Bears in Algonquin Park—Everything You Need to Know
Bears. Beets. Backcountry.
Ok, maybe that’s not how the famous quote goes, but let’s talk about bears in Algonquin Park. The first thing I want to mention is that Algonquin Park is massive. Like, really big. So yes there are plenty of bears in the park, but the odds of actually seeing one are very low.
Bears are only one of the many animals that live in Algonquin Park and it’s important to remember that when we go camping, we’re visiting their home. It’s their territory and we are the guests. In Algonquin Park there are only black bears; there are no grizzly bears or polar bears. That’s important to know because black bears are really big scaredy cats. They’re more scared of us than we are of them, and they will usually run away when they know we’re nearby, which is long before we would even see them.
However, it’s still natural to be scared of bears. They’re large animals and can swim, run, and climb better than humans. If a bear wants you dead, there’s a good chance the bear is going to get its way. But the odds of that happening are so incredibly low, most of the fear surrounding bears is unwarranted. Let’s dig deeper about bears in Algonquin Park to understand why.
- Bear Attacks in Algonquin Park – Are Bears Dangerous?
- Bears at Campgrounds vs. Bears in the Backcountry
- What to do When Encountering a Bear at a Campground
- What to do When Encountering a Bear in the Backcountry
- Are Dogs Ok Around Bears?
- Food Storage and Best Practices in Bear Country
- Bear Deterrent and Defence Items
- Do I Need to Bring Bear Spray?
1. Bear Attacks in Algonquin Park – Are Bears Dangerous?
We already learned that black bears are the only type of bear in Algonquin Park, but not all black bears act the same. Why is it that you’ll hear about black bears being scared of humans, but then also hear about fatal black bear attacks? Well, there are four different ways a bear is likely to react when encountering humans: fleeing bear, habituated bear, defensive bear, and predatory bear.
Fleeing Bear: Remember earlier when I said black bears are really big scaredy cats? The fleeing bear is an example of that. They’ll usually sense humans long before humans sense them, and they’ll want nothing to do with us. So, they flee. What should you do if you encounter a fleeing bear? Consider yourself lucky if you can get a glimpse of it before it runs away.
Habituated Bear: A lot of people visit Algonquin Park each year, and even though the odds of seeing a bear are very low, it still does happen. When a bear has repeated encounters with humans, they become less and less scared, aka ‘habituated’. A habituated bear is less likely to run away when they sense humans, and they can become a big nuisance at a campground or campsite. If you encounter a habituated bear and it’s not aware of you, you should slowly try to leave the area. However if it is aware of you, you should try to take shelter in a nearby vehicle or building, if possible. And if that’s not possible, you should try to scare it away.
Defensive Bear: A defensive bear is only acting defensively and does not intend to harm you. At least not at that present moment. There are some telltale signs of a defensive bear like huffing and blowing air through its nostrils, popping its teeth, drawing its ears back, and possibly even bluff charging. Bears act defensively like this either when they perceive you as a threat, or when it is protecting something. If you happen to encounter a defensive bear, you shouldn’t do anything that makes it feel threatened; make sure it has a clear escape route and don’t turn your back to run away. Make yourself seem large, speak loudly to the bear, and use bear spray as a last resort if necessary to try and scare it away.
Predatory Bear: Encountering a predatory bear is extremely rare. Predatory bears won’t put on a show and act the same way as defensive bears; instead they’ll stalk and wait for the opportunity to attack. If you encounter a predatory bear you should never turn and run. If you have a vehicle or canoe, slowly move towards it and try to escape the area. If that’s not possible, you should do everything in your power to make the bear scared of attacking you. Yell at it, throw rocks at it, use bear spray. Remember, bears move faster, climb better, and swim stronger than humans, so trying run away from a predatory bear is not going to end well. There are stories of people surviving bear attacks by fighting it off, like this story where the person used a canoe paddle, or this story where the person used a hatchet. Just to be clear, the odds of encountering a predatory black bear are so insanely low, but if it does happen, you’ll want to fight like your life depends on it, because it literally will.
So, are bears dangerous in Algonquin Park? The last fatal black bear attack in Algonquin Park was in 1991, and before that was 1978. That’s only two fatal black bear attacks in Algonquin Park in the last 40+ years. The last three fatal black bear attacks in all of Ontario were in 2020, 2019, and 2005. And in all of North America there have been only 32 fatal black bear attacks since the year 2000 at the time of writing this article, or approximately 1.5 per year. In all of North America. As you can see, black bears are almost never dangerous, and while it’s always good to be prepared, you have no reason to be concerned about dangerous black bears in Algonquin Park.
