Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?

Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?
Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?

My wife was asking me if I being bear spray on camping and hiking trips.  I have a solo trip planned where I will be heading into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area this coming spring, and she was wondering what I do about bears.

First and foremost my advice to people when in bear territory is this; respect the bear, but you don’t  need to fear the bear.

My cabin in Northwest Wisconsin is located in a region of the State with one of the higher black bear populations.  I see bears once in while there.  Over the years I have successfully hunted black bear as well.  I’m aware they are likely around when I am in the north woods, but I don’t fear them.

Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?

Most people who are experienced campers and canoe trippers know how to handle black bears that show up around their camp.  If you see a one or hear one lurking around, it’s after your food, not you.  Keeping a clean campsite area is your first defense against bears.

But is it suggested to bring bear spray along with you into the BWCA?  It depends mostly on you.  It’s largely going to be a personal choice.

Most campers with experience in black bear territory, such as the Boundary Waters and other canoe tripping areas like the Quetico and Algonquin, don’t bring bear spray with them on their outings.  They know how to handle bears that show up, and they have learned not to fear them and how to deal with them.

Experienced campers will tell new campers that they likely will not need bear spray in black bear country, but if they are more comfortable having it with them, to go ahead and bring it along.  And that’s what I tell people as well.  Bring if you think you need it and make you feel safer.

Now, I’m talking about black bear country here… not brown bear and grizzly country (brown and grizzly bears are the same species of bear, but grizzly is considered a sub-species).  In territory where there are brown bears and the like, I carry bear spray (this one, in particular).

Dealing with Black Bears While Camping

If bears are going to make an appearance in your camp it’s because they want your food, not you.  The best way to deal with bears before needing to worry about bear spray is to keep bears from wanting to enter your camp to begin with.

Like I said before, keep your campsite clean.  That means you don’t want to leave food laying around.  Small critters (mice, squirrels, chipmunks) are more than likely going to be more annoying than black bears if you keep a messy campsite.  But all the same, keeping your camp clean is very important.

Here are some tips for avoiding having a black bear in camp:

  • Don’t leave any food laying around that is not eaten.
  • If catching fish to eat, clean them away from your camp.  At least 100 yards away is suggested.
  • Hang all food in waterproof packs or containers, or hide in bear cans, or use an an Ursack.
  • Clean your cooking dishes and utensils right away after using them.  Best to do this away from your camp.
  • Check a campsite for signs of black bear before setting up camp.  If you see lots of tracks and fecal droppings, find a new campsite elsewhere.
  • Keep food out of your tent and from around your tent.
  • Seal your trash in airtight bags if possible.  Some things can be burned in the campfire, some has to be hauled out.  Leave no trace!

Hanging Your Food

For decades people have been hanging their food packs in trees to keep black bears from getting it.  This is still the recommended method suggested by the U.S. Forest Service for people in the BWCA.

It is suggested that you hang your food away from the location of your tent.  Your food should be 12 feet off the ground, and 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree or other trees.  Never tie off your hanging rope to the same tree that the food is hanging from.

Campers have been coming to the BWCA for decades, and bears have learned to look for hanging food.  Some people tie their cooking pans to their hanging food bags.  If they hear those pans rattling around late at night, good chance a bear has found where the food bag is being hung and are trying to get it.  The pans serve as an ‘alarm’ to let you know you need to scare a bear away before they get your food and ruin your trip.

I put my food inside a 20 liter water proof bag that is also lined with an airtight bag.  If carrying in freeze-dried food I don’t worry to much about food smells coming from by bag.  If carrying in some fresh food, I double line everything inside zip-lock freezer bags to conceal odors.

You can check out the bag I use to carry and and hang my food here.

Using A Bear Can To Hide Food

The bear proof food canister.
The bear proof food canister.

Some people are turning to bear cans to put their food in.  Then they hide the can somewhere in the woods around their campsite.  Bear cans are made to be impossible for bears to get the food sealed inside.  The cans are round and smooth and hard for a bear, and a human, to get a gold hold of it.

Some campers have seen bears find their bear cans, and not even try to get at the food inside, because they have encountered the cans before and know it’s a waste of their time.  So they just leave them alone and move on.

Most campers will put highly reflective tape on the outside of their bear cans so they are easy to find in case a bear does come along and it gets moved when they try to open it.

Not familiar with bear cans, you can read more about them here.

Using An Ursack To Store Your Food

The Ursack is made of bullet proof fabric and is designed to keep bears from getting your food.  Unlike bear cans that you hide in the woods, or food packs that you hang from a tree, the Ursack is meant to be left at your camp tied to the trunk of a tree.

The Ursack - Bears can't chew through this 2,500 lbs strength material!
The Ursack – Bears can’t chew through this 2,500 lbs strength material!

Yep, you just put your food inside the Ursack and tie it to a tree close by at about chest level.  And done!

The Ursack is made of 2,500 lbs stencil cordage.  Bears can’t claw into it, or bite through it.  Now, they can crush any food inside the Ursack, but they are not going to get it.

Ursack recommends buying a air tight sealable bag they sell that goes inside the Ursack.  The air tight bag keeps food odors to a minimum when inside, and the Ursack protects your food from being hauled away by a bear.

This sounds pretty easy to use, don’t ya think.  You can read more about the Ursack here.

When Bears Enter Your Campsite

When a black bear enters your campsite it is looking for easy food.  When that happens it is usually because one of two different things has occurred.

  1. It has very likely smelled food you have been cooking.
  2. The bear has been to the camp once before and been successful at finding food – so it has come back looking for more.

You have heard the old saying, “bears are more afraid of you than you are of them”?  That is true when talking about black bears.  Brown bears require a lot more caution.

