Please don’t feed the bears

Black bearKeeping critters out of your food will make both you and the critters happier.  It’s not just bears that shouldn’t be fed, but mice, racoons, birds, squirrels, fox and possibly even mountain goats.  It’s been over 40 years since I lost anything to bears and I intend to keep it that way.

I see bears a lot when hiking in both Olympic and Rainier National Parks.  The encounters are typically non-threatening and we go our separate ways, but it is pretty clear that they are around.  I have actually had more problems with mice than bears.  Mice have chewed holes in a tent zipper and a “rodent proof” food bag.  So I try to keep a clean camp and carefully hang my food or store it in a bear canister.

Bear canisters really work.  But they are heavy and bulky.  I carry a Bear Vault BV450 Solo.  It weighs 2 lbs. 1 oz. and fits either upright or on its side in the top of my pack.  The manufacturer claims it will hold 4 days of food.  That is probably accurate, but of course it depends a lot on the shape and volume of your food.  Remember that your first lunch and dinner don’t have to count.  As far as I know, mine has never been tested by a bear, but it was extensively worked over one evening by bold campground racoons without success.

Part of food protection is recognizing and addressing the threat potential.  A well used wilderness campsite will be on the regular evening route for scavengers.  A wild, cross country camp will not be part of any animal’s nightly rounds.  At night, odor and habit will be the techniques for finding food.  The mice and probably bears know that food bags hang on established bear wires.  Mice will clean up after you around the kitchen site and actually climb the bear wire tree, dance out on the wire and drop onto the bag to sample food.  Racoons will thoroughly inspect an entire campsite area.  So if the food storage doesn’t smell, and is in a non-customary place and secure, it should easily be there in the morning.

I often address the potential for odor location by placing food in OPSAK odor proof bags made by LOKSAK.  They do take up more space in a bear canister so I use them for items more likely to smell, like Logan bread or sausage.  I also use a small OPSAK to hold my Esbit fuel tablets which have a fishy smell that I don’t like, but animals might investigate.

When I don’t want to carry a canister, or have exceeded the canister capacity at the beginning of the trip,  I will carry equipment to hang food.  I have used an Ursak Minor rodent resistant bag.   Combined with OPSAKs for odor control, this system worked against arctic fox predation for my week long pack in Iceland, where tree hanging is not an option.  The bag is heavier than just a stuff sack, but birds can’t peck through it either and it will slow down mice.

To save weight when hanging food, I use very light weight coated polyethylene arborist line and a small throw bag made from sil-nylon.  Put a stone in the bag for throwing.  You can read about different ways to hang bags in trees in the ultralight books.  My throw bag, 50′ of line and a small Nite Ize carabiner together weigh only 2oz.

The bottom line is that on each trip, I decide whether to take a canister, bear bag or both depending on the length of the trip, the expected camping conditions and the the likely animal threat.  Simply closing the canister at the end of dinner and putting it off in the woods is a lot easier than setting up a bear bag hang in a good tree.  As trips extend into alpine country, good hanging trees get a lot harder to find.  The canister serves as a low stool in camp as well.  Sometimes the extra two pounds are worth it.



4 thoughts on “Please don’t feed the bears

  1. I just got a BV450 and have been doing practice hikes with about 22# in my pack, including the bear canister stuffed full with food just to get used to the weight and full water bladder (1.8L). My pack is as comfortable with the bear canister as it is without it. In fact, the pack is so comfortable, I would guess I’m carrying closer to 8-10#, not 20+. So that’s all good. Because of this, I was wondering if it isn’t better to just always take the bear canister as I totally suck at aiming my throws and hanging a bear bag. It sounds like you believe that is an OK strategy. Do you have any input or additional thoughts?

  2. I just bought a BV450 and have been doing day hikes with it in my pack, filled to the brim with food, and with full water bladder (1.8L). So I’ve been carrying roughly 23# on these day trips just to get used to the weight. My base weight is about 16#. Anyway, the pack is super comfortable with the weight and the bear canister carries well. I suck at aiming my throws and can’t do a decent bear hang to save my life. So I’ve been thinking of carrying the bear canister on all overnights, even if not really in bear country, just because of mice and such. Sounds like you agree with that strategy. Is that correct or am I missing something? Do you have any tips or feedback for me?

    • 2 lbs. is still 2 lbs. I agree with your strategy with the following suggestions. If you are going somewhere with bear wires and are just going overnight, you could save weight by just planning to hang your breakfast, second day lunch and extra food. With a bear wire, you don’t have to worry about throwing line. This would give your a lighter weight option for some trips. Remember when the bear canister is not full, you can use the extra space for some of your kitchen equipment to make your pack smaller. I certainly appreciate the convenience and flexibility of food protection when using a canister.

      • Good tip on leaving it at home when there are bear wires. If I have time to research it and be aware of it, that is. It’s something I’ll remember to look for. Yeah, I figure that 1st aid supplies, and other little gear, even headlamp and such, could start going into the bear canister as more room opens up inside. I haven’t done it yet but I read that it’s a good idea to get to tape something reflective on the inside of the canister, facing out, to help find it. Especially if a bear plays with it and moves it. And/or something florescent. I thought that sounded like a good idea but I also wondered if it might make it easier for bears to spot it, too. Nice blog, by the way!

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