Oct 13 2012

Hanging Around the Backcountry:
Or, What Do You Do With a Hungry Bruin?

We humans worry about the strangest things. And this is particularly true where “dangerous” animals are concerned. Consider these facts: A high proportion of cats harbor Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite with an affinity for the human brain and eyes. Pregnant women—and the children they carry in their wombs—are particularly susceptible to active infection, as are immunocompromised individuals of both sexes. Since estimates of the proportion of the US population exposed to the toxoplasma organism range from 10 to 20%, this is of no little importance. There’s also a growing body of evidence linking T. gondii infection with—among other things—road traffic accidents, schizophrenia, and suicide. It seems possible that the parasite affects human behavior, inclining its unwilling hosts to reckless impulsivity, sometimes with tragic consequences.

And what about man’s best friend? After all, dog bites send around a third of a million people a year to hospital emergency departments in the United States alone, and while few of the victims die outright (31 in 2011, according to one source), many more suffer crippling or disfiguring injuries.

So… Do we banish dogs and cats from our communities, and insist that strays be captured and relocated—or killed on the spot, if relocation is too costly or otherwise problematic? Certainly not. Instead, we invite these “dangerous” animals into our homes, where they are our constant and much loved companions.


Not so the hapless, wandering bear, however. If a bear cub is sighted in a village street, the phones ring of the hook at the local police station. Something must be done to protect the public, after all. There’s a bear on the loose, for God’s sake!

This reaction might strike a visiting Martian as somewhat puzzling. Still, a policy of strict segregation is probably all for the best, if only because humans are much more of a threat to bears than the other way round. I’m speaking of black bears, of course. Grizzlies are a little less predictable, and polar bears often regard arctic wanderers as something not far removed from fast food. In any case, there’s no denying that bears—even black bears—occasionally attack humans, though they kill far fewer of us than do the dogs we open our homes (and hearts) to.

The greatest threat is probably the campsite scrounger, the bear who has lost her natural fear of man through constant habituation—a circumstance not helped by the fact that many campers are sloppy housekeepers. Which is why more and more campsite administrators in the States are taking steps to ensure that no bears succumb to the temptation to rely on handouts and stolen treats. And that’s a very good thing.

What about you? When you camp, do you worry about midnight visitors with big teeth and large appetites? If so, you’ll probably want to hang your food pack. Actually, in many of the most popular backcountry destinations this time-honored stratagem is no longer enough. A “bear‑resistant food storage container” (aka “bear can”) is needed. Some folks make their own, but these are stopgaps, at best, and costly pedigreed plastic pots are now mandatory in a growing number of parks and wilderness reserves. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to be camping well off the beaten track, and if the law allows, hanging your food pack can still be a viable option.

I favor a variant of the Tyrolean traverse. You’ll need a long line, however: at least 75 feet. Paracord works, after a fashion, but ¼-inch kernmantel line is easier on both hands and bark. Pick two trees about 20 feet apart, with sturdy branches around 15 feet high. Throw your line over the first branch. (This is harder than it sounds, but practice makes perfect, and a rescue throw bag of the type used by whitewater paddlers makes things even easier, though you should only use a bag that’s been retired from active service.) Now make one end of the line fast to the tree trunk with a clove hitch (or a couple of round turns and two half hitches) before throwing the other end over a suitable branch on the second tree and then tying it off temporarily—but not until you’ve let the belly of the line sag to the ground between the two trees. Next, form a simple overhand loop in the sagging line about halfway between the midpoint and the first tree, clip your food pack to this loop with a carabiner, undo the temporary tie on the second tree, and haul away on the bitter end till the food bag is as high as it’s going to go. After checking that the bag is roughly equidistant from both trees, make the end of the hauling line fast with a clove hitch or a round turn and half hitches. That’s it. You’re done.

And it’s only taken you half an hour. Maybe this is reason enough to buy that pricey pedigree bear can. But at least you’re sure to sleep well after all that hauling and heaving!

Further Reading


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