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I hope the bear experts on the site can shed light on several aspects of a black bear encounter my husband and I had some years ago in the Sierra.

It was mid-May, about 9500 feet, well above timber line, and the ground was almost completely covered with snow, except for a few bare patches. I concluded: "No bear in his right mind would be here." So we did not bury our food in a snowbank. Mistake. Big Mistake.

Shortly after we fell asleep, we were wakened by banging pots. A bear walked across the campsite, grabbed my pack, which contained all our freeze-dried food, in her teeth and disappeared into the darkness. My husband tracked her by flashlight and moonlight -- the dragging pack left a clear path. Soon I heard snarls and growls, and went off to rescue my husband.

I came upon my husband, a bear and her yearling cub. Here is where I would like your input. It seemed to us both, and I can't tell you why, body language, I suppose, plus something in the snarling, that the cub was saying "Let me at him!" and the mother was saying "Be quiet! I'll handle this!" We froze. After what seemed like a long time, the mother and cub turned and went off. Q1: Is this interpretation plausible, or are we just anthropomorphizing?

The two bears had ripped open my pack, pulled out stuff, zeroed in on the freeze-dried food, eviscerated five packages of freeze-dried food and had eaten it all. Q2: When the food reconstituted in their stomachs, did they get stomach aches, or are their stomachs large enough so the expanding food was no problem?

The bears stopped at a layer of very dirty clothes near the bottom of my pack, and so missed the last package of freeze-dried food, which was a reserve. Q3: Is it plausible that dirty, smelly clothes repelled the bears? It could have been that my husband interrupted them, but I'd like to think the smelly clothes stopped them.

We hiked out for two days on one pkg of FD food and tea. The sugar and all the fresh food were gone. A great experience!

Clarification: There were no established bear boxes -- we were far off trail. This was before the era of portable bear canisters -- or at least before it was common to use them; in any case, they aren't practical for a 14 day trip, which this was. We should have buried our food in a snow-bank; it was a big mistake not to. We have used the snow bank strategy successfully many times; once we saw bear paw-prints going right over our snow-covered cache. For Sierra black bears, the snow bank trick works. We have no experience with brown bears.

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    Also it's better for the site to ask questions separately and relate them. – Aravona Oct 15 '15 at 6:34
  • It sounds like you were lucky! A mother bear could of very easily charged you and then you would of been in serious trouble! – user2766 Oct 15 '15 at 12:34
  • You spend all your time trying to guess what bears will and won't do, and look what it got you. – Michael Martinez Oct 17 '15 at 8:48
  • @Michael Martinez Really! Have you never analyzed what you have done? Probably not, if it takes you as much time as you think I have spent on this. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 17 '15 at 13:11
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Is this interpretation plausible, or are we just anthropomorphizing?

The bear cub was likely scared and its reaction was to put on an aggressive act. TBH I think you were lucky as a threatened mother bear corned with its cub in the dark like that could have easily charged you.

The mother was likely trying to decide if it could get away without getting into a fight or whether it needed to attack you. You're likely anthropomorphizing its body language as passive, but I would imagine it was very tense and wanting to protect its cub.

When the food reconstituted in their stomachs, did they get stomach aches, or are their stomachs large enough so the expanding food was no problem?

Bears are omnivores and can eat pretty much anything that a human can (and plenty of extras). So the food itself was likely not an issue. A nursing mother will have a huge appetite and will eat many times the amount that a human can in a day. So I doubt it was too much food.

Is it plausible that dirty, smelly clothes repelled the bears?

Depends. How used was the bear to humans? Bears who don't encounter humans often will actively avoid them (seeing them, correctly, as predators). Bears close to towns in busy areas, etc. see humans as walking food dispensers and lose their natural fear of humans. These are the ones that get killed or taken far away.

It's always best to not feed bears. They should have a healthy fear of humans. It prevents conflict at a later date.

You should have had your food in a bear locker. Feeding bears is never a good thing even if done by accident. You're teaching the bear bad habits that may one day get it killed (or get it into a situation where it puts someone else in danger).

  • What kind of bear? Black bears I believe wean about 9 months but then stay with their mother. The mother is still responsible for getting the vast majority of the cubs food though. Bears also have a very short time to lay fat for the hibernating so they are pretty much eating machines when they're awake. Though this alters depending on the time of year, etc. – user2766 Oct 15 '15 at 13:55
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    Black Bear. No bear boxes; we were far off trail. This was in the days before portable bear canisters. We should have buried our food in a snow bank; that works. What was bear doing in mid-May, far above timberline, with nearly 100% snow cover on ground -- had she been pushed out by bears lower down? Clearly accustomed to people -- made a beeline for my pack and grabbed it without breaking stride. We saw all this because we had not put up the tent. Not really cornered...she had a vast area to retreat into, which she did. But, yes, we should have buried our food. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 15 '15 at 14:18
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I'm from bear country. I've had multiple bear encounters this year and the bears have been really bad this season. We had 4 maulings inside a month this summer.

