Ask Liz / What do I do if an animal comes into my camp at night?


Photo Credit:  Nat Geo Wild

Photo Credit: Nat Geo Wild

FULL QUESTION: "If there is an animal that comes into my camp at night, what do I do?...How can I tell [what it is] in case I can't see it? What do I do if it is a bobcat/bear/mountain lion? If I see a bear around dusk, should I keep walking to put as much distance between us as possible? I guess it is the animal/night combo that is giving me the creeps - any advice would be appreciated."

Here's Vicky and Al Noack. (My husband took a baking class from Vicky when we lived in Ennis, and I tried moose for the first time at their home.) They are some of the kindest, most generous people I've met.

Here's Vicky and Al Noack. (My husband took a baking class from Vicky when we lived in Ennis, and I tried moose for the first time at their home.) They are some of the kindest, most generous people I've met.

I asked my friend Al how he would answer this question because I needed some backup. Al's a 62-year-old Montanan, through and through, and he has a lot more experience in the wilderness than I do. Al's spent 3/4 of his life in the wilderness. He's been teaching a hunter and bowhunter class for the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for the state of Montana, for 20 and 25 years respectively. Overall, Al has a great sense of what to do and not do in the wilderness. I trust what he has to say and want to impart his knowledge here. I think his responses provide a sense of sobering reality and relief. 

AL: "I think a person only has to fear one animal at night in camp, and that is a bear...The other animals, not at all. Don't let movies that show otherwise ruin a great chance to get out and enjoy the outdoors....MOST animals fear humans." 

I wholeheartedly agree that your fear shouldn't stop you from enjoying the wilderness, but there are some things you should definitely practice to be empowered to help yourself. 


AL suggests some best practices to avoid making dumb human mistakes that draw animals into our camps.

  • Plan your day to get to camp before dusk. "Most human/animal conflicts happen during the day, but can happen at night. Most happen when a human walks upon an animal while it's feeding, sleeping or has young. It goes into defense mode and bad things happen. At night, animals are not out looking to attack something, most of all, a human."
  • Don't set up camp right next to a water source. (This is a Leave No Trace principle as well.) "If it's easy for you to get water, it's easy for animals also and they might come at night to get a drink."
  • Don't cook and eat your meals in camps or in your tent. "The smell can last a very long time" and sometimes we might spill food. This is bad! In addition, "If you build a fire, NEVER throw food or its containers in the fire."
  • "Never store food or anything [with a scent] anywhere close to camp." You should put food in a bear canister or bear hang and have it at least 200 feet away from camp.
  • Carry bear spray and a light source with you at all times. There's a small chance you might encounter an animal when you walk away from camp to use the bathroom.


  • Don't assume the animal wants to attack you. It may just be walking through your camp.
  • "NEVER run. Get your spray ready and turn on the flash light. Just seeing the animal will take away some of [your] fear." Al says it's probably not going to be the killer griz your mind might make up. It's likely a porcupine, raccoon or another little critter.
  • Talk to the animal in a low voice. "Don't yell. Hopefully hearing your voice will cause it to turn away and leave."
  • Keep the flashlight on it, and move it in small arcs. 
  • "Don't use the bear spray unless it attacks you. Using the spray to scare it away is just a waste of spray."

"We don't know why bears attack." But HERE'S WHAT TO DO IN CASE THEY DO

If a bear charges towards you, spray a one second burst using a sweeping motion (left to right or right to left).

  • Spray it where the bear will be, on it's path towards you (versus aiming for the bear). Bears are really fast and you want to have a cloud of bear spray in it's path. 
  • Be ready to spray again, holding your can with two hands. Stand and wait to see what it does.
  • Spray again if the bear keeps coming. 
  • If the bear halts, take a couple steps back, slowly. 

If the bear actually attacks you, there are different responses to different bears (relevant to the lower 48 states. Alaska is a whole other playing field.)

  • GRIZZLIES: Play dead. You'll get mauled; it will be painful, but play dead. Stay in fetal position. Protect your neck.
  • BLACK: Fight back with everything you have. 


