Bear Savvy Girl Scouts
"When a pine needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it, and the bear smells it."
— Native American Proverb
As we prepare our Girl Scouts for summer trips in the High Sierra, part of their wilderness education includes learning how to practice bear safety, how to pack seven days of food into a bear canister, and equally, understanding why hauling a heavy bear can into the wilderness is an outstanding idea. I share bear facts with my Girl Scouts via a short, live-narrated slide show. Understanding a little bear science goes a long way toward helping our participants appreciate the value of that weighty bear canister and helps girls learn why it is just as crucial for us to protect bears while looking after our own interests as well.
To start, it is good to know exactly what kind of bear we’re sharing our vacation with: grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horriblis) or black bears (Ursus americanus). In California’s High Sierra, the grizzly bear was shot into extinction by 1924; by this stark default, the bruin we most immediately need to understand is the black bear.
Black bears come in a variety of colors: black (of course!), but also brown, blond, and cinnamon. The black bear owns a reputation, at least in California, for being the "laid-back" bear. That is, in comparison to the grizzly, which equally owns its reputation for fierceness, aggression, big claws, and very sharp teeth. Both species earn our deep respect. Yet, while backpackers in grizzly country should carry bear spray, here in California, we can take a hard pass on bear mace and focus almost entirely on reducing our impact on bears (and vice versa) by keeping our food and scented items secure.
Black bears are prodigious eaters; they consume about 20,000 calories a day. Cutworm moth larvae, grasses, roots, berries, meat, fish… They are especially stoked by our tantalizing backpacking food. Back in the day, we hung our food in stuff sacks from tall pines — essentially colorful piñatas dangling from the high branches. Bears, being phenomenally smart mammals with a legendary sense of smell, discovered these hanging pantries as a quick source of their daily caloric intake. Just one extra-crunchy bear bag of Mountain House meals and yummy breakfast bars provided a bonanza of calories and exotic new flavors.
Black bears became marauding bears, and old-timers like me remember that comic evening ritual — endlessly slinging a rock tied to a nylon rope until the line finally cleared a high tree branch, then hauling up our bags just to ensure our food was safe each night. The ensuing chaos — tangled lines, flying rocks, broken branches, and general hysteria — made switching to a bear canister seem almost a relief, except for that weight!
Bear canisters, while weighty, are ingenious inventions. With their coin-operated or twist-off lids, only those of us with opposable thumbs can gain entry. Too advanced for a bear (but not so advanced that humans can make too many mistakes), bear canisters keep the bears safe from people and the backpackers safe from bears. We all need to remember that, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Fed bears habituated to human food become "nuisance bears," and these poor felons aren’t given too many chances before they are destroyed.
So, down to business. What will you load into, and how best to pack, your bear canister?
All food, food wrappers, and any leftovers live in your bear canister. Scented items like sunscreen, toothpaste, Chapstick, and lotion, are also transferred from your pack to your bear canister when you reach camp each day. Items that don’t need to go in your bear canister include fuel canisters, first aid kits, potty trash, or unscented biodegradable soap. If it has a scent, it goes in the can.
Loading your bear canister begins with consulting your menu planner. Use your daily planner to set out rows of your food for each day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks. This organized approach helps prevent a meal getting left out of your stash. Don’t forget to pack an emergency dinner, just in case, and of course, you are going to re-package your food into smaller bags to save weight and space.
Day one food won’t be packed in your canister; it can go directly into your backpack or stored temporarily in a trailhead bear locker as it will be consumed the first day out. Every other meal (plus scented items) will go into the can.
I pack my emergency meal (typically something crushable and cheap like Top Ramen) in the can first, right on the bottom in the center Smash Zone. Items I don’t want crushed — crackers, tortillas, bars — get lined upright around the perimeter, so they are protected by the sides of the canister. Continue to fill the Smash Zone with oatmeal, cocoa packets, pasta, cheese — any items you can push down on to create more space without destroying them. Stuff smaller foods — string cheese, Jolly Ranchers, drink packets — into the little holes and gaps. Add another fragile layer to the perimeter, smash remaining food in the center, until your can is full. Leave room at the top for your toothpaste, sunscreen, and other scented sundries.
Finally, weigh your bear canister. Subtract the weight of your Bear Vault (BV450 = 2 pounds; BV500 = 2.5 pounds), Bearikade (~2 pounds), or Garcia canister (2 pounds 12 ounces). Your food weight should equal 1 – 1.5 pounds a day.
Don't forget to help your Girl Scouts remember trailhead and backcountry campsite bear manners:
Leave your car immaculate. No food, trash, or scented items left inside; no French fries hiding under the seats.
Store after-trip toiletries in the trailhead bear lockers.
When you reach camp each day, immediately remove all food, trash, and scented items from your pack, and put them in your bear canister.
Place your bear canister 100 feet from your tent — not by a cliff or river where it can be knocked into oblivion, but wedged in a safe place.
Locate your camp kitchen 100 feet from your tent.
Always leave your kitchen clean; pick up spilled food so bears aren’t attracted into camp.
Do your part to keep our bears wild and our Girl Scouts safe.
Valerie is the founder of CAGS Backpackers and a Lead Backpacking Trainer for Girl Scouts San Diego. She has backpacked for over 40 years and spent the last 20 years guiding Girl Scouts on wilderness trips.