Pop quiz: How do you handle food in wild places?
Take a hike and you’ll find evidence some folks don’t know the answer.
For PNW backpacking veterans and Leave No Trace beginners alike, it’s never a bad time for a refresher on food safety rules for the trails. Here are four lessons to keep in mind next time you hit the trailhead with a snack.
While on a hike, you eat an apple. What do you do with the core?
Carry it out. Place it in a plastic bag and drop it in a trash receptacle. Do not, rangers beg of you, wing it — or orange peels or fruit pits — into the brush thinking it will simply decompose and cause no impact.
“That apple is not part of the natural environment here, and it will change how wildlife interacts with something like that,” said Brendan Fluckiger, who has supervised the wilderness information center at Olympic National Park since 2017.
“Animals are potentially going to be curious if they smell an apple core, and they would be interested in eating it,” he said. “If that’s discarded close to a campsite, that might lead to food-seeking behavior by that animal, and that could lead to animal-human interaction.”
Such interactions often end poorly for the animal.
“Basically, anything you’re packing in should be packed out,” Fluckiger said.
In a parking lot or pullout, a cute animal draws near. Should you feed it?
Not if you care about its long-term well-being.
“As soon as animals start getting food from humans, they’re going to continue to seek it from humans because they’re an easy food source,” Fluckiger said. “Eventually, in front country areas, they’re going to be staying close next to roadways, and are more likely to get hit by a car. In backcountry areas, they’re going to be hanging out near campsites and creating a nuisance.
“It’s about wildlife protection,” Fluckiger said. “We tell people to leave wildlife wild.”
A bear fatality at Mount Rainier National Park in 2020 started with food.
“A bear had become very comfortable being around humans,” said Sarah Pigeon, a supervisory ranger at the park’s Longmire wilderness information center. “It had probably gotten into some food and got into the habit of getting food from humans. Finally, it was just hanging around people too often at Paradise.”
The bear was relocated about 12 miles and many ridgelines away but was back at Paradise before long. It was hit by a vehicle and injured to the point it needed to be put down.
Need another reason to not feed animals, including the cute little ones?
“Small critters cache food for the winter,” Pigeon said. “So if they’re getting a hold of human food that’s not made to be out in the weather, it will start to rot, and that will rot the rest of their food cache.”
You want to claim a campsite. Should you use your cooler to do so?
Only if it’s lockable using padlocks or bolts. The nonprofit Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee publishes a list of approved, bear-tested products at igbconline.org that influences food-storage policies at Washington’s three national parks.
If it doesn’t lock, you’re inviting trouble — or even putting a wild animal’s life at risk, said Katy Hooper, deputy chief of interpretation, education and volunteers at North Cascades National Park.
The sad story of Bear 380 illustrates the point.
“Last summer, at Colonial Creek South Campground, people left their site with a full cooler unattended,” Hooper said. “A young male bear cleaned out the cooler and quickly learned to associate food with that particular campsite.”
The bear made repeat visits, posing a potential danger to humans, so rangers eventually trapped and tagged it (identifying it as Bear 380). To try and break 380’s acquired habit, the park enlisted the help of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages a Karelian bear dog program. When a captured “problem” bear is released into the wild, high-energy Karelian bear dogs chase and harass the fleeing animal in hopes the bear never returns.
It worked through the rest of 2021, but this summer, the enticement of human food lured Bear 380 back to the campground. What Hooper diplomatically termed “a chain of opportunities” (i.e., food regularly left unattended in campsites) hard-wired him to become a persistent campground invader in search of easy pickins.
To prevent possible conflicts between a hungry bear and campers, Bear 380 was recaptured and euthanized. The familiar bear-country slogan came true: A fed bear is a dead bear.
“The fact is, while 99% of visitors may do things right, the other 1% can still provide the kind of opportunities that lead to Bear 380 going down a bad path,” Hooper said.
The lesson for campers: Never be lazy with food storage while in a campground.
The campground food storage policy is the same in all three of Washington’s national parks: Use a bear box if your site has one. Or, store anything with a scent — toiletries, garbage, fuel, sunscreen — inside your vehicle with the windows closed.
Bears in the Northwest, all park reps interviewed for this story report, have yet to acquire the car-prowling aggression of bears in the Sierras, notorious for breaking into vehicles for food.
When backpacking, can you safely tie a bag of food on any tree limb overnight?
Hardly. To counteract a bear’s keen sense of smell, Rainier offers bear poles or boxes at its 18 designated backcountry camps. Bear canisters are required in its cross-country zones, the same as the Olympic and North Cascades backcountry. Olympic still has bear wires in some places, and some bear boxes are scattered throughout the North Cascades.
Different models of bear canisters can be borrowed for free at all three parks (if available). Lighter, soft-sided Ursacks (made of Kevlar and other sci-fi fabrics) are approved for use in Rainier and the North Cascades, but not Olympic, where they are considered vulnerable to raccoons and their sharp teeth.
Bearhangs (stuff sacks dangling in trees via a long rope, with the bags at least 12 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from another tree) are being supplanted by canisters. Many viewed the BearVault, introduced in 2003, as an evolutionary step beyond the tough, smallish Garcia backpacker’s cache.
“It’s pretty difficult,” admitted Fluckiger, an experienced food hanger. “Honestly, I just carry a bear canister. I find it simpler. It’s certainly a bit of extra weight, but when I’m tired after a long day of hiking, it’s a lot easier to lock my food in a bear canister rather than having to go try and hang it.
“With hanging, the issue we run into in Olympic and the Northwest more broadly is that a lot of the conifers don’t have branches that are very low,” he said. “If you’re in a mature forest, your lowest branch might be 40 feet up.”
Even with a canister, Fluckiger reminds people to stay vigilant.
“A common pitfall we see is people walking away from their campsite with their bear can open,” he said. “When it’s open, you have to watch it.”