No, you will not have to worry about bears when boondocking. Stories of bears attacking campers are overblown by movies and television shows for dramatic effect. Grizzly bear attacks occur in Alaska and Canada, and very rare in the Lower 48 states. These attacks occur primarily with tent campers and hikers who go into areas where grizzly bear concentration is high.
In all of our years of boondocking with our RV, we have not had any bears enter our campsite. We have, however, seen black bear a few times in the distance, and we’ve seen bear scat laying around. But we’ve never been bothered by a bear. That’s not to say you will never have a problem either. However, the idea that bears are a big problem for campers is an overblown myth…
Do I Have to Worry About Bears When Boondocking?
This map illustrates where you will find bears in North America…
Grizzly Bear are rare in the lower 48 states. They only appear in the mountains of Northern Montana and northern parts of Idaho and Washington. There are also grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. If you don’t plan to boondock in these areas, you won’t find any grizzly bear.
If you do boondock in grizzly bear territory, then be prepared to see them. They are hungry, curious, and are willing to attack to humans. See “How to Prepare for Grizzly Bear Territory” below.
Black Bear is the most common bear you’ll find in the rest of the United States, and even at that, they are only found in the wooded areas of the country. Black bear are not dangerous to humans. They don’t attack humans unless you initiate interaction. As long as you don’t initiate contact or interaction, they leave you alone.
Contrary to popular belief, black bear mothers don’t defend their cubs. If you were to get close to a black bear cub, the mother won’t come charging at you. This is a characteristic of grizzly bears, and not black bears….
A big revelation to me was how reluctant black bear mothers are to defend their cubs against people, even when the family is cornered in a den and I’m trying to stick the mother with a needle to tranquilize her. Defense of cubs is more a grizzly bear trait. There is no record of anyone being killed by a mother black bear defending her cubs, and attacks are very rare. We routinely capture black bear cubs in the presence of mothers and have never been attacked.
Black bear will come into your camp if they smell food, and only if they are hungry. Otherwise, black bear primarily feed on berries, leaves, and grubs. They typically won’t bother your camp if they have plenty of food in their environment. During periods of drought, they are more likely to enter your camp.
Black bear rarely attack humans. Most cases of black bears attacking humans came about because people did stupid stuff. They threw rocks at it, they charged at it, their dogs charged at it, they tried to pet it, or tried to feed it.
Brown Bear is for all intents and purposes the same as “Grizzly Bear”. The names are used interchangeably. If you want to get more technical, the Grizzly Bear is a sub-species of Brown Bear. The Brown Bear covers dozens of sub-species. The Grizzly Bear is the only Brown Bear found in North America. Not all grizzly bear are brown. Some are brownish-gray, some are blond, and others are black.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Grizzly Bear and Black Bear
Both black bear and grizzly bear can vary in color. Both can vary from black to brown to blond, however most black bear are black and most grizzly are brown. Size is not always the best way to identify these two types of bears because you don’t know how old the bear is. You simply have to look at photos of both types and become familiar with their unique characteristics…
How to Stop Bears From Entering Your Camp
You can’t actually stop a bear from entering your camp, but here are tips to discourage them…
- Don’t leave trash outside. Leave it inside your RV until you’re ready to leave, or when you plan to drive into town for supplies.
- Don’t put bags of trash on the roof of your RV, or in the bed of your pickup truck. That might make it difficult for bears to reach your trash, but it won’t stop them from coming into your camp.
- See our other article, “How to Minimize Trash Accumulation” so that you’re not overloaded with trash.
- Don’t dump cooking grease into the bushes. Dump it into a campfire, find ways to reuse cooking grease, or dump it into a jar or jug and throw it into a trash receptacle. If you’re frying bacon, cooking ground beef, or slow-cooking a roast, don’t dump the grease outside, and don’t bury it either. Bears can smell that stuff up to a mile away.
- When everyone goes back inside the RV for the night, bring all coolers and anything else that holds food, inside too.
- Don’t camp near a trash dumpster. Bears who have trouble finding food on their own will come into a campground looking for trash. Pick a campsite further away from a trash dumpster.
