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.


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.


“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]

Travel health gift guide: what to get the incessant wanderer on your list

Travel junkies are a special breed. Only a very distinct personality type gets a rush from being on the road as much as possible, or relishes the discomforts and situations most people go to lengths to avoid. Homesickness is a foreign concept.

I know, because I too suffer from this malady. It started early, because I have a vivid memory of bursting into tears when I was six or seven, after we dropped a friend off at the airport.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked. “I’m sad because we’re not getting on an airplane,” was my reply (ironic given my aviophobia, which had its onset about 12 years later).

A paralyzing fear of air travel hasn’t stopped me from roaming, however. So, whether you have a loved one who practically lives at Club Med or one actually enjoys sleeping on the ground or in janky Third World hostels rife with cockroaches…lucky you. You have a travel addict in the family or as a friend.

One experience incessant wanderers don’t go looking for? Illness or injury. While not inevitable, the more time you spend abroad, the greater the likelihood of suffering from anything from an infected bug bite or Bali Belly to…worse. But as I’ve always said, you can get hit by a bus crossing the street.

Of course travel isn’t inherently unsafe, but there are precautionary measures that minimize the odds of having health issues on the road. Below, my road-tested gift picks for frequent travelers (especially those who visit sub-tropical or tropical climes) and outdoor enthusiasts.

SteriPEN or LifeStraw portable water filter
Reasons why one of these is a worthwhile investment:

  • Saves money on purchasing bottled water in developing nations/places without potable water
  • Better for the environment (see above)
  • You can contract giardia or other nasties from improperly “bottled” water (trust me)
  • You don’t have to be out in the backcountry to have a potable water shortage; owning a filtration system is good insurance you stay hydrated and healthy, even in the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fauxrealphotos]Travel first aid kit
Even infrequent travelers should carry basic first-aid supplies: band-aids, gauze pads, Neosporin, OTC meds, etc.. Personalize your gift by tailoring a pre-purchased kit (REI is a great place to find different types and sizes) to suit the interests and needs of your recipient.

Wilderness first aid class
CPR or a general first aid class is a good idea for anyone, but if any of your loved ones live for backcountry pursuits or traveling off the beaten path, a WFA course can be a lifesaver–literally. Look one up in your area through the American Red Cross.

Controlled-release DEET and/or Insect Shield apparel
There was a time, several years ago, when I shunned DEET unless I was in a malarial region. Why, I asked myself, would I willingly douse myself in a pesticide? Why would I inflict said poison upon the environment?

That philosophy is all well and good until you get bitten by something harboring an infectious evil (in my case, it was sandflies carrying the Bartonella bacilliformis bacterium) that anti-malarials can’t prevent. Also note that malaria prophylaxis is not without considerable side-effects and may not protect you against certain strains of the disease. Be sure to talk to an infectious disease, tropical medicine, or travel physician experienced with actual working experience in these regions.

These days, I’m all about DEET if I’m traveling somewhere with potentially harmful biting insects, especially now that there are controlled-release versions on the market (there are various brands on the market; Sawyer Products is highly recommended). One application is good for up to 12 hours.

As for clothes, I love my Insect Shield long sleeve button-up shirt from ExOfficio. Good for up to 70 washings (after which you still have a good-looking, lightweight travel top), bug-repelling garments are treated with permethrin, EPA-registered, and free of toxic-smelling fumes.

Sun protective clothing
As you likely know, heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be serious; even fatal. In addition to a good sunblock, sunglasses, and a hat, sun protective clothing is a seriously smart idea for outdoor types. Once again, I recommend ExOfficio, or REI own brand, which will save you a few dollars.

Bear bell or spray
Google “2011 grizzly attacks.” ‘Nuff said.

What they say in the military is true: you gotta take care of your feet. Once your dogs go, you’re SOL in the backcountry or tropics. Keeping feet clean and dry (and warm, if applicable) is of utmost importance (at the very least, fellow travelers will appreciate your hygiene efforts). These moisture-wicking, stench-resistant socks are invaluable even if you’re just planning an extended trip.

Ibex woolies
Getting chilled can quickly become serious or fatal, and hypothermia prevention in the form of extra layers is key. These 100% merino wool underlayers from Vermont-based outfitter Ibex are the bomb. Comfortable, warm, moisture-wicking, and seriously odor-proof (anything that remains fit to wear in public after a month-long backpacking trip from the Andes to the Amazon–sans laundry–is a product I heartily endorse). Plus, they come in cute stripey designs as well as solids.

[Photo credit: Band-aids, Flickr user m.gifford, feet, Flickr user Cin]

Safety tips for hiking and camping in bear country

Last Wednesday’s fatal bear attack on a 57-year-old man in Yellowstone National Park has made national headlines, and stirred up a lot of mixed opinions, despite the fact it’s the park’s first bear-related fatality since 1986. Fortunately, because the animal in question was a female grizzly defending her cubs, park rangers have decided not to take action.

Park ranger Kerry Gunther, who has studied Yellowstone’s bears for over 30 years, was quoted in a recent CNN article as saying there’s a difference between defensive and predatory attacks by bears. “If a bear shows signs of hunting and eating humans,” he says, “rangers will attempt to track down and euthanize the animal.” But rangers won’t usually kill a bear for defensive behavior.

Park visitors are understandably skittish; hiker Erin Prophet had a bear encounter while hiking in Yellowstone just two days after the attack. She opted to jump into a nearby lake, where she was towed to safety by two kayakers, rather than risk staying on the trail. Gunther later determined, based on video footage of the bear, that it was a juvenile black bear, and not much of a threat.