Keep your campsite clean, and bears will likely not be a concern.
Keep your campsite clean, and bears will likely not be a concern.

So what do you do when a black bear shows up?  Well, they should always be respected.  But you don’t want to necessarily retreat when you see one in your camp.  If you leave your camp the bear wins, it scared you off.  It deserves whatever food it can get it’s paws on.

What you really want to do is stand your ground to black bears in your camp.  Make yourself appear bigger by standing tall and spreading your arms.  Shout at the bear.  Yell at him to “go away bear”!  Some campers will bang pots and pans and take a few steps closer to the bear.  Some will blow a whistle.

Basically you are letting the bear know you see them and that they are not wanted in your camp.  They’ll usually run away.  And when they do take a few more steps after them and keep making noise.  Keep it up a few moments longer and walk around your camp making noise and yelling at them to go away.

Not All Bears Scare Off Easily

Scaring a bear off as mentioned above works 99% of the time.  Sometimes, on rare occasions, a black bear will try and scare you away by doing what is called a ‘bluff charge’.  Mamma bears with cubs tend to do this more than solo bears.  A bluff charge is when the bear will run at you.

Bear experts will tell you to stand your ground in these instances, that the bear is bluffing.  Running away may cause the bear to give chase.  Usually they turn away and run off or will stop in their tracks before reaching you and then turn and run away.  What they are hoping to accomplish it to scare you off.

More resilient bears may take longer to scare off, just be persistent.  If you are not alone make sure the other members of your camp are close by and making noise like you are.

When a bear stands up on their hind legs, it is not an act of aggression – they do that to get a better look and smell of things around them – including you.

When Bears Keep Showing Up At Your Camp

If this happens it is usually the same bear or the same couple of bears.  More than likely whomever was using your campsite before you did not keep it clean and bears managed to get a free meal and are back looking for more.  They are likely to keep trying to get your food.  These are called nuisance bears by the U.S. Forest Service.

If you keep having the same bear problems it might be easier to pack up and leave your camp and find a new spot.  It’s also a good idea to report a nuisance bear to other campers you see, the U.S. Forest Service, and the outfitter you used for your BWCA trip, if you used one.

Most experienced campers say to pack up and move on.  But there are some that will use bear spray on such bears and try to break their bad habit.  Bears don’t like pain, just like any other animal or person.  The hope when people use bear spray in such instances is that the bear will go away and stay away.

But just because you spray a nuisance bear with bear repellent doesn’t mean it will never come back.  It very well could, and your problem is still a major problem; you have nuisance bear looking for food.  So like other experienced campers, I suggest you just pack up and find a new campsite.

If You Have Bear Spray When Should You Use It?

Click on this picture to buy.

Bear spray canisters work under internal pressure and have a limited range.  It can vary slightly among the manufactures, but most are effective out to 30 feet.

I’ve had black bear closer to me than 30 feet and scared them off as I described above.  Over the years I’ve never had one bluff charge.  I suppose if that happened it would be a real test of wills to see if I would stand firm or try to dodge behind the nearest tree.

If you feel you need to carry bear spray in the BWCA, then you should certainly play out certain scenarios in your head before your trip on when you would use it.  It’s doesn’t pay to even try and use it if the bear is beyond thirty feet.  So be sure you know the range of your spray, and can determine when a bear is within range before using it.

If you have a nuisance bear and don’t want to give up your campsite you may want to use bear spray as a deterrent.  For me, personally, I would probably only consider using it, if I had it along, on a black bear that charges at me.  Otherwise I’ve never had an issue scaring off a bear by shouting at them.

If you want to carry it that is your choice, and if you want to use it that is also your choice.

How Is Bear Spray Effective Against Bears?

The active ingredient in bear spray is ‘capsaicin’.  Capsaicin creates the ‘hot’ in hot poppers.  When bear spray is used it produces a nasty burning sensation that is highly annoying and frightening to bears.  Depending on the dose a bear is hit with, the affects of the spray can last several minutes to an hour.

Bear researchers in Ely, Minnesota, at the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, have never heard or seen bear spray cause an anger responses in bears.  All bears sprayed have quickly retreated.

Additionally, previously sprayed bears seem to remember the hand motion that precedes spraying.  They typically will retreat when a person lifts and extends an empty hand like he or she is going to spray.  Especially if the person makes a loud “sshhhhh” sound like bear spray canisters make when used.


Things To Consider When Camping In Bear Territory

Be sure to keep a clean camp like mentioned above.  If in brown bear territory be sure to carry bear spray.  In black bear territory most campers and hikers will tell you that you don’t really need it.

Not all black bears are black.  Most are, but there are some that are brown in color.  Such black bears are called ‘cinnamon’ bears for their brown colored fur.

Always remember to respect bears.  They can be a amazing to see in the wild, and will always give you something to remember after the trip has ended.

Since 1900 there have been 61 people killed by bears (all bear types, mostly brown, grizzly, and polar bears).  You have a better chance of being struck and killed by lighting 45 times than being killed by a bear.

Be sure to check local regulations on bear spray.  Not all brands of bear spray are approved in all States and Canada.  If you feel more comfortable carrying it in the BWCA and other Wilderness Canoe parks, then do so.

You can buy an EPA and Health Canada approved bear spray, click here.

If you have had black bear encounters, especially in the BWCA, I would love to hear about them.



TD is the owner and publisher of TD All Outdoors. He has been enjoying the outdoors since since he was a child. Over the years he has spent as much time as he can solo wilderness canoe tripping, overlanding, hiking, fishing, bushcrafting, hunting, hammock camping, and more. Aside from this blog, he also own his own coffee brand,

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