Camping and Hiking in Black Bear Country

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Photo of two bears
One of the largest wild mammals in Missouri, the American black bear is unmistakable with its black fur and powerful bearing.
Noppadol Paothong

Black bears are an exciting part of Missouri’s natural history, and they’re making a comeback in the southern part of the state. While black bears primarily inhabit the Ozark region of southern Missouri, there have also been sightings in the northern part of the state.

Learn how to Be Bear Aware while camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing to stay safe, and to keep bears wild. Follow these tips to fully enjoy your outdoor experience in Missouri.

Camping in Black Bear Country

  • Keep a clean camp. Thoroughly clean all utensils and cookware immediately after use. Never deposit food residue, such as cooking grease, in campfires.
  • Plan your meals and generate as little food garbage as possible.
  • Never leave garbage out overnight. Place it where bears cannot smell or gain access to it, either in bear-proof containers or dumpsters. DO NOT burn or bury garbage. Bears will dig it up.
  • Do not eat or cook in your tent. Avoid storing food or attractants in tents, sleeping bags or backpacks. Place these items in plastic or burlap bags and suspend from trees at least 10 feet high and at least 5 feet from the nearest tree trunk when backpacking.
  • Treat nonfood items such as gum, soap, toothpaste or deodorant as food. They are attractive to a bear's acute sense of smell.
  • Immediately store food articles (including pet food, livestock feed and garbage) in airtight containers after every use. Coolers are not airtight, and bears often associate them with food. Secure food containers in a locked trunk or truck cab concealed from view.
  • Never attempt to feed a bear or any other wild animal.
  • Never approach wildlife, especially black bears. They are wild animals and can be dangerous.
  • Keep pets on leashes and clean up leftover food and scraps after your dog has finished eating.

If a Bear Comes into Camp

  • Remain calm. Make the bear aware of your presence.
  • Do not feed the bear! Bears leave more easily if they have not obtained food.
  • Make sure the bear is not cornered and has an escape route.
  • Yell, throw rocks, wave your arms or use an air horn to scare the bear away.
  • If the bear utters a series of huffs or snaps or pops its jaws and swats the ground, you are too close. Slowly back away.
  • If the bear will not leave, move to a car or building, if possible. Notify authorities immediately if you encounter an aggressive or non-yielding bear.
  • If a bear stands on its hind legs or moves closer, it may be trying to get a better view or detect smells in the air.

Hiking in Black Bear Country

  • Normal trail noise should alert bears to your presence and prompt a bear to leave before you ever see it. Bears usually run and hide from people.
  • If possible, travel in groups of three or more people. Typically, larger groups of people make more noise and appear more formidable to bears. Keep your group together and make sure children are close to you at all times.
  • Use caution in areas like berry patches where bears are likely to venture for food.
  • Never approach a bear – observe it only from a distance. If you encounter a bear at close range, remain standing upright, try to look as large as possible, avoid direct eye contact, back up slowly, and speak in a calm and assertive voice.
  • Carry bear spray – but KNOW how to use it. Bear spray is extremely effective to deter bear attacks. Bear spray is a non-toxic and non-lethal means of warding off aggressive bears that temporarily affects the bear’s respiratory system and mucous membranes.
  • Keep bear spray immediately available on your belt or your pack’s waist strap, not inside your pack. Use only bear spray – self-defense spray meant for humans is not effective.
  • If a bear approaches while you are eating, put food away and slowly retreat a safe distance. Never abandon food because of an approaching bear. Always take food with you.
  • Never throw your pack or food at a bear in an attempt to distract it.
  • If a bear moves toward you or charges you, DO NOT RUN!
  • Some bears will bluff their way out of a threatening situation by charging, but will swerve off or stop suddenly before reaching you. Bear experts generally recommend standing still until the bear stops and then slowly backing away. Use bear spray if you have it.

If a Bear Seems Aggressive

Black bear attacks are extremely rare! That being said, always remember to stay alert in bear country. If you follow the precautions listed above, you probably won't have any trouble with bears. Fatal black bear attacks were more likely to be the result of predatory behavior, rather than a female defending cubs.

If a bear appears to be stalking, following at very close distances, or cannot be deterred, leave the area immediately (do not run) and contact your local conservation agent. If a bear makes contact, fight back aggressively using rocks, sticks or your fists. Black bears are usually intimidated by an aggressive counterattack.

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Be Bear Aware

Follow these guidelines to Be Bear Aware – stay safe in bear country, and keep our bears wild.