I have spent a fair amount of time hiking and camping in bear country. Areas where these animals still thrive can be some of the wildest and most rewarding to explore. That said, seeing a giant paw print on a muddy stream bank will still make me gulp and look over my shoulder. While negative interactions between bears and humans are relatively rare, responsibility is still key in minimizing the risk. Whether it’s black bears in East Tennessee or their larger cousin brown bears on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, heading off into their territory requires appropriate knowledge, preparation, and gear. Setting up a campsite in these locations means having a plan before you head into the wilderness.
The first consideration is where to set up camp. Unwelcome interactions with bears, and other wildlife, is a potential to consider in the process of campsite selection. When trekking in bear country, know that any location has the possibility of an encounter. These animals can cover a lot of ground and generally go wherever they want. Still, it’s wise to avoid obvious hot-spots. If fresh bear sign, like tracks and scat, is present, keep moving before unpacking the tents. Likewise, don’t set up next to an attractive food source. Dense berry patches or spawning salmon streams could draw in bruins at any time for a snack and your rations might get added to the menu.
Once the camp location is decided, carefully consider where to prepare and store your food. This should be a good distance from where anyone will be sleeping- think 100 yards- and, ideally, downwind from the tent location. This keeps all food odors well away from your overnight shelters in the event a curious bear does like the smell of your mac’n’cheese. After dinner is eaten and dishes are done, ensure that anything that might attract a bear gets stored here. This includes toothpaste, scented soaps, or other hygiene products. Check your pockets. I have settled down to sleep in bear country only to realize that I still had a Snickers in the pocket of a jacket I was using as a pillow.
Proper Food Storage
The standard for food storage in the backcountry has been to hang food bags high in trees. This is certainly a viable technique when done properly. It can also be an incredibly frustrating process. Tying your cord to a rock and tossing it over the perfect branch can be a challenge (and somewhat perilous-watch out for that rock coming back down.) It is important to get it right, though. Black bears will climb trees and large brown bears can reach an impressive height when standing on their hind legs. Once hung, you want your supplies to be fifteen feet above the ground, to avoid outstretched claws. The food should also be at least four feet from the tree trunk. Suspend it from a branch that supports the bag but won’t hold a bear’s greater weight.
Another good option when hanging your food isn’t practical is the bear cannister. This is a hard-sided container that bears can’t penetrate. They can take up valuable space in a pack, but have the added benefit of preventing other, smaller pests, like raccoons and rodents, from nibbling on your trail mix. Many areas require the use of bear cannisters when backcountry camping and they are often available for rent in these locations. I was grateful to have a cannister for food storage while backpacking on California’s Lost Coast. While I didn’t see a bear, I did notice tracks. That coastal environment had few trees large enough for hanging food to be an option. The cannister provided an effective option and peace of mind well worth the five-dollar rental.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
A portable electric fence is another consideration for camping in a bear-rich area. Biologist Tom Smith, who has extensively studied bear behavior and deterrence in Alaska, often employs such a barrier. Smith states that “recent technological advances have resulted in lightweight, economical, electric fence systems that one should seriously consider purchasing and using.” While not needed for every camper, this could be a valuable asset for wilderness explorers who leave camp unattended for day hikes or hunting excursions. An electric fence also adds a measure of protection to hunting camps with game meat that can’t be safely hung out of reach. Experience has made a believer of Smith. He notes, “5 bears – and one wolf – were deterred by the camp’s electric fence during a single 2-week outing.”
Responsible camping in bear country doesn’t only protect the campers. Remember, bears that have negative encounters with people or learn to raid camps for food are often eventually killed. Once these animals learn this behavior, they can be considered a threat to future campers. By employing and demonstrating safer camping strategies, you help protect both yourself and the bears who call these great, wild lands home.