicle with you and a bear comes, you can probably scare it off especially if it’s a black bear. (However, Grizzlies have a different temperament and are not so easily chased away, so if you head to Wyoming or other States with Grizzlies, be sure to take extra precautions).
In July 2016, just two nights after I got Studley Van, a bear approached my van one night and stuck his nose up under one of the tilt out windows. I woke to a snuffling noise and saw the black bears nose right there, I could have petted it! Two days later, my friend took a picture of this bear in the same location I was camping that night. Could it be the same bear?
4. Cook Elsewhere ~ (Just a suggestion depending on your circumstance). I camp on a friends property in the summer. My friend loves bears so she faithfully takes down her bird feeders every spring, and doesn’t put them up again until the bears have gone into hibernation again in the fall or early winter. She does this so that she doesn’t attract bears to her home and teach them how to be a bad or troublesome bear. (A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear!) Therefore, if I’m going to cook something very smelly, like tuna slop, or salmon, or bacon, I prefer to go to a picnic ground and cook it, then get rid of my smelly trash in a bear proof trash container before returning to my camp spot for the night. I have another friend who camps in a van a couple of nights a week right in downtown, and since they have a bear pass by them regularly, they too have started cooking elsewhere before parking for the night. I realize this isn’t always an option, but I will do this if circumstances allow it.
I’ve been visited by bears many times in this spot. One of the most beautiful bears I’ve ever seen was here; one-half of it was black and the other cinnamon colored, and its coat shimmered like silk, but it was too far away to get a picture of.
Soft Sided Campers or Tents – Of course, if you are camping in bear country in any kind of soft sided camper or a tent, you have to go by the rules of tent camping, which are far stricter. If you have a soft sided camper and are planning to camp in grizzly country it is not recommended, and in places like Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, they won’t allow soft sided campers in the campgrounds.
One year I was cooking my supper over the camp fire completely unaware that this great big bruin was sitting on the hillside behind me about 100 feet away, just watching and no doubt salivating like crazy. He was an older and wiser bear, and once he realized I’d seen him he just got up and left (and I managed this snap shot of him showing me what he thought). Smart bear!
6. Protection ~ It’s always a good idea to have some bear spray on hand or some other kind of bear deterrent, like an air horn. I’ve had bear spray in my vehicle for years, mainly for protection from other humans, but I would use it on a bear if I had to. I’m not going to get into how to behave around bears in this article, and what to do if you are charged. If you’d like to learn more here is a great article: Bear Encounters by The Get Bear Smart Society. If you want to purchase some bear spray, please visit my Amazon store to make your purchase. I’ll make a small profit on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything extra.
This year I’ve been experimenting with other ways of scaring off bears that approach my van. These deterrents are mainly in place for when I’m asleep at night. It’s a little disconcerting to be woken in the middle of the night by something bumping your vehicle and hearing the sound of snuffling outside your window. I woke up a few weeks ago to find bear paw prints on my driver’s side door and window. There were paw prints around the handle, and I’m convinced that this bear had tried to open the door (yes, they can do that), but fortunately, I’d locked it.
Then there are those times that it gets so hot and stuffy at night, that having just the tilt windows open isn’t enough, and I want to open up the rear hatch. However, the rear end of the van is where I usually lay my head, and I honestly don’t feel all that comfortable sleeping with my head by an open window when there’s an ice chest and other food right next to me. I’ve also camped in hot places near the Mexican border in the winter when I’ve wanted to open my rear hatch for air, but haven’t felt comfortable doing it because of all the warning signs about drug smuggling and illegal immigration. So this year I came up with a couple of ideas that I hope will scare off a bear (or human) should one approach my van at night, or at least alert me to the potential threat.
One of my bright ideas was to install a solar powered motion sensor light on either side of my van at bear head height. I placed them near the tilt out side window and the front door windows because I sometimes leave them rolled down at night. My hope is that if a bear approaches the van, it will trigger the light, and hopefully, the light will shine right in its eyes and scare it off. If that doesn’t work, the light may wake me up when it reflects back inside, and having outside light will allow me to see what is going on out there.
I settled on the solar lights by Baxia after much research, and so far I’m very happy with them. I was worried that they would be triggered by small things like moths and rain, but that hasn’t happened. They are sensitive, but not overly sensitive. Because they are solar-powered they are mostly maintenance free, and they can be turned off at night if I wish, so when I’m driving, Studley Van doesn’t flash his wares all the way down the highway. If you are interested in purchasing this item, you can find it for sale in my store by clicking here: The Nomad Store $.
This beautiful black bear (in the tree) wasn’t far from the place I camp near Rocky Mountain National Park, and the other one was close to my camp down The Big Thompson Canyon one summer. All the above images were taken in and around Estes Park, CO.
And for the tail gate ~ I considered putting one of these lights on the rear of my van as well but didn’t feel that it would be quite adequate. The fact that my head is right by a very large open area had me turning to other options. I honestly don’t expect anything to happen, but it could; Just a few weeks ago a young man camping in his tent near Colorado Springs was dragged out of his tent by a black bear. The bear had his jaw around the young man’s skull, and drug him out of the tent before other campers came to help. The camper didn’t have any bear attractants in his tent, so it’s a mystery. This is unusual behavior for a black bear and a very rare occurrence, but that just proves that things do happen. If a bear came along and reached inside my van in search of food, I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable with those huge claws landing on my face or chest in the middle of the night, so I decided to get some kind of alarm warning system.
After much research and even trying one alarm out, I finally settled on the KERUI Wireless Split Motion Sensor Alert. It’s small, USB rechargeable, and the sensor and receiver are two separate components, which means I can put the sensor outside (I’m currently just resting it on top of the rear doors with the hatch up), and choose to put the alarm (receiver) outside in alarm mode (very annoying alarm and can also be set up to flash lights at the same time, and will hopefully scare a bear away in addition to waking me up) or, I can keep the receiver inside the van with me and just use it as a door bell. (It has a ton of different kinds of alarms and music). It has a volume control, so I could keep it low and not deafen myself or wake the neighbors. I can also set the sensor anywhere I choose, like by the side sliding door and it would warn me if anyone was approaching my van. I’ve never had anything like this before, and have never had a problem with strangers sneaking up on me, but since I have the alarm anyway I might make occasional use of it if I don’t feel comfortable alone somewhere. It’s a bit like having someone watching your back. If you are interested in purchasing this alarm, you can find it in my store by clicking here: The Nomad Store $.
I’ve been busy making video clips about camping in bear country, and have recorded the sound of the alarm in one of those clips. If you sign up for my YouTube Channel you’ll get a notification when I get the video uploaded. Check it out!
And that’s it for now. If you’re new to camping in bear country I hope that you’ve found this post helpful, and my hope of hopes is that you find the perfect balance between seeing a bear, but not having any problems with one.
I think if you keep a BARE camp, half the battle is won unless you end up camping here (see image below) then maybe you’d be in over your head a bit and no amount of advice would help you. (LOL)
This image is titled Thirty Bears and a Wolf – Have you ever seen a herd of bears before?
Until next time, stay safe in bear country by respecting them and the land you camp in.
Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature
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