Camping in Bear Country

How to Get a Good Night's Sleep
  |  Gorp.com
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Is it possible to get a good night's sleep when you're camped in bear country? I always sleep well outdoors, no matter what; but I have some friends who say they never close one ear throughout the night, and they wake up tired. It doesn't have to be that way, especially if you follow a few basic precautions. Maintain your part of the deal and the bears almost invariably will maintain theirs.

Here are the basic measures I adhere to when camping amidst bears:

  1. Never store food in your tent.
  2. Never store anything even remotely smelling of food in your tent.
These are hard and fast rules. Remember that any time you cook and eat a meal, you and your clothes soak up food smells. In recent years, tent-raiding black bears in some areas have even been attracted by the scent of toothpaste or peppermint camp soaps. I imagine that breath mints, throat lozenges, and other sweet-smelling toilet or medicinal items would be a draw as well. The way to deal with this is not to starve yourself, or eat only hideous freeze-dried food, or never wash or chew a piece of gum. The first solution is to set up a kitchen area well away from your sleeping area(s).

Set the kitchen up at least 50 yards away if at all possible. If there's a consistent pattern to the wind, locate it downwind from where you're going to sleep. This is the place where you do all the cooking, dish cleaning, hanging out and campfire-sitting, and washing (of yourself). It's also the place where you will change out of the clothes you wore while cooking and eating, and into your sleeping duds just before you turn in for the night.

I designate one set of sleeping clothes at the start of a camping trip and never use them for anything else; they end up smelling of human—sometimes a whole lot of human, depending on the length of the trip—but they carry no other scents to interest a bear.

So what to do with all the smelly stuff? If you're car camping, it's easy: everything goes into the trunk of the vehicle and the vehicle gets locked. Some heavily used state and national parks now offer“bearproof”storage lockers for securing coolers and other food items at developed campsites. If you're in a backcountry situation, you need only look for the nearest sturdy tree. All of your kitchen gear—backpacks, basically everything except you and whatever else you may need for the night—will be hung from a limb of the tree.

For correct hanging, you need 2550 feet of rope. Look for a tree with few if any lower limbs the first 10-15 feet up. You want to suspend your gear at least that high. Toss the rope over a limb that's sturdy enough to hold the weight of your gear, but not so massive as to provide safe passage for even a bear cub. Position the rope so it's hanging at least 4 feet out from the trunk of the tree, lower it and attach your gear, then raise it up so the load is hanging just beneath the limb. Secure the other end of the rope to another tree, or to the trunk of the hanging tree, and you're set.

If a backcountry trek takes you into high country, which could mean anywhere from the Appalachians to the Rockies or Sierras, it's not uncommon to end up in an area where tall trees are scarce. In recent years, a new item—the bearproof cannister—has proven useful. These cost $30 to $50 and may be ordered from some outdoor gear companies. The cannisters go right into your backpack and are certainly worth checking out.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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