Tips for Backpacking in Bear Country

Bears are the animals that everyone wants to see and doesn’t want to see. It is really just a question of timing and distance. Spot a grizzly bear on the other side of a raging river; fantastic. Walk around a blind corner and find yourself 10 meters away from a cub; not so cool.

When hiking and camping in bear country it is very important that hikers take certain precautionary measures, as well as knowing what to do in case of a “too close for comfort” encounter. What follows is my two cents worth in regards to the dos and don’ts of backpacking in bruin territory.

Three grizzlies on the Highline trail | Glacier National Park, Montana | Continental Divide Trail, 2012.

Precautions 

If you are a bit nervous about the thought of hiking and camping with bears around take solace in the following fact; bruins (and critters in general) are far more interested in your food than your person. Take the necessary precautions and chances are you will be fine. 

  • Don’t cook where you camp:  A bear’s sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound and 2100 times better than humans. By cooking in the same place you intend to sleep, you may as well ring a dinner bell for any bruins that happen to be in the vicinity. When backpacking in bear country, cook your main meal either at lunch or at least 30 minutes before setting up camp.
  • Avoid popular campsites: Whenever possible try to avoid camping at popular campsites or campgrounds. Bears aren’t stupid. It doesn’t take them long to make the association between lots of careless campers and a potentially easy meal.  By far the majority of bear “encounters” (all estimates I have heard are over 90%) occur at park campgrounds. When it comes to bears, the expression “safety in numbers” is off the mark. If you do stay at popular campsites, utilise bear lockers or poles whenever available.
  • Wild Camping: The alternative to camping at popular sites is known as “wild” or “stealth” camping. Basically camping in an unused spot, away from the trail, water sources and other hikers. This is my method of choice unless legally obligated otherwise. If you choose to wild camp, the onus is even greater to practice Leave No Trace camping principles. This is important both for the bear’s safety – bears that become habituated to human behaviour (“problem bears”) are put down – as well as the welfare of those backpackers that come after you.
  • Noise: When hiking through thick forest or bush, be sure to make some noise. Sing, talk, recite poetry, whatever floats your boat. My personal choice is the traditional “hey bear” mantra. The objective is to negate the element of surprise. If bears hear you coming, chances are they will want to avoid an encounter as much as you do.  That being said, I do not recommend bear bells. Quite frankly they are overkill. Their continuous jingling detracts from the sounds of the natural environment, which constitute a significant part of why I am out in the wilderness in the first place.
  • Bear-proofing a campsite: Through a combination of using pristine/stealth sites and not cooking where you camp, you greatly minimize the chances of a bear encounter occurring. The next step is to bear-proof your campsite by protecting your food and any other items in your kit that may give off unnatural odours (e.g. toothpaste, sunscreen, insect repellent, even the clothes you cooked in). See below for details.
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Grizzly at Dusk | Great Divide Trail, Canada, 2011.

Food Protection

A couple of things to keep in mind: 1. There is no panacea for keeping your food safe in the backcountry. The techniques mentioned above combined with the food protection suggestions listed below, form part of an overall strategy that hikers should practice when backpacking in bear country, and; 2. Park regulations trump everything. If you have to use a canister, food locker or designated poles, then that’s what you have to do.

Here are various methods for protecting your food from bears and other critters:

Bear Canisters

For a useful overview on the whys and wherefores of bear canisters see REI’s Bear Canister Basics. In regards to which one you should buy, it largely depends on whereabouts you backpack, and for how long you usually go out for. Overall I think the best options currently on the market (May, 2018) are as follows:

1. BV450 (33 oz / 4 days capacity) and BV500 (41 oz / 7 days capacity) – Same canister, different sizes. The best all-around combo of weight, price and utility. For UL or lightweight hikers capable of big miles when necessary, opt for the smaller version which is 8 oz lighter and a little cheaper (i.e. $70 vs $80).

3. Bearikade Weekender (31 oz / 6 days capacity)- The Patagucchi of bear cans. If you are a gram counter and money is not an issue, this carbon fiber canister is for you. It weighs in at 31 oz and will set you back $288.

4. Bare Boxer Contender 101 (25.6 oz / 3 days capacity) – Good option for shorter trips.

(L to R) BV500 and BV450 (photo from bearvault.com).

