They are after the smell
Most forested areas are natural habitats for bears. Fortunately, much of the U.S. forests are habitats for black bears which are less dangerous than areas where there are grizzly and brown bears. My camping experience is in black bear areas, but when food and other aromatic substances are involved, even a black bear can cause havoc. I have no advice about confronting a grizzly.
It is often incredible to many that black bears can smell intriguing odors right through sealed packages; this wasn’t a surprise to me because my dog Emme would surgically remove just about any food wrapper she could reach. Bears will even be attracted by toothpaste in a closed tube, a protein bar in an unopened package, sunscreen, or even camp dish and silverware that have only been lightly rinsed after having been used with food.
If you keep anything with those kinds of aromas in your tent or at your campsite while you are sleeping or hiking, you are increasing the chances of having a bear visit, and that usually won’t turn out well.
There are three choices I know of as best practices in avoiding a visit from a curious, hungry, or aggressive bear.
- The bear cannister
- The water-proof bag stored underwater in a nearby lake, tarn or stream
- Stringing a bag high up in between two trees
The Bear Cannister (or Bear Vault)
This item is a strong plastic container with a solid, lid-lock seal that will block most smells from escaping and will definitely frustrate a bear who comes across one. The lid locks shut so tightly that it even makes it a bit difficult for us humans to open. The good news is that they are big enough to hold quite a bit of smelly stuff. The bad news is that it is bulky and will take up a big area of your backpack. When packing, be sure to use its interior to the max to help counter these downsides. There are some camping areas where bear canisters are required by local policy, and in locales well above tree line you really don’t have an alternative unless there is a nearby lake.
Using a bear cannister is simple – put everything with a smell in it, seal the top and locate it out of the sun, 50 – 100 yards away downwind from your campsite. This way, in case an odor does escape, the bear can have frustrating fun trying to break it or get into it. They will not succeed.
Here I am setting camp well above tree line in a boulder field in Estes Park, Colorado the day before climbing Longs Peak. We have all of our smelly supplies in the vault, including opened protein bar wrappers.
The Water Hide
Another solution to the bear problem is to bring along a water-proof bag of some kind with a cord attached, load all smelly stuff in it, seal it, connect a cord to it and weight it down in a stream or lake so that the bag is completely submerged. The fish (if any) won’t pose a problem and the bears won’t smell it. The downside to this method is there often aren’t water features suited to this approach near campsites, and even if there are, you most likely won’t know that before you set out on your adventure.
Hang ‘em High
This is the approach we use most often when camping at or below tree line, which is most of the time, even when climbing mountains. There is an art to safely stringing up your smelly stuff. It begins with the knowledge that bears are really good at climbing trees, and they are persistent. So just stringing up your stuff in a tree will not work. A bear will readily climb the tree, get your stuff and then you are left with cutting your adventure short for the lack of food.
Here is the correct process for stringing up your supplies:
- Make sure to pack about 60 – 75 feet of strong (nylon or other synthetic) cord, a big enough stuff sack to hold your smelly supplies and a carabiner tied to the stuff sack strings.
- Locate two trees about 40 feet apart. Be sure they are close enough together that you have enough cord to stretch between and down both trees.
- Find a rock a little bigger than your fist; tie one end of your cord around the rock in several loops.
Throw the rock and cord up high – aim at a branch about 30 feet above the ground. If you are in a pine/spruce forest this takes some extra skill – those branches angle down and they are covered in evergreen needles. You need to aim at the desired branch closer to where it connects with the tree. If you get the aim right, the rock and cord will fly over the desired branch and the rock will weight the cord downwards. You can feed out cord to lower the rock down to your level, remove the rock and tie off at chest or eye level on the tree.
WARNING: THIS MAY SOUND OBVIOUS BUT WHEN YOU THROW THE ROCK, STAND ASIDE – IF IT LOOPS UNOBSTRUCTED OVER THE BRANCH, IT MAY ROCKET DOWNWARDS AND SWING RIGHT BACK AT YOU. IF YOU ARE WATCHING THE THROW, STAND CLEAR OF ITS PATH.
- Before looping the second tree, gauge about halfway along the section of the cord that will be stretched across the two trees and tie a loop there. Clip the bag’s carabiner into the loop and put another rock in the back as a weight. This is so when you loop the second tree which may wind up pulling the cord taught from the first tree and out of reach, you can lower the bag easily since it is weighted. This is an important step.
- Tie the throwing rock on the other end of the cord and repeat the looping process on the other tree. Once both sides are securely looped over a branch and a weighted bag is hanging in the middle, you are set.
Without the weight in the bag, it won’t lower when you want it to.
Ideally, when you pull the bag up it will be 20 feet above the ground and 10 to 15 feet from each tree. Later, after dinner and before turning into your tent, load all smelly stuff into the bag and hoist it up high. Then tie off the cord end at arm height on each tree and you’re done.
In the morning you’ll reverse the procedure to get at the goodies you’ll want for breakfast and for your hike or climb. If you are going to leave some things at camp while you venture out for the day, put any smelly stuff you will leave behind in the bag and string it back up. Even if you are not there, you still don’t want to attract a bear to your site.
We would often compete as to who could loop a branch on the first throw. I was rarely the winner.
Here is the WRONG way.
My tent is visible in the lower right (green). I went to sleep about 9 pm the night before this picture was taken. Some guys came up late in the dark, set up their camp and improperly strung up their food in a backpack on just one tree quite close to my tent. Since the pack was close to the tree, a bear came by in the middle of the night, probably walked right past my tent, climbed the tree, tore apart the pack, ate the contents and left without bothering me at all. I awoke in the morning to this sight – the other guys had been up all night scared to look outside once they heard the rustling, growling and destruction. Fortunately, I slept like a baby. 🙂 They had to abandon their climb and head back down, as they had no food left. 🙁