There is no better image of hunting than the outfitter’s camp set up deep in the heart of elk country. The story is even better if it is capped off with a successful hunt with a trophy elk. The head is caped-out ready to go to the taxidermist and the carcass is quartered, ready for processing. This scenario, being an annual occurrence or a long-awaited dream hunt, is one that all hunters relish. It is a time of camaraderie, fellowship and joy! (National Park Service campsite image)
Now, imagine this joyous occasion instantaneously turning into a scene of such horror the like of which is more terrifying than anything found in a Stephen King novel! While sitting around the campfire, re-telling the exciting events of the day, an 800-lb. grizzly bear charges into camp. If you are lucky, you only lose the trophy elk you waited a lifetime to hunt. You could be mauled. The worse scenario would be you and/or someone else losing their life. As the grizzly bear, a sub-species of the larger brown bear, population quickly grows, their home range is also increasing. This is leading to ever-increasing encounters between grizzly bears and humans in North America.
There are things that hunters, hikers and backpackers can do in the backcountry to minimize the risk of bear and human encounters. Knowing how to handle food, meat and other “smellables” is critical to staying safe outdoors. It is also important to know the correct way to hang a bear bag when in bear country. Knowing these skills can be a matter of life and death.
Preventing bear encounters can be essential to saving your life, as well as the life of the bear. This begins during the off-season. Start by doing your research on which large predators might be in the area you are hunting so you know what precautions to take. Learn what a bear bag is and how to hang it. Make sure that you have enough equipment and materials to hang all your meat to keep you safe from hungry predators. For example, if you are elk hunting, you might need three or four bears bags to hang all the elk quarters after a successful hunt.
Protecting yourself from bears starts long before you take an elk, deer, moose, etc. When camping or hunting in bear country, always keep a clean camp. A bear has a very good sense of smell and is attracted to all odors, good and bad. Never camp near trash cans, garbage dumpsters, or other campers who are not bear savvy. Never leave cooking items in the open if you leave your campsite. Cook over a camp stove rather than a campfire whenever possible. No food should be allowed to fall on the ground. Any food that falls on the ground needs to be scooped up immediately along with any dirt around the fallen food that has the smell on it. It is also very important not to sleep in the clothes that you cook in.
It is extremely important to remember that everything is considered a “smellable” to a bear. Your normal toiletries such as toothpaste, lip balm, shampoo, and even plastic water bottles attract bears. This means that everything must go into a bear bag, not just the quarters of your game. Bears are most active during the late evening, nighttime, and early morning hours. This is normally the time we are curled up in our sleeping bags, sleeping in our tent. When in bear country the only thing that you should take in your tent at night is yourself, your sleeping bag, one change of clothes, and something for protection, such as your firearms and bear spray.
Bear bag hanging systems are no more than a nylon or canvas sack large enough to hold deer or elk quarters and some type of rope for hanging. The bear bags need to be dedicated for the purpose of hanging “smellables.” The bags should be carried in locking-type storage bags or bins, that can prevent the transfer of smells. The rope should be strong enough to hold at least 80 pounds. Good materials include parachute cord, manilla, or other natural material rope. You should have at least 200 to 300 feet of rope in bear country.
To deploy, tie a rock, short piece of wood, or other weight to one end of the rope and throw it over a limb high enough to prevent a bear from reaching up and pulling it down. When the weighted end loops over the limb and lands back on the ground, the weight is removed, and the bear bag is tied to the rope. You then hoist the bag up, suspended under the limb. The other end is then tied off to the trunk of a nearby tree. Do not tie the rope off to the same tree. A bear clawing at the tree that the bear bag is suspended from could result in a cut rope, sending your “smellables” to the ground. It is not uncommon to have multiple bear bags hung to suspend all the personal items and meat.
Bear bags suspend any smellables, including your game, in the air and out of reach of any bear. Bear bags can be made from any stuff sack or canvas bag. The biggest mistake that many hunters and campers make is using tent bags and sleeping-bag stuff sacks as a bear bag. If you put smellables in your tent bag or sleeping bag stuff sack, any smells put inside of them will be transferred to your tent and sleeping bag. This makes you smell like a buffet to a bear looking for food at night!
After a hunter takes his or her trophy, there can be hundreds of pounds of meat to make safe for everyone in the area. Hunters need to hang the meat from their kills, out of the reach of bears and as far away from camp as possible. The game that a hunter takes is what the bear normally preys upon. This predator knows the smell and associates this smell with food. In essence, when the hunter hangs game meat, he or she entices a large predator to come and eat! It is no different than a trapper baiting a trap for any targeted animal and using its preferred food as the lure.
Brown bears are the most widely distributed bears in the world. Brown bears are native to Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and China. These massive animals are usually found in the colder, northern areas around the globe. In brown bear country, the bear bag should be suspended at least 15 feet off the ground, six feet from the trunk of the tree, and tied off at least four feet off the ground on a separate, nearby tree. This means that the limb chosen to hang the bear bag from must be at least 16 feet off the ground.
Black bears are the most widely distributed bear in North America. Black bears are native to every state in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Black bears have been extirpated, extinct or not likely found in historic areas, so the use of bear bags may not be necessary. In black bear country, if one is certain that there are no brown bears present in the area, the bag can be hung a little lower. The bear bag should be suspended at least 12 feet off the ground, six feet from the trunk of the tree, and tied off at least four feet off the ground on a separate, nearby tree. Since black bears climb, the limb chosen to hang the bear bag should be strong enough to hold the extra weight, but not large enough in diameter to allow the bear to climb out on it.
If you are in a pine forest, such as the lodge pole pine tree forests common in our western states, hanging a bear bag can be a challenge. Pine trees can grow very tall and straight up. There are no limbs that branch off the main trunk that are long enough to hang a bear bag. In these environments, you need to stretch a rope between two trees, creating a horizontal line, to throw the line over to hoist the bear bags. This means you should always carry extra rope. This also means that you must account for stretching or sagging of the horizontal line. You still need to maintain the proper height for suspending your “smellables.”
The bear bags need to be hung at least 100 yards from the campsite. Remember, everything needs to go in these bags, and multiple bags can be hung to separate items for different uses. When in bear country, always use bear bags, day and night!