Vagabond Tales: Don’t Take Smelly Things Camping Or A Bear Might Eat Your Face

Despite what you might think, this has nothing to do with socks, sweaty shirts or anything else that absorbs bodily smells while out on the trail. All those things are fine.

This is more in reference to things that have a pleasant odor, such as deodorant, toothpaste or even Gold Bond foot powder. Sure, these hygienic amenities will keep your feet dry, teeth clean and armpits wintergreened, but collectively they might have a dire effect for your face, limbs or vital sensitive organs.

Why?

Because it’s not only your teeth and pits that love this stuff, but also bears. Forget about pots of honey, leaping salmon, or the half-eaten can of tuna lingering at the bottom of your bag; bears will go for anything with an odor – even your sunscreen.

That being said, is a black bear (all bets are off on grizzlies, they’ll eat you just for fun) going to track you down and eat you because you put on sunscreen while hiking in the backcountry? No. They’re too skittish of people and will run away once you make your presence known.

If, however, you leave these items lingering around a campsite overnight without having them stored in a bear storage bin, there’s a good chance that you’ll encounter some toothy rustling in the middle of the night. I know because I learned this hard way while hiking in the backcountry of California’s Yosemite National Park. And with zero exaggeration, I’m lucky a bear didn’t eat my face.The fracas starts off innocently enough: six guys and four girls go hiking in Yosemite on a late-summer, three-night backpacking trip.

Departing from Tuolomne Meadows, the plan was to camp at Upper Cathedral Lake before making our way down to Half Dome and Yosemite Village below – easy enough.

The problem, however, was that we had more food and toiletries than could fit in the number of bear storage bins we were packing, a dilemma I blame firmly on the women in the group. For some reason, when going feral in the wilderness, men have a desire to revert to Bear Grylls-esque minimalists who wipe with acorns and catch fish with their bare hands. Consequently, we pack light.

Girls, on the other hand (caution: author is the midst of making sweeping generalizations. Tread cautiously), have this strange desire to be something else, which is entirely foreign to the backcountry, the woods or the outdoors in general.

They want to be clean.

This is how we ended up with as many tubes of almond-vanilla-lavender-rosemary scented moisturizing lotion as we did with cans of food. This packing oversight was not fully realized, however, until the sun was disappearing behind the craggy ridges, which rung the lakeside campsite.

Apparently, not all members of the group (cough, cough) had been briefed on the fact that ANYTHING with an odor needed to go in the bear bins, not just the food.

“So the bears can smell my toothpaste?” asked one of our female hikers.

“Yeah, that’s why I put mine in the bear can,” I countered.

“What about my nail polish remover?” chimed in another (really?).

“Isn’t that just alcohol? Why don’t you just bring out everything you have.”

This is how Aisle 17 of your local drug store ended up scattered on the dry grasses of Upper Cathedral Lake. We may as well have just put out a rib-eye steak and called it a night.

“There’s no way we can fit all of this in the bear cans,” I lamented, my dry fingers clutching a plastic bottle of gold bond powder.

“Why don’t we just make a sacrificial bag?” offered another member of the group.

“What?”

“A sacrificial bag. Let’s take my black daypack and just cram it with all the toiletries that won’t fit in the bear bins.”

Unfortunately, we found ourselves in a meadow devoid of trees from which to hang the bag, and we also found ourselves devoid of rope. Where then, were we ever to put the bag?

As four of the guys had opted to sleep under the stars in the clear – albeit frigid – mountain air, it was decided (in a moment of titanic stupidity) that we would just place the bag by our heads as we slept, seeing as surely no bear would be brazen enough to wander into a cluster of four grown men. The bag was zipped up and placed next to the jacket I was using as a pillow. It sat right between myself and a fellow camper, our respective ears guarding either side of the odiferous satchel.

The stars twinkled brightly in the gaping mountain sky, and the occasional puff of breeze could be felt on my exposed and slightly stubbled cheeks. We were camping in the mountains without a care in the world, and nothing, it felt, could possibly go wrong. Idle chatter switched to soporific pauses, and as a group we partook in a deep slumber, which would last all the way ’til dawn.

-

With the first rays of light rising over the peaks of the Sierra, my friend Jason was the one to notice it first.

“Dude. Where’s the bag?”

“What?” I mumbled through a half-awake fog. “What bag?”

“The sacrificial bag man. It’s not here.”

Sure enough, a quick check around the sleeping bags and scouring of the immediate perimeter revealed that bag – which was between our heads as we slept – was literally nowhere to be found.

A quick search of the girls’ tent revealed they hadn’t taken it. Another reconnaissance of the area also yielded no results. A regular mountain mystery was quickly in the making, so we decided to widen the search grid. Still, nothing.

Water was boiled, coffee was made, and theories floated through the air faster than the rising of the sun. It wasn’t until a member of the group walked off into an adjacent meadow with a shovel and some toilet paper that any answers would begin to come to light.

“Guys!” he yelled back at the group. “Guys! I found the bag! I found the bag!”

Returning to the group without yet having “done his business,” he lifted the black Jansport high for all of us to see. The first thing that was immediately noticeable was the full length of the zipper dangling limply from the side, and after a blink of the eye it was apparent that the bag was utterly thrashed.

“The first thing I noticed was the Gold Bond bottle lying in the meadow. Check out that tooth mark!”

Sure enough, right there in the center of the yellow Gold Bond Bottle, a large, toothy predator had gauged a pencil-width puncture that now served as a mini-powder volcano when squeezed. Other items such as the toothpaste and deodorant had been similarly mauled, and the wispy black straps of torn backpack cotton fluttered in the first traces of morning breeze.

“You know what this means” stammered one of the girls. “At some point last night there was a bear right next to your head. It could have eaten your face.”

Moral of the story: when camping in the American backcountry, use proper bearproof containers. If you have items that won’t fit in the containers, don’t use them as a pillow. If you do, a bear might actually eat your face.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

[Photo credits: Heather Ellison, Mike Willis via Flickr, iriskh via Flickr]