Of all the precautions taken before a summer backpacking trip into the deep woods, protecting against bear encounters might be at the top of the list. Yet bear sightings in a popular area such as the Superior Hiking Trail seem about as rare these days as a backpacker with a cotton sleeping bag.
Regardless, some of the people who make camp along the 310-mile trail still go to great effort to keep their food away from bears.
In fact, 94 percent of Superior Trail backpackers who responded to a recent, unscientific online survey said they take active measures to protect their edibles from bears. But at the same time, only two of the nearly 100 survey respondents — all members of the Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group — reported ever seeing a bear trying to get at their food.
This raises some natural questions. Why aren’t backpackers seeing more bears? And does a lack of sightings mean all the work to safeguard provisions is overdone?
It’s true that the number of Minnesota’s black bears — the only species in the state — has declined. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 bears, the majority of which live in the forested areas of Up North. Even with some evidence that their numbers may be on the upswing, the population is still roughly only half what it was in the late 1990s.
Fewer bears may be part of the story, said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, but the most important factor may actually be the efforts of Superior Trail backpackers to thwart hungry bears.
“There are certainly bears up there,” Stark said. “They generally try to avoid people and human activity, but they can cause trouble when they’re looking for food. If you have food they can’t get to, though, you don’t have trouble develop.”
“Just the prevention we’re seeing can go a long way toward avoiding problems,” he said. “What you want are bears that don’t see backpackers as a source for food.”
This result, Stark said, has only come over time.
Twenty years ago, Stark said, people staying in the wilderness in Minnesota often had bears coming into camp because they had success finding a meal there. “They were smart enough to figure out that if they’d had luck before, they were going to do it again,” Stark said.
But more and more campers began to look for ways to keep bears away. The most common practice became putting food in a pack and hanging it in a tree away from camp, over a high branch far enough out from the trunk to make it difficult for a bear to reach. As bears began coming up empty when nosing around campsites, Stark said, they started to realize that people could no longer be counted on for a meal — and their habits changed.
Today, while Superior Trail backpackers use a variety of methods to protect their food, nearly three-quarters in our survey said they use some kind of pack-hanging system.
The hanging system can be a little tricky for some, though, and it requires finding the right tree in the right location, so alternatives have developed.
Ten percent of our survey respondents use a bag (such as those produced by Ursack) made of fabric designed to be strong enough to prevent bears from ripping it open. Another 2 percent said they favor a hard plastic canister (such as those made by BearVault or Garcia) that are difficult for bears to grip or open.
No matter what system is employed, Stark said, the pack or container with food should be stored well away from the campsite. “You want to move it away from where your other gear is located so they aren’t attracted to your campsite at all,” he said.
And it’s not just food that needs to be protected. Anything with a scent that might attract bears, such as food wrappers or hygiene products, should be safeguarded, Stark and our respondents said.
“You obviously don’t keep food in the tent,” according to survey respondent Michelle Stiles of Minneapolis. “But I don’t even wear clothes to bed that may have food spills or smells on them.”
As much as good food protection procedures have helped keep bears out of backcountry camps, 94 percent compliance still isn’t good enough, said Kim Fishburn, a veteran Superior Trail backpacker from Plymouth who often gives presentations about the trail.
“The thought of anyone laying their food out on the ground or unprotected in camp makes me mad,” Fishburn said. “I know how bad things got in places like Yosemite National Park, where problems forced the park to require people to carry bear canisters. It only takes one or two bears to find food in a campsite to ruin things.”
Bears who come to associate humans with food can become dangerous and end up having to be captured and euthanized. “As the saying goes,” Fishburn said, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
A food protection system can also thwart other animals, such as mice and chipmunks, interested in a food stash. But a survey respondent who didn’t leave a name (maybe for good reason) noted there is one other large mammal that can be a nemesis: “I’ve never had a bear try to get my food, but I have had my hiking buddy try. …”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at email@example.com.