Lions and Tigers and Bears...Oh My: Backpacking in Bear Country

From bear safety and food storage to bear encounters and bear spray: Everything you need to know about exploring safely while in bear country.

I have spent lots of time car camping and hiking in bear country and have backpacked in locations where bear canisters are recommended but not required (hence I used an Ursack bear bag) however this past week, I lead a four day, women’s backpacking trip through Mammoth, specifically Thousand Island Lakes, and despite getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, we had a wonderful time.

  • Did we see bears? Yes.
  • Did we learn a lot about bear safety? Yes.
  • Did a bear put his paws on my car and set the alarm off? Yes.
  • Did I break a bear canister? Yes.
  • Did I learn which bear canister I want for my next bear adventure? Yes.

Bears are the wild animals that everyone wants to see when they are out on the trails but at the same time, doesn’t want to see. Spotting bears is really just a question of timing and distance; spot a grizzly bear on the other side of a raging river; fantastic, snap a photo and move on. Walk behind a blind corner and find yourself within 20 feet away of a cub; not cool because mama bear is lurking nearby.

If you are nervous about hiking and backpacking in bear country, keep in mind that bears and other critters are more interested in your food than you. Remember the phrase “Don’t poke the bear?” In general, bears will not bother you unless you bother them so remember to leave wildlife wild, which means practicing bear safety while you are in bear territory.

Taking strict precautions when in bear territory

It is required by law to store all of your scented items in bear-proof National Park Service Regulated canisters while in the backcountry where bear canisters are required (Keep in mind that recommended is different than required).

Don’t cook and eat where you camp: Keep your” kitchen” at least 200 feet (70 steps) from where your camp is set up. Bears have a sense of smell seven times stronger than a bloodhound and 2100 times better than humans. By cooking and eating at your campsite, you may as well ring the dinner bell for bears, inviting them over to share your meal. On the first night of our backpacking trip, while staying at Garnet Lake, one of the gals cooked and ate in her campsite, kept her bear canister next to her tent and did not store all of her scented items in the bear canister. Luckily we had no furry visitors that night, (unlike the previous night where the same girl kept chocolate candy wrappers in my car which invited a bear to put his paws on my car window and set off my car alarm in the middle of the night). 

Avoid popular campsites: Bears are smarter than most people which mean bears go where the people (and food) are. Popular campsites in National Parks and Mammoth are guaranteed to have bears roaming around just waiting for one person to leave out a food wrapper or a scrap of food. Each campsite in these areas has bear food storage lockers for a reason. Do not leave your food unattended, do not leave anything with a scent in your car and learn how to use the bear storage lockers that are provided in your campsite. Also be prepared to make a lot of noise if a bear comes into your campsite (my car alarm did the trick last time) but many people use a whistle, a bear bell, an air horn or pound on their cooking pot or cup with a spoon, so you may want to keep a noise maker inside your tent.

Noise: When you are walking on the trails in the bear country, be prepared to make some noise. Sing a song, play music, talk to yourself or carry a bear bell (I find these overkill and super annoying). When a bear hears you coming, they most likely get out of your way. Remember that bears eat berries and fish; they are really not that interested in you so if you do see a bear, just keep walking.

Bear-proofing a campsite: Cook and eat 200 feet from your campsite and store all scented items in a LOCKED bear canister and keep that bear canister wedged on its side up in between rocks away from your tent. Remember that bears are smart and curious so they know how to open unlocked canisters and will try to roll your canister off a cliff or into a lake so make sure your bear canister is far from a ledge or water. By wedging your canister on its side (or Ursack bear bag) between large rocks, you have less of a risk that a bear will play with your bear canister.

Hanging vs., bear bags, vs. bear canisters

Most individuals and agencies no longer recommend counterbalancing/hanging food in a bear-proof bag from a tree because it is dangerous for the bear (many of them fall out of the tree trying to grab your food). Hanging your food can be time-consuming and can be tough if there are not a lot of decent tree branches. I would recommend against this and stick to wedging your odor proof bag or canister in between rocks.

