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Most of my prior hiking experience has been in areas that are not home to bears, so what precautions should I take to protect my camp (and myself as I am hiking) from bears.

I am aware of a couple of things, like having a bell or noisemaker on my pack, and hanging my food from a tree. Are these effective? I have also seen bear-proof canisters for sale for storing my food. Are those preferable to hanging it from a tree?

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Please clarify where you plan to be and/or what type of bear you expect to have to worry about. –  Russell Steen Feb 7 '12 at 22:03
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Bear bells are a farce–a placebo if you will–they don't work, this is considered common knowledge to anyone who lives in bear country. The ring of a bell is an unnatural sound, it will actually attract the curiosity of animals that are unfamiliar with it. Whistles are equally ineffective, the shrill high-pitch sound mimics the call of 'bottom of the food chain' prey like gophers and other rodents or small mammals. Whistling tells a predator that you are food. The human voice and human body odour are the best bear deterrents. –  ShemSeger Nov 20 at 20:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

First of all, DO NOT bring anything smelly into your tent. This includes food, tooth paste, deodorant, or anything else that has a smell. Also, keep fires away from the tent.

I recommend setting up a bear triangle campground. Cook your food in one corner, close to that corner–maybe 50 feet away–set up a latrine area. About 200 feet or more away from both, set up your tents. Keep your food in the kitchen area, tied up high.

When hiking, the most important thing to do is to make noise to let the bears know where you are. They don't want to mess with humans in general, but they will if you startle them.

Keep your smelly stuff in some kind of an easy-to-dispose-of container. If a bear attacks you, let go of the smelly stuff, and you are more likely to survive.

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One note about the bear triangle. This is the best method to keep bears away from the tent area, but the triangle must be larger than 30-60 feet. Ideally 250-350 feet in bear country, and even larger in the northern Rockies ie. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, 500 ft from kitchen to camp to bathroom area is not unheard of. Also be sure to keep a dedicated set of clothes for cooking, because if the clothes are brought to camp they will attract bears. And don't ever bring food to the tent. Lastly, make sure the kitchen is downwind of the tent, not the other way around. –  Dangeranger Jan 25 '12 at 14:41
    
@Dangeranger: Guess I'm not in quite as dangerous of a bear country. I'll make the appropriate edits. –  PearsonArtPhoto Jan 25 '12 at 14:43
    
Since this is a mortal subject please provide references to support your advice. –  Mr.Wizard Mar 5 '12 at 8:17
    
The "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills" book describes the bear triangle just as it is above. Also it is mentioned, that a group of 4 or more people is not attacked by a bear, so this should be the minimum group size anywhere. –  Lorlin Sep 3 '12 at 15:47
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@Lorlin: No, it is not necessary as a safety measure to hike in groups of four or more. Four is not a magic number that bears know how to count to, and the most commonly encountered bear species are simply not aggressive with humans. PearsonArtPhoto: No, it is not necessary to make noise in order to avoid problems, in areas where the bears are black bears. –  Ben Crowell Dec 16 '13 at 22:07

As pointed out by Russell Steen in a comment, the answer to this question really depends completely on what area you're in, which determines what kind of bears are around. It's too bad that the OP never responded by clearing this up. Polar bears and grizzlies are completely different from black bears.

The most generic advice is simply to talk to a ranger in the area you're visiting. For example, whenever you pick up a wilderness permit for a hike in the Sierra Nevada, one of the main things they'll go over with you is how to avoid bear problems. If you follow their advice and follow their rules (such as using bear canisters in areas where they're required), you're very unlikely to have a problem.

Here is some advice if you're going to be in the Sierra. I think this should also apply to any other area where there are black bears but no grizzlies.

Black bears are a nuisance, not a threat. They want your food, just like a squirrel does.

I am aware of a couple of things, like having a bell or noisemaker on my pack, and hanging my food from a tree. Are these effective?

No. Making noise spoils the natural environment for other hikers, and is not necessary in order to avoid problems with black bears. Black bears are not aggressive with humans. Also, hanging your food is not effective. Bears will often succeed in getting your hung food, and even if they don't, they may spend all night trying, thereby keeping you from getting any sleep.

I have also seen bear-proof canisters for sale for storing my food. Are those preferable to hanging it from a tree?

Yes, they work really well, and that's why they're required in many areas of the Sierra. While you're asleep at night, put the canister far enough away from where you're sleeping so that if a bear finds it and tries to open it, you'll still be able to sleep.