This one is a tough one to answer because it depends on what the bear is doing. Does it have cubs? Is it feeding on a dead animal? Is it moving away from you or moving towards you? 

First of all, you need to have a plan you can enact. Al sums it up with: Observe. Decide. Act. This is what he would do in that situation.

  1. Know how to use your bear spray. Practice getting it out removing the clip, holding it out, and fake-spraying.
  2. Get your bear spray out, slow and easy. It should be easily accessible! Not in your pack, but attached to your hip or pack strap.
  3. Rapidly assess the situation. Are there cubs? A food source? Is it a sow (mama bear)? Where are the cubs? Is the bear being aggressive? Is it curious? Which direction is the wind blowing? What's behind you? Are you between the sow and cubs? 
  4. Decide what you need to do. Stay calm and get yourself out of that situation without provoking the bear.
  5. Take a few steps away from the bear/cubs. Be ready with your bear spray and back up away from the bear. Keep slow and steady and get far away as possible. 
  6. Set up camp somewhere safe. 

Bears can be especially defensive if there are cubs involved or if they're feeding. Move away slowly. NEVER RUN. Even if you have to back track, stay out of that area. You're at risk of provoking the bear when it's most protective and defensive. You'll need to decide what direction you think the bear is headed and go the opposite way.

What about mountain lion? "If you see a mountain lion trailing you, you're probably lunch." (Al said that, not me! I don't want you or me to be anyone's lunch!) They attack people when they're moving around, not when you're settled in camp (necessarily). Make yourself as big as you can and make a ton of noise. Make it think it's going to take on godzilla! If they attack, fight with everything you have. 

When you're out of danger, remember to take some deep breaths. Get your heart rate down. Give thanks that you're alive. Decide on a new campsite and get situated to hunker down for the night. Sleep. Rest. Relax as much as you're able. Take care of yourself. 

On an adorable (and frightening) note: I couldn't resist posting these "bears at camp" photos I found on google. They tickle me silly! Please remember to practice being bear aware. Protecting your food = protecting the bears. 

Ask Liz / What do you put in the bear canister and where do you put it?


Q:  What do you put in the bear canister? Where do you put the bear canister?

Here's the full question for reference: "I was wondering if you've had any experience using a bear canister. Where do you keep the canister overnight? What about your cook kit? Do you transfer chapstick, sunscreen, etc. from pack to canister in the evening? Do you distance cooking area from canister from sleeping area? How far?"

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: Always put everything that has a scent in a bear canister (or a bear hang) before you go to bed. If you're not sure if you should, put it in. Find a secure spot away from ledges about ~200-300 feet away from camp. Better safe than sorry!

Bears are definitely one the most frequently voiced fears I hear about when people talk about going into the woods! "The bears are gonna eat me!" It's both funny and real (no, not that the will eat you necessarily...), so knowing how to protect yourself and the bears is a skill you need to learn if you're going to backpack in bear country.

Bear canisters are great because (sure) it keeps your food safe, but mostly because you can use it as a seat (as demonstrated in the photo above) or a small even surface. Unfortunately, they can be heavy and fit awkwardly in your pack.

Types of Bear Canisters

The bear canister I use is the Bearikade Weekender. It weighs a hair under 2lbs and I bought it after spending 7 days hiking with an old bear canister rental from the ranger. OMG. It was so heavy and hard to fit everything inside, I decided to go lighter and more spacious. Here are three of the most common bear canisters out there listed in order of lightest to heaviest. (From L to R: Bearikade Weekender, BearVault BV500, Garcia Bear Resistant Canister)

How far should you go from camp?

You should place your bear canister about 200-300 feet from your campsite. Take ~70 steps away from your camp and then start looking for a secure spot. I try to lodge it somewhere it would be a bit more challenging for a bear to get to. That's not always available, so use your judgement and do your best with your situation. Also, keep it away from water sources (where it could get rolled into and disappear forever) and ledges (where it could fall off and *sad face*). 

What should you put in your bear canister?

A general rule of thumb is to put anything that has a scent in your bear canister. If you're not sure, take your item through this decision tree. 


