Why Bears Aren’t Scared of Fire (And What To Do Instead)

Big brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the mountain

Campfires are something most outdoor adventurists associate with warmth, coziness, and safety. All the scary stories and spooky noises can be kept at bay by the flame’s alluring flicker. Unfortunately, something that won’t be kept at bay by a campfire is a bear.

Fire itself will not deter bears from coming close. Bears aren’t afraid of fire, let alone campfires, because they often experience positive reinforcement when approaching them such as leftover food, grease, or foil left in the fire that has food particles on it.

Bears can be intimidating to encounter, especially if you have never seen one before. Below, we’ll go over why bears aren’t scared of fire, and what you can do instead to send them scampering in the other direction.

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Are Bears Scared Of Fire?

There’s no doubt about it – humans are fearful of the dark. It’s not cowardice, more like built-in genetics. Back in the day, nighttime was when humans used to be stalked by big predators as food.

It’s left an imprint on us, even in the 21st century!

Fire is certainly a point of light in the darkness and a way for us to feel safe. Most of us were told that fire will keep away predators like bears, but this just isn’t true.

Bears are not afraid of fire and will not be deterred by leaving your campfire blazing throughout the night. The main reason bears are not afraid of fire is because their want for food overpowers any hesitations they may have about a crackling campfire.

According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, bears can be deterred by sudden bright lights such as a motion-sensor light on your home (the example they discuss is a bright light near your trash tote.) This is called a frightening device and typically works by startling the bear by presenting it with something new.

However, an article in the Wildlife Society Bulletin confirmed that scare tactics like bright lights do not keep bears away long term.

A campfire is not like a motion-sensor light. Motion-sensor lights are sudden, bright, unnaturally white light. Fires are constantly emitting low light and are of a more natural color than bright LED lights.

Because of this, bears aren’t going to be afraid of fire as much as they are of LED porch lights or motion-sensor lights. This is especially true if food is involved.

Just to add, you shouldn’t JUST use bright lights to deter bears. You can read more about why using bright lights to deter bears is a bad idea here.

Will Fire Keep Bears Away?

brown bear (lat. ursus arctos) stainding in the forest

There are three different species of bear present in North America: The black bear, brown bear, and polar bear.

Luckily, most people do not have to deal with polar bears or wonder if they are afraid of fire or not. Black bears and brown bears have the most interactions with humans and will be the most likely bear you run into on a camping trip.

While black bears and brown bears have different physical and behavioral characteristics, neither of them is particularly afraid of fire.

Do not expect a fire to keep bears away while you are sleeping in your tent.  Remember that bears really aren’t scared of fire. You’ll want to follow some safety practices to truly keep bears away from your campsite and fire. But more on that later.

For now, just know that fire will not keep a black or brown bear away.

Why Aren’t Bears Scared Of Fire?

So, why doesn’t the flickering flame of our campfire keep bears away? FOOD!

We’ve all seen a picture of a bear if not seen the real deal out in the wild. They’re, well, let’s just call them rotund for now. Bears need a lot of calories to keep their physique. 

Most of the time when we have campfires we’re cooking stuff over or in the fire. Mountain pies, potatoes, hot dogs, hamburgers, and, of course, smores. Yum!

What we don’t realize when we’re cooking is the dripping grease, the falling crumbs, or the lost marshmallow that accidentally caught fire. We may not be able to smell it, but a bear’s sense of smell is seven times stronger than a bloodhound.

When we’re all tucked away for the night in our sleeping bags, bears will be on the prowl for food. Since there are no loud and noisy humans around, bears won’t have a problem stalking close to the fire if they smell something tasty.

Even worse is if food is left out on a nearby table. This is inviting a bear for an all-you-can-eat buffet just a few feet from your tent.

Food is the number one motivator for a bear to come near a fire. Bears aren’t inherently attracted to fire or smoke for any reason, these chonkers are just attracted to the food.

How To Keep Bears Away From Your Campsite

A big Black Bear on a Meadow in Alaska

Bears aren’t picky when it comes to food. They are omnivores, so they’ll eat berries just as readily as they’ll eat meat. But food isn’t the only thing that attracts bears to your campsite. 

Anything with a strong smell will invite bears to come and take a closer look. In addition to food, this can mean your toothpastesoapdeodorant, or even a scented lotion

While we’re not suggesting you leave your hygiene tools at home, there are smart ways to store them so as not to attract bears.

1. Store Items Properly To Avoid Attracting Bears

When you’re camping, you have to have food. There’s no way to get around it. The best way to keep bears away from your campsite is to store all your food (and other sweet-smelling supplies) properly.

