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Camping with bears

Article by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission with editing by Bob Rountree.

Bears typically want nothing to do with people, and will often run or hide when they sense your approach. However, there are some important things you can do to help avoid conflicts when you are camping with bears.

Bears are not cuddly teddies or ferocious killers; they are wild animals who deserve respect.

Do not assume that a bear is friendly just because he is hanging around or doesn’t run away when it sees you. There are NO “tame” wild bears, and all wild animals deserve respect and space.

Last year, portions of Ocala National Forest were closed because bears were too aggressive. The reason? Campers had been leaving food around campsites, and bears were associating tents with food.

“A habituated bear will rip into tents regardless of people or food being present,” Ranger Carl Bauer told WESH-TV. “This type of activity endangers our visitors.”

Ocala National Forest
Black bears are a common sight in Ocala National Forest. (Photo by Peter May/Ocala National Forest)

Know your place

Are you camping in bear country, such as Ocala National Forest? While bears are common in the forest, they can be found anywhere in Florida.

Talk with a local park ranger, concessioner, or facility manager and see if bears have been active recently. Regardless of where you camp, its best to follow the steps below and assume bears could be in the area.

Make some noise

Wild black bears are typically shy and avoid people. Be safe and make noise while walking in the woods to scare off any bears that might be in the area, especially if you see fresh bear sign like footprints or scat.

While you could encounter a bear at anytime of the day, they are most active at dawn and dusk.

bears bear picnic Camping with bears
This bear may look friendly but there is no such thing as a “tame” wild bear.

Bears are attracted to anything that smells

When camping, the easiest way to prevent attracting a bear is to eliminate (or secure) everything with a scent, including food, toothpaste, deodorant, bug repellent, suntan lotion, and other items with strong scents.

Bears are attracted to anything that smells. Bag your food in airtight, odor-containing bags, store the food in a sack or other container, and hang at least 10 feet above the ground — away from your campsite.

Burn off food residue on your outdoor grills.

Keep camp areas separated

Where you cook and eat, where you sleep, and where you store food and other scented items should be separated from each other. 

Declare your tent a food-free zone.

There are few things more startling than being awakened in the middle of the night by a bear licking the remnants of a chocolate bar off your face.

A vast majority of cases where black bears have entered tents involved food and scented toiletries. Keep those items as far from your tent as possible.

Store dirty clothes and clothes you wore while cooking away from your tent

Recreational Vehicles and Cabins

Close and lock all accessible windows and doors at night and close any curtains that might provide a bear’s eye view of your food stores.

Don’t let your car, camper, RV or cabin become a food source for bears. Many campground bears have learned to associate coolers with food, so hide them out of sight in the trunk of your car, in a wildlife resistant food locker, or under a blanket in the cabin.

Before you lock up, clean out your car every night and remember to check under the seat for leftovers and food packaging, such as bags and wrappers tossed aside after stopping at Burger King on the way to your adventure.

Burn off food residue on your outdoor grills, and use a heavy-duty ammonia-based cleaner to clean your RV or camper’s exhaust vent.

Dogs and bears 

Dogs are allowed in campgrounds and the forest, and they should be leashed at all times. But we know that doesn’t always happen. 

If your dogs and a bear fight, the best thing you can do for your dog is to stay out of it.  If you get involved, your dog can’t focus on trying to protect itself because it will try to protect you instead. 

You put your dog at more of a disadvantage when you get involved because you distract its attention. 

It may seem hard to not do something, but remember the best thing you can do is stay calm and stay out of it, your dog has a better chance of not getting hurt if you do.

Believe it or not, most dog and bear tangles end with neither animal getting hurt, and the bear looking to retreat as soon as it can.

Keep your fresh catch secure 

If you have to leave your fish or deer carcass for more than a few minutes, stash it at least 25 to 50 feet from your gut pile. Either hang it at least 8 ft high and 4 feet from the attachment points, or cover it with tree limbs or brush.

When you come back, make plenty of noise. If a bear has beaten you to your kill, you can try to scare it off from a distance with noise but be prepared because a bear may be willing to defend its new-found food.

If you encounter a bear

If you see a bear from a distance, enjoy the experience, but do not move toward the bear.

If you are close, do not make any sudden or abrupt movements. Back away slowly and be sure the bear has an obvious escape route.

If you encounter a bear at close range, remain standing upright, back up slowly and speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice.

  • Do not turn your back, play dead, climb a tree or run. Back away slowly into the house or secure area.
  • Avoid direct eye contact. Bears and many other animals may view this as aggressive behavior.
  • Stand your ground. If the bear paws the ground, huffs and puffs, clacks and snorts, or runs directly at you, they are trying to scare you off. If you stand your ground, the bear will likely stop and move away.

No matter what happens, do not run away. Slowly back away, talking and holding up your arms. The bear may charge or vocalize several times until he is comfortable turning his back on you and leaving.

While we have not had a predatory attack on a person by a bear in Florida, people have been bitten and scratched by bears.

If a black bear attacks you: Fight back aggressively. People in other states have successfully fended off black bear attacks using rocks, sticks, or even their bare hands!

Article courtesy the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

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