Hanging Your Food:  

I’m never been a fan of hanging food (at least not before a fair trial). It can be time consuming, there is never an appropriate branch around when you need one – not too thin, not too short, not too high, not too low – and black bears are very good climbers. That said, if you have to hang a food bag due to park regulations, bring some lightweight cord, a mini carabiner and use the PCT Method

Ursacks:

Ursacks are bear resistant food sacks made of bulletproof Spectra fabric that tips the scales at under 8 oz (7.6 oz for the 650 in³ capacity Major model). This is a huge weight saving over any canister, and as a bonus, there is no need to hang them at day’s end; just secure them to a fixed object or hide the sack under a pile of rocks away from camp.

The catch? Though the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) and National Parks with large bruin populations such as Denali officially approve the Ursack, other parks in the system do not (e.g. Yosemite, Olympic and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park). It’s a peculiar situation. If you are planning on backpacking in an area frequented by bears, check with the relevant authorities if in doubt.

Personally I have only used the Ursack on a couple of overnight trips in the lower 48, but Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa – President of the American Long Distance Hikers Association and AT/CDT thru hiker – has been a regular user of both bear cans (BV500) and Ursacks for a number of years. He had the following to say about Ursacks :

“I’ve found the Ursack provides the perfect balance between weight, comfort, and ease of use. I have been using mine for the past five years and they are my preferred choice for food storage in bear country. No hanging hassles at day’s end, and the fact that they are soft-sided makes them much easier and more comfortable to carry than canisters.” 

Tip: For best results combine your Ursack with a 12×20 LOKSAK (0.8 oz). This will cut down on odors, and keep your food dry if the weather comes in during the night. 

LOKSAKS:

Since 2009, LOKSAKS have been an integral part of my backpacking kit. Irrespective of the season or environment, I’ve carried these odour-proof storage bags for well over a thousand nights in the backcountry, including the entire 18 month, 14,300 mile, 12 Long Walks journey.

During all of these trips I have slept with my food and other odorous items (i.e. toothpaste, sunscreen, etc) sealed inside the LOKSAK, which I then place inside a tied-off trash compactor bag, which I finally put inside my backpack which goes under my feet. I have never once had a problem with critters getting into my food; this includes extended periods of hiking in bear country (e.g. High Sierra, Montana, Wyoming, Pacific Northwest, Canadian Rockies).

However (and that’s a big however), LOKSAKS by themselves are not a solution for your food storage needs. What they are is a component of an overall “stealthy low odor” strategy that includes all of the precautions listed above.

LOKSAK Tips: 1. Clean your hands before using them; 2. Don’t overstuff them; 3. Change bags before the seal starts to fail – generally after five or six weeks of regular use in my experience.

LOKSAKS on a two week food carry during the Southwest Tasmania Traverse – No bears, but lots of smaller and much more ferocious Tassie Devils!

Final Take – What I do for Food Protection in Bear Country

1.  Local Regulations: If I am legally obligated to carry a bear canister than I will. But only if I have no other option. Indeed, if I can find a way around carrying a can, whether it be hiking 30 miles plus or taking a short detour outside the canister zone, chances are I will take it. This especially holds true on trips which last for more than four or five days. Why the reticence to carry a bear can? Over the years my backpacks of choice have generally been small and frameless which don’t play well with canisters. For future trips in which a bear can is required, I will take an internal frame pack.

2.  Regulation-free Zones: Over the past decade if I have been hiking in regulation-free bear areas I have used LOKSAKS and diligently practice all of the precautionary measures listed above. I don’t carry foods with a strong odor, I don’t cook, I rarely overnight where others have camped, and I avoid setting up next to water sources.

The operative word is “diligence.” A lot of hikers are aware of the the precautions that should be taken in bear country, but in my experience relatively few put them into practice on a daily basis. On more popular long distance trails such as the PCT, it seems that most thru-hikers camp in the same places and cook besides their shelters. Why? These spots are often flat and clear, they appear on their phone apps, and they make for easy places to congregate with other hikers at day’s end. Is there any wonder that bears end up being attracted to these popular spots?

3.  Future Trips: When I return to grizzly country in Alaska/Yukon in the next few years – I spent a summer up there in 1998 and am long overdue to go back- I will take a combination of an Ursack, LOKSAK and a can of bear spray.

