Black bears are the only type of bear found in La Plata County, Colorado, and typically are not aggressive and easily spooked. Most bear encounters will happen if the bear can smell food or scented products.
If you are hiking or camping around Durango, it is important to know how to stay safe from black bears.
If you are camping at places like Molas Lake or near Vallecito Reservoir, store your food in your car, roll up the windows and lock the car doors at night. Bears are crafty at finding food and will figure out how to open car doors.
If you are backpacking, a bear canister is the best way to keep food and scented objects safe. Bear canisters come in multiple sizes, can hold several days worth of food, are odor-proof, and are designed to be impossible for bears to open. Store your bear canister away from your tent at night.
Odor-proof sacks are another option that is popular with backpackers. You may want to use one of these if you are on the Colorado Trail or hiking into the Needles Mountains. These sacks are odor-proof, tear-resistant, and waterproof. If you choose to use one of these sacks, you should still hang it high in a tree at night.
To hang your food in a tree you will need 50 or 60 feet of rope. Paracord works well. Choose a branch that is at least 4 inches in diameter and about 17 feet off the ground. Tie a carabiner or stick to the end of the rope to give it some weight and throw it over the branch. Then attach your food bag to the other end of the rope and haul it up. A properly hung bear bag should be 12 feet off the ground, hanging about 5 feet below the tree branch and about 5 feet away from the tree trunk. Finish your bear hang by tying the rope off to the trunk of a different tree. Hang your food about 200 feet away from your tent.
Have a designated cooking and eating area in your campsite that is 200 feet downwind from your tent and keep it clean. After every meal and snack, take special care to pick up all the trash and food scraps.
Keep all food, empty food wrappers, beverages other than water, and scented objects out of your tent. Bears cannot tell the difference between food and something smelly like lotion, deodorant, or scented chapstick. It all smells like food to a bear!
Once a bear discovers trash left by people it will know the area as an easy food source and continue to return. This puts people and the bear in danger. A bear cannot learn to stay away from an easy food source so the only way to deal with this type of bear is to put it down.
Plan to be in bear country before you head out for a camping trip in the San Juan or La Plata Mountains. Be sure to have a solid plan for food storage. Next, get some bear spray and learn how to use it properly. Bear spray should be kept on the outside of your backpack and easy to reach. When using bear spray, spray a cloud in front of you near the ground instead of directly at the bear.
Leave the area after using bear spray as the peppery smell can actually attract bears that haven’t been deterred. Never use bear spray like bug repellant on yourself, your tent, or any of your gear. Lastly, make sure you are educated about how to handle a bear encounter!
Black bears are rarely aggressive. Stay calm if you run into a bear. The best thing to do is to keep your distance, back away slowly, and avoid making eye contact. Do not turn your back to the bear or run. Running from a bear will make it want to chase you. Talking to the bear calmly will let it know you are there and where you are. Take your time backing away and wait for the bear to leave on its own.
Although very rare, it is possible for a bear to approach or follow you. If this happens, stand your ground and make yourself appear as large as possible by raising your arms. Talk to the bear loudly and get your bear spray ready to use. Only use bear spray if the bear charges towards you. In the unlikely event that a bear does attack, fight back and do not play dead. Be extra careful if you ever see a bear cub, as the momma bear is sure to be nearby and ready to defend her cubs.
There are many bears in the San Juan Mountains and surrounding areas. Remember, they don't want you, they want your food! With a few simple precautions, it is easy to share nature in harmony.