Danger Ranger Bear here. I wanted to spend a few minutes sharing some thoughts with you about how we can get along better when it comes to sharing food in the backcountry.
Let’s start with the mindset that when you’re in the outdoors, you’re in my neighborhood. I’m not intruding in your campsite, you’re intruding in my home. As a guest, you need to have some manners and common sense, right?
The first thing you have to understand is that I’m not a stupid brute. My intelligence and cognitive abilities rate right up there with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. My eyesight is as good as yours, but my nose can pick up odors from about a mile away.
And you know what kind of odor I’m talking about?
Your yummy campfire bacon or that oh-so-delicious organic and gluten-free granola you stashed in your pack. I get a sniff of that in the wind and I figure that’s my invitation to dinner. For campground and particular backcountry bears, you humans are our Uber Eats.
And that’s when we’re going to have some problems.
For example, my uncle in Yosemite Valley loves Boy Scouts. Not to eat, but they always bring the best treats. One night, he had a severe case of the munchies and caught a whiff of granola in the Scout’s camp. The young lads were sleeping so he didn’t want to bother them, but he wanted those honey-soaked oats in the worst way. He ambled into the campsite and found the source of the granola scent…inside a tent.
My uncle didn’t want to disturb anybody, and he was never good with zippers, so he made his own entrance into the tent. He climbed over a terrified kid in his sleeping bag and helped himself to the backpack with the granola hidden inside.
When we help ourselves to the food you brought us — whether you meant to or not — we get labeled as “problem” bears. We’re not the problem, you are.
But that doesn’t seem to matter because once we get that label attached to us, we’re considered a safety issue. And safety issues tend to get a death sentence when one of your kind comes out to shoot us.
Bears shouldn’t die because you can’t secure your food or trash.
To keep everyone happy and safe, I’m going to give you tips on how to store your food and other goodies when you’re in the backcountry.
Seriously, our noses are seven times better than a dog’s. We will smell every tasty morsel you bring with you.
That’s why every scrap of food goes into storage. This includes snacks, cooking utensils, trash, canned goods, cosmetics, sunscreen, bug spray, toiletries, bottles, and even your toothbrush and toothpaste.
Wait, toiletries are food?
Not to you, but they are to me. C’mon broseph…think like a bear.
If you think storing everything in a cooler in your car is going to stop us, you might want to think again. My bear buddies in Yosemite National Park are total rock stars when it comes to thievery. There are specific trails, campsites, and parking lots we love to hit. They are the perfect Stop ‘n Rob convenience store for bear heists.
We’ll twist and push door handles, pull off windows, and once we’re in, we’ll turn into a fur-covered rototiller and shred your rear seat to get to the candy bar in the trunk.
Through experience, we have learned to target minivans and Honda and Toyota sedans. We like pop-out windows, and the little cars are easier to open up than a Hummer.
A favorite standby is the bear bag hang. You put your “food” into sealable bags and hang that bag from a tree, making sure the bag is at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet from a tree trunk.
In recent years, however, hanging bags have become less effective in areas where bears and humans have had more interactions, and we bears had time to learn your tricks. We figured out that if we saw a bag in the air and a rope tied to a tree — that’s one-stop shopping. We’ll bite the line and down comes your bag full of lovely high-calorie treats.
Many parks and backcountry areas won’t let you hang bear bags now and require you to use bear canisters instead. Bear canisters are heavy-duty polycarbonate jars with a lid that opens like a kid-proof medicine bottle: Press in the lid to bypass the security tab, and you can spin the top off.
Even humans still have a hard time opening these canisters so you figured we bears couldn’t possibly open them.
A quick side note: Bear canisters are usually tested by zoo bears. I’m not kidding! These bears are given a canister with food and a certain amount of time to open it. If the zoo bear can’t open the container, it’s deemed safe for use in the wild.
But you have to ask yourself: What do zoo bears know? We wild bears hunt for a living. We’re always hungry and curious.
My third cousin out in the Adirondacks — you call her Yellow-Yellow for the tags in her ears — figured out how to open these lids. She uses her teeth to depress the safety tab and turns the lid. To her, bear canisters are pop-top candy jars.
In response, the bear canister manufacturer added a second tab to the lid.
It didn’t take long for Yellow-Yellow to defeat that system too. And soon, other bears in her community knew how to open the new canisters.
Another food storage option in bear country is a metal bear box. Many campgrounds in bear country now require you to store your food in these designated steel cabinets and will often provide them in campsites where bears and humans are likely to cross paths.
I haven’t heard of any of us defeating the bear box…yet.
Now that you know where to store your food, I’m going to give you some bonus tips. As with everything in life, it’s the little things that can add up to become big things if you aren’t careful.
Remember that we have incredible noses, right?
Use a strainer to catch food particles from your dishwater. We can smell those too. Pack those tasty little nuggets with your garbage and scatter the dishwater at least 100 yards downwind from your tent.
When it comes time to set up your campsite, use the Bear-muda Triangle layout. One point of the triangle is your cooking area, the second is the food storage area, and the third is your tent. Every point should be at least 100 yards from the other two points. Make sure your tent is upwind of both the food storage and cooking points.
Your clothes are also scent magnets. Have a separate set of clothes to cook and sleep in. When you’re done making food for the day, put your cooking clothes in the bear canister too.
I hope these tips have been of some help to you and that you enjoy your time in bear country. With some common sense and understanding, I think we can coexist, and both enjoy the great outdoors.
Enjoy your time in bear country!
-Danger Ranger Bear
P.S. One last bit of advice: make sure you follow the rules and recommendations for food storage when you’re visiting national parks or national scenic areas. Each has its own set of guidelines and regulations, and you can get zapped with a hefty fine if you’re caught breaking them.