To discourage bears, put as many things in your favor as possible when setting camp. “Bear proof” may not be a guarantee, but you can be proactive.
The methods we employ to keep bears out of a campsite must follow one or both of two routes:
- Those that eliminate reasons for a bear to want to visit the campsite.
- Those that compel a bear to leave or avoid a campsite.
The first route is the most practical and effective. It involves removing as many things as possible from a camp that might be attractive to a bear. Smell is the primary sense that we concern ourselves with here. The American Bear Association confirms that a black bear’s sense of smell is incredibly sharp – seven times more powerful than that of dogs – and is able to detect odors from more than a mile away.
Concerning bear proofing your camp, smell equals food equals the main reason for a bear to want to visit your campsite. Food is arguably the bear’s single most powerful motivating force on a day to day basis. You want to eliminate as much food-like smell from your camp as possible.
But even before you head out into the wilderness, there are at least a couple things you should do to prepare for setting a bear proof campsite:
- Know how to properly hang food out of a bear’s reach.
- Pack food and other odorous items in odor-proof bags or containers.
- Bring airtight bags for trash, leftovers, cooking clothes, etc.
Once you get to where you’re going and are ready to set up camp:
1. Choose a campsite that is naturally uninteresting to bears.
If possible choose a spot that will be upwind of where your food stores and cooking area will be, that is away from natural food sources like berry patches, and is of course a site devoid of any bear sign.
2. Follow the “bear-muda triangle” strategy.
The “bear-muda triangle” strategy involves distancing your sleeping area from your food storage area from your cooking and dining area. The layout generally goes something like this: You’re going to make a triangular floor plan, with your tent in one point of the triangle, your food storage in another point, and your cooking and dining area in the third point, with around 100 yards between each point. Your tent will also hopefully be upwind of those other two food friendly areas.
3. Create a bear hang.
If suitable trees are available employ what is known as a “bear hang.” The idea is to secure your food stores in a waterproof and odor-free bear bag, up and out of reach of a bear, as well as inaccessible from the bear’s clever attempts to get at it. Remember, bears are intelligent and have good memories. If they have successfully accessed previous, poorly constructed bear hangs they will try the same methods again. The standard wisdom is to hang your food stores 10 or 12 feet up and four to six feet away from the tree’s trunk (bears can climb, you know).
There are several methods of constructing an effective bear hang. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) method is a good one, but it’s certainly worth learning as many as you can, as conditions can change. Also, if you can avoid it, don’t use the same tree that others have used for a bear hang. Bears remember things like that.
There is some debate about the effectiveness of bear hangs. Wilderness Guide, Cliff Jacobson, generally prefers to “hide” his food packs on the ground, out of sight, than to employ a bear hang. Jacobson believes most bears have grown accustomed to associating bags hanging in trees with food and therefore will go to great lengths to dismantle them. The caveat to Jacobson’s method is that he is obsessive about storing food in odor-free containers.
4. Keep a scrupulously clean campsite.
No food whatsoever should be allowed in your tent or sleeping area. Neither should anything that might have the odor of food. No snacks, no energy bar wrappers, no toothpaste, no clothes that you wore while cooking.
Do your cooking and eating away from your sleeping area. The cooking and dining area is part of your campsite too, even if it is 100 yards away. It should be given the same attention that your sleeping area gets. Jacobson admonishes, “Leftovers should be burned or buried well away from camp and water. Every spaghetti noodle and grain of popcorn must be gathered and disposed of.”
5. Wash cooking and eating utensils immediately.
Don’t wait to clean up after eating. Do it right away. Waiting to clean up gives food odors a chance to linger and carry on the wind. Bears can smell odors from a mile away. And make sure to dispose of your dishwater downwind and away from the dining area.
6. Be wise in your food choices.
Bacon and maple syrup probably aren’t the best food choices when camping in bear country. Bears are attracted to the smell of frying bacon at least as much as we are. Choose foods that are not too delicious smelling!
7. Have a cooking/eating set of clothes and a sleeping set of clothes.
Food odors will cling to your clothes, so have a set of clothes for dining, and before you return to your tent to bed down, change into your sleeping area clothes. Also, make sure that you change clothes some distance outside of your cooking area. Bag your cooking/eating clothes.
8. Bag or dispose of anything and everything that smells.
Bring extra airtight plastic bags to store odorous trash or, if you can do so safely and properly, burn it. Haul your trash out and dispose of it in proper, bear proof disposal units.
To summarize, keep a scrupulously clean camp – every bit of it. Store everything from food to clothing, when not in use, in airtight, odor inhibiting bags or containers. Use the nature (wind, trees, etc.) to your advantage in securing food and minimizing odor.
9. Bear Fence.
An additional item that may be useful to further deter curious or hungry bears is a tool that is actually designed to physically discourage a bear from entering your campsite. It’s called a Bear Shock Electric Fence and is marketed by UDAP, a bear spray and bear deterrent company in Butte, Montana. The Bear Shock is a lightweight, portable electric fence that you set up around the perimeter of your camp.
It will deliver a 6,000-volt jolt of electricity to any bear that touches it, hopefully giving him plenty of reason to forget about entering your camp while you’re sleeping.
It’s one additional line of defense when in bear country.