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Tips to remember when animal-proofing your campsite

Critters crashing your camp? Here’s how to keep animals out.  

AROUND MIDNIGHT, three bears — a sow and two cubs — strolled into our camp, lured by something scattered on the ground: Our Scouts had used their extra snacks as ammunition in a food fight when I wasn’t looking.

When the bears had devoured every discarded morsel, they lumbered around camp, probing packs and peering into tents. We were all scared senseless! The bears finally waddled into the night, leaving us to pack up fast and head to another campsite, where we hoped to avoid another bear encounter.

I’ve guided more than 100 wilderness trips in remote parts of North America, and except for this instance, no animal has ever robbed me of my food. Why? Because I keep smellables where animals can’t see — or smell — them. These are the rules I live by:

If an animal can’t smell your food, it won’t get your food! Keep a scrupulously clean camp. Pick up, seal and pack out every scrap of uneaten food. I pack leftovers inside odor-proof plastic bags (such as Loksak, Another option is a bear canister, which is made of strong plastic with a heavy-duty lid that animals cannot pry open. Don’t forget: Always handle odor-proof bags or a canister with clean hands!

It’s OK to smell like the great outdoors. Artificial smells also attract wild animals. A bear that’s a mile from your camp won’t smell your freeze-dried spaghetti, but it will smell deodorant. Avoid using any scented “smellables,” such as lotions or soaps.

If you choose to use a smellable, do so in the morning so the smell deteriorates before bedtime. Always change into clean clothes that have not been exposed to these scented products before bed. Any smellable products must be sealed in an odor-proof bag and stored away from camp with your food.

If an animal can’t see your food, it won’t get your food! Once an animal finds food in a pack, box or can, it will seek out similar containers with hopes of securing a meal. I’ve watched bears destroy boxes and packs that didn’t contain — and had never contained — any food. This means you should keep ice chests, boxes and packs out of sight. And don’t store food in tents or other places where people gather.

Hanging your food doesn’t mean it’s out of reach. A bear cub can climb a 70-foot-tall tree in about 10 seconds. Mama bear can climb, too — slower than her cub, but faster than you. So “treeing” your food won’t necessarily keep it safe from critters that climb. Why, then, do many park authorities ask campers to hang their food? For your own safety!

Separating food and humans is the safest solution. Most campsites have only a few trees with horizontal branches that meet the guidelines for hanging food (about 20 feet high and approximately 8 feet from the trunk of the tree, according to the Fieldbook), and animals that climb know them all. If you do tree your food, do not use the same tree as everyone else. (Unless you’re at a Scout camp, like Philmont, with designated poles and cables used specifically to hang food bags.)

Another option: Take your food out of camp and hide it in the woods. Do this only if it’s packed in a waterproof and odor-proof container, like a bear canister or bear box supplied at some park campsites.

Make garbage a priority. Scouting practices lean heavily on Leave No Trace ethics. Among these principles is the act of setting up your sleeping area at least 200 feet from where your unit will cook or store anything smellable. Always clean up spilled food or leftover food particles, and you must strain all wash water and distribute it at least 200 feet from camp.

In terms of trash, Scouts pack out everything they pack in. This should, of course, be done with caution. Carrying garbage in your pack while hiking through bear country could be a recipe for an attack. Make sure the garbage is sealed in an odor-proof bag or container. In some instances (if park-permitted), you might wish to burn food scraps instead of carrying them in your pack in areas highly populated by bears. And you should never throw leftover food down park toilets or box latrines.

A critter-proof container can save the day.
Many national parks require hikers to store their food in bear-proof containers. Some examples include the BearVault 500 ($79.95), a tough plastic
cylinder that’s government-approved; the Ursack S29 ($68.88), a bag made from virtually bulletproof Spectra fabric, which makes it more lightweight and compact; and the Outsak Spectrum series (starting at $32), a stainless-steel mesh bag that resists raccoons and smaller animals. I always recommend using odor-proof bags inside critter-proof containers.

Chipmunks, squirrels and other rodents are usually a bigger nuisance than bears. Fortunately, the rules that work to help deter bears work for these animals, too. Just because a squirrel doesn’t pose a threat to your life doesn’t mean you should forget about animal-proofing techniques when you’re not camping in bear country.

Take this quiz to see how much you know about animal-proofing your campsite.