Bear Safety Part 1

Chris Sunnen is one of those jack-of-all-trades kind of explorers we all wish we could be, he climbs, he surfs, he skis, he runs, he does it all. Follow along with his adventures at his website The Last Adventurer. He's also a former Yosemite backcountry ranger, so we sought his help in understanding how to safely watch bears while minimizing risk to yourself. This will be a 2-part protip. Part 1, here, talks about what to do when you see a bear on the road, and how to keep your car safe from bears (and vice versa!) at the trailhead parking lot. Part 2, which will be published in 2 weeks, will talk about bear safety in the campground and on the trail.

There's a bear in the parking lot!

In the Wizard of Oz, the scared and awed refrain of Dorothy and her friends was “Lions, Tigers, and Bears – oh my!” In California, however, the scared and awed refrain of novice campers, hikers, and backpackers is “Bears, Bears, and Bears – oh my!” To this end, as a former Yosemite backcountry ranger I can tell you the thing that everyone wanted to see was bears. Along these lines the thing that everyone didn’t want to see was also bears. Out of every wilderness creature that graces California, there is no animal – outside of Sasquatch - that is that draws a more conflicted response than bears. To me, bears draw this kind of a response because they are majestic; they are noble; they are funny; they are smart; and they are truly wild. The last part is worth noting: bears, like humans, are apex predators, meaning they occupy the top of the food chain. Unlike humans, however, they have no inhibitions about getting what they want when they want it; and this is because they are wild animals.

The black bear

While the last point may sound scary, it isn’t: it’s a mere fact. It’s something that you, the visitor have to realize when dealing with, preparing for, or in encountering a bear. As long as you know what they are (wild animals), you will know how to act accordingly, which will make your experience one that is amazing and not one that is terrifying or horrible. Before I get down to the nitty-gritty on how to prepare for bears in the backcountry of California, let me clarify what we are talking about when we say “bears”. In California in 2015, there is one kind and only one kind of bear, and that bear is the standard black bear. These bears may look blonde colored, brown colored, browndish-blonde colored, or regular black colored, but they are all just black bears. The California grizzly bear is long extinct; and there are no other grizzlies in the state. This is good, because in general, black bears are more scared of people than people are of them. While this may seem like hyperbole, it is a fact that there have been no fatalities in California from bear attacks; and only twelve recorded attacks in the state since 1980.

In terms of dealing with bears, the 2 most common things people have to focus on are:

  1. Dealing with bears while driving a car and then parking the car
  2. Being prepared for bears in the campground and on the trail

Some of these categories have the same rules, but not all of the rules are the same. The common factor in dealing with bears is simple: be bear aware; and exercise leave no trace principles. As I mentioned above, if you follow these rules, and prepare properly, should you see a bear, the visit will be one that you appreciate – rather than one that you end up hating.

Bear Preparation for Cars – Driving and Parking

Black bear in a parking lot at Yosemite

There are two situations that involve bears in relation to cars: driving the car, and parking the car. Out of the two, driving is the easier situation to handle. It is possible that when you are in California’s wilderness areas, you will see a bear from your car; or will see a bear in the road. My advice: do what you normally do, and drive like a normal person who took Driver’s Education and ultimately took the Driver’s License exam. Do not stop in the middle of the road. That is a bad idea for the bear, and a bad idea for you, and it will cause accidents. If you want to watch the bear further from the safety of your car, drive like a responsible person, and calmly pull over to the side of the road where it is safe.

The area that many beginner hikers and backpackers have trouble with regarding bears and cars is leaving their car parked at the trailhead, or in any area of the park they are visiting. Many people do not understand that they have to remove all food from their car in active bear areas when they are not in it. If you’ve never been camping in the Sierra Nevada range, or other places in California, the reason you have to remove food from your car in certain areas is because bears will break into your car to get your food. Really. As a Ranger, and now as a park visitor, I have heard people say innumerable times that despite the laws that mandate proper food storage, and despite the warnings about proper food storage, they can leave food in their car because “the bear won’t be able to smell it”. Let me assure you that it does not matter what type of car you drive, a bear will smell food in it.

Black bear in a parking lot at Yosemite

The reason a bear will smell food in your car is because out of all animals, bears have the best sense of smell. On average, a bear has a sense of smell 2,100 times better than a human. So, again, no matter what type of car you have, a bear will smell food in it. Bears are also smart. Even assuming that there is a bear with a horrible sense of smell for whatever reason, they are also smart. Generations of bears have now learned to associate cars with food. This is one of many reasons that the laws regarding food storage exist: to change the association in the communal bear knowledge pool about cars and food. Therefore, a bear doesn’t necessarily need to smell food in a car to break into it – because in many cases, it may assume that a car has food simply by past experience – or watching other bears. A bear’s intelligence and sense of smell are just two of the many good reasons not to leave food in your car.

The main reason not to leave food in your car, is the simplest: it is the law. Assuming you leave food in your car, and a bear breaks into it, 3 things will happen:

  1. You will have a seriously damaged car from the bear (in breaking into cars, bears generally pull down windows, climb in, and chew on things)
  2. You will get a ticket from whichever park authority you are visiting, as proper food storage is the law (these tickets are expensive to say the least)
  3. The bear will likely use your car as its own bathroom (really!).
Bear proof storage container

Any one of these three things should be enough of a deterrent. Finally, there is a practical component here. As I mentioned above, generations of bears have learned that cars=food. This is a bad thing. It leads to bears that are habituated to humans; habituated to breaking into cars; and habituated to acting aggressively. All of these things are bad for people and bad for bears. So, if you want to keep bears wild – and present for future generations, all you have to do is remember to store your food at trailheads and other areas in the bear lockers that are provided. In 2015, there are plenty of them, so this really should not be a challenge. If you do this, I guarantee that you will not have to worry about your car being damaged by bears, which is the last thing you want to worry about on your trip. So, be bear aware: drive responsibly on roads; and store your food properly outside of your car. If you do these things, you’ll have a great trip – and if you’re lucky, see a bear. Next time I’ll talk about what to do if you see a bear in your campground or on the trail, and how to prepare for that.

Black bear cub

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