I understand, and practice, bear-safe rules like hanging (or canister-ing) during summer months, but what about in the winter when bears are (theoretically) hibernating, and the shorter / colder days make every extra task 10 times more difficult?

Is there some room for leeway?


6 Answers 6


Bears don’t really hibernate, although they lower their activity during winter. Here’s one sample study of Black Bear winter behaviour in Sierra Nevada, California:

Thirty-nine (62 %) bears were winter-dormant for at least 2 weeks; the remaining 24 (38 %) remained active all winter.

Here in Czech Republic we don’t have many bears, most of them cross from Slovakia, but around the state border it’s quite common to find bear footprints in snow during the winter. Draw your own conclusions.

  • 2
    Good article - shows some variability by region as mentioned above.
    – Lost
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 20:28
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    This is a little misleading. I live in an area where it is commonplace to hear of bears killing people... It happens all the time around here, especially in the spring. Bears really do hibernate.
    – studiohack
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:36
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    Why is it misleading? Wikipedia says bears don’t hibernate and the quoted scientific study confirms that. In no part of the answer I imply that bears are not dangerous – if anything, my answer says that you should be careful around bears even in winter.
    – zoul
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 9:05
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    Wikipedia says "While many bear species do go into a physiological state colloquially called "hibernation", it is not true hibernation. In true hibernators, body temperatures drop to near ambient ... The body temperature of bears, on the other hand, drops only a few degrees from normal, and the heart rate slows to just 9 beats per minute. They normally do not wake during the entire period." Thus, the difference between bear sleep and hibernation is strictly technical, of no practical value. Current European winters are probably not cold enough for the bears to sleep, though.
    – IMil
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 23:05

Bear canister rules are often relaxed in the winter. However, this will depend on where you are camping. On the east coast, in the Adirondacks, the rule is:

NYSDEC Regulation Requires The Use of Bear Resistant Canisters by Overnight Users in The Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Between April 1 And November 30. NYSDEC encourages campers to use bear resistant canisters throughout the Adirondack and Catskill backcountry.

On the other hand, out west bear cans are often required year round.

Obviously, you'll want to check the rules for the specific park you are going to be in, but as a more general guideline, if the temperature is generally staying below freezing there shouldn't be much bear activity. Combined with the general bear population this will determine if bears are likely to be a problem.

Another thing to consider though, is that hanging your food protects it from more than just bears (eg mice). While the bears might not be a problem, mice don't hibernate.


Some reasons for leeway:

  • Regulations allow for it. Each park and wilderness area have their own rules and regulations. Some may allow for relaxed practices during known hibernation periods of their local bear population, though some may not. This is simply something that will require personal research into the area in question.

  • Inclement weather The weather conditions that you might encounter could be so difficult that hanging a bear bag, or following normal bear-safe practices actually becomes more of a risk just because of the increased exposure, increased energy expended, or it is taking away valuable time that you are needing to dedicate to more pertinent, essential needs. These could include things such as building and maintaining a fire, seeking or improving shelter to stay warm, or just getting the extra sleep required because of the increased energy expenditure. One also might use the logic that any bears that are out there are seeking shelter from such bad weather as well.

  • Emergency or injury This is related to the previous point since cold-related injury is the most probable in winter. If you or someone in your group is in need of medical care, then that is going to take priority over following bear-safe rules, at least until such time that the situation and patients are stabilized.

  • Near 100% certainty that bears are inactive This is a tall order, but if you know based upon all evidence and knowledge that all bears in your area are in hibernation then certainly some leniency doesn't sound unreasonable. But...can you really ever be this certain?

My opinion is no, you can't ever be certain that all bears of all species are inactive where you are. And besides, they aren't the only animals of concern.

Some reasons for no leeway:

  • A fed bear is a dead bear! Bears are increasingly becoming food-conditioned and/or habituated to human presence. This means a bear's natural habits may be altered, or may even be largely dependent upon human food or garbage. Just because it's cold doesn't been the bear is dormant, especially with the possibility of a continuous, viable food supply because of careless people.

  • Not all bears hibernate. And not all bears hibernate at the same time. Habits & behaviors vary between species, and vary even among species by the region and its climate. For example, some black bears never hibernate because they can still find food all year, even despite the winter temperatures. This can often be the case in the Southeastern US where I live currently. So it seems it would be a rather bold assumption to think that bears are not active just because it's winter and cold.

  • Hanging a bear bag isn't just for bears. It's also to protect your food from other wildlife. Shorter and colder days are all the more reason to plan accordingly to protect your food from hungry animals that are just looking for an easy meal.

From Princeton's Outdoor Action Site:

“Bear bagging” is something of a general term used for hanging your food. There are lots of other animals (raccoons, opossums, coyotes, chipmunks, skunks, etc.) that will go after human food. In some cases you may be camped in locations where there are no bears, but still need to hang your food at night...

So in light of the above points, barring exceptions such as weather and emergencies, appropriate bear-safe practices should be maintained throughout the year, regardless of season and temperature.

Personal anecdote: I was backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park near Mount Rogers in the winter several years ago. There was probably two feet of snow or more everywhere. We didn't hang bear bags. What got into our food? Wild ponies. Yep. Wild ponies. Who knew.


I would suggest following the bear rules year round. In the Canadian Rockies, we still have areas closed due to bear activity in the middle of January. Plus ravens will make short work of anything left accessible, not to mention worrying about attracting cougars and wolves.

Here's a couple links outlining safety for camping in the backcountry, and in case you do see a bear.

Be Bear Smart
Backcountry Camping


Like already mentioned in other replies, it depends were you are and the weather changes. I'm working on a bear project in the Canadian Rockies and we know the bears can be active until January. They should be in there den until April, but there are exceptions. We always take bear spray with us during winter fieldwork.


Bears do not hibernate as such, they do something with some characteristics of hibernation called denning. Whilst in this state a bear is still aware of its surroundings and can be easily awoken so it can defend itself from threats. Female bears also tend to give birth during 'denning' this can make them particularly defensive. I would advise still taking caution during the winter months, if they are awoken from their slumber they will be more 'sluggish' but I still would not like to be confronting one!

You can read more about hibernation associated bears and other animals here

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