Bear Encounters

You may have taken all the precautions in the world, but sometimes you are just shit out of luck. That being the case:

  • Observe and Stay Calm: If you see a bear from a relatively close distance stay calm and observe its movements. If it doesn’t runoff the moment it spots you, speak to the bear in a strong, calm and even tone. Crying and whimpering are not recommended. Raise your arms to make yourself look bigger and (in theory) more intimidating.
  • No Eye Contact: Avoid making eye contact which bears may take as a sign of aggression.
  • Slowly Back Away: If the bear stands its ground but otherwise seems disinterested, slowly back away not losing sight of the bear and definitely not turning your back on it.
  • Don’t Run: In the event that all your precautions fail and you find yourself being charged by a bear, whatever you do don’t run. That may cause the bear to think of you as prey, and subsequently trigger an instinctive reaction to chase. For the record, bears can move at 37 miles (60 km) per hour. By running you are making a less than ideal situation immeasurably worse.
  • The Bluff Charge: Most bear charges are bluffs. A bear will run towards you and at the last moment veer off. I know what you are thinking. It would take nerves of steel to stand your ground in such a situation. Nonetheless, by doing so you improve your chances significantly. If you wear undies while backpacking, I hope you brought an extra pair.
  • Bear Spray: If it becomes apparent that the charge is not a bluff, use bear spray as a last resort. Wait until the bear is within 10 to 15 metres (32-49 ft). Make sure you are not aiming the spray into the wind.
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Heading down for an afternoon drink | Pacific Crest Trail, 2012.

  • Last Resort – Grizzly Bears: If a grizzly bear charge proves not to be a bluff and you are not armed with bear spray, drop to the ground and lay on your stomach. Spread your legs, tuck your head in, clasp your hands behind your neck and leave your pack on as this will protect your back. Be as still as possible. If the bear immediately loses interest, continue “playing dead” until you are sure that the bear has left the area. Except in very rare cases, grizzly bears will only attack if they feel threatened. By lying as quiet and motionless as possible, the bear will soon realize that you present no threat and continue on its way. Fighting back against a grizzly usually makes a bad situation worse. However, if the attack persists, you may have no choice but to defend yourself (see below).
  • Last Resort – Black Bears: If you are being attacked by a black bear the protocol is quite different. If escape is not possible, your best option is to fight back as hard as you can. Use any object at your disposal. The sharper and harder the better. Aim for the nose and eyes.

Further Information

Disclaimer: Any time you head out into the boonies there are certain inherent risks involved. In this article I’ve outlined the approach I take while backpacking in bear country, however, ultimately each individual has to make their own decisions. When you are hiking in places where clear food storage regulations are in place then you should abide by those rules. Outside of those zones the onus is on you. ‘The Hiking Life’ (i.e. yours truly) will not be held responsible for any injuries, loss or damages which may result from the adoption of any suggestions or recommendations mentioned above.

 


Comments

Tips for Backpacking in Bear Country — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks for that honest review of what YOU do.
    It seems like so many hikers do the OpSack themselves, but won’t admit it when they write a blog article. Then it they just talk about hanging a bear bag (which they don’t do themselves).
    Regarding campsite choice, I agree it’s better to get away from established campsites. But the PCTA sure does push people to NOT do that, (and camp in established campsites).
    I guess everything’s set up to pander to the least thoughtful hikers.

    • Hey Bart,

      Thanks for the comment. The PCTA are in a tough place in regards to camping/food protection advice. Numbers are through the roof, almost everyone seems to want to go north and start around the same time, and frankly, there are a lot of folks out there that wouldn’t know LNT from LGBT.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  2. Please, please don’t yell “yo bear.” Everyone or anyone nearby – and you have no idea if there is anyone in hearing range, because most places it’s hard to see – listeners only hear “bear!” and thereby presume you’ve spotted one and you’re warning them. The “B” word should only be used when there is a bear present. You could change your mantra to just about anything “Yo dude!” “yo dog!” whatever. But no “B” word. I’ve hiked in Alaska for the last 30 years, and if there is one thing most of us up here agree on, it’s not using that word. No need to soil the undies unnecessarily.

    Otherwise, all your advice is spot on! There are arguments about whether being prone, as you’ve described, or being in a fetal ball, is a better choice for actual attack. I have no idea and there are probably minimal actual scientific studies or evidence on this; correct me if I’m wrong on that. I was taught fetal, so that’s what I’ve rehearsed in my head. Hope I never test it.

    I hope people read your piece. So important, especially for hikers new to bear country.

    • Hey Karen,

      Thank you for the kind words. It is definitely an important subject which all hikers should be versed in before heading into bear country.

      As for the mantra, you are entitled to your opinion, but I think “hey bear”(or anything else for that matter) is fine as long as it’s said in a “casual/greeting-like” or even musical tone (I often include the phrase in songs). The difference between that and the tone that normally accompanies a warning is quite distinct.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  3. Hey Cam
    Love the site – best set of trail suggestions I’ve seen.
    Couple of comments on this article though, which you might want to investigate further. There seems to be some pretty well documented evidence that Loksaks are not as effective as claimed. e.g. https://backpackinglight.com/odor_proof_bags_study/
    General discussion here: https://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/80353/

    I like the Ursack conecpt – I have one. The only thing that I wonder about is whether bears will still mangle everything trying to get at the food. Unlike a hard sided container, the sacks are subject to crushing. I guess you’s still have the crushed food which means you wouldn’t starve, but it’s just something to be aware of. Have you ever had a bear actually try to take your Ursack, and if so, what happened?

    thx

    • Hey Gary,

      Thanks for the comment.

