I didn’t grow up in bear country. At least, not really. Black bears in my home state of Missouri faced near-extinction until the mid-2000s; now, the entire state of Missouri houses only about 800 black bears, and bear sightings are still a relative rarity for outdoorsy folk. Given these statistics, I never worried about bears on camping and hiking trips growing up. I crammed half-eaten Chewy bars into my sticky pockets, fell asleep in a haphazardly zipped tent with fingers lightly coated in Cheeto dust, and went on my merry way.
Turns out, I had it easy. Recently, we shared the story of a woman who was fined more than $5,000 for inadvertently attracting bears to her Grand Teton campsite with improperly stored food. Having never camped in bear country, I always figured you could just throw your food in a big freezer bag and hope for the best. Turns out, bears are the freeloading childhood friend of the animal kingdom; that is to say, they’re not letting anything get between them and free food. Bears are also apparently attracted to anything with a scent, which includes food, canned drinks, cosmetics, trash, sunscreen, and pots and pans used for preparing meals. So what, pray tell, can the outdoor adventurer do to bear-proof a culinary campsite?
Okay, this one is complicated, so I’m just going to go with everywhere. Black bears are officially found in 32 U.S. states, with grizzlies reppin’ in the northwest. If you’re grilling campsite weenies in a state without an actively breeding bear population—Illinois, for example—you might think you’re in the clear. Huzzah! No bears. Go ahead and scatter empty Easy Mac containers around your campsite for decoration. Wait, what’s that? Oh no, A BEEEAAAAA—
You are dead now. If only you had followed my tips! Here’s the deal: bears have legs, which means they can migrate. With this in mind, it can’t hurt to safeguard your food against bears wherever you camp, lest they stroll over state lines during an evening bear constitutional. It’s just good camping practice. Plus, it protects your campsite from other pesky critters like raccoons.
How, indeed? To find out, I reached out to conservation experts from several national parks. They all directed me to the National Park Service’s robust online guide to bear-proof camping. A few outdoor outfitters also offer handy guides (here’s one from REI). Here are the basics every camper should know:
Step 1: Before you head into the backcountry, check with local conservation officials for area regulations. If you’re camping in a national or state park, contact the park directly. You can also reach out to state conservation agencies. Some parks have different requirements for food storage; for example, Yellowstone has been known to provide campers with approved bear-proof food storage lockers. You won’t know until you ask!
Step 2: Leave the stinky stuff at home. Foods that have strong odors—packaged tuna, for example—are extra tempting for passing bears. Instead, opt for foods with more neutral scents, including rice, tortillas, pastas, peanut butter, and protein bars.
Step 3: Never store food in your tent or backpack. This could attract bears directly to your person, which is dangerous for obvious reasons. (Claws! Big ones.) Instead, seal all food and garbage in plastic bags; then, place those bags in a secure container (see below). Finally, make sure to avoid leaving crumbs or grease on any of your belongings unless you’d prefer to wake up to a grizzly.
Step 4: When you’re done eating, you might be tempted to dispose of food waste in the wilderness. You may want to leave some bread crusts out for little birds, or treat the area worms to some discarded hot dog bits. DO NOT DO THIS. Instead, place any and all uneaten food, food particles, food wrappers, and other food waste into the aforementioned sealed bags, which should then be placed into the secure containers outlined in Step 5. After that, you’ll want to wash your used dishes immediately. And no, you shouldn’t just toss leftover food into the fire. It probably won’t burn completely, and even partially burned food smells like a delicious bear snack.
Step 5: Make sure to secure your campsite before turning in for the night. If you have a bear-proof storage box, all food and food waste should go in there. Quick note that unlocked coolers are decidedly not bear-proof. If you’re storing food in a cooler, it needs to be secured against crafty bear hands, usually with a padlock. Some parks do allow you to store food in your car, but make sure to check with local conservation experts first, as some bears can quite literally break into vehicles. (We call these Bad Boy Bears.) Finally, as a last resort, you can hang your food and food waste from a high tree branch to keep it out of reach. Just make sure not to leave your rope dangling where bears could easily snag it.
Nothing good! Best-case scenario, you find yourself incredibly popular within the raccoon community. Worst-case scenario, you contribute to an ongoing problem that involves bears losing their fear of humans, ditching their natural food sources, and interfering in human campsites. Once a bear gets comfy in a campsite, conservationists often have to euthanize it to protect human visitors from unwanted bear contact. Don’t be the reason for a cuddly bear’s untimely end. Lock up your fruit snacks, pal.