Readers who are familiar with my books know that I don’t recommend hanging food packs in trees to keep the food away from bears. Over the years, I’ve come under considerable criticism for this approach because II refuse to comply with what appears to be conventional wisdom. Click up my book, “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, 2nd Edition” on Amazon.com and you’ll find this “one star” rating and quote:
1.0 out of 5 stars This guy and his book are a joke Typical of his book is his suggestion of hiding your food in the woods and not to hang a bear bag, since bears would not think to look in the woods for your food. The book was good for many laughs between me and my friends, if you are interested in that, then buy the book.
Fact is, bears DO climb trees, and they climb very well. Indeed, black bears who live in the Smoky Mountains National Park are unique among bears because they nest in trees during the winter! The cartoon below, which I took directly from the Smoky Mountains National Park brochure explains why. The legend is hard to read so I’ve enlarged it below for your convenience:
LEGEND BELOW ABOVE CARTOON READS:
These above ground dens offer some advantages to ground dens. For one, being high above the ground in a tree is a good defense against any potential predators. For another, the tree dens offer some added insulation not present in alternate sites such as under rock overhangs or the exposed rootballs of toppled trees.
Black bears are great climbers. Indeed, when danger threatens, the first thing momma bear does is to send the youngsters up a tree!
This bear in the photo below is checking out an eagle’s nest, probably hoping for some tasty eagle eggs or eaglets. This is an adult bear and getting up there was probably quite a climb!
This bear in photo #1 at the start of this article, has learned that by biting through a rope a tasty treat will fall from the sky. In the Adirondacks, bears biting through ropes have become so common that some campers are rigging two lines—a white one that goes nowhere to fool the bear and a black one that holds the food pack. Really now, how long do you think it will take a bear to figure this out?
Bears are smart. Very smart! In the high peaks area of the Adirondacks a relatively tiny, extremely shy middle-aged black bear named “Yellow Yellow” was able to figure out how to break into the popular “BearVault 500" --a federally-approved cylindrical plastic food container that has a medicine bottle style lock. It took her only a few weeks. Once she learned the procedure (similar to opening a medicine bottle with a tab) “Yellow Yellow” told all her friends. Soon, dozens of bears became educated and the container became useless. By contrast, some humans need to resort to the directions to figure out to open it! Stupid animals? Hardly! Bears quickly learn that when they see a bag hanging in the air there is a rope attached. They locate the rope, chew through it, and munch away. I might add that "Yellow Yellow" never attacked anyone. It was the food she wanted! Regrettably, this genius bear was killed during the 2012 bear hunting season.
Given the bear facts, why is it that people are so emphatic about treeing their food when bears are around?
It’s simple, really. Federal authorities are responsible for providing a safe camping experience for all. And to do this effectively they must have rules everyone will follow. For example, in the BWCA, it is recommended that campers hoist their food into a tree that is at least ten feet off the ground and hang it from a limb at least six feet out. There are not a lot of trees in the Boundary Waters with limbs strong enough to support a heavy food pack hung that far from the tree. No matter that these elusive bear trees barely exist, the rule separates food from campers and that’s what counts!
Federal authorities don’t care if a bear gets your food, but they do care if a bear gets you! That’s the reason for the “hanging rule”. “People here, food THERE! The feds figure that as long as the two are separated, people won’t get hurt.
So Cliff, what do you recommend?
In frequented areas, I recommend that you take your food out of camp and hide it in the woods. If a bear can’t smell your food or see your food, he won’t get your food. Today’s freeze-dried foods have near zero moisture content (you add the water) and are sealed in odor-proof mylar foil. It’s doubtful a bear can smell through the foil, but it certainly can smell you—and your hands where you handled the package. If you keep a scrupulously clean camp and trip with modern dried foods, you may never have a bear or rodent problem. However, the most odor-proof, mylar-packed foods won’t keep a curious bear from checking out your camp. Why? Because a bear can probably smell you a quarter mile away! Bears have learned that where there are people, there’s food. It’s the smell of humans that brings them in, not the nearly odorless freeze-dried food. Bears are very curious: If one sees an unfamiliar object (a sealed mylar food pack, ice chest, wanigan box etc.) he will probably take it apart. No food there? No matter; it was fun!
What if a bear sees your food? Contrary to popular belief, bears see rather well. If, in the past, the bruin has learned that food comes in packsacks, he may bite into any pack he sees. Ditto, if he was “conditioned” on tin cans, boxes or ice chests. Once a bear has had a positive experience with a container—be it box, can or pack—it will bite into every similar object it sees, and will continue this behavior until rewards stop coming and earlier operant conditioning behavior has been forgotten.
Some years ago, I began a seminar on bears by telling the audience that bears were as smart as very smart dogs. My friend, Dick Person—who spent 17 years living in a tipi in the Yukon and who had forgotten more about bears than I’ll ever know—raised his hand and politely interjected that he’d never seen any dog that was as smart as a bear! Read that again: "Never saw any dog that was as smart as a bear!" Yes, bears are smart, as smart as some people!
In November, 1987, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel printed an article by Suzanne Charles, entitled “Cars not safe from bears at Yosemite”. The article appeared earlier in the New York Times. Steve Thompson, Yosemite park’s wildlife biologist was quoted as follows:
“Bears have elaborate schemes for getting food. One time-honored precaution, hanging bags of food from a rope high in a tree is now seen as useless. Local residents call the food bags ‘bear piñatas’.
The bears chew off the rope that has been attached elsewhere, or chew off the branch that is supporting the bag. If the limbs are small, they’ll send the cubs out. If that doesn’t work, they’ll just climb up above the bags, launch themselves out of the tree and grab the bags on the way down.”
In closing, I should add that those who canoe the unforgiving rivers of northern Canada and Alaska never tree their food. Why? Three reasons: 1) It’s a bad plan to put all your eggs in one basket. If you capsize or an animal gets your food, you’re in big trouble! 2) A pack filled with food will be terribly heavy and consequently difficult to salvage in a canoe capsize. Experienced trippers equalize their loads. 3) The trees in northern Canada are too small to support a pack. In the barrenlands there are no trees at all.
A final note: Some people are dumber than bears.. Once, while presenting a bear seminar, a man raised his hand and asked: “Say Cliff, you say to take the food out of camp. Where does camp end?”
Check out my new teen book, Justin Cody's Race to Survival. It's a riveting wilderness survival tale AND an outdoors skills book in one. Adults love it too!