BEAR-ANOID! How Do You Keep Bears Away from Camp?


In my previous post “The Real and Not-So-Real Dangers of Being in the Woods,” I mentioned the dangers associated with bears.  I briefly discussed how to minimize this danger as much as possible.    In another post about guns, the conversation turned again to bears, bear bags, and how to minimize the danger.

In this post, I’ll discuss some issues concerning bear bags, bear canisters, other methods of dealing with the bear issue.

I’ll start off by mentioning that I am no expert on this matter.  I typically use a bear bag during any excursions into bear territory.  However, I am left to question this tactic.  So, after reading the following information, I’d love to hear your opinions, solutions, or technical expertise!

Bear Bags

The basic concept here is to elevate your food and cooking equipment high enough to keep it from bears.  An online search of “bear bag” will provide you with countless methods of hanging them as well as quite a few suppliers of bear bags.  During my excursions, I tend to use 550 cord to elevate my bear bag.  I try to situate it about 100 feet from camp but that number varies depending on my level of motivation.  I look for a semi-horizontal branch, at least 12-15’ above ground and at least 10’ away from any vertical trees.  I usually tie a rock to one end of the 550 cord, toss it over the branch and let it fall back to ground, attach it to some type of bag (I’ve used backpacks, carry-bags, even plastic grocery bags), raise it to about a foot or two away from the branch and tie it off to a tree.

Thus far, I’ve been lucky as I haven’t had any significant bear troubles.  However, I see quite a few problems with using a bear bag in the above manner.  First and foremost, I question the scent situation.  It seems to me (as well as one of my backwoods buddies) that elevating your food only helps to disperse its scent quicker and farther.  Obviously, this would attract more bears more quickly.  Next up, bears are smart and versatile.  Bears can climb trees.  Bears can break 550 cord (and rope, and even metal wire.)  A hungry bear would have no problems getting a bag from nearly any tree I can imagine.  With all of this information, it is no wonder that quite a few wilderness areas have completely banned using bear bags.

The only real benefits that I’m finding to using a bear bag in the manner noted above is that it gives me some chance to at least know if a bear is near.  I’d much rather hear a bear trying to get my food some distance away as to having it attacking me because I left my food laying out in my camping area.  Also, hanging the food far enough from the ground would definitely help keep other animals away.

Bear Canisters


A common bear resistant food storage canister. Photo courtesy of Cullen328 Jim Heaphy.

A bear canister is a type of hard-sided container that supposedly keeps bears from getting your food.  They are typically not hung and it is most often recommend that you simply place it in a semi-level area far away from camp.  Bears will try to get into it but will ultimately give up.  Keeping it in a semi-level area keeps it from rolling down a mountainside or into a river.

There are problems with this method as well.  First off, they are heavy.  Second, they are expensive.  Third and most importantly, they often don’t work.  There are many, many documented instances where diligent bears have figured out how to open these canisters or have broken them enough to get to your food.

Other Methods

Even with the concerns of bear bags or bear canisters, I’m fairly confident that most every experienced outdoorsman would agree that keeping a clean camp is one of the best deterrents to bear intrusions.  Clean up your trash.  Don’t leave food laying out.  Wash your cooking gear thoroughly.  And definitely do not sleep with or near your food.

Some common sense and situational awareness goes a long way when considering how to handle bears.  I’ll continue to keep a clean camp and to hang my bear bag far enough away from camp that I’ll at least not be surprised by a bear’s presence.

In the end, I’m going to keep visiting the backcountry.  I’m not going to let the thought of bears scare me into staying home.  I’ll handle myself according to the situation (perhaps I’ll publish a post in the future about how to handle bear encounters.)

As I said above, I’m no expert on bears, bear bags or canisters.  If you know more about this than I do, please feel free to comment here and let the readers of know about it.  If you have any questions, comments, bear encounter stories, or technical expertise, I’d love to hear about it!


7 thoughts on “BEAR-ANOID! How Do You Keep Bears Away from Camp?

  1. My first bear encounter was camping in a state park with a friend and his family while in my early teens. The family slept in the large tent. We slept in the pick up inside the truck bed and under the safety of the cap.

    The bear had been trash can smashing for days and refused to go into the State bear trailer trap. We woke up to the noisy bear checking out our site.

    When he was at the back of the truck we peaked at him by lifting the cap window.

    No damage to camp. But bears really stink! !

    • I bet that was scary, especially as a teenager! I’m a grown man and I would still be a bit “uncomfortable” the whole time a bear is around my camp.

      They do stink! I wrote about bears in one of my nonfiction essays and described the smell as “rancid sweat.” I don’t know if that is an accurate description but it seemed to work at the time.

      I’ve always heard that once they start getting into trash or eating camp food, they want it more and more and become that much more aggressive.

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