Alaska—all of it—is bear country, and if you’re planning on adventuring out into any part of it, it’s good to know what precautions to take to minimize your risk of a bear encounter in the front or the back country. Following up on our etiquette theme this month, we’re posting a few best practices to follow while you’re camping that will not only ensure a great camping experience, but will also keep you and your fellow campers safer while you’re out on your adventures.
Alaska has all three species of North American bear, but you’ll most likely see black bears and brown or grizzly bears on your travels. You’re highly unlikely to see a polar bear on your campervan trip, as that requires you to head well above the Arctic Circle, and unfortunately, a van won’t get you quite that far.
Most of the time, bears aren’t interested in humans, and would prefer to avoid or at least ignore us. That isn’t always the case with humans—sometimes seeing bears is the main reason people come to Alaska. But even if that’s your reason, you should still stay Bear Aware.
Keep a Clean Camp
Make sure you keep your camp area clean. Keep things neat and tidy, especially where food smells are involved. Never leave food out and unattended—keep things closed up and stowed until you’re ready to start cooking or eating. Try to avoid particularly smelly or messy foods, as bears have a great sense of smell and could be attracted to it (this helps keep the smells down inside your van, too). Your van’s kitchen is equipped with counter area, sink and running water, and it’s designed to allow you to keep food and food smells contained.
That doesn’t mean don’t cook, or don’t cook anything complicated. We’ve got plenty of recipes to demonstrate that it’s easy to cook well in your van kitchen! It does mean you need to clean up after yourself thoroughly, though. We provide dish towels, sponge and dish soap to allow you to properly clean your kitchen, which will reduce the chances of spreading food borne illnesses as well as reduce the chances a bear will be attracted to the smells in your camp. Wash all dishes and stow everything away before closing up for the night. Don’t leave any food, kitchen items, or particularly smelly things outside for the night. You can leave the camp chairs out, as long as they didn’t get spilled on or s’mored up.
If you’ve brought a pet with you in one of our pet-friendly vans, make sure you keep your pet’s food stored properly, too. Stow it inside the van when you leave and when you pack up for the night.
Keep a bag handy while you’re cooking that you can use for discards and garbage. Throw it away in a bear-proof trash can or dumpster. Bear-proofing usually involves a locking mechanism on the door or lid that requires the use of opposable thumbs or some other human-only trait to open. If there are no provided trash receptacles at a campground, or if they’re full, don’t leave your trash next to the dumpster, or near your campsite. Keep it stored securely inside your van—if there are items that could spoil, tuck it inside the refrigerator—until you’re able to dispose of it properly.
Don’t bring food into the tent
Never bring food into the tent. Even though the tent is 6 feet off the ground, on top of the van, you should still take the same safety precautions that you’d use in a tent on the ground. It has canvas sides, but if there’s no reason for a bear to be interested in what’s in the tent, they’ll leave it alone.
Avoid bringing other smelly things into the tent as well, like toothpaste or deodorant. Pack these things inside the hard-sided van, along with food and other things that smell. This way, even if a bear smells them, it won’t be able to get to them.
Bears don’t like to be surprised, so make noise while you’re hiking. This alerts the bears (and other animals) in the area that you’re coming, and most likely, they will move away before you see them. Making noise can involve holding a conversation with your hiking partners, singing, yelling “Hey Bear” when conversation wanes, or using a bell that gets attached to your backpack or belt and jingles every time you move.
Carry Bear Spray
We always recommend having a canister of bear spray nearby when you’re in bear country. This is basically a giant can of pressurized pepper spray. When you spray it, it releases a cloud of aerosolized capsicum that will immediately stop a bear in its tracks. Canisters can spray from 15 to 30 feet, and must be sprayed downwind. Do not spray upwind, or discharge it inside your van or anywhere indoors. It will not be pleasant.
We can loan you some bear spray if you need it—but we keep it in the back so you won’t find it on the free shelf. Ask us when you check in if we forget to mention it. We will give you a brief tutorial on how to use it, but you can also watch ADF&G’s in-depth videos for more information. Occasionally you can find in-person practice sessions handled by the park or forest service. These practice sessions are usually posted locally, so keep your eyes open.
Don’t be “Bearanoid”
It’s imperative that you pay attention to these camping best practices, to keep yourself and your fellow campers safe. But it’s also really easy to get “bearanoid.” Don’t forget to relax and enjoy it! Take the precautions, do the right things, and then trust that doing them is what will keep you safe. Don’t forget you’re in bear country, but also don’t forget that you’re also in moose country, in bald eagle country, in the land of Denali and of the midnight sun. Don’t forget to appreciate all that this special place has to offer, including the bears!
If you’re planning on adventuring out in the backcountry, even if it’s just hiking, we recommend using the comprehensive resources provided by ADF&G on their Bear Aware pages. It’s also possible to hire local guides or sign up for tours where you’ll be be coached on all of the precautions you should take before heading away from developed areas. Try Go Hike Alaska for an Anchorage-based adventure.
If bear viewing is a bucket list item, take a flightsee out to Lake Clark or Katmai National Parks, or for the truly adventurous, sign up for an overnight or two out at Brooks Camp, near the site of the infamous Katmai Bear Cams at Brooks Falls. Always follow the recommendations of local guides and park rangers.
And if seeing a bear up close without the element of danger is on your list, check out the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, near Girdwood. The rescue facility houses rehabilitated black and brown bears who can no longer live in the wild, but who are still able to teach us about their species and their place in the ecosystem. Plus, you can see many other Alaskan animals at the AWCC, including moose, wolves, porcupines and a wolverine.
Ready for a bear aware camping adventure? Check availability or book your van now!