2. Bears at Campgrounds vs. Bears in the Backcountry
In the intro I mentioned “Algonquin Park is massive. Like, really big.” When we talk about bears in Algonquin Park, we need to get a little bit more specific than generalizing Algonquin Park as a whole. The main thing to consider is location. Algonquin Park has ‘Drive to Camping’ and ‘Backcountry Camping’. The former is dominated by ‘Developed Campgrounds’ (or what people think of as car camping), and the latter is dominated by ‘Canoe Camping’. The odds of encountering a bear is different depending where you decide to camp, and even the way the bear reacts can be different depending on the location.
Bears at Campgrounds: The majority (75%) of Developed Campgrounds in Algonquin Park are situated along Highway 60. These campgrounds have a high concentration of people in a small vicinity, unlike in the backcountry where campers are more spread out. These campgrounds also have varying levels of accommodations, including things like bathrooms, showers, garbage bins, and picnic areas. Also, people tend to be a little bit more messy when camping at campgrounds. When you combine all of these things together, it makes sense why bears would be attracted to campgrounds. There’s an overabundance of scents that would draw bears to these campgrounds, and there’s a goldmine of opportunity for them to get fed. It should be no surprise that bears are much more active in campgrounds along Highway 60 than they are elsewhere in the park. In campgrounds you may encounter a fleeing bear, a habituated bear, or in rare cases a defensive bear.
Bears in the Backcountry: The backcountry accounts for a very large percentage of Algonquin Park’s land area. Unlike campgrounds, which are densely populated (relatively speaking), when people camp in the backcountry they are significantly more spread out. People are also more restricted with their food choices in the backcountry since everything needs to be portaged into the campsite. This often results in preparing simple meals, often shelf-stable food choices and less smelly when cooked. Many bears roam around the backcountry but because of the sheer size of Algonquin’s backcountry, the odds of encountering a bear, or having a bear stumble upon your campsite, are very slim. In the backcountry you are much more likely to encounter a fleeing bear rather than a habituated or defensive bear.
*The one exception to the above is in the region just north of Highway 60 from Access #5 Canoe Lake; this is the most popular launch point for backcountry canoe trips, and lakes like Littledoe Lake and Tom Thompson Lake are visited by bears frequently. This is due to those lakes being very easily accessible, making them ideal destinations for less experienced campers, who may not always follow best practices when it comes to bear safety and prevention. The odds of encountering a habituated bear in this region is higher than other areas of the backcountry, however this shouldn’t deter you from planning a trip to this area of the park.
3. What to do When Encountering a Bear at a Campground
Encountering a bear can be scary and exciting all at the same time. When you encounter a bear at a developed campground, it may be a fleeing bear, habituated bear, or in rare cases a defensive bear. If it’s a fleeing bear, consider yourself lucky if you get a chance to see it before it flees. However if it’s a habituated bear or defensive bear, you should know how to properly respond.
Let’s start with the ‘don’t’. Don’t under any circumstance feed the bear. This is how bears become habituated and nuisance bears; when they successfully find food, they know to come back to that same spot again in the future. Don’t approach the bear; this one seems like common sense, but I’ll say it anyways. If there are cubs, don’t get in between the cubs and their mother. Don’t try and play dead, this doesn’t work for black bears. Don’t turn your back and run away from the bear; they might perceive this as a threat, and a bear that feels threatened is not a bear you want to be around.
Ok now for the ‘do’. Do store all of your food and scented items in the trunk of your car, or somewhere not easily accessible to the bear. Do take shelter in your vehicle or a nearby building if possible. Do alert park staff when it is safe to do so, even if it’s after the bear has already left the area. Do try and make the bear leave the area if it isn’t a fleeing bear; you can talk to the bear in a loud voice or use other methods to try and scare it away.
4. What to do When Encountering a Bear in the Backcountry
Encountering a bear in the backcountry is similar to encountering a bear at a campground. However, you’ll be with a much smaller group and you won’t have a vehicle or building to take shelter. There are three main places you can encounter a bear in the backcountry: while canoeing, during a portage, or at your campsite.
If you see a bear while canoeing, it will likely run into the forest long before you get close to it. While portaging, the bear will be aware of you long before you’re aware of it, and it will almost always flee. Encountering a bear in the middle of a portage trail, while possible, is extremely rare. And lastly, at your campsite. The do’s and don’ts of encountering a bear at your campsite are very similar to what was mentioned in the campground section.
