Backpackers and canoe campers who travel off the beaten track are more likely than car campers to encounter bruins intent on robbing the larder during the dark of night. But even car campers who frequent more managed campsites need to be on guard.
Car campers have a number of options for discouraging bears, including any of the new-generation of bear-proof coolers that act as a portable safe for their grub. Many campgrounds in bear country also provide campers access to metal “bear boxes” in which food and scented toiletries are required to be stored at night.
If neither of these methods is available, scent-management is the key, starting with keeping all food, including canned goods, and other scented items (soap, shampoo, lip balm, insect repellent etc.) out of the tent. Instead, use odor-barrier bags for as much as possible, and keep everything locked up and out of sight.
For campers who travel lightly, and to more remote areas, the stand-by deterrent method is to hang food in a tree far downwind from the sleeping area. Though in some places, it’s feared that certain bears have become conditioned to finding food in a particular tree, it’s still a sound practice, especially when odor-barrier bags are part of the process.
Experts say the food tree should be at least 200 feet from the tent, and that the food bag should be hung 20 feet from the ground and at least 10 feet from the tree’s trunk. Another option is to suspend the food bag at the recommended height from a rope strung between two trees.
The downside to this system, however, is that it can be tricky to actually get the food bag properly hung. In addition, some backpackers hike into zones where trees are few and far between, if not altogether absent.
In these cases, it’s best to use a bear canister to secure food items. A canister typically weighs 2 to 2.5 pounds and is designed to fit inside a backpack. Depending on the model, it will hold enough food for one person for 3 to 5 days.
Rather than keeping food away from a bear, a canister is meant to keep a bear from getting at the contents. A properly sealed canister should be placed on the ground, wedged among rocks or logs, or tucked under a bush, 300 feet downwind of the sleeping area. While a bear might find the cache, it won’t be able to open it.
Because a bear will undoubtedly swat and roll the canister in its attempt to crack it open, the canister should not be placed near water, a cliff, or anywhere from which the camper might not be able to retrieve it later. Likewise, nothing should be attached to the canister. A rope, for example, would simply serve as a handle the bear could use to carry it away.
Experienced campers know that nothing, including a bear deterrent, is absolutely fool-proof, but using a bit of commonsense in combination with a bit more effort will go a long way toward keeping your camping larder protected from an unwanted visitor.