I have yet to awaken to the snuffling noises of a bear exploring our campsite… and I’d like to keep it that way! The best way to discourage wildlife visitors in camp is to stock and lock all food, and anything that smells like food. What follows is the evolution of our bear-proofing efforts, with pros and cons of each method.
I was born and raised in northeast Iowa where the woods are home to a variety of wildlife - but no large predators. I don’t remember our family being at all concerned about leaving foodstuffs unlocked at night during childhood camping trips. The biggest risk we had to worry about was that a raccoon might make a mess if we left the hamburger buns on the rock “table.”
Fast forward many years to my arrival in Colorado and the Great Outdoors now holds a whole new level of adventure. I'm in awe of the mountains, the majestic and never-ending wilderness, the unpredictable weather, and the wildlife risks that have to be considered because this is large predator territory. Bears and mountain lions abound and when we camp we’re visiting their home, not the other way around. Part of respecting the woods and its rightful residents is not tempting fate by leaving foodstuffs laying around camp. And some parks, such as Rocky Mountain National, have stringent requirements for the storage of food-related items when visiting.
First, there’s the basic hoist method.
Pros – inexpensive, does not require special equipment other than ropes, carabiners, etc. Great in a pinch.
Cons – imagine your first night at your dispersed camp location. You arrived later than planned and a storm blew in before you could even set up the tent. Everything is wet and cold and you’ve got no fire so you’ve eaten Backpackers meals prepared with a JetBoil in cold wet misery. You just want to crawl in your sleeping bag and sleep off the shivers but, wait… you’ve got to hoist your food in a tree to discourage the bears so now you’re wandering around in the dark wet woods with your headlamp, looking for a suitable tree. Then you’ve got to securely tie your food, find a rock or other heavy object to get the rope over a high branch, and hoist your food up and away from the main trunk to ensure a bear won’t climb up and get at it. I assure you this is even more work than it sounds.
Needless to say, we quickly moved on from the hoisting method and when E and M got their bear-proof cooler and Jeep lockbox we were able to use some of their space for nighttime camp storage. Then we invested in our own Grizzly 75 quart cooler during the 2015 camp season and are we glad! Not only does it have a lot of heft, it seals securely with three heavy rubber latches (to keep smells contained). In addition, it requires two 2” padlocks to make it certified bear-resistant. We generally lock it to a tree with a bike lock, then ensure the two padlocks are in place whenever the cooler is not in use.
Pros – the weight of this cooler when filled with food definitely would discourage most animals from trying to drag it away to get inside. It’s lockable and it seals well. It keeps food cold for at least 2-3 days with just a couple ice packs. It’s large enough to store A LOT of foodstuffs.
Cons – the weight (33 pounds when empty). When full it requires two people to lift this off/on our back storage rack for transport (but we don’t mind). Plus, it’s a bit of a monetary investment (but it’ll last for years).
Another option we’ve implemented is locking storage in the Jeep. Put extra dry foodstuffs or other valuables in here and lock it away to prevent predators (animal or human) from getting your goods!
Pros – safety and security should be a number one priority and having locking storage in imperative (especially if your Jeep is topless/doorless for part of the year). The storage box we’ve got makes efficient use of the space and it’s easy to utilize.
Cons – other than the initial cost to purchase and install, there’s none so far! If you don’t yet have locking storage options for your rig and you ride topless or doorless I’d encourage you to look at security additions ASAP!
Other options to consider:
Do a cursory inspection of camp each night before going to bed. Ensure all foodstuffs are picked up and securely stored.
Go through your vehicle before your camping trip, especially if your hard top or doors are off – look for all that food you forgot was there (or anything that smells like food). Gum, chapstick, candy, mints, snacks. Or, chocolate-vanilla-creamsicle hand lotion (bears can't read the "External use only" label) – just leave it at home! You don’t need to walk around the woods smelling like dessert anyway.
Don’t forget to lock away personal care items like toothpaste and deodorant. I also lock away the bug spray just to be safe.
Don’t forget to lock up the garbage. We keep a garbage bag on a tree for anything that cannot be burned (or for all garbage if there’s a fire ban), but we bundle up the bag and lock it away each night because if it contains even a little bit of food remnants it could attract unwanted visitors.
Know the rules of the area in which you’re camping. Do a little homework before you head to the woods - in some areas you might receive a citation if you do not bear-proof your stuff.
Sometimes when camping my imagination gets the best of me at night. Bumps in the dark – what was that?! I remember reading Outdoor Life articles as a kid – in one of them a guy got dragged from his tent by a bear because he forgot to lock away his chewing gum. Yikes! But, proper respect for the environment you’re visiting and a little preparedness can prevent a lot of disaster.
Do you have a favorite bear-proofing method? Have you tried any of the options I’ve listed? Leave feedback in the comments below!