“Bears are really very tolerant of people,” he says. “I have had a few times where I was bluff charged but the bear always pulled up short. You don’t really know if you are a ‘runner’ or a ‘stander’ until that happens. People shouldn’t fear bears. They should respect them.”

So what should you do if you’re hiking or camping in bear country and you find yourself in close proximity to one? And how do you avoid an encounter in the first place? After the jump, tips on how to be “bear aware.”

[Photo credit: Flicker user]

Watch this short video for tips on how to keep bears out of your campsite at night

  • Educate yourself
  • It’s crucial to know if you’ll be in bear country on your trip, and what species live in the region. Grizzlies are much more aggressive and powerful than black bears, and your response to an encounter depends upon the species.
  • With black bears, you want to aggressively fight back if attacked; not so with grizzlies, as you’ll see below. Be able to identify the local species of bear in the event of a sighting. Most ski/mountain towns offer “Bear Aware” classes to teach locals and tourists how to co-exist peacefully with their ursine neighbors.
  • Pack away all food and store it out of reach of bears
  • Bears have been known to go to extreme measures when they get the munchies, and if they’re smelling the remains of your dinner or those candy bars stashed in your tent, you’ve got a problem. They also get into garbage, which is why you’ll always find bear-proof dumpsters and trash receptacles in areas populated by bears. Homeowners and holiday renters also need to be vigilant about keeping windows and doors closed when no one is around and at night, especially if there’s food out.
  • If you’re car camping, keep food in a cooler in your trunk after you’ve cleaned up. If you’re in the backcountry, hang all edibles in a “bear bag” from the branch of a tree or rig a line, as high up as possible. This is just as much for the bear’s safety as yours; human food is detrimental to their health, and once they learn they can get a free lunch by cruising a campground or neighborhood, it’s hard to get rid of them. For everyone’s safety, keep things clean and locked up tight.
  • Don’t be stupid.
  • “We can have hundreds of visitors alongside the road filming and viewing bears,” Gunther says. “When the bears want to cross the roads you’d think to a big, 200 pounds-plus bear people would show a little bit more respect (and) get back to their cars or let the bear cross the road. Sometimes people are letting the bear walk just feet from them.”
  • No matter how tame they may seem, wild animals are just that: wild. You’re in their territory, and by startling them, you risk a defensive (aka “aggressive”) response.
  • Hike prepared.
  • Gunther says respecting bears means traveling in large hiking groups, avoiding or leaving known bear areas, and always carrying bear spray (pepper spray), in case of an attack. Some people like to hike with a “bear bell” on their walking sticks or pack. Also, keep an eye out for bear scat on the trail. For someone supposedly nervous about the attack two days previous, Prophet showed a remarkable lack of good judgement. She was hiking alone, and wasn’t carrying bear spray.
  • Make noise
  • I remember a hike with my family in Glacier National Park when I was about seven. A ranger stopped us mid-hike and told us a mother grizzly defending her cubs had treed two men nearby. The area was being evacuated, and my family and the other hikers on the trail were led back down the mountain. We were given empty soda cans filled with pebbles to shake, and told to talk loudly. Bears are more afraid of you, so if you know you’re in the vicinity of one but can’t see it, the best tactic is to make your presence known, and get the hell out of dodge.
  • Know what to do if you’re charged
  • If a grizzly does show signs of aggression, says Gunther, “that nanosecond before it hits you,” drop to the ground and play dead. By putting your hands behind your neck so your elbows protect the sides of your face, you’re more likely to survive an attack (bears usually go for the head and face). Being passive will usually put a stop to the aggressive behavior and send the bear on its way.
  • Other tactics: don’t run (that stimulates the animals predatory response). Stand your ground, and try to make yourself look at large as possible; raise your arms up into a triangle shape, and talk to the animal, so it recognizes you as a human. Don’t attempt to climb a tree; both black bears and grizzlies are adept at climbing, as well as swimming, and can run a lot faster than you can.
  • Don’t be paranoid.
  • Your odds of even seeing a bear are slim. It’s always good to be prepared, but don’t let bear paranoia change your travel plans or stop you from taking a hike or visiting spectacular national parks like Yellowstone. As Gunther points out, in the park’s 140-year history, only six people are known to have been killed in bear attacks.

[Photo credits: Lake Louise, Flickr user Matt Champlain; pepper spray, Flickr user mankatt]

Father saves daughter from zoo bear attack

Warning to little girls everywhere–giant teddy bears may very well try to eat you.

Warning to parents everywhere–watch your kids when around dangerous wild animals.

A Dutch family was visiting a private zoo in Luenebach, Germany, when their three-year-old daughter became enchanted by an Asian black bear. While her parents’ backs were turned she climbed the fence, which was only a meter (three feet) tall, and fell inside the bear’s enclosure. The bear then struck the kid. Daddy leaped in, got his own share of bear battering, and managed to save his daughter. Both were taken to the hospital but their injuries are not life-threatening.

This isn’t the first time the bear has acted like, well, a bear. Three years ago he attacked and injured a zookeeper.

Police are now investigating why it was so easy for a small child to get into the bear’s enclosure and why the parents didn’t notice her doing it.

As a parent I can testify to how quickly a small child can slip out of sight and get into mischief, but even when my son was three he knew not to climb fences and approach strange animals. Why? Because I told him. Of course that’s no guarantee, but he hasn’t done it in the first five years of his life, greatly increasing the chances that he will see the next five. Parents, please, teach your kids about animal safety. Cute does not mean safe. Just ask the Chinese guy who suffered a panda attack.

Image courtesy of Guérin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons.