Camping & Hiking In Bear Country: Keep Yourself & The Bears Safe

We were hiking at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore recently, and had the opportunity to chat with a park ranger. We asked her about bears, and she gave us a bit of history into the bear population (currently very healthy). During our discussion, she said, "Park rangers eventually realized we didn't have a bear problem, we had a people problem." We've heard this again and again, from Smoky Mountain National Park to Yellowstone National Park and so many other public camp areas.

There are an estimated 1,500 black bears in Smoky Mountain National Park. Glacier National Park supports approximately 1,000 bears, while Yellowstone National Park supports a thriving grizzly population estimated around 750. Vermont, a state jam-packed with outdoor and camping opportunities, supports a population of between 4,500 and 6,000 black bears. Our National and State Parks are National Treasures, in part due to their wild and free nature that includes wildlife of all shapes and sizes. Bears are highly intelligent, highly mobile and highly sensitive creatures...but they are also opportunistic. Experts believe they have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth, so sensitive in fact, it's difficult to measure. For the most part, they prefer to avoid human interaction. But problems arise when bears get a taste for human food, usually from improper food storage and trash disposal. Consider these quotes from Inyo National Forest:

A backpacker hiking in the Inyo National Forest in California was bitten on the shoulder by a black bear. According to a spokeswoman for the forest, the bear was attracted because the hiker hadn’t properly stored his food in a bear-resistant food canister. The man escaped with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. The bear got the death penalty. – Kelly St. John, San Francisco Chronicle

Preparation and adequate planning is the best way to respect the bears you’ll encounter in the wilderness. Bears are amazing, especially in their diligence to get your food. I respect them enough to not even try to outsmart them – instead, I carry a bear-proof canister whenever I’m on a wilderness patrol. – Calder Reid, Wilderness Manager, Mount Whitney Region, Inyo National Forest as quoted in Living with Bears, by Linda Masterson

So how do you keep yourself and the bears safe? Always plan ahead and familiarize yourself with the campground rules and recommendations for areas you might be hiking. Bear proof lockers/canisters are the way to go. And since they work for bears, they also work for raccoons, squirrels, etc. It's shocking the amount of marauding raccoons and other wildlife can do. Many areas require hanging food and toiletries at least 10 feet off the ground and 5 feet from the tree trunk, and 100 feet away from your campsite. Always pack a sturdy 100 foot rope with you. We highly recommend double bagging (sealed gallon bags) all food and toiletries, even canned goods, tooth paste, etc. Immediately wash all cooking items, using unscented liquid soap and dispose of grey water in an approved manner or at least 100 feet away from your campsite. Likewise, immediately dispose of trash in approved trash cans. If those don't exist, double bag and seal your trash, then double bag that into trash bags. Store in your vehicle, bear canister or off the ground. When you are hiking, avoid dawn and dusk when bears are active. If possible, hike in groups of four or more, staying close together. Make noise on a regular basis. The National Park service recommends you do NOT use a whistle or scream, either of which can sound like an animal in pain. Be aware of your surroundings--fast moving water, wind and dense vegetation can prevent a bear from hearing you. Carry bear spray, which is generally effective at a distance of 12 to 30 feet. Carry bear spray on your body in a holster. Hopefully, it's a purchase you will never have to use, but if you do need it, you can't ask the bear to hold off attacking while you locate it in your backpack. Keep in mind that some public areas, such as Yosemite National Park, with only black bears, do not permit bear spray. So again, research the area beforehand.

Follow all rules and regulations when you are in bear country, including leave no trace. You'll keep yourself and the bears much safer!