Camping in bear country can be a little intimidating, especially for newbie campers. We put off taking our kids to Yosemite for years because we just weren’t sure how safe we’d be roughing it alongside these furry neighbors. Now that we have five major road trips in bear country under our belts, we don’t even give it a second thought. We know that as long as we follow a few simple guidelines for interacting with wildlife, we’ll be safe. Since we get so many inquiries on this particular subject, we thought we’d answer a few of your most asked questions about taking a pop up camper into bear country.
Are pop up campers allowed in Yellowstone?
YES! You absolutely can camp in Yellowstone in a pop up camper. This is our number one most frequently asked question about camping in bear country. There seem to be nasty rumors floating around that pop up campers aren’t allowed in Yellowstone… or Glacier… or Yosemite. That is simply not correct. Now, it is true that there are a select few campgrounds in some national parks–for example Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone–where only hard-sided campers are allowed. This is usually due to grizzly bear activity in the area, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other amazing campgrounds in those parks where pop up campers can set up camp.
We stayed in Canyon Campground during our visit to Yellowstone, for example, and it was perfect for our needs. While we did see a grizzly bear in the campground (more on that below), it ended without incident and remains a fond memory today. Check the campground’s website before you make your reservations, as they usually have very detailed information online about camping restrictions in the area.
How do you store your food when camping in bear country?
Proper food storage is essential to safely camping in bear country. We don’t store any food in our camper. Bears–especially the ones in the Sequoia and Yosemite area–are resourceful and will think nothing of ripping through your camper canvas to get to the food they smell. That’s why campsites in those areas provide bear boxes for food storage in each campsite. These special metal boxes are designed to be impenetrable to bears. If you aren’t camping in a hard-sided RV, park regulations in those parks will require you to store all food and other scented items in the designated bear boxes.
These boxes are usually large enough to accommodate quite a bit of food and gear. You can see how large our bear box at Sequoia National Park was in the above photo. The measurements of a campground’s bear boxes are usually available online, and you can find them when you make your site reservations. Pay special attention to these measurements, as not all bear boxes are created equal. We found this out the hard way on our first trip to bear country. When we were on the Sequoia trip, we hit Yosemite National Park a few days later. We expected our supplies to fit the the bear box in much the same way. The Yosemite bear boxes were considerably smaller, and we had to make a run back into town to purchase a smaller ice chest to hold our cold items. Lesson learned. 🙁
What about toiletries and cleaning supplies?
Everything from toothpaste to dish soap needs to be stored in the bear box. Bears don’t differentiate between food and deodorant. Anything that smells like food will attract them, so make sure you stash your toiletries in the bear box as well. We use these stack and carry containers to store our toiletries in bear country. Each family member gets a compartment, and they are easy to carry back and forth to the bathrooms. Dish soap and sani-wipes go in resealable bags in our dry goods tote.
What if are no bear boxes in the campground?
It is true that some campgrounds don’t provide bear boxes in each site. When we camped in Yellowstone and Glacier, there were a few bear boxes scattered throughout the campground, but no site specific ones. In both cases, we were allowed to store food and scented items in our vehicle. This absolutely would not have been allowed in Yosemite, as the bears in that area have become conditioned to finding food in cars. While it would be virtually unheard of today, in the early 1900’s, feeding bears in the Yosemite area was quite popular. This meant bears became accustomed to finding their next meal in the campground dumpster or in tourists’ cars. They know what ice chests look like and what they’ll find inside.
National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier have been more successful in keeping their bears wild. In those national parks, you must still be very careful about food and scented item storage, but it is less likely that bears in those areas will tear apart your vehicle to get to an enticing smell. That’s why we were able to keep our food and toiletries in the car when we visited those parks. Make no mistake! There are still bears in the area, and you’ll still have to be vigilant about properly storing scented items.
How do you handle trash and gray water?
You should always appropriately dispose of trash before leaving your site or going to bed for the night. These items also smell like food to bears, so it is essential to keep a clean campsite. Most campgrounds have designated bear-proof trash receptacles in every loop. If your trash bag isn’t quite full enough for the dumpster, you should store it in the bear box or your vehicle until it you are ready to throw it away. Don’t ever leave trash unattended in your campsite.
