Cycle Touring Question of the Week #1: Wild Camping in Bear Country

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What precautions do you take when wild camping in bear country?

Why are we asking this question? We’re from England, a land of no bears, and we live in Japan, a land of many bears. Our local area, the Tohoku district, is home to the Asian black bear. Our summer tour is in Hokkaido, home to the Ussuri brown bear. We need to sharpen up on our bear safety because we will be touring more or less exclusively in bear territory during the next year or so. We’re cycling through Miyagi, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures in April and May, just around the time that our local bears start to get more active.

We needed some pointers, so I asked on Twitter. I received some interesting advice on what not to do from @velohobo, who explained that Tomas Aperlo deals with bears by…

“…building a fence of sorts out of branches around his tent and leaving the food next to him. As the bear approaches, Tomas hears the bruin breaking branches and jumps out of his tent and scares the beast away.”

(full article here)

Sounds crazy, right? But not quite as crazy as the approach that I found on Allan E. Stokell’s site (via a comment he made on Travelling Two).

“…even the smallest animal sounds like a bear when you are awoken at 4:30. Twice I’ve had nocturnal visitors to my site. Not knowing what else to do, I started barking like a dog. It seems to work.”

Building alarm fences? Scaring away a bear? Barking like a dog? Surely there’s a better solution. Luckily, I got a simple, straightforward tip from the ever-helpful Andrew and Friedel at Travelling Two.

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When managing any risk, it’s important to assess the likelihood of the risk happening. Andrew and Friedel are right to highlight how rarely cycle tourists meet bears. In the grand scheme of things, cycle tourists are much more likely to be injured by careless motorists than by wild animals. Even so, I’m still curious. What can I do to reduce the chance of a bear in my wild camp?

There’s plenty of bear advice available online, especially about the bears that are native to North America, so I dug around a little more. Several backpacking and camping forums suggest storing food in bear-proof containers. I’m not sure how practical they are for cycle touring – most I’ve seen are either bulky, or heavy, or both. The more I searched, the more two common themes emerged in what I was reading.

Keep your food away from where you sleep. This means not cooking in your tent. This means not eating in your tent. This means not storing your food in your tent. Not smelling of food will mean not attracting animals.

Make your food a difficult target. Make it hard to sniff out by wrapping it well. Make it difficult to get at by hanging it off the ground. If it’s easier for the bear to find food elsewhere, it won’t hang around.

There’s a great explanation of these principles on this Boy Scout Troop’s website. I particularly like the very clear illustration of how to set up camp in a triangle formation, with sleeping, cooking and food storage locations each at a separate apex. The site also offers a handy guide to hanging your food safely.

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Summary:

  • Bears sightings are rare, so relax.
  • Keep your food away from where you sleep.
  • Make your food a difficult target.
  • Consider the triangle formation.

And of course, if all else fails, you’re welcome to try barking like a dog.

Thanks to everybody who helped out with this Cycle Touring Question of the Week. Thanks especially to @cycletraveller @velohobo @travellingtwo @advcyclingassoc @twoonfourwheels and @cyclingtheglobe for your help on Twitter, and thanks to Boy Scouts of America, Troop 69, of Apple Creek, Ohio for the information on your website. Keep an eye on the hashtag #ctqotw for more cycle touring questions and answers.

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