Picture this: You are camping with the family, having a great time and singing songs around the fire after dinner when suddenly, you hear rustling. You go to check out what the racket is, and it is a BEAR. That’s right; an actual bear is rummaging through your leftovers.
Now you have no food, and the entire family is running for their lives. I know you definitely would not want that to happen, and neither do I; that is why I am going to teach you how to store and seal your food while camping properly! You’ll learn both how to keep your food and yourself safe in the process.
So, how do you store food in bear country so that it doesn’t attract bears?
There are several ways to store food in bear country. The first is to use bears bags, bears bags store your food out of the reach of bears by hanging high in trees. The second method is to use air-tight bear containers so that the bears do not smell the food in the first place. The last common method is to use bear lockers when supplied by a campground.
The most important thing to do is to use airtight containers to help reduce the smell. The smell is what will attract bears into your camp, but there are several different things to keep in mind in bear country.
Be sure to read this whole article to get all the tips and tricks to help keep bears away, as well as suggestions for what to do if one does show up.
Here’s what we will cover to keep those bears away from your food while camping.
Where do bears live?
You won’t know you even need to learn about how to keep your food away from bears unless you know you will be camping near them. Bears, of course, do not live in cabins where little girls break in and eat their porridge. They live in the woods! You knew that by now, I hope, but not all forests are crawling with them.
The American black bear makes up most of the bear population in the United States. They are mostly found in the northeast, but they can be spotted in areas on the west coast. Of course, there are small pockets of them in the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and parts of Florida.
They are especially abundant in all parts of Canada, though. For more thorough information, take a look here. Black bears are generally timid and try to avoid humans. They come out at night to look for food. If you spot one, be cautious; there is no need to panic, however.
For grizzly bears or “brown bears,” I can’t say the same about panicking. Grizzlies are more aggressive. On the bright side, they do not inhabit many parts of America! They tend to be found in the northwestern states in small areas.
If you are camping in Alaska, bad news — they are everywhere. Unless you are prepared for that scenario, I do not recommend pitching a tent in those parts of either country.
These are the most common species you need to watch out for. Plan your trip accordingly!
What not to pack in bear country
There are certain foods that attract bears more than others. Meats that have a strong smell should probably be left at home. Anything like bacon or fish (especially salmon) make the bears think you have a tasty treat meant just for them.
More bad news — the family pet is more susceptible to bear attacks than you are. Bears are often scared of humans, but they do hunt other animals. Rover may be safer with a pet sitter than roaming the great outdoors.
If you must bring your furry friend, keep them on a leash and in sight at all times. Being near you gives them more protection than it would if you let them frolic. Technically, you are storing food when you bring your pets. Just because your dog is not food for you does not mean he is not food for forest-dwelling predators.
Packing with bear safety in mind
At this point, you have decided to take fish off the menu. You’re all set, right? Wrong. There are things you should definitely bring along if you want to keep their paws off of your grub… or you, for that matter.
- Bear spray. You have heard of bug repellant, but maybe you did not know that some genius came up with a spray to keep the bears away as well! Be careful with the stuff, though. If it is strong enough to ward off one of them, it’s powerful enough to disable you. Think of it as pepper spray on steroids. In this case, definitely never spray it on yourself as you would with your typical mosquito repellant. Use it only if bears come knocking on your tent door. You can buy some here on Amazon!
- Storage boxes. Some campsites provide special boxes that keep bears out. Ask ahead of time to see if they are readily available! Make sure that if you are bringing one yourself, you have an approved version. For those of you heading to Yellowstone National Park, read their guidelines on food storage here. If you are in the market for one of these containers, REI has you covered.
- If you can’t find adequate storage, please keep your food in a sturdier vehicle sealed tight. That last part is really important, as bears have been known to attack cars to get to some treats.
- Airtight food bags. On normal camping trips, burying your biodegradable food products may have been no problem. When you are camping around bears, never bury your food. Despite being covered, bears can still smell it and will come after it.
- Like I said, just because something is not food for you does not mean bears will think the same. Though unlikely, you could be food if you sleep out in the open. Keep yourself in your tent while getting some shut-eye. Do not get the big idea to store your food in your tent! That is the number one no-no. If you do, you will double your chances of a bear attack.
- Extra clothing. Never wear food that you cooked in for a prolonged period of time. Bears just want what you have, and you would instead them actually take the food then take a bite out of you. Put your discarded clothes in a bag and seal it to keep the aroma contained.
Food containers to help avoid bears
There are a few different types of bear-proof storage containers on the market that will keep your food safe and sound. Let’s go over them!
- Bear sacks. Contrary to what the name would suggest, they are not bags for bears or some kind of bear trap; they are the types of sacks you swing up on trees. We’ll talk about that in a minute. Bear sacks are made of sturdy fabrics to resist tearing, and they can hold up to five days worth of food for one person. Keep that in mind, when you pack for the family. Check this one out on Amazon. Click here.
- Bear Canisters. Bear canisters are made of tough plastics that a bear can’t claw or bite his way through. They are harder to open, but that’s the point! We will also go into more details soon about the specifics of weight and bear-proof features. These are pretty pricey, but they are another great option!
- Caches are bags that are in this case made of steel mesh. Claws can’t rip through them, and they are easier to open than a canister with their hook and loop opening mechanism. These caches do not come with zippers because zippers are easier to break! Try this one on for size.
Now that you have gone over your options and picked on that is best for your trip, learn how to use them to keep your food safe!
How to keep bears away from your stored food
Now that you have a container of some sort, you need to know how to keep it out of sight and out of mind for these not-so-cuddly creatures.
