Strategies of Backcountry Bear Avoidance and Securing Food

Joshua (Josh) Pratchard
3 min readNov 2, 2023

One of the essential aspects of hiking in any region with a substantial bear population is storing and disposing of food properly. Doing so not only prevents bears from getting into one’s personal items in search of food but also helps avoid a situation of bears losing their preference for foraging in the wild. Once bears start approaching people and human habitation regularly as a food source, they can develop unpredictable, aggressive, and potentially dangerous behavior. This creates a public health risk scenario that can easily lead to the ”problem” bear being euthanized.

One other thing to be aware of is that bears have a keen sense of smell and a very large appetite and consider many non-food items as potentially nourishing and thus worth going after. With an olfactory bulb (that section of the brain that identifies odors and scents) five times larger than humans, they can smell food from miles away. In addition, the bear’s nasal cavity is significantly larger than that of people and contains a honeycomb structure with millions of scent receptors. Compounding this, bears have long memory and can return to places where they found food years ago. They are known to target not only canned and bottled items but also non-food items such as bug repellant, sunscreen, fuel, soaps, and cosmetics.

One of the keys to avoiding bear issues on the trail is simple avoidance, and this includes selecting a campsite downwind and hundreds of yards away from where one cooks. Another strategy is to hike until it’s an appropriate time for an early dinner and then cook and eat before hiking further to the campsite. Also, avoid packing in items that carry strong odors, such as meat and cheese, and even toothpaste that smells sweet. Simply avoiding the most popular routes and camping spots can help one avoid becoming a target for problem bears.

It also pays to know the feeding patterns and habits of the local bear population at various times of the year. As an example, grizzlies in Yellowstone typically come out from hibernation in spring and head to lower elevations to catch bison and elk calves. In the summer, they eat tubers, grasses, roots, berries, and rodents, while, just prior to hibernation, they climb up to whitebark pine forests in the sub-alpine band to feast on pine nuts.

Another strategy of avoidance centers on packing food and toiletries in odor-proof bags that enable one to remain largely invisible to bears. Bear-resistant containers range from ultra-lightweight items made from plastic to heavy-gauge aluminum boxes and panniers. Select a product able to resist direct forces of up to 200 pounds and with no gaps, cracks, or external hinges that will allow the bear to use teeth or claws to force the container open.

If in a heavily trafficked camping area, make use of park-provided infrastructure, such as permanently mounted trash and food lockers that lock with a heavy attached key. In the Appalachians, a number of shelters feature bear cables or thick wire cables strung between trees that also have wire loops that travel from the cable to the ground. Campers simply clip their food to a loop, pulling the food up to the horizontal cable above, and use a bear-proof carabineer to lock the cable in a set position.

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Joshua (Josh) Pratchard
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Joshua Pratchard is a longtime California entrepreneur who served as Second Chance Fields’ senior project manager.