Bears in the Sierra Nevada

What's the first thing you need to do when you see a Bear in the Sierra Nevada?
Get your camera out and snap a picture!

Many backpackers are very concerned and afraid of bear encounters when planning a trip in the Sierra Nevada. Although, you have to remember that bears are wild animals and you should treat them with respect, they don't have any interest in humans and in general bears will prefer to stay away from you. Finding a healthy bear in the wildnerss is a treat. It's fun to see this magnificient animals and there is very little risk from them. So, take your camera out, snap pictues, and enjoy this rare occassion.

A word of caution if you find a mother bear with cubs. If you are perceived as a threat to the cubs (for example, you get between the sow and its cubs), the bear may attack. The attack will most likely a bluff charge with the intention of giving time to the cubs to escape plus (very effectively) intimidating you. In the presence of cubs, be aware where the mother is and stay away from them. If the mother becomes aggressive, stand your ground and slowly move away from them. If there is a real attack, the general advice is to fight back. Basically, you need to send this message to the bears: "I'm not food, and you bears are neither"

The only kind of bear that you will find in the Sierra Nevada is "black bears" (Ursus americanus). These bears shouldn't be confused with Grizzly and Brown Bears, much more dangerous species that went extinct in the Sierra Nevada more than 100 years ago. Something to remember is that "black" bears can be of any colors, ranging from blond to brown to black and everything in between.

Although Black Bears have not interest in you, they are very interested in your food. Put yourself in the bear paws... would you spend the day eating berries or would you rather hit 2 bags of high calorie potato chips? The decision is obvious and bears will go to great efforts to get your food. Black bears are intelligent, they can learn from each other and above all they are persistent, very persistent.

How to Protect your food

There are several reasons why you want to protect your food from bears:
  • Losing your food to a bear will ruin your backpacking trip.
  • Human food may cause harm to the bear. A bear won't carefully open your wrapped candy bar, it will eat it whole. The plastic wrapper may be life threathening if it gets stuck in the wrong place.
  • The bear will get use to human food and will start associating humans with food. This goes against the timid nature of black bears and make them bolder and bolder in human encounters. Eventually, the bear may cross the line and become aggresive. When that happens, Rangers will kill the bear.
You have several options to protect your food. Take into account that some of this options are not allowed in places of the Sierra Nevada, so check for special regulations in the area where you are backpacking.
  • Stealth camping

    The idea behind this technique is that if the bear can't find you, then your food is safe. Basically, the technique calls for cooking and eating in a different place where you sleep; and sleeping in places where backpackers don't normally sleep.

    This technique, a favorite of lightweight backpackers, is illegal in most of the Sierra Nevada due to its ineffectiveness. Basically, if, like most backpackers, you are using a trail, then you are already in a place where bears are used to see humans.

  • Hanging food

    This works in remote places where bears are not used to humans, which is basically nowhere in the Sierra Nevada. The technique is simple, you throw a rope through a branch, attached your food to one end hoist it up and tie the other end to the trunk of the tree.

    Again, a very simple technique but bears in the Sierra Nevada figured out a long time ago that they just need to chew on the rope to get the food. Don't use this technique.

  • Counterbalance

    This is an effective "delay" technique in places where bears have limited human encounters. Here is how you do it:

    • Tie a rock to the end of the rope
    • Throw the rock so the rope goes through a high branch. The trick is to choose a branch high enough so the bear can't reach it from the ground, far enough from the trunk of tree so the bear can't reach it from there, and on a branch weak enough that the bear won't walk on it. If it sounds hard to find the "ideal" branch is because it is.
    • Divide your food in two bags. Tie one of the bags to one end of the rope (it helps to tie a small carabiner to the end and then hang the food from the carabiner).
    • Pull the food up as much as you can. Ideally all the way to the branch holding the rope.
    • As high as you can, tie the other bag of food at the other end of the rope (again, a carabiner helps).
    • Coil the excess rope and let it hang loosely at the top of the food bag.
    • Using your walking stick or a dead branch, push the second bag of food up until it's a the same level as the first one.
    • To get the food down, use your walking stick to get the coil of rope down, and pull down to get the food.

    There two major drawback of this technique. First, it's hard to do it right, so bears frequently are able to get the food. Second, bears are persistent, so even if the bear doesn't get the food, it will try all night long to get it. This will not only cause an inconvenient for you (try sleeping through a bear trying to get your counterbalanced food down), but also to the bear who is wasting a night of foraging trying to get your food.

  • Bear Canisters

    This is considered the best food storage technique and it's mandatory in many places of the sierra nevada.

    A bear canister is just a hard plastic container that bears can't get into. To open the container you either need a quarter and an opposible thumb or you need to unscrew a big lid. So far, bears hasn't figured out how to open these containers. In fact, after years of use in the Sierra, I'm seeing now bears ignoring them.

    You can buy bear canisters in outdoor stores such as REI or you can rent them for a few dollars a day from most Forest Service and National Park Service wilderness pemit stations.

    The drawback of bear canisters is that they are heavy and bulky.

    By the way, bear canisters make excellent containers for getting water and they are the right size to use them as a backcountry stool.

  • Ursack

    This is a different approach to bear canisters. Ursack is a bear resistant food bag made from lightweight, flexible, "bullet proof" fabric. It's usually combined with an aluminun liner to provide some protection against the bear "crushing" the content. The main advantage is that an Ursack and the aluminun liner weights under 22oz. However, despite the success of "zoo" tests and field tests in 2006, agencies in the Sierra Nevada do not consider the effectiveness of Ursacks "proven" and it's not clear that they will be approved in the future.

    You can buy Ursacks and aluminun liners at

  • Bear Boxes

    This is the most convenient storage technique. The National Park service (in particular in Sequoia and Kings Canyon) has installed bear boxes in the backcountry. These boxes are designed so bears can get into them.

    The major drawback of bear boxes is that they limit your flexibility on where to camp. If you are not carrying a backup storage method, you need to make it to the next box. Of course, you won't be the only one with that idea, so you'll find other parties in the area sharing the bear box.

    Talking about sharing... Remember that bear boxes are shared so please:

    • Never put a lock on a bear box
    • Don't put your whole backpack in the bear box, just your food. Leave space for others.
    • Don't leave anything behind. Take with you everything you put in the bear box.
    • Never leave the bear box open
You may find this PDF map useful for planning purposes as it shows the location of bear boxes as well as areas with special regulations.
Last modified: Wed Feb 3 11:49:56 PST 2010