A Minimalist in Bear Country

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Bear country means extra gear to handle the risks. As a minimalist, I managed to keep the gear down to a dull roar while still planning for the probability of bears. The Adirondacks are well known for bears, and there are certain times and certain years when a bear sighting is more probable than others.

There have been years, like this year, when the bear warnings are so high, that you are required to sign legal waivers to be in the Adirondacks knowing the risks of encountering bears. There are also pretty strict rules to follow for bear safety and to decrease the chance of a run-in with a bear.

One of the options for minimizing the chance of bear contact is to keep all food, including coolers, in a car trunk. Bears are smart. Even if the food is in the car in the passenger area, the bears will see and smell the food and break into a vehicle to get it. Trunks are a safer choice for food storage while in bear country.

A few years ago I had bought a new cooler for camping. The new cooler I purchased is one that is designed to withstand high heat, up to 90 degrees for up to 3 days and still stay cold. The other attractive feature of this cooler is that it has a drain spout at the bottom for me to be able to drain the water from the cooler as the ice melts. This alleviates the impossible balancing act of trying to dump out water while retaining ice and food.

When I had bought the cooler, I threw it in the backseat of the car and brought it home. This year was very exciting because it would be my first trip and opportunity to use the new cooler. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that this super awesome cooler is too tall to fit into my trunk. It fits into my backseat just fine, but this thing is too large for the trunk. So I was unable to take my fancy new cooler on this trip. It will have to wait for when I go on a camping trip that is not in bear country. The cooler will be fine in the back seat while camping if I go to a place and a time when there are no bear warnings.

Given the requirement that all food and coolers should be in the trunk when under a bear warning, I ended up taking a different cooler entirely. This is one instance in which I am happy I had not yet decluttered the “old” cooler when I bought the awesome new one. It is obvious that I am going to need to keep both coolers and then make a judgement call on which one to use based on where I am going and when.

Other options available when camping in bear country to minimize attracting bears to your camp site include: stringing the cooler on rope in the air between two trees. For me, this is way too challenging. If I’m going to string anything between two trees, it would be a hammock, and I would be in the hammock, so forget the cooler between the trees deal.

Some campgrounds have “bear lockers,” which are designated areas where food is locked so that bears cannot get to it. Bear lockers are usually in an area well away from where campsites are located, so that if bears are attracted to the lockers, they are less likely to hang around people’s tents. The camp site where I was at did have bear lockers available, but the bear warning was not high enough at the time to require their use. You could use them if you chose to use them, but they were not required.

Being under a bear warning effected the way I packed for my vacation.

Another safety tip when camping in bear country is that any clothing that is worn while cooking or eating should be taken off before you go into your tent for the night and the clothing should also be put in the trunk of the car. This includes clothing that you wore at your campfire, even if you did not use your campfire for cooking purposes. In my situation, I use my campfire for cooking purposes, pretty close to 100% of the time.

Given the clothing parameters for bear safety, this means that I actually have two pairs of “camp pants.” Camp pants are what I wear when I decide I am “in my site” for the evening – tending the fire, cooking, roasting marshmallows, etc. They go in the trunk of the car once I have put my pajamas on and am “in the tent” for the night. Since my camping trips are typically 2 night/3 day events, two pairs of camp pants works well for me.

Having “camp pants” for bear safety means that I end up packing more luggage for camping than I would when I go on vacation in a city. For example, when I was in Chicago a few years ago, I made it through my entire trip with only a backpack for luggage. This included even having a dressier outfit for an event I attended. For camping, I have to take the small duffel bag due to the “extras” needed for bear safety.

In addition to camp pants, I also pack two hoodies when camping, as I usually wear a hoodie when tending the fire. It typically gets down around 40 degrees at night when I go camping.

This way the hoodie can also go in the trunk when I am in the tent for the night. By using a new pair of camp pants and a new hoodie for the second night of camping, it prevents saturation of smells compared to using the same outfit for meals. Any way to dissipate smells so as not to attract a bear works for me. If I was not in bear country, then I would only take one pair of camp pants and one hoodie and I would wear them more than once.

Of course, you can take all of the proper precautions and still encounter a bear. I did have that experience a few years ago. In 20 years of camping, I have only ever physically encountered a bear once. I’m not sure who was more scared – me or the bear. Luckily, he ran away, so I did not have a negative bear experience.

Even with all the “extras” required for bear country, I happily noticed that I have effectively decreased the amount of gear I need for camping over the years. It used to be that the car was so stuffed full of gear that I could barely see out the back window.

Since I have started my minimizing journey, I have not only downsized my camping gear, but gotten more efficient at packing and at choosing what needs to be packed for a successful trip. Not only was I more than able to see out the back window of the car last week, but when I arrived, this is what the set up looked like:

The tent held my sleeping bag, pillow, and small duffel. The truck was full of food, cooler, and wood that I picked up at a stand about 5 miles away on the way into camp. The backseat of the car was completely empty, while the front seats held items such as camp chair, stereo, toiletry bucket, etc.

Just the fact that my car was not jam packed full of gear was amazing. I was not lacking or in need of anything. I am still in the process of playing with my camping checklist to see if there is anything more I can minimize, but for the moment I am in a pretty good place.

The one thing I always seem to over pack on while camping is food, and I consider this to be a good thing. When you go off in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, and the nearest town is a good 40 miles away, you need to have food. I always splurge and pack the good stuff for food when I am camping.

As I was packing to go on my trip, I was amazed at how full my freezer and refrigerator both were. It’s been a few years since I have had that much food in the house. It was all because I was preparing to go camping. Thus, the need for the fancy new cooler that is too big for the trunk. I’m trying to minimize the need to leave camp for ice. That way I can spend more time hiking and less time driving into town to refill the cooler.

Just because you are heading into bear country as a minimalist, does not mean you have to scrimp on safety. I plan for safety first. If that means extra gear, then so be it. I’’ll save the backpacking for the cities. A small duffel works for bear country.

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