Don’t approach or feed the bear. Don’t turn your back and run away. Don’t get between a bear and its cubs. Don’t try and play dead. The “do” section is a little bit different because most of the recommendations for campgrounds aren’t possible in the backcountry. Instead, do try and hang your food in the trees at all times other than when you are cooking. Do keep a clean campsite, keep scents contained, and follow Leave No Trace. Do try and leave the area and move to another campsite at the first opportunity, when it’s safe to do so. Do try and scare away the bear. Talk loudly to the bear, hold a canoe paddle up to make yourself seem large, or use bear spray as a last resort if needed.
If you encounter a bear at your campsite it’s important to try and protect your food to the best of your ability. There’s a saying ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’ because feeding a bear will likely turn it into a habituated/nuisance bear, and these types of bears have a higher probability of eventually posing a threat.
5. Are Dogs Ok Around Bears?
This is a question that gets asked often. “Is it safe to go camping with a dog? Will my dog attract bears?” The short answer is yes, it is safe to go camping with your dog and many groups do in fact bring their dog with them while camping. But let’s dive a little deeper into the subject of dogs and bears.
Dogs aren’t likely to attract a bear to your campsite, but if you do happen to encounter a bear and you’re with your dog, it may aggravate the bear and make it feel threatened.
“Although a bear attack is very rare, bear attacks often involve dogs off leash in a rural setting. Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus University of Calgary, a highly respected bear researcher with over 40 years of experience and a particular focus on Bear Attacks Their Causes & Avoidance (title of his book on the subject), along with his colleagues, just concluded a 3 year study of 92 Black Bear attacks across North America. The study determined that over half of these studied bear attacks involved a dog off leash.” – Source: https://wiseaboutbears.org/about-us/bear-attacks-2/
Fatalities from black bears are extremely rare, but during a recent fatal black bear attack in September 2019, an elderly woman was walking her dogs when she got attacked. There was no confirmation that the attack was a result of the dogs, but it has been speculated this was the cause.
“But bears can become aggressive toward dogs and can charge after a dog that was being walked by its owner, Garshelis said. The dog comes back to its owner with the bear chasing it, he said.” – Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/09/05/black-bear-kills-minnesota-woman-ontario-attacks-not-common/2220723001/
What can you do to create a safe camping environment with your dog? Always keep your dog on a leash so you’re aware of its location. This is especially important while portaging (and also a common courtesy for other campers who may have a fear of dogs). Make sure your dog is well trained and will not run off into the forest. If you encounter a bear, keep your dog at your side and try to keep it calm so it doesn’t do anything to provoke or threaten the bear. Lastly, you can try camping on an island. Yes, of course bears can swim to the island, but on small islands it’s much easier to be aware of your surroundings, and you don’t have to be concerned about your dog running off into the forest and coming back with an unwanted friend.
People camp with their dogs all the time and realistically, the odds of anything bad happening is extremely low. But it’s still important to recognize that dogs can be problematic around bears, and extra precautions should be taken if you’re going to bring your dog camping with you.
6. Food Storage and Best Practices in Bear Country
We’ve talked a lot about what to do in the event that you encounter a bear, but let’s take a step backwards. Shouldn’t the goal be to avoid bear encounters in the first place? There are various best practices that will help prevent bear encounters from ever happening.
First, let’s talk about food storage. At developed campgrounds you can store your food in your vehicle, and properly dispose of your garbage. But it’s not that easy in the backcountry, so let’s focus on that. Food storage in the backcountry is an ongoing discussion; some people swear by using food barrels while others don’t care for them. Some people routinely hang their food in the trees while others do not. Here’s a simplified overview of your different food storage options.
Dry Bag: Storing your food in a dry bag helps keep it dry (hence the name) and is convenient because the bag will compress and get smaller as you continue to eat your food. But it does a very poor job at containing scents, so if you’re trying to keep your scents contained as much as possible, a dry bag isn’t the right choice.
Food Barrel: You can’t go canoe tripping in Algonquin Park without seeing those big blue food barrels. They have a firm structure, protecting your food from damage, however they don’t compress, so on the last day of your trip your food barrel is going to be the exact same size (though much lighter). It’s a common misconception that these blue food barrels are scent proof, which is not true. They do a very good job at containing scents, significantly better than a dry bag or regular backpack, but they’re not ‘scent proof’. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and your blue food barrel isn’t going to fool them. My personal belief is that I’d rather take actions that inch me closer to being ‘bear proof’, so I will always prefer using a food barrel vs. a dry bag and take the extra level of scent protection that it offers.
