Bear Safety 2: There's a bear on the trail!

Continued from part 1 (what kind of bears there are in California, what they do, and how to avoid having your car treated as a bear’s personal bathroom), today we talk with Chris Sunnen, The Last Adventurer, about dealing with bears in the campsite and on the trail.


Black bear at the campsite

Preparing a developed campsite for bears

In California, there are two types of campgrounds: developed and backcountry. Each of these sites has a different type of regulation; and a different set of facilities. Developed campgrounds, like trailheads have food storage requirements. Because wild animals, including bears, that eat human food become habituated to it, and then behave badly down the road, which is something that all of us would like to avoid. Fortunately, storing food in a developed campground is easy: like trailheads, parks provide ample storage lockers for each site; and such lockers are large enough to accommodate everything one would need to store, including coolers.

Campers in developed sites should also keep an eye on their food during meal preparation and mealtime , because as I mentioned before, bears are very smart, and are masters at swooping in and stealing food while people’s backs are turned. While this may seem counter-intuitive because of all of the people and cars in the developed campground, it goes to the negative conditioning I have been mentioning: like cars, some bears have learned to associate developed campgrounds with food. Bear incidents in developed campgrounds are simply higher because there are more people; and more opportunities for improper food storage. In the event you are in a developed campsite and a bear should wander through your campsite because of another party’s improper food storage, all you need to do is wait (and nab some photos if you can). Trained rangers will handle the incident.

Preparing a backcountry campsite for bears

Unlike developed sites, backcountry sites have no facilities, but they still have bears. In California, backpackers should utilize a bear canister or other approved portable bear vault device. Backpackers should NOT hang food from a tree. Hanging food from trees is a complicated process to do correctly, and the sad truth is that for the last thirty years in California, bears have known how to defeat the method. And the simple fact is that bear canisters are substantially easier to use properly.

While each canister has a proprietary blend of materials, most of these canisters are made of reinforced plastic. While a plastic container may not seem like the way to stop bears from getting human food, they do work – and they do work extremely well. I’ve been using canisters since 1996, and while they have become lighter over the years, they have not become less effective. I’ve seen bears bite them (or at them), bash them into rocks, or generally do whatever they can do get in them. I’ve never seen a canister fail; nor have I heard of it happening when the lid was attached correctly.

The only drawback to using bear canisters are the space requirements – one has to plan how much food they will have, and plan how it will fit in the canister. My suggestion is to do a test run a few days before a trip. Once at the backcountry site, the canister should be placed 15-20 feet away from the site to avoid any potential problems. From that point on, one can relax in the heart of the wilderness with the knowledge that the food is secure.

Black bear on the trail

Preparing for bears on the trail

Out of all of the categories, this one is the easiest. In terms of dealing with bears – or any other wildlife on the trail, the best suggestion is obvious: give the wild animal (bear) its own space. Although there are not many problems between humans and bears in California in the last twenty years, the problem incidents stem from people entering the bears’ space, and not respecting their boundaries. If you encounter a bear, speak in low tones, give it its space. By all means, take pictures, watch the bear, and be amazed – but as I said, be sure to do it from a safe distance.

In rare occasions, bears in the Sierras will approach people on the trail. The reason? They are looking for food, and in the past, when they approached hikers, the end result was the hikers fleeing while leaving food. Such behavior is called a “bluff charge,” and while not common, it sometimes occurs. The solution to such behavior is simple: stand your ground. Do not run off; do not leave food behind. If you do this, you will find that the bear will wait, and then shuffle off dejectedly. Finally, if you feel that you are on a trail with an aggressive bear, make noise, make yourself as big as possible, and if necessary, throw rocks, because you are dealing with black bears that frighten easily. The thing to bear in mind though, is what I began with: black bears in California historically have not behaved aggressively to people, which appears unlikely to change. While “bluff charges” do exist, one should remember that these encounters are not the norm, and realize that in all likelihood that the bear is as scared of you as you are of it.

If you follow these tips on storing food properly and maintaining the proper distance, chances are if you see a bear, it will lead to a great experience and trip!

Thanks, Chris!

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