While there are plenty of products out there like ‘bear bags’ and ‘bear tubes,’ they’re often expensive and the same outcome can be attained by using other products.

Sea to Summit’s 13L Lightweight Dry Sack is a great choice to pack 1-2 days’ worth of food. This bag also comes in a 20L or 35L if more space is needed for additional food/toiletries. 

In addition to the bag, you’ll want some lightweight rope to string the sack in a tree and out of reach of any nosy bears.

Atwood Rope MFG Store’s 550 Nylon Paracord is perfect to use for a bear bag. It’s lightweight and incredibly strong. 100 feet is all you should need to string up a bear bag. 

And don’t worry, you won’t have to climb a tree to hang it!

Once you are ready to settle down for the day or if you plan to leave for the day, you’ll want to hang all your toiletries and food in your bear bag. Make sure it is at least 4 feet from the trunk of a tree and at least 10 feet off the ground.

To hang the bag: 

  1. Tie a small weight on one end of the line such as a plastic bag with a rock in it. 
  2. Throw the weighted line over a tree branch. 
  3. Tie the unweighted end of the line to the tree trunk.
  4. Throw the weighted end over a different tree’s branch, leaving enough slack so that the center of the line is within reach. 
  5. Attach your bear bag to the middle of the line (between the two trees).
  6. Pull the weighted end until the bag is hoisted up high enough. 
  7. Tie the weighted end to the second tree trunk.

Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources has an excellent visual of this to give you a better idea of how to hang up your supplies so a bear can’t get to them.

Now, just be wary that bears can climb trees to get to the to your bag, so again it’s very important to keep the bag away from the trunk of the tree!

Alternatively, if you are car camping or Rving, you should store all food items and toiletries inside your vehicle.

2. Off-Leash Dogs Can Unintentionally Attract Bears

There’s nothing wrong with bringing Fido along for a camping trip. Whether you’re doing some backpacking or spending some time in your RV at a campsite, your dog is sure to enjoy the fresh air as much as you will.

However, you should always keep your dog on a leash. Curious off-leash dogs can meander through the woods and come upon a bear by accident. As the dog runs back to you for help, it’s likely to bring the bear with it.

Having your dog with you can also be a way to deter bears from coming nearby. Dogs can hear and smell far better than we can. If your dog starts acting strange, barking, or growling, it may be an indicator that a bear is nearby.

The sound of your dog barking will likely deter bears from coming around, but it’s always good to have a backup plan in case a bear is particularly hungry and ignores your dog to get to any food scraps.

However, dogs natural barking and presence (while leashed) can actually help keep bears away in the first place. You can learn more about why bears are generally afraid of dogs here.

3. Be Smart At Mealtimes To Avoid Bear Encounters

Brown bear near hanging bag of food

We mentioned before that food is a huge motivator for bears to come near humans, even if a roaring fire is going.

One way to help avoid seeing or encountering a bear is to avoid strong-smelling foods. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), you should cook all your food at least 100 feet away from where you plan to sleep.

Another suggestion from Montan’s FWP is to avoid sleeping in the same clothing that you ate or cooked in. You may not be able to smell the small food particles on your clothes, but bears can!

Once your meal is over, clean up all leftovers and dishes immediately. But, be smart about it! Dump all dirty dishwater at least 100 feet from your campsite and do not put leftovers in the firepit. Instead, store them in your dry bag that you hang out of reach or in your vehicle.

How To Scare Bears Instead Of Using Fire

Now that we’ve established that fire doesn’t scare bears, let’s talk about what does scare these rotund scavengers. 

Bears don’t want anything to do with humans if they can help it. Even bears that are used to getting food from certain locations will avoid them if people are around.

We can use that to our advantage!

According to an article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, aversive conditioning is successful in keeping bears away from available food sources like a campsite with food scraps laying around.

Aversive conditioning is doing anything that makes a bear go away – clapping, loud noises, bear spray, yelling, etc.

For how large these animals are (brown bears weighing in at over 1,000 pounds) they’re skittish around people. This is good because there are many things we can do to scare bears away without ever lifting bear mace or a firearm.

1. Make Loud Noises To Scare Bears

Brown bear in Tiaga forest

Many of the suggestions we make to scare bears will depend on the situation. But making loud noises is a good tactic to use in any circumstance. 

If you encounter a bear by accident in the woods and it has spotted you, you do not want to keep quiet and try to hide from the bear. Instead, you’ll want to alert the bear to your location before you (or it) gets too close.

While camping or hiking, you can attach bells to your belt or dog that will jingle all the way wherever you go, alerting bears and anything else around of your presence. If a bear is approaching you, speak in a loud, low-pitched voice to the bear in addition to standing tall.

