Out of Reach: Bear Smarts for Food Storage

Backcountry travel in bear country is a privilege. Seeing them in their natural habitat (and on their turf) is an invigorating experience, which is better understood from a safe distance. When we go on extended trips into their territory, it goes without saying that food storage is paramount for our own safety, as well as the well being of an animal just trying to survive. If bears get your food, their long-term detriment is all but sealed, and you’ve lost all your food.

It’s simple math. Because the bear got your food, you’ve created a habituated animal, or an animal that associates people with food. It happens with squirrels, it happens with insects, but when it happens with a large, charismatic fauna, that is to say bears, you increase the negative human/bear interaction. And oftentimes they get destroyed, or if they don’t, they destroy a human first. The cliché says it best: a fed bear is a dead bear.

brown bear male

There’s also another, if not so obvious threat to your well being too. “It could be a risk management thing too,” says Eric Page, a backcountry instructor with NOLS with over a decade of leading trips in bear country. “If you don’t have enough food to get back out, now you’re hosed.”

There is a craft to food storage management. The basic tenets of food hanging include long, lightweight ropes, large branches and live trees. While some national parks having designated bear poles, a good tree will work just fine. The standard is to keep food 10-12 feet off the ground, five feet out from the trunk and five feet from the hanging branch. “Bears, like marmots and squirrels, all live in the mountains and are very good at getting to things,” says Page.

Two-cubs-hiding-in-tree-K Rattenbury-NPS

Many parks or places that have lots of bear activity or animals that are attracted to human food will have specific hanging or storage protocols. And because most folks are sadly unreliable, the powers that be outfit travelers in bear country with bear-proof canisters to prevent all animals from getting human food.

Lots of outfitters and guides use electric fences, and programs like NOLS have developed small, backpacker-type fences that use two D-cell batteries and a small direct current box that sends a pulse of electricity through a mesh lattice. “They’ve been tested on large grizzly bears in Alaska, and have approximately a 95% effectiveness,” says Page. “The only time they’re not good is in heavy rain or wet conditions, or they were set up improperly and malfunction.”

The fences are about three feet high. In the case of bigger groups, you give yourself enough square footage and you can pile your food in the middle, say on a Brooks Range tarp, and circumscribe the pile with the electric fence. Because these animals use their noses for sensation—imagine a nice wet dog nose—the little electrical shock makes them second-guess. “It’s something they’ve never experienced before. When they get it, they’re down the road. It actually improves human bear interactions,” says Page, “because they now associate something negative with human food. From an institutional or best practices standpoint, this is a good thing.” Look at it this way. Good fences make good neighbors.

This exercise essentially falls in with the bear triangle: you cook 100 yards from where you sleep, which is 100 yards from where you store food. To keep it simple, picture 100 paces between each piece of the triangle. For most situations this is a good rule of thumb.

However, there are places where that changes. In the north Cascades, for example, it’s preferred that you sleep with your food. Why? “Primarily the ground dwelling animals, like chiselers, get into your food,” says Page. “When your food is with you, you prevent them from getting close to it.”

bears-in-willow-E. Jostad - NPS

Page has recently read some conflicting Canadian research that some scientists are now recommending sleeping with your food—even in grizzly country. “Because you’re essentially going to create another negative association with human food to those animals,” says Page. When they approach, you make noises, pepper spray, whatever, so they don’t want to mess with people basically, even if something smells good.”

The bottom line is this: smart food storage is essential when traveling in bear country. It’s one of the most significant actions we take to keep positive relations with our bruin counterparts.

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