Bears: Smart, Motivated and Relentless

Black bears, particularly those in the Sierra Nevada, have become habituated to human food.

That means once they get a taste of it, they want more of it – lots more – and will do just about anything to get it.

They often succeed. Why? Brute strength, persistence, surprising ingenuity and, crucially, the lackadaisical food-storage practices of humans. Wildlife managers remind us that such a dilemma is not a “bear problem.” The real problem occurs when humans take a casual, indifferent approach to storing food.

A bear’s food-stealing repertoire includes:
– Sending cubs up trees to dislodge nylon food bags dangling from limbs. (Solution: Use a portable, bear-resistant food canister.)
– Gnawing through limbs several inches thick to make suspended food bags drop. (Solution: Same as above.)

I’ve never seen it myself, but I’ve heard that some bears will walk out on a branch and make kamikaze jumps at food bags to bring them down.
Michelle Gagnon, a bear technician at Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park.

In many areas where bear-human conflict repeatedly occurs, use of bear-resistant canisters has been made mandatory.

“Once bears get introduced to human food, they get hooked,” says Ranger. “They will go to great lengths to find more. They’ll even take up residency at 11,000 feet if there’s a campsite nearby that consistently attracts people and their food.”

Using a Bear-Resistant Food Canister: Some Advantages for Humans

  • No more bear-bagging or counterbalancing – one of the least desirable, most time-consuming camp chores a backpacker faces each night.
  • Less stress: The simplicity and reliability of bear-resistant canisters enhance your peace of mind at night.
  • Freedom to camp and store food securely in places where food-hanging trees may be scarce.
  • Bear-resistant food canisters also resist other wildlife prone to food thievery, from mice to marmots.
  • Canisters can double as a stool or table. (Do not use as cooking stove base)

Insect Bites

Mosquitoes may be as dangerous as all the bears, cougars and moose out there. They certainly are more irritating. There are far more human deaths from insects than all the other deaths caused by mammals. Insects and other bugs are clearly a danger to be reckoned with.


These used to be just an annoyance here in North America. Now they carry diseases like West Nile Fever. Use any good repellent with DEET (30% maximum), or Picaridin (20%) insect repellent to keep them away. Light colored clothing seems to attract fewer mosquitoes than darker clothing.

Mosquito head net is a good idea if you know you’ll be in an area with many mosquitoes. At about an ounce, they don’t add much weight to your backpack.

Black Flies

These are some of the most irritating of insect bites, because they Black Flies not only swarm over you, but crawl and wiggle to get under clothing and at your skin. A head net helps. Unfortunately DEET doesn’t work as well to repel Black Flies as it does for mosquitoes. You should also seal your duffs and pant legs tightly.

Fire Ants

These inflict dangerous insect bites only if you are sensitive or get stung by many (at least dozens) at once. The bite is very painful. Watch where you step or sit down if you are in Fire Ant territory.


Ticks in the east and Midwest can carry Lyme Disease. In the west, they carry Colorado Fever and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They usually are a threat early in the summer, or late higher elevations. Tick bites become rare by the end of August. Check yourself a couple times daily for ticks (with a friend’s help, if possible). Slowly pull them loose with sharp point tweezers if they have already bitten you.

Insect Bite Remedies

Ice (or snow) also helps if applied to painful or irritating insect bites. Ice isn’t usually available when backpacking, of course, unless you are hiking in winter or high in the mountains. Cold water may provide some relief.

If you have Benadryl or another antihistamine, these can control the swelling caused by some insect bites. Seek medical help for bites from particularly venomous bugs, those that cause shock or from insect you are allergic too.

Key Points

  1. Use repellent with DEET (17% to 20% DEET. 30% maximum) or PICARIDIN (20%) to avoid contact with insects.
  2. Use head nets and tight cuffs.
  3. Application of ice or snow may help relieve pain and swelling caused by insect bites.
  4. Seek medical help when necessary.

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