The same rules apply to gray water. In some of the heavily frequently national parks, there are specific indoor comfort stations for washing dishes and disposing of waste water. Familiarize yourself with the location of these sites, and make sure to properly dispose of all waste before leaving your site. You don’t want to attract any unwanted visitors while you are away… or asleep. 😉
Can we use our cassette toilet in bear country?
You should always ask the park rangers at check-in whether it is allowed. Every park is different. In most parks we’ve stayed in, we’ve been told it was fine. We made sure to dump our cassette tank frequently. Of course, you should check with the rangers to find out the appropriate place to dispose of that black water waste in each campground. Every site is different. I like having our potty available as an alternative to traipsing through the woods in the middle of the night–prime bear activity time–and we have never had a problem using it on our travels. For more tips on using your cassette toilet, be sure to read this post.
How do you hike with your kids in bear country?
Honestly, hiking with our kids in bear country isn’t much different than hiking anywhere. The key to hiking in bear country is making lots of noise. Like most kids, ours do that really well. 😆 The majority of bear attacks happen when a bear has been startled and feels the need to defend himself. If you make enough noise to allow the bear time to avoid you, he probably will. Singing, playing games of I Spy, and telling stories not only keep our kids occupied while we are trekking in the forest, but they also give the wildlife enough notice to get our of our path.
You should, however, check in at the visitors’ center or trail head to see if there have been bear sightings on the path before you attempt to hike it. Yellowstone was great about giving campers plenty of warning signs when a bear had been spotted in the area. In Sequoia, returning hikers would often pass along news of bear sightings as well. Most of the time, it doesn’t mean you can’t hit the trail, only that you do so at your own risk. We always make our decision based on the type of bear and the nature of the sighting. If a small black bear was seen off in the distance–as was the case in the picture below–we would often continue with our plans. Brown bears can be a little more unpredictable, and we haven’t been willing to take the risk if one was sighted nearby.
Have you ever seen a bear while camping or hiking?
We have! Many times, actually. Our favorite way to view wildlife is either from the car or from a safe distance several hundred yards away. That allows us to observe them at our leisure and snap a few pictures our for memory book. As a mother, I’m also most comfortable knowing there is a sizable distance between the bear and my babies, but we have had a few close encounters with wildlife on our adventures.
In fact, while camping in Yellowstone a few years ago, a huge grizzly bear actually walked through our camp. We were visiting in late May, and Canyon Campground had just opened for the season. The local wildlife was pretty accustomed to having free reign of the place. We arrived at camp, set up the pop up, and started making sandwiches on the picnic table. Mr. TypeTwoFun heard a noise, looked up, and a large grizzly was making his way through our site. We grabbed what food we could and slowly made our way to the car behind us. Thankfully that grizzly didn’t give us a second thought.
We didn’t get to snap any pictures of him, as we were all pretty terrified. We did manage to find his tracks later in the snow around our campsite. That is Mr. TypeTwoFun’s hand for comparison. That bear was enormous, and I’m so glad he was uninterested in us. It could have gotten really scary really fast. We reported him to the rangers so they could keep an eye out for him, but we didn’t see him again during our stay.
What should you do if you encounter a bear?
First and foremost, remain calm. Every bear is different, which means every bear encounter will be different. There are a few universal strategies we’ve learned from park rangers, though, that can prevent the situation from escalating.
- Identify yourself. Let the bear know you are human by calming talking and slowly waving your arms. You want him to see you as a human and not a prey animal.
- Stay calm and stand your ground. Screams and sudden movements, such as running away, may trigger an attack. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones, so as not to be threatening to him.
- Make yourself look larger and pick up small children immediately.
- Hike in groups and make lots of noise. This will help alert the bear to your presence.
- Do not drop your pack or allow the bear access to your food. You may need your pack for protection should the situation escalate.
- Carry bear spray if possible. Bear spray can be an effective defense tactic to use against an aggressive bear. If possible, you should always carry it when hiking in bear country and learn how to properly use it.
- Leave the area or take a detour if possible. And always allow the bear an escape route.
For more information on any of these strategies and additional bear encounter tips, visit the National Parks Service’s Bear Safety Page. There is some fantastic information there that will help you plan a memorable trip to one of the amazing national parks in bear country.
I am so glad we didn’t let our fears prevent us from visiting these amazing places. We’ve made some of our best memories in bear country. We’re always looking for new places to visit, so we’d love to hear where some of your favorite spots to camp are. Got any tips you’d like to share? Feel free to comment below. 🙂