One of my jobs as a freshman river guide in the Pacific Northwest was to sleep under our food trailer and scare away the bears that crept up each night. I got pretty good at it. Over the next ten years of guiding, I also became good at keeping all kinds of other animals away from our precious food—a benefit for clients as well the animals, since you don’t want them getting accustomed to human grub. To help you keep your food safe during this year’s camping season, here are some strategies I relied on, plus tips from other outdoor educators who’ve mastered the art of deterrence.
Know Which Animals You’ll Encounter and Plan Accordingly
It’s unlikely you’ll run into bears or marmots while camping in the Mojave, but you might have to deal with mice. To find out which animals live in the environment where you’ll be camping, call the local Forest Service or BLM station and ask. Sure, you could jump on the internet and do some research (and a quick Google search usually brings up lots of useful tips), but nothing can replace good local knowledge from the people who constantly deal with these critters.
Tie Up Your Food
This is the easiest way to keep most large predators out of your food. You’ll need parachute cord (I buy 50 feet or so from the local army surplus store) and a bag to hold your food. I like this Sea to Summit drybag because it’s just big enough and will keep my food dry if it rains. When selecting my tree, I look for one with a sturdy branch about 20 feet high (more on that number below). I then fill the bag will all my food and toiletries (which also attract animals), and attach the P-cord to the top. Next, I tie a rock or stick to the other end of the cord and chuck it over the branch. I hoist the bag so it’s about 15 feet in the air, and then tie the loose end to the trunk. At 15 feet, the bag is too high for a bear but not sitting right on the branch, which would give squirrels easy access.
Bring a Bear Canister When Backpacking
In several national parks—including Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone—you’re required to bring a bear canister when you’re accessing certain backcountry areas. (Always check the requirements wherever you go.) These canisters are portable, hard-sided food lockers that fit in your backpack that bears can’t tear open—at least most of the time. They’re supposed to be stored several hundred feet away from your camp, and some people also recommend painting them bright colors. That way you can find the canister in the morning if a bear knocks it around. The only downside: bear canisters are kind of heavy. The one linked above weighs three pounds. For a lighter-weight option, check out these bags, which are made from a bulletproof Spectra fabric, weigh just eight ounces, and are rated to keep bears out.
Buy a Bear-Proof Cooler for Car Camping
If you’re car camping or rafting in bear country, bring a bear-proof cooler like the Yeti Tundra 45 or the Pelican 45 Elite instead of a bear canister. You’ll have more storage, and hard-sided Yetis have been tested and deemed grizzly resistant by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, meaning they’re approved in national parks where bear-proof gear is required. Tip: bears are smart enough to recognize coolers on sight, so hide yours under a tarp if possible. A buddy of mine had his car broken into twice in Yosemite because bears thought his bins full of climbing gear were bins full of food. The problem went away once the bins were covered.
Also Bring Bear Spray
Scientific research proved that bear spray is the best way to keep hell-bent bears from plowing into your campsite, eating your food, and possibly attacking you and your camp mates. Two professors, one from Brigham Young and the other from the University of Calgary, studied hundreds of bear attacks in Alaska and found that the spray stopped bears 93 percent of the time. Only 2 percent of people who used bear spray were attacked, compared to 56 percent of people who were attacked when they tried to use a gun. Counter Assault makes an effective and popular spray.
Don’t Leave Crumbs Lying Around
It’s easy to forget a Starburst or piece of jerky in a pocket of the jacket you bring into the tent at night. These smaller pieces of food might not bring a bear crashing in, but they can attract smaller animals like mice or marmots, which will be happy to chew through your tent and sleeping bag to feed themselves. To prevent this mishap, I always check my pockets and use my headlamp to scan my tent before going to bed.