In answer to your questions:

A1: The Mother bear is going to stay between you and her cub. This includes keeping her cub away from you as much as keeping you away from her cub.

A2: Freeze dried food doesn't expand. One of the qualities of freeze-drying food is that it maintains its size and shape, so it takes up roughly the same amount of volume even after it's re-hydrated. The bear would likely have gotten thirsty though, and drank more water to compensate for what's being absorbed by the food in order to maintain proper digestion, but I don't think the bear is going to suffer. Bears can eat a lot, especially when it's spring and they're hungry from sleeping all winter.

A3: Dirty human smell is usually one of the top deterrents for bears. I guarantee they smelt your stinky clothes long before they smelt the freeze-dried food in your bag. These bears were hungry, and knew what they were looking for, and they knew you had it. You can't disguise smells from bears; their sense of smell is literally over 2000 times more sensitive than humans. The best you can do is to merely reduce the amount of smell coming from your food bag by storing it in odour-proof bags. But these only decrease the distance from which the bear can smell your food; I doubt there's anything a bear can't smell through if you let it stick its nose up to it.


Your first mistake was assuming that bears wouldn't be in bear country. Bears are always in bear country; even in the very middle of winter bears will still get up and look for food if they're hungry, especially if they weren't able to pack on enough fat before winter. Contrary to popular belief, bears do not hybernate, they go into a deep sleep called torpor. One problem we're likely going to have this winter due to the droughts and poor berry crop is a lot of hungry bears up and about in the middle of winter looking for food because they weren't able to pack on enough fat to last them until spring.

Your second mistake would have been assuming bears can't find buried food. It likely wouldn't have taken them any longer to find where you'd buried your cache as it did for them to find your camp. In the desert, if there's no where to hang a cache, then you need to carry bear-resistant canisters to store your food in.

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Your third mistake was chasing the bear down! The bear had what it wanted; you should have just let it go and hiked off in the opposite direction! Chasing down a hungry bear with a cub is asking for trouble; you are very lucky that you didn't get mauled and stranded a two days walk out in the wilderness with no food and life threatening injuries. Your husband took and extreme risk going after that bear alone in the dark!

  • Your point about the assumption "no bear in his right mind would be here" is valid, as we found out. As for burying food in a snowbank, we have done this successfully many times, with no failures. Once we saw bear prints going right over the snow cache. Once some people several hundred yards off were ripped off by a bear who ignored our snow-cache. For Sierra black bears, snow caches work. (I have no experience with brown bears.) Yes, it was silly to track the pack, and we wouldn't have if we had know about the cub. As for the bear canisters, this was before portable bear canisters. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 15 '15 at 19:50
  • I think you got lucky with burying your food, I seriously doubt it's an effective method for hiding food from a hungry bear. In fact, burying food is one method bears themselves use to hide and preserve it. I have several hunter friends who have made kills, hiked out a quarter back to their trucks, and returned to find the rest of their animal had been buried in the dirt. The rest of the stories usually involve an angry bear charging out of the woods defending his cache, and grown men toting rifles screaming like little girls as they run away. – ShemSeger Oct 16 '15 at 16:03
  • All I can say is that we have repeatedly buried food deep in snow in the Sierra, and it has never been troubled by bears or anybody else. The food was also bagged. Burying a carcass in shallow dirt is not extrapolatable (sp ??) to burying bagged food deep in snow. I make no claim for anybody but Sierra black bears. You may say there were no bears around, but in several cases we knew for a fact that there were. We've tried your trick of hanging the food over a steep cliff, and that works. Next time you are in the Sierra do the experiment with food you can afford to lose. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 16 '15 at 18:25
  • @ab2 I didn't contest the fact that there were bears around, I just said I think you got lucky. Avalanche dogs can smell people buried up to 15ft deep in hard packed snow, and a bears sense of smell is roughly 7-10 times more sensitive than a dogs. It is highly unlikely that a bear wouldn't find your cache buried in the snow if he was intent on finding it. And please don't make an experiment out of it, "A fed bear is a dead bear." Giving a bear any form of food makes them more of a threat to the human population. – ShemSeger Oct 16 '15 at 18:47
  • We should agree to disagree on this point. I'm not going to experiment, because I am satisfied from my long experience that this works in the Sierra. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 16 '15 at 19:11

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