Disclaimer. Ultimately you need to make your own decisions on how to protect your food in bear country. And you are fully responsible for the outcomes of those decisions. In this article I have tried to be candid and realistic, and to cut through some of the BS, red tape, and conventional wisdom that surrounds this issue. To be clear, I recommend that you listen to the land management agencies—their rules and their advice. If you feel sufficiently educated, informed, experienced, and comfortable to stray from those guidelines, that is your call.
What’s the problem with bears?
I love seeing bears in the backcountry, and consider myself fortunate that I have seen lots of them, both blacks and grizzlies. They are incredible creatures—they are big, deceptively fast, very clever, and resilient. And, just as important to me, they indicate that I’m in a special place—a tract of land that is sufficiently large, wild, and healthy to support a top-of-the-food-chain species.
But, admittedly, while I love being in bear country, it does make me more nervous, for two reasons. First, bear encounters have the potential to go bad: bears are strong and powerful, and they are sometimes aggressive, especially sows if their cubs are near. Second, bears are “resourceful” omnivores, i.e. they take advantage of any calories they can get—a ripe patch of huckleberries, a road-kill elk, an ant-infested log…or my food sack that is full of chocolate and Pringles. If a bear successfully obtains my food, my plans would have to change: I would need to shorten my trip, ration what I have left, starve, hunt and gather, and/or resupply earlier than I was anticipating. This article discusses techniques to protect your food from bears and prevent this from happening.
Besides keeping my hike on track and retaining my ability to nourish myself, there are other benefits of safeguarding my food from bears. First, I help protect the bear, since a problem bear is eventually a dead bear. (It is sadly common for bears to be exterminated after becoming too habituated and aggressive towards humans.) And second, I help protect the next backcountry user, since a bear that obtains my food is more likely to try again. Please, everyone, be a responsible backcountry user and learn how to protect your food from bears, which will help to protect us all.
Bears in the Lower 48
Based on the questions I most often receive during my slideshows, my sense is that bears instill more fear and concern in backcountry users than anything else in the wilderness. Backcountry users who may have no idea how to read a map and compass, keep themselves warm when it’s cold and wet, or achieve a taught pitch on a shelter seem absolutely convinced that their demise in the backcountry will be caused by a bear, not their own shortcomings. It seems that bears embody all that is unknown and scary about the wilderness. But these concerns are just not legitimate—bears are not the man-eaters that the media makes them out to be, and in the Lower 48 the likelihood of encountering a bear is limited to just a handful of areas.
Black bears were once found throughout Central and North America, but in the Lower 48 their range is now mostly limited to sparsely populated forested areas, including the Appalachians, Ozarks, Alleghenies, northern Great Lakes, Rockies, central and northern California, and the Cascades.
Grizzly bears could once be found roaming California’s Central Valley and even the panhandle of Oklahoma, but now they are entirely contained within five areas:
- Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, e.g. Yellowstone and Teton National Parks, and surrounding areas like the Wind River Range and the Absaroka Wilderness
- Northern Continental Divide, e.g. Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness
- Northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, e.g. Selkirk Range, Cabinet Mountains
- North Cascades in north-central Washington
When to practice food protection techniques
You may want to start considering protecting your food whenever you are in bear country. If you know the bear population is healthy—i.e. if you hear of occasional bear sightings and/or see signs of bears yourself, like finding scat on the trail—you may want to consider it more seriously. Finally, if you are in an area with known “problem bears,” it is probably wise to take some measures. The one exception to these recommendations is the winter, when bears in some parts of the country go into hibernation and food-protection techniques become mostly unnecessary.
A “problem bear” could be described as one that rummages through dumpsters, breaks into cars, raids campsites, and seems to enjoy stand-offs with hikers. Bears become problem bears when they lose their fear of humans and are sometimes “rewarded” for it. This seems to most often occur in heavy-use, no-hunting areas (e.g. national and state parks, and popular sections of long-distance hiking trails) and when humans repeatedly fail to safeguard their food.
There are a few places that are renowned for their problem bears: Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra, “Jellystone” National Park, and the Adirondack High Peaks. Not coincidentally, these areas all share the same characteristics:
- Healthy bear population
- Heavy human traffic
- Abundance of human food
- Hunting of bears is prohibited
- General lack of effective food protection measures on the part of the humans.
Thankfully the situation in all of these areas has greatly improved over the last decade, namely because effective food protection techniques are required and enforced.
Some sections of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia and the Smokies, also have a history of problems. But the AT Conservancy and the Park Service took steps to reduce incidences by installing bear cables near shelters and chain-link fences around them.
Food protection techniques
There are numerous ways in which you can try to protect your food from bears. They range in effectiveness, safety, availability, cost, and ease of use. The method(s) that you employ should be appropriate for the area that you are in—in areas with infrequent or no incidents, you can probably be more lax with your efforts without repercussion; in areas with frequent incidents, you should pull out all the stops.
Regardless of whether I have a failsafe way to protect my food, I do not want a bear coming into my campsite, unless a good night of rest is not a priority, which it almost always is. Plus, I don’t want to find out the hard way that my “failsafe” technique was, in fact, not. So whenever I’m in bear country I practice a number of “bear avoidance” techniques. These include:
- I do NOT camp where I cook. I cook at least a few hundred yards away from my campsite, downwind, preferably in an airy area where there is a gentle breeze to disperse the scents. Wiser still, I sometimes stop around 8pm near a water source, cook dinner, and then hike another hour before setting up camp.
