How to stay safe from black bears while camping and hiking

Morgan Tilton

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Black bears are typically shy and run away from people.(Photo by Jason Clay.)

How to stay safe from black bears while camping and hiking

The number of people living in Colorado and exploring the outdoors continues to grow — and so does the opportunity for humans to come across black bears.

Nearly 12,000 black bears inhabit the Centennial State ranging in color from brown to cinnamon, blonde or black, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

Most human and bear encounters involve food. From late summer to early fall, bears seek 20,000 calories per day to stock up for winter hibernation from November to mid-March.

The stocky mammal can reach up to 600 pounds. As an opportunistic hunter, the black bear follows its nose—which is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s—and can smell food up to five miles away.

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Black bears in Colorado are not always black in color - they are also brown, blonde, and cinnamon.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

Are black bear attacks common in Colorado?

A total of 89 bear attacks on humans have been reported in Colorado since 1960, according to CPW records.

Among those encounters, four human fatalities have occurred. Bear attacks resulting in human death are extremely rare.

The most recent death was in 2021: 39-year-old Laney Malavolta was walking her dogs when she was mauled by a sow north of Durango.

To date, nearly 2,181 reports of sightings and encounters with bears have been recorded in 2022. In 29 of those situations, bears were relocated, and 51 bears were euthanized.

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Male black bears are an average of 275 pounds while females are closer to 175 pounds.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

Euthanasia is not frequently necessary. “Some people are reluctant to report bears to CPW because of a false belief that we will euthanize the bear….Over a three year period, only 2.3 % of reports led to euthanization,” said Joey Livingston, Statewide Public Information Officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Bear-human incidents are influenced by weather patterns and climate change including spring freezes and drought, which affect the natural forage that is available.

The total number of bear reports filed from Colorado’s northwest region was up year over year in 2021 because of severe drought, according to the 2021 Bear Conflicts Report released by CPW, while the volume of reports in other regions dropped where precipitation was adequate through winter, spring, and summer.

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Bears have extremely sensitive noses and can become habituated to human garbage.(Photo by DJ Hannigan.)

“The less natural food in a given year, the more bears come into human areas looking for food. In Colorado, a localized spring freeze can affect bear incidents in small sections of the state,” said Livingston.

The vast majority of a bear’s diet is grass, berries, fruit, nuts, and other plants plus insects and scavenged carcasses, reports the CPW.

How to avoid black bears while camping

Run-ins with bears can be mitigated through simple practices that keep food secure.

Whether you’re at an established campground or a remote designated campsite, the best action to take, according to Livingston, is to “eliminate scent attractants and secure food. Bears spend their day looking for any possible food sources and will return to areas they received a food reward. If you prevent a food reward, they have little reason to come back.”

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If you see a cub the sow is usually not far away, so leave the area immediately.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

Bears are intelligent, have excellent memories and will return to places where they’ve found food.

Scent attractants are items with an odor such as:

    • human and dog food
    • beverages
    • toiletries
    • gum
    • toothpaste
    • sunscreen
    • lip balm
    • candles
    • feminine products
    • deodorant
    • insect repellant
    • medications
    • trash
    • even the clothes that you cooked in can retain an odor

Consider recycled items, too. Though the 2021 death of camper Leah Lokan occurred with a grizzly bear, which is a subspecies of the brown bear, officials found that two reused dried blueberry bags may have played a role in the attack.

Scented items should be secured at night and during the day when unattended.

To secure scented items while car camping or overlanding, place them in air tight containers or double bag them and lock them inside a vehicle or R.V. “Bears can learn to open unlocked car doors,” said Livingston.

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Black bears typically smell or hear you and leave the area before you see them.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

Otherwise, some established campground campsites feature a bear-proof storage locker that is mounted to the ground. (Remember to take everything out and with you when you leave including trash.)

If you are backpacking, consider carrying a bear canister, which is a portable, hard-sided container that can be rented or purchased from an outdoor retailer. Choose a bear canister that has been approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) such as the BearVault BV500 Journey Bear Canister.

Certain areas such as the White River National Forest require the use of bear canisters, so check the requirements with the land management office where you plant to visit.

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Bear canisters, bear spray, and air horns are helpful tools to deter black bears.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

When you use a bear canister, store it at least 100 yards away from your tent on the ground, ideally hidden by vegetation or boulders, according to the National Park Service. Also store plates and pans away from camp, Livingston noted. Be sure not to set down the canister where it could roll into a body of water or off a ledge, which a bear or other creature could catalyze.

Another traditional tactic is to hang food and scented items from a tree using the counterbalance method. However, bears in certain locations have learned how to snag those bags, reports the National Park Service.

Plus, the counterbalance method is time-consuming to complete: Two filled bags need to be hung 20 feet off the ground on a branch that is 10 feet away form the trunk.

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Tracks, bear scat, and shredded logs are all signs that indicate black bear habitat.(Photo by Jason Clay.)

Odor-shielding bags exist, such as the Loksak Opsak, to help withstand critters. Ursack manufactures lightweight bear-resistant food sacks that are IGBC-certified.

The IGBC has also certified a huge range of hard-sided coolers such as the Jackson Kayak Orion Core (25- to 85-quart), Orca Cooler (20- to 140-quart), or the RovR RollR (45 to 89-quart). Typically, bear-resistant coolers require the use of bolts or padlocks to be effective.

How to handle interactions with black bears at camp or on the trail

If a bear approaches your campsite, “Stand up, make yourself seem bigger by raising your arms over your head and back away. Do not approach the bear. Make some noise like yelling at the bear to go away. Get into your vehicle and lock the doors. Honk your car door or blow an air horn to try to scare the bear away,” said Livingston.

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Bear spray is very concentrated, irritating pepper spray more effective than firearms at deterring black bears.(Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

“Once the bear leaves, pack up and move to another area and do a better job of removing food and scent attractants from your new camp,” Livingston added.

If you stumble across a bear on trail, follow the same steps: make yourself larger by raising your arms over your head, do not approach the bear, and make noise such as yelling at the bear to go away.

Also, “Back away slowly down the trail the way you came or move off the trail to give the bear space,” said Livingston. Basically, “make your presence known so the bear has an opportunity to leave the area,” he added.

You can carry a few tools to help scare persistent bears away including bear spray.

“Bear spray is preferred to a firearm. If you spray a bear with bear spray, you take away its sense of sight and smell so it cannot find you,” said Livingston. Be sure to know how to safely use bear spray.

Audible devices can be utilized, too, such as a whistle, air horn, or personal safety alarms like the eAlarm made by BASU.

Livingston said, “Any unfamiliar noise can scare off a black bear.”

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO
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