Ursack: An Ursack is a specific brand that makes bear-resistant bags for camping and hiking. Similar to dry bags, they collapse to become smaller as you eat through your food supply. They have been field tested and approved in many places to be used as food storage in bear country. Ursack’s are more expensive than the other options, but will do a better job at preventing a bear from accessing your food. Dry bags and food barrels can be punctured and ripped open very easily by a bear, however that is not the case with an Ursack. It’s also important to note that Ursack’s are the only option here that aren’t waterproof, so if you want to waterproof your food supply and you plan on using an Ursack, you’ll need to take some additional steps.
BearVault: Like the Ursack, the BearVault is a specific brand, unlike the dry bag and food barrel ‘categories’. BearVaults are another ‘hard sided’ option like the food barrel, and while they do offer better protection from bears, it does come at the cost of not being waterproof. They are also smaller than food barrels, making them good for shorter trips with fewer people, but not ideal for longer trips with several people. On a weight-per-litre ratio, food barrels (specifically from Recreational Barrel Works) are slightly more efficient with the following three options: 20L at 1.4kg (0.07kg/L), 30L at 2kg (0.067kg/L), and 60L at 3.6kg (0.06kg/L). This compares to BearVault’s two size options: 7.2L at 0.94kg (0.13kg/L), and 11.5L at 1.16kg (0.10kg/L).
Those are the main food storage options, but regardless of which one you choose, you’ll want to make sure you’re following best practices when you’re at the campsite. It’s a never-ending debate whether you should hang your food overnight. Without getting into the arguments of either side, I’ll just say that I personally believe in hanging food. It’s recommended by Ontario Parks, and I’ve even written a separate article How to Properly Hang Your Food in Algonquin Park. Hanging your food can be done with most options, but if you choose to use an Ursack there are separate guidelines for how to properly use an Ursack.
It’s also very important to keep a clean campsite and follow the principles of Leave No Trace. You can learn more by reading my article 15 Important Tips for Your Backcountry Canoe Trip in Algonquin Park.
And lastly, never bring anything scented inside your tent. This is one rule I’m very strict about when I go camping. Without a vehicle or building nearby you have nowhere to take shelter during a bear encounter. Personally, I like going to sleep knowing that if a bear stumbles upon my campsite, I’ve done everything that I can to make the bear have no interest in my tent. Aside from the obvious food items, this also means you shouldn’t bring a toothbrush, sunscreen, etc. into your tent. If it has a scent, keep it out of the tent.
7. Bear Deterrent and Defence Items
Most people who go hiking or camping in the backcountry have at some point questioned whether or not they should bring bear spray on their trip. In developed campgrounds, bear deterrent and defence items usually aren’t necessary since you can always hop in your car for safety in the event of a bear encounter. But in the backcountry it’s just you vs. bear and there’s nowhere to hide. Let’s take a look at some of the different bear deterrent and defence items available and when each are appropriate to use.
Bear Bells: These are small bells that attach to the outside of your gear or clothing; anything from a dog’s collar to your canoe pack or food barrel. The bells are inside a small enclosure and will make noise with movement. The idea behind bear bells is that the noise they produce will let the bear know you are nearby, and will prevent the bear from coming any closer. However, many people believe that it’s more efficient to yell, clap loudly, or make other noise to deter bears since bear bells don’t get very loud.
Bear Bangers: A bear banger is a loud explosive that projects from a cylindrical tube. It is similar to a bear bell in the sense that it uses noise to deter a bear. Bear bells are intended to prevent a bear from coming near you, whereas a bear banger is intended to be used when you have already encountered a bear. Bear bangers are not meant to make physical contact with the bear; the bear banger should be shot into the sky and the explosive sound will hopefully scare the bear away.
Let’s pause here for a second and take a look at what Jon Stuart-Smith, acting Human Wildlife Conflict Specialist with Parks Canada has to say:
“We recommend bear spray and we don’t recommend things like flares, pen flares, or bear bangers and we don’t recommend things like bear bells,” explained Stuart-Smith. “Bear spray has been proven scientifically to be effective and those other things are not necessarily going to be effective.”