- Hang it up. One of the storage containers you have an option to buy is a bear bag. It is pretty simple; it’s essentially a sack with a string. You will need an additional string about one hundred to two hundred feet long so you can still access your food when you need to. What you are meant to do with it as a cautious camper is hang that bag up on a tree. Not so fast, though. You must have the bag set up at least ten feet high and eight feet from the trunk. Bears can climb trees, but they have a harder time reaching food from branches. Tie a heavy object (rock, small sandbag, etc.) to one end of your string and throw it over the branch you have chosen. Hold on to the other end to ensure that your bag never gets out of reach. Bears can climb trees better than you can. Do this for as many bags as you bought for your meals.
- Can it. Not you, the food! Bear canisters are much harder to open than your everyday cookie jar. Some require screwdrivers to open. Bears are crafty, but I do not think they can wield tools. Not yet, anyway. I know that it does not seem ideal for you. Opening something so complicated is tedious, but hey! That is a good sign that the bears will not be able to touch your snacks. Some are heavy, and some are a little more lightweight. All options are long-lasting and durable. The money is worth it to keep you safe! (Everything mentioned can be found on the REI website linked earlier. Instructions and ideas sourced from org)
- So nice, you do it twice! If you are still worried about bears smuggling your sustenance, double-pack your items for added durability and smell-control. For instance, use a canister and then put the canister in a sack to hang up! I would like to see the bears try and mess with you then. Take that, furry fiends!
Smart setup for food safety
Even if you double pack your food and do everything else right, you will still actually be cooking at some point. Bears will still be able to smell it. To reduce your chances of being discovered, pitch your tent and set up your camp at a safe distance from anything bear-related.
- Those berry patches you thought made a lovely background are not worth the risk. Bears are omnivores; they eat meat, but they love berries, too! Basically, you are complimenting a bear’s grocery store. While it’s a nice sentiment, they still do not care for humans setting up in the middle of the aisle. Be courteous and move somewhere far away.
- If you see unusually large animal poops, assume that they belong to a bear and move on. No one wants to smell that every day anyway! You would not likely sleep in a bathroom, so think of it the same way and give the bears some privacy.
- The sighting of an animal carcass is sure to turn anyone’s stomach and turn them off to sleeping nearby; that much is obvious. I am not too worried about you doing this, but just really exercise caution and stay extra far away from this area. Maybe camp like ten minutes away from it, because that is a bear’s hunting ground.
- Trails are usually fun for hiking, but the bear problem extends both to walking on one and cooking near one. Trails provide easier travels for bears as well, so just be safe and find another clearing somewhere to roast marshmallows in.
- Never, ever just pitch your tent and whip up some dinner at an unmarked spot in the middle of the woods. Let common sense reign in this area and stay near other people at an established campsite when you take a journey to bear country. The “wild man” routine is for television; be near to emergency services and other people. More campers make bears more afraid to come around.
What to do if a bear shows up
Sometimes you can do everything right or make one little mistake, and a bear will still stumble upon your camp. It happens; you just need to be adequately prepared to shoo it away.
- Do not run. Running makes you look like prey to most predatory wild animals. It is hard not to because that would be your first instinct, but you can scare it off with courage instead of fear. Fear is submission.
- Make yourself look bigger, and move your arms around. That lets a bear know that you can fight back, and it makes you scary enough to think twice about mauling. Just never turn your back. Even if you are not running, you make yourself more vulnerable.
- Do not make eye contact. Doing so can be seen as a challenge, and an angry bear may not shy away from a fight with what he thinks is a worthy opponent. Keep your eyes in its general direction, but do not stare at it directly.
- Do not threaten it. Talk, but do not yell back slowly away while you talk and wave your arms around. You can put some distance between you and the bear while making it wary of you.
- If the bear seems territorial or overly aggressive, that is when you need to worry. Predatory bears are different than these; you can scare a predatory bear off while yelling if it is a last-ditch effort. Aggressive and angry bears will likely attack. The safest way to protect yourself is to lie flat on the ground and cover your extremities. After the bear is gone, you can get back up. Do not get up while still in earshot of the bear. It will most likely come back and try to attack again.
- Use your bear spray. If you feel like you are really in danger, bring out the big guns, so to speak. Point it at the bear, try and cover your eyes and face from the spray, and pull that trigger.
Signs of aggression in a bear
It is important to know when a bear is gearing up to attack after being discovered going for the goods. Noticing their body language will give you all the tools you need to act accordingly and maybe save your own life.
- Snapping their teeth. When a bear does this, it is a sign of irritation and a show of dominance to make you run.
- Stomping on the ground with their paws indicates anger and a warning to back off. Do try to back away slowly as we talked about, but do not make any rash movements, as they are already angry and in predator mode.
- When a bear makes noise, usually a huffing sound, they are telling you that where they are is their own territory. Keep backing away and remain calm.
- Bears that are not being aggressive, but rather predatory (and easier to scare off) will seem non-threatening. They will slowly walk toward you with their ears forward, and they will not make much noise. Do not fall for it; this is not friendly behavior. Try and scare it off by talking, moving around, and yelling if you have to. They may decide that you are not worth the trouble.
- Remember that the first three behaviors may end with you lying down and covering yourself. The fourth is a situation in which you absolutely should not do that. Lying down is basically putting an apple in your mouth and ringing a dinner bell.
All this talk about bear attacks may seem scary, but don’t let them prevent you from going on a great adventure! All you need to do is exercise caution when cooking and store your food tight. Be smart about where you pitch your tent, and everything should go smoothly. May you now have safe travels and a happy.
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