How to Best Ensure You are Not sharing Your Food With Bears in Desolation
Desolation Wilderness – Backpackers flock to Desolation Wilderness Spring thru till winter. There really are few places like it on earth. Over generations of use however many things have changed in desolation wilderness. What was once acceptable has become illegal and what what once was safe practice is now not recommended at all. Bears are one of the constants that has changed a bit in Desolation wilderness.
As a Volunteer ranger for the wilderness area the past four years I feel that I can honestly say that Bears have become far more aware of the easy meals obtained by human food storage in the wilderness. Many a morning hike into the wilderness to do my weekend clean ups, is met by a group of hikers on the trail out early in the morning. The story is always the same.
A Bear took our food last night and we are hungry
Bears in Desolation wilderness have taken notice of poor practices of day hikers and backpackers alike. Campsites with food laying around or with bear hangs that an average child could get food from are common sites in Desolation. Maybe it is because Desolation is so easy to access it draws people who just don’t know better? From a jaded perspective, based on conversation I have had, more than likely it is an attitude of indifference or refusal to follow the rules.
Are Bear Proof Canisters Required in Desolation Wilderness?
This is a complicated subject.
Tahoe agencies seem to mix the message a bit. Official on site language says Bear Canisters or Bear Proof canisters are Highly Recommended. However the Tahoe Rim Trail Association which also manages the PCT section of Desolation wilderness Requires Bear Canisters or Bear Proof bags on the entire trial. While the PCT is again highly recommending such practices in Desolation.
In August of 2020 The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit put out a press release warning guests of increased bear activity and strong recommendations for bear proof canisters.
Backcountry visitors should practice proper food and garbage storage and behave appropriately when hiking and backpacking in Bear Country. This summer, wilderness rangers report bears are successfully taking down food-hangs in Desolation Wilderness. Once bears become habituated to human food and garbage they will return and seek it out. Agencies highly recommend using bear resistant canisters when visiting the backcountry. Lake Tahoe Basin Management
Bear Canisters Vs Bear Bags
At a basic level I have nothing against bear bags. They certainly make packing the pack much easier. However I have seen dozens of hikers in Desolation Wilderness walking out with out their food because the bear simply took the bag with them. The bag may indeed be bear proof, but it does nothing to dampen the smell of Human food and is simply easy for the bear to carry off to a safe place for it to give its best effort to enjoy its prize. They simply are just not managed properly in Desolation most times and that is partly because of lack of knowledge and experience in hangs plus a limited resource of good hang trees with in the Wilderness area. (Remember this is a granite slab where trees have battled for centuries).
Hard Case Bear Canisters are a far better measure for success in food storage in the wilderness. Taking the time to pack your packs with a Bear Vault or other type of hard shell bear canister will give you exponentially greater chance of your food being their in the morning. Bear canisters like the Bear Vault provide hikers with a secure way of bear proofing there backpacking experience. The Hard shell helps prevent some smell, it also is harder to grip with teeth and claws, making the grab and run activity less likely for a bear.
I personally have carried a Bear Canister for years backpacking, just because it adds that element of safety that I desire at night, knowing I have done my part in keeping bears away from camp.
What should go in your Bear Canisters?
Every thing that smells. Literally. Bears have one of the best noses in the world and can smell simple Chapsticks, cough drops, medicines, toothpaste, etc. Talk with any one of the numerous car owners where bears in Tahoe have broken into their cars for a simple Chapstick or piece of candy left on the floor board of the car. Bears are not picky with their adventurous sprit to try anything that smells.
The following bear safety tips for hikers and backpackers should be followed at all times:
- Store food in bear-resistant canisters while recreating in the backcountry.
- Hike in groups and keep an eye on small children.
- Keep dogs on leash. Off-leash dogs can provoke bears to respond defensively.
- Watch for signs of bears, such as bear scat along trails or claw marks on trees.
- Stay alert and make noise while on trails so bears know you are there and can avoid you.
- Never approach bears or cubs. Always keep a safe distance and never get between a sow and her cubs.
If a bear does approach your campsite, stay calm and stand your ground. Make yourself appear larger by raising your arms above your head or if wearing a jacket, open it wide and clap your hands or make other loud noises. Do not run or act aggressively and never block a bear’s escape route. Black bear attacks are rare, but if attacked, fight back.
- Pack your Bear Canister before you leave, to make sure all your food fits. If space is tight, consider excluding your first days’ lunch and snacks.
- Remember to allow space for scented toiletries, trash, and pet food. Some people store camp cookware in their bear canister, and if you have plenty of space it’s a good idea, but it is not necessary. Most campers simply clean their camp cookware after each use and leave it out in the open, away from their tent (it will still have some scent on it).
- If you use insect repellent with DEET, do not allow it to come into contact with your Bear canister. Double-bag it in ziplocks, and ensure there is no residue outside the bags. DEET causes irreparable harm to the plastic in bear canisters, and it voids your warranty.
- Include a trash bag to keep your trash separate from your food.
- Repackage food into ziplock bags to reduce space taken by inefficient packaging materials.
- Organize food into larger ziplock sets so it is easier to locate food by meal.
- After a few days of eating, you will have extra space in your Bear canister®. Fill the space with other items to keep your pack as compact as it can be.
Tips For Packing Bear Canisters in Your Pack
- Once your Bear Canister is packed with food, it will probably be the single heaviest item in your pack. You want your pack to transfer the weight onto your hips, for the most comfort and energy conservation while hiking. Ideally, you should pack heavy items close to your body and at mid-back level. In other words, layer the bottom of your pack with items that are less dense (sleeping bag, tent, inflatable sleeping pad, clothes you don’t need handy). Next place your heavy items (food, tent pegs, etc.). If your pack is wide, place the heaviest items close to your back, not far away from your back. On the top you should place remaining items, and those that you need to have handy (rain jacket, snacks for the day, etc.).
- Bear Canisters can be strapped to a pack. There are dimples or ridges on the side that serve as strap guides, to help secure it to the pack. However, if at all possible, it is better to place the weight mid-back inside your pack.
Which Bear Canisters Are Recommended
Sierra land managers are unified in their desire to protect black bears from the ill effects of obtaining human food, but specific regulations vary between different parks and forests. Currently, each management area decides which food storage techniques and products are allowed in their area.
To determine which specific techniques and products are ALLOWED in a certain area, check directly with the land managers: Eldorado National Forest (Desolation Wilderness). Another great link to check out is How To Keep Tahoe Bears Wild.
Here are links to other Bear Canister Requirements across the Sierra.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
US FOREST SERVICE
Bear Canister Pros and Cons
Upside: Canisters offer backpackers peace of mind by providing a simple, effective way to keep human food safe from animals. They can also double as a camp stool.
Downside: They are heavy (2-3 lbs.), bulky and a tight (or insufficient) fit for all the food and scented items you aim to carry on a lengthy trip.
Canisters typically hold 3-5 days’ worth of food and toiletries for 1 person.
BENEFITS OF USING A CANISTER:
Convenience: Set up camp without the need to search for that perfect and often elusive tree from which to hang your food.
Freedom: Camp away from the bear lockers and crowds, or even above tree-line!
Fun insurance: No aborted trips because critters ate your food.
Multi-tool: It can make a useful camp stool, table, or bucket (depending on the model).Try to think of more uses!
Better sleep: It doesn’t make a good pillow, but you can rest and relax without worrying if your food is really safe up in that tree.
Safety: Avoid getting stranded in the backcountry with no food.
Karma: This is the single most effective thing you can do as a wilderness visitor to protect bears.