Some of the more popular camping areas, such as Little Yosemite, have enough of a problem with food-stealing bears that the park service has installed bear lockers for food. If you're camping in an area that has them, use them. You will also see lockers at car-camping campgrounds and at some trailheads. If you're parking at a trailhead, don't leave food, or anything scented such as chapstick, sunscreen, etc., in your car. Bears can smell the stuff inside your car and can wreck your car to get it.

While hiking, keep the chapstick, etc., together with the food inside your bear canister whenever possible. Sealing all your food inside ziplock bags is a good idea; it may not eliminate the smell completely, but it will probably make the smell less likely to attract a bear from a long distance. Use a ziplock bag for garbage. If you have left-over food from dinner that you're not going to eat, either bury it far away from your campsite or seal it up inside the garbage bag and pack it out.

If you see a black bear while you're hiking, just take a minute and enjoy observing the bear. Because black bears aren't aggressive, you're not in any danger. They don't want to eat you, they just want your food, and if your food is inside a ziplock, inside a bear canister, inside your backpack, they aren't likely to go after you in order to obtain it.

If you're in the middle of eating dinner and a bear walks into your campsite, you could try to pop the lid back on your canister as quickly as possible. But if the bear obtains your food, the food is his. There's nothing you can do about it.

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If you wear a bear bell on your backpack, your fellow hikers will kill you for being annoying. Just don't walk like a ninja. Also don't be a pig in your campsite, and you will be fine. IMO the separate clothes for cooking is hogwash and only reasonable if you are A) car camping in Yosemite and B) cooking some wicked BBQ ribs and get grease all over you. Same goes for the notion that bears are attracted to deodorant enough to overcome their timidity, unless you rub Oreos under your armpits. Otherwise all the advice is good.

For the record, it is my understanding that groups of four or more hiking closely together will not be attacked by a bear.

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The above advice is quite good, just wanted to add on thing to consider regarding food in bear country. You have probably heard the expression "a fed bear is a dead bear". Giving up your "smelly" bag to a bear has the potential to humanize the animal making its confrontations with future hikers even more aggressive, and that future hiker could be me so please don't do that. Ultimately the rangers get to go relocate or euthanize the animal. That said I would never physically engage a bear to protect my beef jerky, but it needs to be the absolute last resort. If you follow good preventative bear etiquette such as making noise while hiking and always set your camp up correctly, your interactions with one of the most spectacular animals on this planet will be from a far, just as it should be.

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This answer will focus on food storage, since that's what I know the most about and it hasn't been addressed in other answers yet.

There are two common means of food storage in bear country:

Hanging and counter-balance methods

The basic idea behind these methods is to hang the food in a tree in such a way that a bear wouldn't be able to reach it. Remember than bears can climb trees better than you can, so you must take care to position your food such that the bear can't reach it by climbing up the trunk, etc.

You'll want to divide your food into two bags of approximately equal weight. Stuffsacks (like what you'd put a sleeping bag in) work well for this. Make sure to line the stuffsack with a plastic garbage bag, to prevent your food from getting wet if it rains. Keep the weight of each bag under ~10lbs.

To get the rope over the tree, tie some sort of small weight onto the end (a rock in a sock supposedly works well), and throw it over a branch. You'll want to be at least 10 feet from the trunk - the farther out you go, the better, since it'll be harder for bears to swat at your food from the trunk.

I'm going to quote an external source here, because I haven't ever done the counterbalance method on my own:

Tie one end of the rope around the neck of one sack, securing it firmly. Tie a loop in the rope near your sack for retrieving your food later. Hoist the sack all the way up to the branch by pulling on the free end of the rope. Now reach up and tie your second food sack as high up on the rope as you can. Again, tie a secure loop in the rope near the second sack. Put any excess rope into the sack.

Toss the sack into position or push it up with a stick so the sacks are balanced over the branch. Don't forget: A 6-foot-tall person will need a 5-to-6-foot-long stick to hook the loop on the food sacks when it's time to retrieve them.

food hanging diagram

The counter-balance method works in places where you have large trees and mild bears. If you're in an alpine or subalpine environment, or if there are known bear problems in the area, do not hang your food - it will probably get caught. Use a container method as described below:

Bear canisters and other "bear-proof"* containers

In many places now, it is legally required to use bear-proof containers. This is especially true in Alaska, California, and parts of Canada. Always check with the local ranger district about regulations and suggestions for your area!