If a bear is approaching your campsite, you can be more aggressive toward the bear. Bang pots and pans, clap and yell in a low-pitched voice to scare the bear away. Try to do everything in your power to stop the bear from getting food from your campsite.

Sudden loud noises are an excellent way to scare bears, and will usually work at making them scamper off. However, you should never approach a bear while you are making loud noises. Stay put, wave your arms, and make loud noises until the bear trundles off in another direction.

Just take note that loud music itself probably won’t deter bears, but a conversational radio show that indicates a human presence may help.

Notes on airhorns: Airhorns make an extremely loud, high-pitched noise when released. While it may startle any nearby birds, it can agitate a bear because of the pitch. Sometimes however they make airhorns specifically designed for bears, such as this SABRE Frontiersman Bear Horn.

2. Use Bear Spray To Scare Bears

As we mentioned before, bears are not interested in being near humans unless they are really hungry and smell something tasty at our campsite. 

Bear spray can be very effective at deterring bears from coming any closer, but this option should only be used if the bear is not responding to your voice or other scare tactics. 

There are many things that bears do that we see as threatening when they’re just being defensive or investigative. For example:

Bear Standing Up: When a bear stands on two legs, it’s not trying to intimidate you. It’s just trying to get a better look at you to try to understand what you are. This is when talking in a loud, low-pitched voice is effective, letting the bear know you are human and not to be messed with.

Bear Charges: Most of the time, bears that charge are doing something called a ‘bluff charge’ where they try to scare you. Most of the time they will veer away and not make physical contact. If a bear charges, it’s important to stand your ground (easier said than done, right?).

With that being said, if a bear continues to harass you after you’ve tried to scare it or if it charges without any indication that it is a bluff, you can use bear spray to defend yourself.

Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray With Holster is a great product that reaches a distance up to 35 feet. This is important because you don’t want to be any closer than that to a bear if you know you’re in trouble. 

This bear spray comes with a holster that makes it easy to carry and keep within reach while hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors. Never put bear spray inside a backpack or somewhere hard to reach.

There are also certain essential oils that bears dislike and can be used to help repel them but this is more of a preventative, may work option depending on the situation.

That’s A Wrap!

Brown bear running on the river and fishing for salmon. Brown bear chasing sockeye salmon at a river.  Kamchatka brown bear, scientific name: Ursus Arctos Piscator. Natural habitat. Kamchatka, Russia.

Black bears and brown bears and polar bears, oh my! Bears are a part of nature that reminds us that there are still wild things out there to be feared, or better yet, respected.

Most bears do not want to interact with people and will actively avoid us. Bears just want to do bear things and eat food. 

But sometimes bears get a little too close for comfort in their search for food. And what many of us believe to be a bear deterrent, fire, is not so scary to bears. 

To recap, the reason bears aren’t scared of fire is that they are often rewarded with food by coming close to campfires and snacking on dropped food or burnt marshmallows after we’ve gone to bed.

Instead of using fire to scare bears away, you can use a few common practices to keep bears wild and fearful of humans:

  • Yell in a loud, low-pitched voice
  • Bang pots and pans together (if they approach your campsite)
  • Use bells attached to your belt or dog to alert nearby bears of your presence
  • Make yourself appear as big as possible
  • Stand your ground
  • Keep dogs leashed
  • Store food properly
  • Clean campsites promptly

Bears aren’t a nuisance exclusive to campers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. They can also be a nuisance around the neighborhood. 

If you feel that a bear is becoming food-conditioned or too tame around people, you can use our nationwide network to locate a wildlife professional near you to alert them of the situation. Remember, keep the wildlife wild!

References

Beckmann, J. P., Lackey, C. W., & Berger, J. (2010, December 13). Evaluation of deterrent techniques and dogs to alter the behavior of “nuisance” black bears. Wildlife Society Bulletin32(4), 1141-1146. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.2193/0091-7648(2004)032[1141:EODTAD]2.0.CO;2

Elfstrom, M., Zedrosser, A., Stoen, O.-G., & Swenson, J. E. (2012, November 16). Ultimate and proximate mechanisms underlying the occurrence of bears close to human settlements: review and management implications. Mammal Review44(1), 5-18. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2907.2012.00223.x

Mazur, R. L. (2010, December 13). Does Aversive Conditioning Reduce Human-Black Bear Conflict? The Journal of Wildlife Management74(1), 48-54. https://wildlife.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.2193/2008-163

Morales-Gonzalez, A., Ruiz-Villar, H., Ordiz, A., & Penteriani, V. (2020, June). Large carnivores living alongside humans: Brown bears in human-modified landscapes. Global Ecology and Conservation22. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989420300160

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