Will Bears Attack a Tent?

Camping in bear country can be an unnerving experience. But what do the statistics and experts say? Should we should be more or less worried about an ugly nighttime encounter than we tend to think?

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Bunking down for the night in bear country has to be among one of life’s most unsettling experiences. Nevertheless, every year millions of campers do so and live to tell the tale.

So, just what are our chances of being victims of an attack in bear country? And what makes us more or less likely to receive an unwelcome, uninvited, ursine visitor in the night? And what can we do to discourage such visits? Are bears likely to attack your new 4-person tent while you sleep?

Below, we aim to answer these questions with a short guide to bear safety when camping.

Key Takeaways

  • Statistically speaking, your drive into bear country is far more dangerous than sleeping out there
  • Always use a bear-proof food canister when camping in bear country
  • Abide by park rules and regulations regarding wildlife

Bear Attacks: A Few Stats

Since the turn of the century, there have been a mere 29 fatalities as a result of 27 bear attacks in North America. Fifteen of these attacks occurred in Canada, three in Alaska, and nine in the lower 48 states. By comparison, over 50 people in North America die each year as a result of bee or wasp stings, and only a few less, on average, as a result of attacks by dogs.

Quite literally, you are statistically thirty times more likely to be struck by lightning in any given year than you are to be attacked and killed by a bear.*

These figures, however, should not be taken as an excuse for a more casual approach to bear safety in the backcountry. After all, humans are almost always in bee, wasp, dog, and lightning territory, but spend relatively less time in bear territory. And, despite the relative infrequency of fatal bear attacks, the chances of getting a good night’s sleep if haven’t done everything possible to reduce the risk of an attack are likely to range from slim to none.

*Lightning deaths in North America average out at roughly 90 per year.

What Might Attract a Bear to Your Tent

Bears have an extraordinarily acute sense of smell and can detect a food source, by some estimates, up to twenty miles away. While food is the most obvious lure, some other items can also attract bears to your campsite: cosmetics, toiletries, garbage, cooking pots and utensils, fuel for stoves and lanterns, used sanitary towels and toilet paper, and unopened canned food.

In short, if it smells, there’s a chance of it enticing any bear that might be in the vicinity to pay your tent a visit…

How to Reduce the Risk of A Bear Attacking Your Tent

For us, campers, all of the above leads to fairly a simple conclusion: eliminating any odors that might attract bears to our campsite is almost synonymous with limiting our chances of it—and us—being victims of an attack or, at least, a heart-stopping, pant-filling nighttime raid on our slumber-spot.

Below, we’ve added a few tips on how to do so.

All of the scented items listed above should be stored:

  • In a bear-resistant storage box (a.k.a. “bear can”) at your campsite (often provided by park authorities)
  • In your vehicle
  • In an (ideally scent-proof) bag or backpack suspended at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from its vertical supports

And beyond storing our grub in bear boxes, vehicles, or suspended in a tree, there are a few additional measures we can take to reduce the risk of attracting bears to our tent and campsite:

  • Pack foods for your trip in zip-lock, scent-proof bags 404
  • Never store or eat food inside your tent
  • Avoid particularly odorous foods like fish, bacon, and sausages
  • Cook downwind of your campsite
  • Store your food (and trash!) at least 100 yards from your tent
  • Store all of the items listed above along with your food
  • Don’t sleep in the same clothes you cooked in
  • Keep your flashlight/headlamp and bear spray in your tent at night
  • Keep pets on a leash
  • Set up camp away from any signs of recent bear activity: scratches on trees, scat, berry patches, carcasses
  • Carry out all trash and food scraps to reduce the risk of bears returning when other campers are present

Last update on 2023-05-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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