- I do NOT carry strongly scented food or other items. These would include things like fresh T-bone steaks, slabs of bacon, deodorant, or sweet-smelling toothpaste.
- I do NOT camp in established sites or near popular trails. The bears live in the backcountry (duh!), and they know exactly where their “neighbors” live. And in heavy-use areas, it is more likely that a previous backcountry user has acted improperly and encouraged problem bear behavior (e.g. by leaving trash at their campsite, or leaving food unprotected on a log while they went to get water or watch the sunset). Bears are more likely to visit these areas regularly because they know their odds of obtaining an easy meal are better.
- I DO camp in undesignated, non-established sites. When the bears make their evening “rounds,” they are less likely to come across me. If I am in an area where camping in designated areas is required (e.g. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks), this is sometimes not possible, but thankfully there is usually good food-protection infrastructure at these sites.
- I DO carry my food in odor-proof bags. These bags (such as the OP Sacks from Watchful Eye Designs) will help make me “invisible” to the bears.
- I DO burn my trash every few days. This helps to reduce my scents, especially if some of my trash is laced with food remnants, like chocolate coatings from energy bars.
- I DO start hiking early and finish hiking late. The bears are most active in the morning and evening. So if I start hiking when the bears start roaming, and if I settle into camp at around the same time that they are bedding down, then I help to reduce the odds of an in-camp encounter. And, finally,
- I DO travel and camp where the bears are not, when I can. Bears are most likely to be encountered near their food sources, so if you know what they are eating, you can avoid those areas and elevations. Grizzly bears in Yellowstone, for example, emerge from hibernation in the spring and descend to lower elevations with the hope of catching an elk or bison calf. During the summer they feast on roots, tubers, grasses, rodents, moths, and berries. And, just before hibernation, they head into sub-alpine white bark pine forests in order to eat the pine nuts.
In heavy-use areas and popular campsites, land management agencies sometimes install infrastructure to help with food protection. If I can use this infrastructure, I normally do—it’d be foolish not to. At some shelters along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, for example, you will find “bear cables.” This system is comprised of a thick wire cable that is run horizontally between two trees and a half-dozen wire loops that run from this cable to the ground. Clip your food bag into a loop, pull it up to the horizontal cable, and lock the cable in place with a bear-proof carabineer. In Shenandoah National Park you will find “bear poles,” which are like free-standing coat racks—a center shaft with hooks at the top; the pole is cemented into the ground. Using a boom or a long branch, you can place your food sack on a hook. Finally, in places like Rocky Mountain National Park and the High Sierra, you’ll find bear-proof food lockers in some parts of the backcountry. In Rocky Mountain, the food lockers are old ammunition cases; in the High Sierra, they are custom made bear lockers.
If you are ever looking for footage worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos, film your hiking partner trying to set up a bear hang. Even better, keep the camera rolling when the bear enters camp after dark and debunks the system in about 2 minutes. Bear hangs used to be the standard food-protection technique in the High Sierra, but because so few people can do it properly, they have outlawed the practice. If done properly, the bear hang can be very effective. Usually, finding the perfect tree with a perfect branch is the hardest part. In some popular campsites in the northern Rockies you’ll find a log that has been horizontally strung between two other trees, which makes it much easier. When I hang my food, I use the “PCT Method,” named for the long-distance trail on which this technique originated, the Pacific Crest Trail. This method is excellently explained in the article, “Bear Bag Hanging Techniques,” from Backpacking Light Magazine.
Bear canisters are hard-sided plastic or carbon fiber cylinders with a removable lid that is designed to protect its contents (namely, food and other scented items) from bears. The canister’s shape, hardness, and lid seal mechanism (which require opposable fingers to open/close) make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for bears to access the canister’s contents. Land managers in the High Sierra, Adirondacks, and Olympic National Park require the use of canisters, depending on the time of year and your route. The smallest volume canister is about the size of an industrial-sized roll of paper towels, like one that you’d see inside of a dispenser at an airport. Bigger models are larger both in girth and height. The lightest weight canister weighs about 2 lbs; the heaviest model is about 4 lbs. The cost ranges from $75 to $275, depending on the manufacturer, size, and material.
Here is my take on canisters… They are heavy, they are an added expense, and they are uncomfortable to carry—their cylindrical shape fits awkwardly in small packs, and their hard sides inflict bruises if not cushioned correctly. And, frankly, I think they’d be unnecessary if everyone practiced the “bear avoidance” techniques described above and mastered the PCT Bear Hang Method. But that’s wishful thinking, and the canister polices were implemented with the lowest common denominators (i.e. the careless, uninformed backcountry users) in mind.
In areas with a lot of exposed rock, you may be able to find natural protection for your food. Sometimes you can find a nook in which you can tuck your food, out of a bear’s reach. Other times you can scramble up a rock face and place the food on a ledge, again out of a bear’s reach. (Do not discount a bear’s ability to climb!) Covering your food with rocks (with care given to not crush your food) is completely ineffective—if you were able to move the rocks, an 800-lb grizzly bear or a 400-lb black bear certainly can too.
Sleeping with your food
In areas with a low risk of bear incidents, and/or an area where no other food-protection technique is practical (e.g. a tree-less alpine area), I will sleep with my food. In bear language, this technique is interpreted as, “Hey Bear. This is MY food. And you’ll have to fight me for it.” Obviously I wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against a bear but they hopefully decide that there are easier rewards elsewhere.