There are three general types of bear-proof enclosures, of varying strengths and proof-ness.

The best are bear-resistant cabinets, which are often provided in front-country campgrounds and occasionally designated areas in the backcountry. These are large non-portable metal enclosures, with a locking handle to prevent it from being opened. Any food stored inside these will be safe from bears, although I've found that mice can get into the darn things, and will cheerily eat your food. More on that in a moment.

bear proof cabinet

For portability, (i.e. almost all backpacking), the more convenient option is bear-"proof" sacks. These are sacks made out of kevlar (the material in bullet-proof vests), making them resistant to bears' teeth and claws. Although the manufacturers claim to have tested them, they are not entirely effective, particularly against grizzlies. They are mouse-proof however, so if you're in a campground, putting food inside a bear bag inside one of the cabinets above is a good way to go.

These sacks are appealing because they're much, much lighter than bear-proof canisters (mentioned below). They're also a lot easier to fit into your backpack. Unfortunately, they are not as bear-proof, and do not meet the legal requirements in some places.

bear resistant sack

The most bear-proof solution is bear canisters. These are rigid plastic containers, with a locking lid mechanism that makes it impossible for bears to get in. There are several brands; the Garcia Backpacker's Cache was one of the first ones and is generally regarded as the most secure and easy to use. They are slightly more expensive than some other brands though.

Because bear cans are round, they do have a tendency to roll away if a bear gets interested in them. Better than letting the bear get your food of course, but it's important to put them somewhere with limited rolling options, or use some large rocks to keep them in place.

Bear cans are required in some national parks and forests where there are particular bear problems, especially in the Sierra Nevada and in Alaska. In most parks where they are required you can rent the cans from a local ranger station for a reasonable cost.

bear can

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What is the point of the counter balance method? Why not just throw rope over, pull up food and tie off one end? This is what I have always done and I have never run into any issues. Is there a reason this is not suggested? –  sixtyfootersdude Feb 10 '12 at 18:15
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@sixtyfootersdude if you do that, a bear could potentially gnaw on the rope or otherwise dislodge it, causing the food to fall down. Not likely, but possible. –  nhinkle Sep 11 '13 at 0:30

When you meet a bear, keep several things in mind:

  • Never make eye contact with a bear.
  • Make yourself as large as possible - do this by standing on a stump or rock. take your coat and raise it above your shoulders, etc.
  • Never turn your back to the bear or run. This will make him think you are prey and encourage him to chase you.
  • Talk in a monotone and keep the bear calm. Do not make any sudden movements...
  • Learn to identify the difference between Grizzly bears and Black bears (In North America):

Grizzly:
enter image description here
Defining characteristics: hump behind the head/above the shoulders. Not always brown, can be black, chocolate, or blond. Have rounded, shorter ears; dished face. Also larger and heavier than a black bear. Can't climb trees.

Black Bear:
enter image description here
Defining characteristics: no hump, smaller than a grizzly. Have pointed ears. Can be brown, black, chocolate, etc. Can climb trees.

A summary chart you may want to print and keep handy:
enter image description here

  • You may also want to climb a tree, however, if it is a black bear, it can follow you up the tree. Grizzlies, on the other hand, for the most part, can't, they are too large, among other reasons.

And yes, "bear caches" really do work - keep it at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet out from the trunk of the tree when you hang it. Put anything that smells in the bear cache, such as toothpaste, deodorant, and obviously, food. Bears can smell from a long way away.

Image Sources: - Grizzly Bear. - Black Bear. - Grizzly Bear versus Black Bear comparison.

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Question: Why does the type of bear matter? You said that we should recognize the difference but why? –  sixtyfootersdude Feb 10 '12 at 18:14
    
@sixtyfootersdude: because they are of different sizes, and temperaments and think differently. One can climb trees, the other can't... –  studiohack Feb 10 '12 at 18:34
    
Should I walk backwards, facing the bear while increasing my distance? –  gerrit Nov 5 '12 at 17:08
    
@gerrit yes, that would be the recommended way to do it. –  studiohack Nov 5 '12 at 17:11
    
Grizzly Bears can climb trees youtube.com/watch?v=dPnp3fLOER8 –  Mapperz Oct 26 at 1:56

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