Bear Safety: Camping in a Teardrop
An Interview with Amy Grisak
This has been an unusual year. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Many countries and states have imposed travel restrictions that have altered our lives and our vacation plans. A few months ago, I wrote an article about how Covid-19 was causing a spike in RV sales. This is translating into more people camping. Throughout the United States, many campgrounds are filled to capacity and it’s difficult to find somewhere to camp if you didn’t already have advance reservations. Because of this, more people are heading further into the backcountry to have their weekends or vacations away from home. This puts many people in bear country.
I recently chatted with Amy Grisak about bear safety. Amy is a writer whose articles have appeared in countless magazines and blogs. If you’re in the Great Falls, MT area you may have heard her on the Front Range Outdoors radio show on KGPR-Great Falls. She was also a professional photographer (National Geographic “Explorer” and the BBC) for nearly a decade where her jobs ranged from associate producer to bait. Yes, that says “bait.” In her words, “whatever it takes to get the shot. I have intimate experience and knowledge of our North American wildlife from ground squirrels to grizzlies. I’ve been chased by nearly every one of them and have firsthand appreciation of many conservation issues.” Amy is a badass outdoorswoman who is raising two amazing boys with her husband, Grant, in Montana. You should seek out some of her work…….she writes for - The New Pioneer, Camp Cabela’s, Grit, Farmers’ Almanac, Outdoor X4, KOA’s blog and many more. Her specialties include writing and teaching about gardening, cooking and food preservation, hiking, backpacking, camping, fishing, wildlife, Glacier National Park, etc. You can check out Amy's most recent book about Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks on Amazon or in the park's visitor centers.
This summer, like many of you, we’ve been camping less in campgrounds but camping more in state or national forests in northern Michigan, which is black bear country. I wanted bear safety tips from someone who has been around bears more than me.
Cool Tears: For most teardrops or tiny campers, the galley is at the back of the trailer, is it safe to cook in camp, right where we’ll be sleeping?
Amy: You pose a really good question about cooking in the galley. If you're in an area with a lot of bears, I would err on the side of caution and either cook away from the camper or be extremely careful with not spilling food and minimizing the smells. In grizzly country, I would cook away from the camper, if at all possible. If you're cooking near your place and it smells yummy, a bear might come to check it out at night. If they do not receive a food reward, it's no big deal, but, if someone before you was sloppy with their food handling and a bear did eat something, you're the sitting duck. It seems to escalate when there is a food reward.
Cool Tears: If we do choose to cook in the galley, provided everything is cleaned up well, is it good enough to just close the galley lid or should we lock it too?
Amy: Oh yeah, I would lock everything. Granted, a teardrop is an easy open can, but you don't want to make it extra easy. If they can get those claws in there, they can pop open most doors.
Cool Tears: An “easy open can,” I’m not sure I like the sound of that.
Amy: With that said, I've spent plenty of nights cowboy camping without giving it a second thought, but we were camping in areas where no one else had been that year, so there was little risk of a food habituated bear.
Cool Tears: I’ve backpacked in bear country before and have slept in a hammock or tent. I survived that, but hearing a bear expert call a teardrop an “easy open can” made my stomach turn a little. It makes me feel better that you’ve camped out under the stars in grizzly country without a second thought. Are there any preparations or precautions that you would take when sleeping in bear country? What do I do if we hear a bear rustling near our tiny camper?
Amy: My nightmare scenario would be lying inside the teardrop and hearing something snuffling around outside. So if I was in a little camper, I'd want to have bear spray and a bright light. We always have bear spray, even in bed. When camping, I have it in the sleeping bag with me because there have been people dragged away. It would be horrible not to have any protection.
Cool Tears: Wow, you really said “dragged away.” I know that habituated bears are not bears you want to come in contact with under any circumstance. Habituated bears are typically euthanized for the safety of the people in the area. We always lock our doors to our teardrop when we sleep at night. I’ve seen too many YouTube videos of bears that open unlocked car doors and climb in searching for a treat. Any other suggestions besides bear spray and a bright light?
Amy: Those air horns are pretty handy, too! I know several people who have used them on hikes. So if I heard something out there, I'd open the door (very carefully of course), shine that bright ass light out there and give a blast of that horn. 99.9% of the time the bear is going to run. If not, you have the bear spray.
Cool Tears: I have to ask, what do you think of guns as protection against bears?