Bear bags

So I do admit, I love my Ursack bear bag but I have never used this in “bear canister required bear country”. They are lightweight (0.8 oz.) and so easy to use just be sure to secure them with rocks and tie them properly. Although most National Parks and Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approves these sacks, some National Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Olympic do not and therefore a bear canister is required at these places.  The debate between an Ursack bear bag and a bear canister in the bear territory is still a sticky debate with many well-known thru-hikers in support of the bear bag and many others in support of the bear canister. For best results place all your scented items in a LOKSAK OPSAK bear bag and then place this in your Ursack bear bag.

Bear canisters

These can be expensive, bulky, difficult to open and heavy however these are the safest and most reliable food storage option when you are traveling to the backcountry. Do your homework and invest in a bear canister that is best for you. They vary by weight, size, locking mechanisms and price. If you are out in the wild for a week or are thru-hiking then you have very limited options (Bearikade vs. BearVault) but if you are only out for a shorter amount of times such as long-weekend then you have quite the selection. I personally am in the market for a lightweight bear canister that is easy to open and close, which I can take on a trip for about 5-6 days. I recently used a BearVault and ended up having to break it on the last day because something got caught in the track. It was a difficult situation, which I hope to never experience again, and the amount of time and energy I put into the opening and closing of this canister throughout the trip, frustrated me to no end. Below is a list of allowed bear canisters that are currently on the market.

  • BearVault: Lightweight (~2 pounds) and affordable, these come in two sizes but opening and closing them is a task.
  • Bearikade: Ranging from 1 pound 12 ounces to just over 2.25 pounds, these come in 4 different sizes, are extremely easy to open and close, can be purchased or rented and are a bit on the expensive side. I personally, have my eye on this brand and will most likely be purchasing the Weekender after trying it out on my upcoming Lost Coast Trail backpacking trip. My friend rented the Expedition on our recent Mammoth trip and I was pretty impressed and will most likely rent this size for my John Muir Trail thru-hike next year (you must bring a quarter or tool to open it).
  • Garcia Bear-Resistant Container: A bit heavier than the rest, this comes in one size which fits up to six days worth of food and ranges on the more affordable side.
  • Bear Keg: This is heavy (3.5 pounds) and is affordable.
  • Bare Boxer Contender: Lightweight (1.6 pounds), holds food for up to 3 days, easy to open, affordable and the locking mechanism is patent pending.
  • LIGHTER 1 Bear Canisters: These come in two sizes from just under 2 pounds to just under 3 pounds, these easy to open and affordable canisters also have lids that double as a cooking pot and handle.
  • UDAP No-Fed-Bear-Canister: Available in one size, 2.4 pounds and stores up to 4 days worth of food, this option is affordable.

Bear canisters can range from $70-$300 and can literally make or break your trip so I strongly suggest you do your research and think about how many days is your average backpacking trip. Buying a bear canister that only holds 2-3 days of food when you plan on doing a 1-2 week backpacking trip may not be the best investment. Renting is also a great option and there are multiple stores that rent bear canisters or you have the option of renting directly from Bearikade (they mail the bear canister to you and you mail it back, easy as pie).

Bear spray

I personally am in the “anti-bear spray camp” I do not believe in harming wildlife and I strongly believe that if you practice bear safety in the wild, there is no reason a bear will attack you. I actually will not hike or camp with individuals who carry bear spray (with the intention of using it on an animal). With that said, I know many individuals (mainly women) who carry bear spray to ward off human intruders.

Bear encounters

These will happen eventually. On my last two trips, I have run into bears both times. Unlike mountain lions and other big cats, bears do not want to be bothered and they interested in your food but not interested in you.

  • Observe and stay calm: If the bear doesn’t run off the moment it spots you (it usually will) talk to it in a serious and loud voice (please do not cry and whimper). You can raise your arms to make yourself look bigger.
  • Do not make eye contact: Making eye contact comes off as a sign of aggression. I accidentally made eye contact with the last bear I encountered and thankfully he kept on walking (while my pup was barking at him).
  • Do not run: A bear can outrun you…back away slowly.
  • The bluff charge: When bears charge you, they most likely will charge you then veer away. You may or may not shit your pants when this happens but hang tight because they are most likely bluffing with you.

In all honesty please practice safety, bear precautions and do not put your fellow hikers at risk for an unfriendly bear encounter. Trust me this is not a fun scenario and that person ends up getting blacklisted from all future hikes and trips.

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you on the trails

Don't poke the bear

Xx

Kristen

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Kristen Fuller

Explorer of cliffs, mountains, oceans, and deserts by day and night.