In most of the woods in the US you are camping with bears. The bears are not intruding on your campsite. Your camping is intruding into their territory. Bears can be comical by the way they fish and play. But they can also be a formidable aggressor.
The type of bear you may encounter in the woods varies to the area you are in. In earlier times when the US was founded, Brown Bears were common in the area west of Iowa from the Mexican border to the Arctic Circle. With the advance of civilization to the west coast the Brown Bear was eradicated except for the very western and northern part of Canada into Alaska. With the protection of threatened animal species the brown bear has been repopulating the US as far south as Yellowstone National Park and are a favorite attraction to the area.
Black Bears populate the northern part of the US into Canada and Alaska. They are also found in the Rockies as far south as Mexico and in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the Virginias, Tennessee and Kentucky.
While wild bears will try avoid people they can become accustomed to humans. This is common when food is left out and accessible by bears or people purposely feed bears. When bears become accustomed to people they lose their fear of humans and will become more aggressive for food. That is why state and national parks have strict guidelines for leaving food out and feeding bears. Some parks have bear proof food storage lockers and all food must be stored in them.
While not many think of this, it has happened and will continue to happen as long as pets are allowed to roam free in the woods. I do not like to keep a dog on a lease all the time but this time it is for their protection as well as yours. Your dog thinks of you as alfa being. You are in command and will protect the pack. If your dog is allowed to roam out of your site in bear territory they may come across a bear. If your dog gets the bear riled up the bear will come after it with a vengence. Expecially if the bear has a cub, the bear will eliminate the threat by killing it. If this happens to your dog and they are chased, where do you think they will heads for?. Yup, right back to you for protection from the beast right behind them. Get ready for an attack. To prevent this from happeneing, keep your dog close by in bear territory.
If a bear can smell food, they will search it out. So the best practice is to hang your food off the ground. If a bear does get a whiff of your food they will not know where the food is. If they do see it they will not be able to reach it if you hang it high enough and in a fashion where they cannot climb to get at it. The best way to hang your food is between two trees. If there are not two trees close enough for this use one tree but hang the food at the end of a branch. The branch should be strong enough to support the weight of the food but not enough to support a bear. A bear will not chance trying to break the branch for fear of falling but they may try to shake the tree to knock the food out.
If you are going backpacking in an area with bears but few trees invest in a bear proof container. These containers are made of high density plastic and are smooth and large enough so a bear cannot get their mouth around it to crush it yet are easy for people to open them. They come in different sizes and colors. If your container is not large enough to hold all your food you will be tempted to leave the unimportant food out. This will be a mistake. Decide how much food you will need for the entire length of your trip and find a container large enough to fit it all.
If you are in an area with only black bears you can leave your food in your car as long as the car does not have a convertible roof. Don't forget to lock your car. Some door handles will open a door when pulled or when a button is pushed. To keep the bears from accidently finding out how the doors open Lock Them. Make sure you close all windows all the way. If a bear can get a claw into a crack they can pull hard enough to break the window.
When you decide to have a meal is the only time your food should be out of storage. As soon as you are done preparing the food you should put the food back in storage. Don't wait until you are finished eating to pick up the remains of the unprepared food. The less food you leave available for bears the better. After you have finished eating pick up all the garbage and clean the utensils you used for eating.
Your fireplace or cooking and eating area should not be the same as your sleeping area. Even after you have policed the area for crumbs and morsels a bear can still smell the food. You wouldn't want a hungry bear sniffing around your tent.
I explain in more detail where to hang your food and where to cook and eat on my How to Set Up a Campsite page.
Do not bring into your tent anything that smells like food. This includes candy, gum, mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant, and soap. Anything that resembles food will attract a bear. Do not wear or bring into your tent the clothes that you wore when you prepared or ate your food. Crumbs and juices are detectable by a bear's keen sense of smell.
Learn the tell tale sign of a bear presence. Scat or bear pooh will tell you how long it has been since a bear passed. If the scat is fresh the bear may be close by. The scat will also show you what the bears in the area are eating. If you see berries in the scat try to avoid berry patches. If you see maggots or grubs the bear may have food buried close by. A bear will half bury an animal carcass to speed up the attraction of maggots and grubs. You do not want to stumble upon a bear while it is at it's food cache.
As I said earlier, bears will try to avoid you. However, it is possible to surprise a bear when hiking. This is true especially if it is windy. The wind and background noises such as a stream can cover up the noise you make.
When you are traveling try to avoid thick brush and stay in the center of the trail. If you must travel where eyesight is limited, make noise, lots of noise. One of the best ways is to have a loud conversation. Your voice will travel further and be louder than background noises. Some people use bells tied to their backpack. I would use a cow bell. Tiny ding dings are easily covered over by background noises. Remember, in the woods, noises are muffled by bushy growth.
If you spend enough time in the woods, eventually you will come across a bear. If the bear has not seen you, simply back up until the bear is out of sight. Retrace your steps for about 100 feet and make noise. Listen to see if you can hear the bear leaving the area. If you hear the bear leaving, continue on your trip continuing to make noise. If you did not hear the bear leave, make lots of noise as you go around the area where you saw the bear. The idea is to give the bear warning that you are close by. The bear will try to avoid you.
If the bear has seen you, do not look the bear in the eyes. Looking the bear in the eyes is a sign of aggression and a challenge. While keeping the bear in sight, back up. Do not turn around or run. Once you are out of sight of the bear, leave the area while making noise. The bear will be listening for you to find out where you went. If the bear hears you leaving the bear will also leave.
You are safer in a large group. If you come across a bear while in a group get close together. You will appear bigger than the bear and the bear may leave. You can also intimidate the bear by yelling as loud as you can and wave your arms in a menacing manner. Bears do not want to mess with critters bigger than they are.
Many times when a bear charges it is a ploy to scare you off. If you turn and run the bear will take it as a threat and chase you down. Stand your ground. The bear will stop close to you but will not attack. He may knock you over but bear attacks are not common.
If you do travel in bear country, carry a can of bear pepper spray. Bear pepper spray is more powerful than the pepper spray you can get for protection from humans. The can also holds more and will propel the ingredients a longer distance. If the bear is charging do not spray the propellant until the bear is within range. Aim for the eyes and mouth. Continue to spray as long as the bear keeps approaching. If the wind is blowing from the bear's direction, the spray will travel less distance and may hit you. Change your position so you are not directly downwind from the bear. See our Pepper Spray for Bears Page for more information.
If the bear does attack do not fight back. Fighting back only makes the bear madder. Do not remove your pack and throw it at the bear. The pack serves better as protection for your back and neck. Curl up into the fetal position and intertwine your fingers together with your hands wrapped around the back of your neck. A bear's mouth is not large enough to encompass your head to get a good grip. Their teeth will slip off your skull. Your neck is the most vulnerable spot so use your pack and hands to protect it. When the bear thinks you are no longer a threat the bear will stop it's attack and retreat. Continue to remain motionless as the bear may have only given enough leeway to see your response. When you know the bear has left, leave the area and asses your injuries. If your injuries are sever, administer first aid and seek help. If the injuries are not severe say a prayer and thank God you are still alive.
When camping with bears the best defense against a bear is to avoid them. Let the bears know where you are by making noise and learning the signs bears are present. The only species of bear that will hunt you down is a polar bear and you would't be camping where they are anyway.