Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country: Bear Safety Best Practices for Motorcyclists, is a Riders Blog series of articles adapted (with permission) from the author’s Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting presentation given in Yosemite CA. We hope you find the information helpful. Ride safe. Have fun. (And don't feed the bears.)
Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country: Bear Safety Best Practices for Motorcyclists, is a Riders Blog series of articles adapted (with permission) from the author’s Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting presentation given in Yosemite CA.
We hope you find the information helpful.
Ride safe. Have fun. (And don't feed the bears.)
Preparing for a Moto-Camping trip to Bear Country
Welcome to Part 3 of our series reviewing Best Practices for Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country. In Part 2 of the series, Understanding Bears and Bear Behavior, we introduced you to North American bears and common bear behavior. We covered some important foundational stuff in that article so if you haven’t read it already please take a moment to read it now.
Here in Part 3 of the series, Preparing For A Motorcycle Camping Trip To Bear Country, we begin our discussion of bear country moto-camping best practices.
The first step in preparation for a camping trip to bear country (or for any camping trip) is to get yourself up to speed on the latest conditions affecting the area where you plan to travel. Are there any bear safety alerts? Weather alerts?
Contact the local wildlife agency headquarters for the area you plan to visit — Forestry Service, BLM, State Park headquarters, the National Park Service — and ask them for the latest camping and weather precautions. Espescially important for a camping trip in bear country, ask them if there are any current bear reports. If there are active bear warnings in any area you plan to visit, make new plans.
Review all bear safety best practices
Even if you’ve traveled through bear country before, do a fresh review of all bear safety best practices to refresh your memory and keep yourself alert and up to speed. Re-reading this article might be a good place to start.
Check your bear safety gear
Double check that your bear safety gear (as well as all other safety gear) is working correctly and that your bear spray has not expired. Replace all gear that is not working as it should be or that has passed its expiration date.
When traveling in a group
If you are traveling with friends — two people, three people, more — it is absolutely essential that EVERY member of the group adhere to the same bear country best-practices. And I do mean EVERY member of the group.
It does no good for 4 out of 5 people in the group to meticulously follow bear-safety best practices if the 5th person lubes their chain with bacon fat and fills their pockets with energy bars.
Make sure everyone in the group is united in their bear-awareness, is similarly trained, and is on-board with following the same bear-safety best practices. If someone in the group refuses to do this, leave them at home.
Similarly, every member of the group should have their own bear safety supplies — their own bear spray, bear-safe food canister, air horn, odor proof bags etc. We discuss essential bear safety gear for motorcycle camping in Part 4 of this series.
Practice for a bear encounter
It’s a good idea to rehearse (individually and as a group) what you will do in the event of a bear encounter. Take a few minutes to run through a mock bear encounter scenario. Practice how you will stay calm, gather together as a group, not panic, slowly back away (never run), each prepare your bear spray, practice how you will talk to the bear in a calm and reassuring voice… Get your act together now, in the safety of your home. It can’t be done on the trail during an actual bear encounter.
We will discuss what to do in the event of a bear encounter in Part 8 of this series.
First Aid skills
Every person who travels by motorcycle, whether solo or in a group, bear country or not, should have adequate first aid skills and supplies needed to administer aid should it become necessary. Detailed discussion of these skills is beyond the scope of this article, but in brief: every person traveling should take a first aid class, get certified in Wilderness First Aid, or in some other way be prepared for a medical emergency.
To be clear, I am not just talking about knowing how to treat wounds suffered in a bear attack. A rider bleeding and injured from an off makes for an easy meal. You want to get moving again quickly.
The group should collectively have adequate first aid supplies for an emergency. You can pool your first aid supplies or chip in together and buy a wilderness first aid kit for the group. Sort this out before departure day.
The Basics of Safe Travel in Bear Country
For the most part, safe travel in bear county is determined by two main things:
- Be conspicuous
- Odor control
Of course there’s more to it than this, but in the very simplest terms, if you make enough noise to advertise that there are human beings present, and you appropriately manage your odorous items and odorous activities so you don’t smell like food to a bear, chances are a bear will never visit you. But never say never.
Let’s get into the details.
For a bear, walking through the forest underbrush can be noisy business. They are down low on all fours amid the rustling of bushes, snapping of twigs, and leaves crunching underfoot. Up above them there is wind in the trees, birds tweeting. Nearby there may be rivers flowing and other natural sources of noise.
It is entirely possible a bear may not hear you, see you, smell you (if you are downwind), or otherwise know you are there.
All these things increase the odds of a surprise bear encounter which is frightening and dangerous for both you and the bear.
So what to do?
To avoid startling a bear, human beings should always make plenty of human sounding noise while they are in bear country. Clap your hands. Talk loudly. Sing songs. Shout “hey bear!”. Be conspicuous. Make your presence known so bears and other wildlife have a chance to avoid you. Whether you are riding, hiking, or relaxing at the campsite, advertise, “hey, there are human beings here!” and bears will most often be happy to stay away.
