Search-and-devour mission: Backcountry bears will stop at nothing to get at campers’ food |

Search-and-devour mission: Backcountry bears will stop at nothing to get at campers’ food

Eileen JoyceAlthough it's almost 3 pounds of dead weight, a hard-plastic bear canister is considered the only sure-fire way to foil backcountry marauders.
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At a lake outside Yosemite, my pals Jane and Steve went to bed knowing they had protected their food with a perfect “bear hang.” Yet, for hours they listened to a black bear smack its lips as it finished off a week’s worth of food – and urinated on anything it didn’t eat.

Unless you want a very short backcountry trip, you must protect your food from critters, especially Ursus americanus. And I hate to break it to you, but Yogi has one up on us: We aren’t smarter than the average bear.

The Yosemite ranger guffawed two years ago when I told him that, although I had a bear canister, I was considering hanging some of my backpacking food. Indeed, national parks now cite campers who leave food unattended or in view in their car; my friend got a warning for leaving a coffee cup on his picnic table in Yellowstone.

After years of frustrated, unsuccessful attempts to educate campers about proper food storage, the Park Service finally hit upon a brilliant tactic, as outlined in this Lassen pamphlet: “Don’t be responsible for the park having to kill a bear. Remember, carelessness with food = dead bears.”

Campground Yogis get very few chances now before they are exterminated. And no, most parks no longer transfer “problem” bears to the backcountry. Bears habituated to human food become unnaturally aggressive and a nightmare for backpackers, and federal funding cutbacks make transferring 300-pound miscreants too costly. In 1999, four bears were killed by Yosemite personnel.

It is now a violation of federal law to store food improperly and feed animals in a Forest Service facility. In some backcountry areas now, you are required by law to use a bear canister.

A bear’s sense of smell is 100 times more powerful than a dog’s. We’ve all heard the astounding stories of savvy bears ripping open – called “clouting”- vehicles in Yosemite. In 1998 alone, bears broke into 1,103 vehicles and caused $634,595 in damage.

Vehicles have been destroyed for a gum wrapper, an empty soda can, utensils, a tube of Chapstick, dirty clothes, film and an empty brown-paper grocery bag – even if the items were locked in the trunk. Incredibly, Yosemite rangers report that bears prefer to attack Honda sedans, Tercels and vans, in what appears to be a deliberate selection process.

Yosemite is so desperate now it provides communal bear-proof storage lockers at all trailheads and will impound vehicles containing food after dark.

I finally broke down and forked over $75 for a canister from Garcia Manufacturing (14097 Avenue 272, Visalia, CA 93277). The cylinder comes in two sizes weighing 2.7 and 5 pounds and fits into your pack. It is made of extremely dense plastic and closes with a flush lid which you lock like a standard screw. Lay it on the ground (away from bodies of water!) 100 yards from camp and loosely secure it with rocks or logs. I’ve actually used my canister more for protecting food from marauding marmots than from bears, but those battles could fill another entire column …

Bears are not just a nocturnal threat. Never leave food or toiletries unattended in a backpack – myriad critters will gnaw through Cordura lickety-split. A handful of gorp is a lot cheaper to replace than your Kelty. Leave your pack on the ground with the top and zippers open, so Yogi can investigate it if he needs to. Never store food in tents or sleeping bags. Never cook in your tent. Never wear clothes to bed on which you have spilled food.

Yes, this “never” list goes on and on. In the backcountry, we are both the guest of and at the mercy of our fellow animals. Accept this and do your part to protect the lives of the most magnificent mammals in North America.


In many areas, you can still risk using the counterbalanced method of hanging of food and toiletries.

However, “You can’t count on food being safe if you put it in a nylon sack and hang it in a tree overnight,” said Harold Werner, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. “If you’ve never lost food by counterbalancing, it’s only because you’re lucky, no matter how well you do it.”

Michelle Gagnon, a bear technician at Sequoia and Kings Canyon said, “I’ve never seen it myself, but I’ve heard that some bears will walk out on a branch and make kamikaze jumps at food bags to bring them down. I believe it. You can see blood on the branches they’ve chewed through to make bags drop. They’ll actually hurt themselves to get at food.”

That said, here’s another warning: Do not stint on any of the following recommended height/lengths of a hang, or you’ll be sorry …

— Locate a stout tree with a branch at least 6 inches in diameter at the base that extends 10 feet out and is 20 feet up.

— Place equal weights of food in two stuff sacks. Wrap the drawstrings securely around the tops.

— Tie a rock onto a 50-foot length of parachute cord. Toss the rock/cord over the branch near its end, at least 10 feet out. Once, a beau insisted on using his car keys to weight the cord (“Ya know, Don, honey … uh, I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”). Guess what we spent the next half hour crawling around looking for.

— Tie a sack onto the cord and hoist it up to the branch. Tie the second sack onto the cord as high as possible. Leave a loop at one sack’s top.

— Toss the second sack up so that it counterbalances the first.

— To retrieve the food, hook the sack loop with a long stick and pull one bag down.

Pat Devereux is a copy editor for The Union and a member of the Nevada County Hiking Club. Contact her c/o The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945, or at

This article was originally published on 1/2/2000

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