Although bears are a relatively rare sight for most car campers in North America, many of the most beautiful and rugged areas have a healthy population of them. This includes all of Canada, most mountainous and coastal areas of the United States, and northern portions of Mexico (Source).
For all car campers, safety in the great outdoors needs to be a number one concern, and bears need to be carefully considered. All North American bear species have been known to not only be able to break into car windows but to be completely capable of tearing open doors and truck lids if they sense food on the inside. Their search for food is relentless, and the more you can do to minimize your car as a target, the better.
Can a Bear Break Through a Car Window?
We will focus on black bears in this article because they are the most common and least aggressive of the North American species. Despite black bear males being able to get up to around 500 lbs in weight (some males are known to get up to about 880 lbs), they are extremely agile and able to scale trees and swim with ease. Therefore, don’t make the mistake of assuming you are safer near a body of water. And they use these skills in their search for food. Their normal diet consists mostly of fish, fruits, and berries.
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Although black bears are not as aggressive as brown bears and will not attack humans unprovoked, they go to great lengths to get the food they need. They can find their food because of their excellent hearing abilities and sense of smell, which compensate for their poor eyesight (Source).
If a black bear smells something in your car, he is more than willing to peel it open like a tin of sardines.
Every year in National Parks there are 1,000s of break-ins and $100,000s worth of damages because people have left food unattended at night. In 1997, Yosemite National Park had 600 reported car break-ins, which caused more than $500,000 in damages (Source). This has further resulted in the deaths of 4 bears who were found to be repeat offenders to keep humans safe. This is why is important to store your food properly; it saves you from damages to your car and stunts the death rate of these beautiful creatures.
How Do I Keep Bears Away From My Car?
Remember that bears have an excellent sense of smell, and what we consider “food” is not the same as what bears consider food based on the scent (Source). All “food” items must be secured in the appropriate locations This includes:
- Canned food
- Items for preparing and eating meals
- Bug Repellant
- Food crumbs
The requirements of storage vary depending on the National or State Park you are choosing to camp at, so it is important for you to do your research on the regulations. Failure to follow these rules could result in fines, confiscation of the items stored improperly, or other penalties to protect you and the wildlife around you. According to the National Park Service, you are allowed to store hidden food in your car during daylight hours, but at night they need to be further secured.
There are a few options when it comes to food storage, which will be listed below. This could be the difference between life and death for a bear, as well as the overall comfort for your next car camping adventure.
Types of Food Storage for Car Campers
I got to use one of these on my first hike through Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. They are easy, spacious, and are included in many National Parks. Check with your location to see if they have them. Food lockers are large metal boxes placed at campsites for exactly what they sound like they are for. These are a favorite for backpackers and car campers alike.
One thing to keep in mind is that you should store your food items at least 100 yards from your campsite, and your kitchen area should also be 100 yards away from both of these locations. This is known as a “triangle of safety”. If your campsite has one of these, I highly recommend them. Again, it is important to check with the area you are headed to ahead of time to see if they are supplied.
This option is much more useful when you are trying to pack light and preserve space, so obviously, this is the favorite for backpackers where every pound counts. This option can only work if you have a bag that can hold all of your food items, and if you have ample trees in the area you are planning to camp at.
This is a bit complex, so I will create a simple layout for you if you want to give this a go. Trust me, if you use this method, you will look like you know what you are doing, and that’s always a great feeling! The following method is known as Counterbalance. There are other methods that you can use, but I have used this one and I recommend this method. Here is a video that could be helpful more visual readers:
You will need 100 feet of rope (more than needed normally, but it is always useful to have more rope in your pack), a long stick, two waterproof storage bags, something heavy for throwing that will be used as an anchor, and a tree with a branch that is around 20 feet tall and 5 feet long. Now for creating the system:
- Tie one end of your rope to the heavy object you have chosen (You could even use the food bag itself so you can skip a step)
- Then, toss it over a 5-foot long tree branch and let the object drop back down.
- Grab the object, take it off the rope (as you hold the other end of the rope so it doesn’t come apart), and replace it with the food bag you have chosen. Make sure the bag is secured tightly. After this raise the food bag to the branch.
- Next, fasten an equal weight to the other end of the rope, wrap the extra rope so nothing hangs too close to the ground, and use your long stick to raise the object you just secured up to the same height of the first bag. In theory, this second bag could be a second food bag!
That’s all you need to do! Now you can take down the bag with the stick you used to push the object up.
So, this option is highly time-consuming, it requires some effort in constructing the system, you can’t store too much food in it, and it is hard to do some nice snacking when you want to. Backpackers love all four of those things. But for a much EASIER method, check below for bear canisters.
This is a favorite of car campers, who have space to bring them to their campsites, and are looking for an easier option than bear bags when food lockers aren’t available. Many popular parks require the use of a bear canister if there are no food lockers around. This includes:
- Yosemite National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Denali National Park
- Isle Royale National Park
Bear canisters are mini, portable food lockers. There are ultralight systems that are useful for backpackers and even car campers who want to hike out a bit to their site. I have seen REI brands get up to around to $80-90, and I have also seen them at local flea markets for $20. Whatever you feel comfortable with, there are plenty of options for you. These are easy to use (it’s basically a big anti-bear cookie jar), they come at a fair price, and they are reliable. For the car camper, this seems to be the best choice.
Car camping should be a more relaxed form of seeing the outdoors, and to be prepared is to be relaxed. Consider all of these options, and prepare yourself for your trip with the correct materials and ample research into the areas you plan to go to. With all of these tips, you should be ready for the adventure you plan (or even better yet, don’t plan) on having, and feel safer at your campsite!