The Importance of Odor Control in Bear Country
Bears are always on the lookout for food. To aid in this relentless search bears have evolved an extraordinary sense of smell; the most acute sense of smell in the entire animal kingdom according to some experts. 7x more sensitive than a Bloodhound.
To put this in perspective, if a bear is downwind from you it can smell that hot dog you are cooking from miles away. It can also smell the ketchup you spilled on your lap days or even weeks after you spilled it, also potentially from miles away. And we’re not talking a mere 1 or 2 miles. Some estimates put the range for black and brown bear’s sense of smell at up to 20 miles downwind. Even more astounding, there is record of a polar bear, cousin to black and brown bears, tracking a seal from 40 miles away. 40 miles!!!
What this means for us moto-campers is: if at the end of the day you go to sleep wearing the same shirt you wore while cooking your hot dog, or the same pants you spilled that ketchup on — even if you’re not actually wearing them and have only stored them in your tent — to a bear you smell like fast food in a tent and you can expect a visit.
Similarly, if you change out of your hotdog smelling clothes but put them back in your dry-bag or pannier or backpack together with your non-odorous items, those odors transfer. Now, to a bear, everything in that dry bag or pannier or backpack (everything!) smells like a hot dog and the bear will want to investigate.
Get the picture?
Even the faintest smells — smells far too faint for a human being to sense — can signal a potential food source to a bear and fire up its innate sense of curiosity and drive to eat. This will lead the bear to come and investigate. Potentially from miles away.
If the source of the food aroma is your tent, you can expect a visit there. If the smell is originating from your motorcycle, expect it to get thoroughly searched and likely knocked over in the process. If the odor emanates from inside your pannier, metal pannier or textile, expect it to be torn open.
What smells good to a bear?
What bears will consider eating and what we humans will consider eating are two very different things. Bears forage, constantly, and are omnivores. Anything containing calories will be eaten. Berries, road kill, insects, grubs, plants, lip balm, sun screen; anything with calories. The easier it is to get at the better, and a bear will never forget where they found it.
The most common bear attractants are:
- all human food (duh) including dehydrated food, canned food, beverages, powdered beverages, beer and alcohol… if a human being can ingest it, a bear can smell it and will want to eat it, no matter how it comes packaged from the store or when its expiration date is. Even discarded food packaging burned or buried underground will attract a bear.
- toiletries and cosmetics: sunscreen, lip salve, shampoo, soap…
- garbage, no matter how fowl smelling. Even if it is buried.
- road kill, carrion, the cleanings from that fish you caught down by the river…
- urine and feces, human or other animals
- food drippings in the fire pit
- food residue on cooking utensils, fire grills, aluminum foil, or storage containers
Side Note: Always remember to check your campsite for odorous items discarded or buried by people who used the campsite before you. Check the surrounding area (including the campsites next to you) before selecting your campsite. We’ll go in to greater detail about campsite best practices in Part 6 of the series, How to Set Up a Bear Safe Campsite.
Always keep in mind that odors transfer. Anything that comes in contact with an odorous item or that is stored together with an odorous item will absorb those odors and become a second odorous item and a second target for a bear’s food-radar.
Odor transfer can be a particular concern for us motorcyclists given our limited storage space. The best general rule to follow — don’t bring anything odorous with you. If you must bring something along that generally is odorous (soap or shampoo for example), try to find a brand containing no perfumes (such as Campsuds). If there is no non-odorous alternative available, always store your odorous items inside an odor-proof bag, inside your bear-proof container, and keep it separate from your odor-free items.
Most critical — don’t ever store the clothing you wear to sleep in the same pannier as your food, kitchen gear, or other odorous items. We’ll talk more about this in Part 5. How to Pack Your Motorcycle for a Camping Trip to Bear Country.
Chance favors the prepared
Tempting as it might be to skip some of these pre-ride steps and not properly prepare for your trip to bear country, don’t. Just as doing a pre-ride safety inspection of your motorcycle also helps to focus your thoughts and put you in the right mindset for safe riding, so too does pre-bear-country preparation help put you in the right mindset for bear safety.
With all this said, and with your trip to bear country pre-planning and preparation all taken care of, now let’s have a talk about the essential bear-safety gear you’ll need for your trip.
Ride safe. Have fun.
Next In The Series…
Next up in Best Practices for Motorcycle Camping in Bear Country we review the essential bear safety equipment you’ll need for your trip. Don’t leave home without it. — Part 4. Essential Gear For Motorcycle Camping In Bear Country
- Understanding Bears And Bear Behavior
- Preparing For A Motorcycle Camping Trip To Bear Country
- Essential Gear for Motorcycle Camping In Bear Country
- How To Pack Your Motorcycle For Camping In Bear Country
- How To Set Up A Bear-Safe Campsite
- Best Practices To Avoid A Bear Encounter
- What To Do In The Event Of A Bear Encounter
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