- Camp in areas with plenty of open space around you. Black bears are typically shy animals. They prefer to keep a distance from people. Hence, if you camp inside a thick wooded area, they feel more safe to get up close to you. But if you camp in an open area, they feel more conspicuous, more vulnerable, and less likely to get close to your camp.
- Feed your dog inside your RV. Don’t leave pet food outside. Don’t leave your dog’s food bowl outside.
- Don’t hang bird feeders. Black bears are attracted to nuts, seeds, and sweet hummingbird food.
- Make lots of noise. Play music. Sit outside and talk. Let bears know that you’re there, and most of them will stay away.
What Do I Do If a Bear Enters My Camp?
If a black bear enters your camp, then enjoy it. Black bears rarely attack humans. Make a noise or a hand movement to make sure it knows you are there. More often than not, it will turn away.
If you happen to have food out, then put the food away inside your RV or vehicle. If the bear reaches your food before you do, then let it take your food. At this point, turn on your video camera and at least capture the moment for the memory.
If a grizzly bear enters your camp, gather up your children and pets, and go inside your RV or vehicle immediately. If you have time to gather up food, get as much as you can. Close all windows and doors. A grizzly bear that enters your camp is either curious or hungry.
Keep Bear Spray Quickly Available
Especially in grizzly bear territory, keep bear spray with you, and keep it quickly available. Don’t store it inside your bag, you may only have seconds to get to it. Hang it from your belt instead. Practice pulling it off your belt, and practice using the spray. Buy two or three canisters so that you have a spare to practice with.
At your campsite, keep a bear spray canister outside so that it’s quickly available. Keep it on a table, and always keep it there. Make sure everyone in your camp knows where it is, and how to use it.
Bear spray is not designed to make a bear go away. It’s only designed to give you time to get away. Many bears, particularly black bear, will learn to stay away, however grizzly bear will often come back after the burn to their eyes and nose wear off.
Cooking Outdoors in Bear Country
The best way to cook outdoors in bear country, so as to minimize their visits, is to build a ground fire (dig a shallow pit, set rocks around it), and then lay a simple metal grill over it. Use more rocks (or other metal supports) to help elevate the grill over the fire. This way, any food and oil drippings fall into the fire and burns up. When you’re finished cooking, you only need to bring the grill inside your RV or vehicle, and you’ve completely minimized bear visitation.
You can also use a metal fire ring to do the same, or other metal container, as long as all oil and food that falls through the grill gets completely burned up.
If you use a large barbecue, smoker, or propane cook top, you now have more cleaning to do, and more equipment to bring inside. Leaving a barbecue or propane grill outside will easily attract bears to your camp because of grease and bits of charred food. If you’re going to leave cooking equipment outside, make sure it’s completely cleaned of oil and food.
How to Prepare for Grizzly Bear Territory
If you plan to camp in grizzly bear territory (see map above) then take these tips into consideration…
- Keep bear spray with you, and keep it quickly available. Buy a canister of bear spray to keep on your person (hang from your belt), and keep another canister at your campsite. Practice pulling the canister from your belt, and practice spraying it. Buy an extra canister so that you have one to practice with.
- Bring a gun, any gun, keep it loaded, and be ready to use it. Shooting a grizzly bear generally won’t stop it, unless you’re skilled enough to shoot it in the head.
- Be prepared to keep trash stored inside your RV or vehicle. Make sure you have plenty of trash bags. Be prepared to minimize trash accumulation (see our article on this subject).
- Keep your cellphone with you, especially when out hiking and biking. Before entering into the area, get the phone number of the ranger station, or other emergency number, so that you are prepared to call for help.
- If you plan to camp outside of cellphone service for weeks at a time, consider getting a Satellite Phone (Garmin Inreach, et al).
- Know which road you are camped closest to, and the name of the area you are camped in. Get the name of the road, or Forest Service road number. Look on a map and identify names of landmarks, such as roads, rivers, lakes, trailheads, etc. This will help emergency personnel get to you.
- When retiring for the night, bring all food and trash inside your RV or vehicle. That includes coolers.
- If your goal is to cook outside when camping in grizzly bear territory, figure out a way to bring your cooking equipment inside your RV or vehicle when not in use.