Where the Wild Things Are
Keeping Your Food to Yourself in the Backcountry
It’s summertime, and the wilderness is calling. Soon campsites in popular parks will be filled to overflowing, as paddlers and hikers make themselves at home where the wild things are. And with the crowds comes conflict. We want to keep our food to ourselves. But our involuntary hosts have other ideas, and the resulting differences of opinion can get messy. Is there an alternative? There is.
by Tamia Nelson | June 6, 2015
Backcountry wanderers and campers walk a thin line in our dealings with the furred and feathered natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance. This is pretty presumptuous of us, really. Since when do house guests get to lay down rules for their hosts? Be that as it may, however, it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. Truly wild things treat infrequent blow-ins with appropriate caution and circumspection. But tens of millions of us now invade the natives’ wilderness homes, and such familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. The natives have learned that most featherless bipeds are pilgrims ripe for the plucking. You could almost say we’ve become targets of opportunity.
Needless to say, few trekkers are happy with either state of affairs. We’re used to calling the shots wherever we set foot. We see ourselves as verbs, rather than objects. But that’s not how the natives sees us. To them we’re clumsy, stupid, and clueless. And if push comes to shove, as it sometimes does, the toothier wild things know we can’t put up much of a show. To borrow Admiral “Jacky” Fisher’s pithy phrase, we’re too weak to fight and too slow to run away. Nonetheless, whenever a blow-in is injured or robbed by a native, our species’ wrath knows no bounds, and we take a terrible revenge.
What this boils down ti is that it’s in the interest of both natives and blow-ins to keep encounters from escalating. And like it or not, the burden of responsibility rests on our shoulders to…
Keep Wild Things Wild
In an age of mass tourism, this is harder than it sounds, but there are a few things we blow-ins can do to avoid open conflict with our (involuntary) hosts. And they mostly involve good housekeeping. That begins with our …
Observing All Rules and Regulations. Nowadays, most wilderness is highly regulated, and the people responsible for keeping order and “protecting the resource”—rangers, conservation officers, and park administrators—have the nearly impossible job of reconciling our seemingly infinite demand for recreational access with the finite ability of wild lands (and wild things) to survive the combined assaults of solitude-seekers and thrill junkies. Which is why most parks and reserves now have rules in place designed to minimize the likelihood of run-ins between blow-ins … sorry … visitors and natives. It goes without saying—or it should, at any rate—that these rules must be followed to the letter.
But what about those rare and wonderful places still unencumbered by formal rules and regulations? What then? Easy. Use your common sense, and …
Don’t Feed the Animals. Mind you, wild things are no more likely than bankers to turn down a free lunch, and (also like bankers) their appetites grow with eating. So don’t embark on a program of dietary quantitative easing. Don’t give free meals to cute cadgers. Ever. And don’t leave food lying about in camp. In fact, make it a habit to …
Keep a Tidy Camp. In high-traffic, high-risk areas (e.g., popular campsites, obvious bear sign, etc.), prepare, eat, and store food well away from your sleeping area. When you’re planning to travel all the hours from dawn to dusk, 150 feet is not too far to travel between bed and breakfast. And never, ever eat in your sleeping bag or shelter.
Don’t grill meat or fish over coals, either. Fry it in a pan, instead. And pour off the grease into a metal container with a tight seal, saving it for reuse or subsequent disposal. Better yet, consider leaving meat off your camping menu—no muss, no fuss. I remember the feeling of liberation when I finally kicked the bacon for camp breakfast habit.
Store any other food waste in sealed, doubled plastic bags or, better still, a hard plastic “bear can.” To minimize the volume of waste, avoid leftovers. When preparing a meal, tailor quantities to appetites. This isn’t usually a problem after a long day’s outside activity. It’s rare for a camper to complain that he has too much to eat!
Then, when the meal is over, clean up immediately. Police your cooking and dining areas, picking up any dropped or spilled food. Next, wash the dishes. Disposing of dirty wash water is a problem, however. In the absence of a designated sump—do not use the privy!—you’ll have to empty it into a cat hole dug at least 30 double-step paces (150 feet) from your camp and any spring or surface water. And then stow wash basin, wash cloth, detergent, and pot scrubber with the same care as you store your food.
OK. Keeping a clean camp is important. But you need to do more. You’ll also want to …
Clean Up Your Act. Don’t sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking and eating. And leave scented soaps, shampoos, deodorants, lip salves and the like at home. (In winter, I use a lip balm that has a honey base. Farwell can smell it 50 feet away. A bear could probably do ten times better.) Is there any more you can do minimize your odor trail? Yes. Substitute baking soda for toothpaste and leave your chewing gum behind, as well. It, too, has a powerful scent signature. And now,…
For Women Only. Blood-soaked tampons and sanitary pads are an intractable problem. If you don’t fancy carrying them home in an air-tight container, you might want to consider a menstrual cup. It has a lot of advantages.
Lastly, there’s the question of what to do with …
Man’s Best Friend. The best advice? Leave Rover at home. Wilderness is not a dog park. Dogs of all sizes and breeds will chase wild creatures for the sheer fun of it, but their “playmates” won’t see the game in quite the same light, and many of the natives have formidable defensive weaponry. If you’ve ever had to pull porcupine quills out of an unanesthesized dog, you’ll think twice before bringing Rover with you again. Not convinced? Then consider this: Dog food is strong-smelling stuff, dog’s aren’t tidy eaters, and their shit is copious and it stinks. Bears and raccoons find dog food quite palatable, too, and dog waste is a sure lure, too.
Still unwilling to consign your Best Friend to the kennel for the duration? At the very least, then, keep Rover on a short leash, both in camp and on the trail. It’s in everyone’s best interest. And safeguard his food with as much care as you protect you own.
Speaking of which, there’s a newish wrinkle in …
Campsite Food Security
More and more parks and reserves are requiring that backcountry campers use bear-resistant food storage containers (aka “bear cans”), and while these are pricey, heavy, and awkward, they do reduce the likelihood that you’ll have hirsute guests dropping in unannounced for a midnight supper chez vous. Some established campsites also boast steel food storage lockers or bear poles. And wherever such facilities are provided, it makes good sense to use them.
But what if you’re on your own, camping outside an established site? Well, there’s always the bear-can option. And bears aren’t the only wild things with a taste for the good life. White-footed mice, raccoons, and skunks are also happy to dine at your expense, and porcupines have an affinity for salty things like packs and paddles. I’ve had good luck protecting my food in lightly traveled, low-risk areas with retasked wide-mouthed plastic peanut jars that have been washed out and rinsed with a chlorine solution. You could call them Not So Safes, I suppose. They’re certainly not bear proof, but they discourage foraging mice, and they haven’t been seen as targets of opportunity by skunks or raccoons—yet.
Then again, when camping in places where bear cans aren’t mandated, I usually hang my food, in addition to stowing it in my homemade Not So Safes. But the method I use—it’s a variation of the climber’s Tyrolean traverse—has now been well and truly sussed by many brainy bears, who’ve discovered that biting through either end of the traverse line will make food fall from the sky.
It’s summertime, and the wilderness is calling. Soon campsites in popular parks will be filled to overflowing, as paddlers and hikers make themselves at home where the wild things are. And with the crowds comes conflict. We want to keep our food to ourselves. But our involuntary hosts have other ideas, and the resulting differences of opinion can get messy. So avoid conflict in the first place. It’s the best policy.