  • Chapstick
  • Cup/bowl
  • Deodorant
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • Floss
  • Food (all of it!)
  • Cook set
  • Snacks
  • Soap
  • Spoon/spork
  • Sunblock
  • Tea bags
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Trash


  • Clothes (unless you spilled your dinner all over it or it smells like your food!)
  • First aid kit
  • Hand sanitizer (non-scented)
  • Map
  • Your stinky socks (but golly, I hope you don't have to smell that all night)  ;-P

PROTIP #1: People tend to forget to check their backpack hip pockets at the end of the evening. There's always something small and bear-baitey hiding in there. Check it!

PROTIP #2: Here's a process that works well for me so I don't forget anything. Most people eat dinner after they set up camp. If that's you...

  1. Check EVERY pocket for trash, wrappers, snacks, and other scented items. Gather your bear canister and everything that has a scent including your toiletries.*
  2. Take it all with you to the place you're going to eat dinner (about 70 adult steps or more away from camp).
  3. After you eat your heart out, take care of your teeth and APPLY CHAPSTICK LIBERALLY (if you're that type). You're going to need to put your chapstick in the bear canister, so this is it for the night.
  4. Go find a place to secure your bear canister by moving away from your camp area.
  5. Walk back to camp and get horizontal! (I love laying down after a long day of hiking! It's the best.)

*Trust me, it is crazy annoying to be ready for bed and all of a sudden you find a snickers in your tent or something. You have to get out of your warm sleeping bag and walk for what seems like forever in the cold to put it away. (Can you tell I've had to do this before?)

Alternatives to Bear Canisters

Bear canisters can get heavy (upwards of 2lbs). An alternative is to carry the supplies you need for a bear hang. This might be a using something like an Ursack or making your own by using a stuff sack and getting some rope and a carabiner. 

This will be a lighter and more flexible option since it's a bag versus a rigid canister. You will need to figure out how to hang it, but it's a fairly simple skill you can learn. (Bear hang basics coming soon.)

Other helpful tidbits on the internetz.

How to pack a bear canister
Bear canister basics from Leave No Trace

Any comments, questions or feedback? I'm human and sometimes miss things! Please let me know if you think of ways I can improve this article. xo

Solo Backpacking: What info to share

If you plan on going on a solo backpacking trip, I would highly recommend giving any and all relevant information to your "team" of supporters -- these are the people who will be looking out for you from home. 

I try to share everything I think will be important in case of an emergency situation. Below is an example email of the information I provided during a solo trip to Montana (when I was living in California).

Where I'll be: Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana
Trailhead start/end: Benchmark

GENERAL ITINERARY (subject to some change)
Wed, July 24: arrive at Benchmark after 6pm MST, camp at trailhead
Thurs, July 25: trail 202 to trail 203 (towards Chinese wall)
Fri, July 26 - Mon, July 29: trail 203 (continue to Chinese wall, then I'm not sure what I'll do yet. Either do a loop back to Benchmark going west then southeast or east then southwest or do an out and back. I'm going to decide after I talk to a ranger.)
*Note: I am aiming to be out of the wilderness and back to my car by 5pm MST on Mon, July 29th. 

POINT PEOPLE (in case I don't check in by 5pm MST on 7/29)
1) Samuel Mandell
Relationship: Fiance

If I don't check in via phone/text, you might begin to worry a bit. 
If I don't check in by 7pm, on 7/29, please call ranger station (see contact info below)

2) Sheri Jarvis
Relationship: Friend in Montana

I'm planning on meeting Sheri at her friend's home in Potomac, Montana on Mon, July 29th. 

RANGER STATION (that manages the area I'll be in)
Rocky Mountain Ranger District
1102 Main Ave NW
Choteau, MT 59422
Phone: (406)-466-5341

(See attached pic)
Car I'm driving: Honda Civic hybrid, light green blue (See attached pic)
License: XXXXXX
Belongs to: Name, Phone #, Relationship to me

(See attached pic)
Hair: brown
Eyes: brown
Weight: 136
Height: 5'3"
Allergies: Cipro


Below are the pictures I attached to this email in case they needed to send it to anyone in case of emergency.