Stuart-Smith says bear bangers, which are small explosives, carry the potential for injury or escalating an encounter. “If a bear is close to you and you shoot off a bear banger that explodes behind that bear, that might force the bear towards you and make the situation more dangerous. It could make the bear more aggressive because it’s now scared of the noise.”
The flaw with bear bells is their sound means little to a bear. “They just don’t make enough noise and they don’t make a bear aware that you’re human. A little tinkling noise doesn’t necessarily tell a bear that there’s a person nearby.”
Bear spray is the most effective defensive item against bears, so I’ve decided to give it its own section below. But there are two more items I’d like to mention first:
Everyday Gear: In the event of a bear encounter, you can hold up canoe paddles to make yourself look large. In the extremely rare event of a bear attacking you, you can use a knife, hatchet, or axe to fight back. Even something as small as throwing rocks can be used to deter a habituated bear.
Emergency Communication Device: It’s always good to have an emergency communication device in the backcountry, particularly one that allows for two-way communication. SPOT, InReach, and Zoleo are the more popular brands to consider (personally, I use an InReach Mini). In a worst-case scenario of a bear encounter gone wrong, being able to communicate with the outside world may mean the difference between life and death.
8. Do I Need to Bring Bear Spray?
Bear spray is the single most effective defence item against bears. It’s essentially pepper spray, using the same active ingredient capsaicin, but much stronger.
Do you need to bring bear spray on a trip with you? My opinion is yes. Yes you do. Bear spray is one of those items I’d rather have and not need, than need and not have. I travel solo most of the time meaning I’m often very quiet, if not silent around the campsite. I’ve come face-to-face with moose, wolf, and fox on the portage trails because they weren’t aware of my presence (well, the moose were aware, but moose just don’t give a damn).
As a solo traveller, I always have my bear spray with me, and it’s always attached to my hip (literally) so that it’s easily accessible. Bear spray is useless in a bear encounter if it’s at the bottom of your pack. I’ll say that one again because it’s super duper important. Bear spray is useless in a bear encounter if it’s at the bottom of your pack.
Even for people who don’t travel solo, I personally believe that it is never a bad idea to have at least one bear spray canister per group, and to always have it immediately accessible if needed.
While bear spray isn’t difficult to find, there are rules and regulations to purchasing and using bear spray. Bear spray is legal to purchase in Canada for individuals age 18+ years, but only for use against bears; it would be considered a weapon if used on a human.
According to the Pest Controls Products Act, bear spray can only be sold in Canada by authorized vendors. These vendors need to maintain sales records and gather specific information during the sale, including a signed Notice to Purchaser Agreement that outlines the legal use of bear spray and containing a liability warning.
Bear spray is intended as a last resort during bear encounters and it’s important to remember that it’s not a fool proof defence item against bears. Interestingly, bear spray is actually more effective than guns as a defence item against bears. In fact, one study showed that bear spray was effective at stopping 92% of aggressive bear cases when used properly, whereas guns were only effective 67% of the time.
If you’re going to bring bear spray with you to Algonquin Park, make sure you purchase it from an authorized vendor, and make sure you know how to use it before going on your trip. I highly recommend purchasing a harness for the canister so that it can be easily attached onto your clothing or the outside of your gear.
Most people like to test their bear spray after purchasing to ensure that it works, and to ensure that they know how to use it. This is a good idea, however it’s important to know that the propellant inside the canister will begin to degrade quicker once it’s given its first spray.
Bear spray canisters typically have an expiry date of 3-4 years from production, but these expiry dates don’t have anything to do with the degradation of the active ingredient, capsaicin, rather it’s the timeframe given before the canister loses its ability to spray effectively. It’s still a good idea to test using the bear spray at least once (outside, away from other people, and most importantly, downwind!) so you’re familiar with how it works. And just remember, if you’re going to bring bear spray with you on a trip, make sure it’s easily accessible.
Hopefully by this point any concerns you may have had about bears being dangerous have been relieved. Yes, bears are predatory animals and can be dangerous, but you’re more likely to get in a car accident driving to Algonquin Park than you are to get attacked by a bear while camping. Fatalities in Algonquin Park from other causes (heart attacks, drowning, etc.) are much more common than fatalities from bear attacks. It’s always good to be educated about bear safety and prevention, and what to do if you encounter a bear, but getting attacked by a bear isn’t something you should lose sleep over. Just remember that bears are much more scared of humans than we are of them, and consider yourself extremely lucky if you get to see a bear on your next camping trip… just hopefully it’s not at your campsite!