      In regards to Loksaks, I by no means consider them a panacea and I don’t think any bag is completely odor proof; particularly given regular usage out in the field. As I mention in the article, I use Loksaks as part of an overall “stealthy low odor” strategy and in my experience (over 1000 nights in the past decade in a wide variety of environments) they are definitely a step-up from ziplocs. I have yet to experience a single critter issue while using them, but I’m sure this is primarily due to being diligent in regards to the other precautions.

      As for Ursacks, I hear you in regards to the “crushing” aspect. I generally only carry dry stuff so it wouldn’t be much of an issue if it did happen. I think the combo of camping in a stealth site and using a Loksak bag to line the Ursack significantly decreases the chances of it occurring.

      Cheers,

      Cam

    • A griz got at my ursacks last summer in the absaroka range. Both bags held up just fine, with only minor weave separation. No complaints there. But all my food was completely ruined. Not only crushed, but saturated in bear spit. An ursack protects bears from your food, not your food from bears.

      On a related note, I know a lot of hikers swear by OpSacks, but I could smell my food using them, which means a bear can too – from a mile away.

      • Maybe one point is, that if someone is going to be hiking in known bear country, to just go stoveless. That will cut down a ton of food odors right there, (even if you do stop an hour before your camping spot). I’m sure the smell of cooked food goes into your clothes, your pack, your shoes, your skin.
        Stoveless foods are typically packaged in Mylar for long shelf life. If the air can’t get to the food, the food lasts longer. And vice-versa the food smell ‘shouldn’t’ be able to get into the air when it’s packaged in Mylar.
        As I remember, most of what Cam listed as his menu are various Powerbars/Snickers (which are packaged in Mylar), and cold soaked freeze dried beans (which I would imagine have a super low odor).
        Also, I put all my trash in an OpSak, and all my personal hygiene stuff in an OpSak.

  4. Hi Cam,

    Many thanks for the amazing content on your website. It has been extremely helpful.
    I have one question. I am planning on hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail this summer and can’t decide if I should buy a bear canister or invest in an Ursack + Opsack combo. I live in the NE and California is a totally new territory for me. What would you suggest?
    Thank you.

    • Hi Ivaylo,

      Thank you for the kind words and glad the site has been of help.

      As for your question, to the best of my knowledge canisters aren’t legally required for the TRT. That being the case, I think I’d go with the Ursack / Loksak combo if I was you.

      Tahoe’s a gorgeous area. Have a great hike!

      Cheers,

      Cam

      • Hi Cam,

        Thank you so much for your quick reply and for the helpful suggestion. I really appreciate it.
        All the best,
        Ivaylo

  5. The other odd PCT behavior I have observed is the custom of setting one’s bear canister right outside one’s tent. These things are not odor proof and will attract – and then frustrate – a bear right in the middle of camp. This seems a less than ideal outcome. Not sure these hikers have gamed out their food protection strategy all the way through.

  6. Hi Cam,

    I have a question on bear encounters that I have never been able to find a response too. I too, like you, am very meticulous with my food and smelly stuff (I use the Loksak Opsak with my ursack) and either hang or use bear lockers if available. I was in Glacier last year on a 6 day backpacking trip. My 3rd night was at Stoney Indian Pass and we ran into three young college kids who were incredibly careless with their food. The long and short is that a grizzly came into camp that night and ended up following the path from the cooking area to the tent sites. My tent was first on the right and he came in and nosed my tent. I was quite at first and then began speaking firmly and ultimately got very loud. Fortunately he did as I would hope and crashed off through the brush behind my site. What is the best thing to do when you are in your tent at night and a curious bear comes nosing around?

    • Hey Scott,

      Thanks for the message. It’s a familiar story; conscientious hikers being put in a difficult position through the carelessness of others. In that situation I would have done the exact same thing that you did. I suspect I may have had a chat with the college kids as well. Perhaps the only way folks like that are going to realise the potential consequences of their actions, is if they see what can happen in (almost) real time.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  7. Good information. I have quite an imagination about bears attacking me even though I know it’s unlikely. Especially if I practice good food prep and storage. I hope I can overcome my reluctance to hike/camp in grizzly country. I’m missing some great trails.

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