Whether it’s a trip along a National Scenic Trail or a quick weekend backpacking excursion into an obscure wilderness area – when the mountains are calling, our trips to many backpacking and hiking destinations will also take us into bear country. When hiking and camping in these areas an extra set of considerations will be added to our pre-trip planning process and a few extra gear items will need to be added to our gear list to approach bear country backpacking in the proper manner.
To start, it pays to research specific concerns within the land management area where you’ll be hiking – and beware of inaccurate lore and assumptions that may be out there. I’m often surprised for example at how many people still report that there are no grizzlies in my home stomping grounds in the Wind River Range, or even worse those that believe there are no bears here at all – a quick call to the local ranger district or game and fish office is a great way to get up to date accurate information wherever your trip may take you. While you’re at it, check the regulations regarding food storage for the area you’ll be in as well to make sure you’ll be in full compliance, and to make sure you’re aware of any specific concerns or specific locations where bear activity has been reported.
To limit any potential conflicts in your camp for the night, and to prevent providing the local bear population with food rewards that will only cause grief for you and future hikers, it’s important to 1) store your food separately well away from your camp and 2) store your food in such a manner where it will be impossible to very difficult for a bear to get into your food stash. The cheapest method is to simply hang your food from a tree, and you’ll need a small and lightweight kit to achieve a good hang. The most popular method among lightweight backpackers is the PCT method, and for a detailed, step by step guide on how to perform a PCT hang just follow the aforementioned link. Hanging your food takes time, a bit of skill, and depending on your chosen campsite adequate trees can be difficult to find. I still use a PCT hang on long trips where I just can’t fit everything into other storage options the first day or two out, but my preference is the utilize an Ursack Major (formerly known as the S29.3 AllWhite bear resistant food bag). Find our full Ursack Review here – this is essentially a food bag made from an extremely strong, densely woven Spectra fabric that you then secure to a tree. While an Ursack is heavier than the supplies needed for a PCT hang, the Ursack rules in convenience while still being lighter than a canister. To keep smells down, it’s best to use the Ursack with an accompanying OPSak liner, which is essentially a heavy duty zip top plastic bag you store your food inside, and that fits the Ursack perfectly. Another option is to use a hard sided bear canister. This will be your heaviest and least packable choice – and although failures are occasionally reported – will be the most secure and no other option will double as something to sit on. The BearVault BV450 is one popular option; for more details check out our full BearVault Review in Issue 30.
Not just food: All "smellables" should be stored away from camp, including first aid and hygiene supplies.
No matter which way you choose to store your food, always store your food downwind from your tent and camping area– any critters following their nose towards your food stash won’t have to pass through your camp to get there, and this isn’t just for food either. Any “smellables”, such as scented first aid and hygienic products, should be stored for the night in your system as well. Cook away from camp when preparing meals (one strategy is to even take a late afternoon break, eat dinner, then continue hiking before setting up camp), and be careful to avoid spilling any food on your clothing. And don’t forget to check your pockets before calling it a night – I’ve had to make the long sleepy trip back to my food bag on many a night after finding a forgotten snack from the day in a pants cargo pocket.
Although this is difficult to predict, it can also help to avoid choosing a campsite that is within a wildlife corridor – look for game trails and evaluate the terrain. For example, a campsite between a river running high with snowmelt with cliffs on the other side puts you directly in the only area that wildlife can travel to get from point A to point B, and may increase your chances of an encounter with any number of wild animals. Moving on and setting up camp past the cliff band or away from the river for instance, can help reduce the chances of a chance encounter.
As much of a necessity as storing your food securely and separately from your sleeping area, in any areas where grizzly or black bears frequent and no matter the species, a can of bear spray is an affordable, easy to use, effective, and relatively lightweight option to carry for defense. Generally and speaking in net weight terms, the 8 ounce size range is adequate. For a little extra boost, upgrading to the 10 ounce range will give you a little extra range and time, but the most important factor with bear spray is to keep it somewhere where it is immediately accessible (many will come with a holster that can be attached to your backpack), and it will help to occasionally perform a practice touch and removal of the safety mechanism to develop the needed muscle memory. Many manufacturers will offer test cans to practice with as well, or personally, I always practice with my cans that expire over the years. Beware of spraying into the wind so as to not incapacitate yourself, and in regards to aim, it’s better to miss low than high if you have to miss – this way any approaching animal will have to run through the spray instead of possibly avoiding it by running underneath. And most of all of course, follow the directions on your can of bear spray. Bear spray can be found here at REI.
On the Trail
While at camp we want to keep food odors down and away from our sleeping area in order to avoid attracting a bear; while on the trail the focus will be to avoid surprising a feeding bear and / or one with cubs. From bear bells to air horns to whistles and more, there are a variety of ways to avoid surprising a bear while on the trail. Any of these strategies will work – and larger groups are usually pretty noisy simply by nature – and if you choose to forgo use of any of these add on noise makers your voice will do and is without a doubt, most recognizable as human. An occasional “hey bear” or your phrase of choice will be helpful, especially in areas of dense brush, willow thickets, etc. Pay attention to the wind as well. If you’re walking into a headwind, be very aware that both your voice as well as your scent will not carry. Be louder. If you backpack with a dog, keep it under very strict voice command and / or on a leash – a dog chasing after a bear will only make a situation that much more unpredictable and the last thing you want is a dog bringing a bear back to you.
Not a Cowboy fan; Bear-investigated Nalgene, Popo Agie Wilderness
If you do encounter a bear on the trail or in camp for that matter, ready your bear spray, do not run, and remain assertive without being aggressive. By the time you take the safety off your can of bear spray – and as was the case with my last bear encounter with a black bear and two cubs – you’ll likely now be looking at the bear’s backside as it runs away from you as fast as it can. If the bear does not retreat, keep your bear spray ready, back away slowly, and find another route.
While backpacking in bear country brings with it a set of unique considerations and will require a few extras to bring along in the gear department, it’s important to take these precautions not only for you but for future visitors and for the bears themselves as well – once a bear gets into a food bag for example, habits develop and it’s usually not good for all parties involved. With the proper preparation and a little planning when on the trail, we can keep our food protected, and take steps to reduce the chances of an encounter in the first place – whether we're in camp or out on the trail.