Amy: I'm not a fan of firearms when it comes to bears. Can you imagine what it would be like at night randomly shooting into the dark?
Cool Tears: We completely agree with you on that point. Firing a weapon in that circumstance is not safe.
Cool Tears: The last topic is more of a personal question. If you’re camping in an area with no amenities (toilet or vault toilet), what do you recommend to be bear safe? Many tiny campers use some sort of a portable toilet (Luggable Loo or some other similar item with a bucket and plastic bag).
Amy: Great question on the poo, too! I'd say pee in the bushes whenever possible (packing out the toilet paper) and hang the bucket. Bears will get into that in a heartbeat! When Sperry and Granite Park (in Glacier National Park) would empty their latrines, the bears were known to go to the sludge dumped on the side of the hill. Even when we're backpacking, we put our used toilet paper and feminine products in a separate bag and hang it with the food and any other smelly stuff. It's gross!
Cool Tears: Honestly, this isn’t something that we’ve done before, but it’s probably not a bad idea to either lock it in the truck or hang it safely in a tree. If we want to hang food or human waste, what’s the best way to do that?
Amy: When you hang something to keep it away from a bear, you want it at least 10 ft high and 4 ft away from the tree so the bear doesn't climb up and reach over.
I really appreciate that Amy took the time to chat with us about bear safety. I asked her for any final thoughts:
Amy: Truthfully, most people are never going to have an issue, but for the safety of everyone, the critical issue is to be very careful with food preparation. Do cook away from the camper when you can. When you wash your dishes, you want to take the water a couple of hundred yards away from the camp and throw it into the bushes trying to disperse it as much as possible. The thought is it might smell good, but there shouldn't be anything to eat. It was posted on a Glacier National Park website that a grizzly was near a couple of people at Avalanche Lake. I guess the people freaked, dropped their packs, and swam across the lake! They think the bear got a hold of some food in their packs, so the Park Service closed the trail. There was another grizzly (young one) a few years ago that came into camp near Apgar and basically took the meal from the people. It's stuff like that that really causes problems. If we all think of the next person camping after us, we'll all be fine.
Because of this conversation with Amy, the staff at Cool Tears will be making a few changes to how we camp in bear country. We always do have bear spray with us. By with us, I mean that it’s either in the teardrop if we
are in the teardrop, on the galley counter if cooking, or is attached to us when at camp or out exploring. When we turn in for the night, we also have headlamps that are bright - but I will likely make sure to have fresh batteries in each of them so we have maximum brightness. The bear spray we used is linked in this article.
I'm not sure that we’ll cook away from our teardrop, but we will be more diligent with clean up and with disposing of the dishwater further away than we have in the past. I really like the idea of throwing the wastewater at a bush so there are not enough food bits to be considered a reward.
We normally use a side tent for our suitcases. We’ll either need to stop that practice or change how we pack so the toiletries are NOT in the side tent. We don’t want a bear (or other animal) to destroy the side tent because the shampoo, soap, or toothpaste smells amazing. We’ll either lock up the toiletries in the truck or hang them in a tree going forward.
The last habit may be more challenging for us to change. We’re ok with peeing in the woods or in the bucket during the day, but we have kept the Luggable Loo in the side tent for middle of the night bathroom breaks.
The thought of going into the woods or brush in the middle of the night to relieve yourself is not appealing. We haven’t hung up the Luggable Loo in a tree because then we lose the convenience of having it. Our options are to hang it in a tree, keep it in the truck cab, or keep it in the truck bed (with locking tonneau cover). This will make the midnight bathroom breaks a bit more of a chore, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
I do know that some people use a detergent bottle as a urinal while in camp. There are definite benefits to this. It closes securely so if it tips over there are no spills. And disposal is easy whenever you reach a toilet, just empty and flush. This is a little more challenging for women because we can’t naturally aim nearly as easily as the men. However, there are many products for women that are designed to help. The staff at Cool Tears will try a few of these products in the coming months and will report back to the lady teardroppers. This could be a night-time solution so there would be no need to get too far from the teardrop while it’s dark.
If we all take Amy’s advice and keep camp clean, hang or lock up anything that smells, and think of the person that will camp in the same location after us then we’re likely to experience zero issues when camping in grizzly or black bear country. If we use common sense, take the necessary precautions, and clean up after ourselves we will be able to explore more remote areas with our tiny campers and keep us and the bears safe.