Ask Liz

Ask Liz / What do I do if an animal comes into my camp at night?

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: BEARS IN YOUR CAMPSITE SHOULD BE FEARED, OTHER ANIMALS AREN'T REALLY AN ISSUE. BE VIGILANT ABOUT BEST PRACTICES AT CAMP. BE AWARE, ALWAYS. DON'T RUN!

 Photo Credit:  Nat Geo Wild

Photo Credit: Nat Geo Wild

FULL QUESTION: "If there is an animal that comes into my camp at night, what do I do?...How can I tell [what it is] in case I can't see it? What do I do if it is a bobcat/bear/mountain lion? If I see a bear around dusk, should I keep walking to put as much distance between us as possible? I guess it is the animal/night combo that is giving me the creeps - any advice would be appreciated."


 Here's Vicky and Al Noack. (My husband took a baking class from Vicky when we lived in Ennis, and I tried moose for the first time at their home.) They are some of the kindest, most generous people I've met.

Here's Vicky and Al Noack. (My husband took a baking class from Vicky when we lived in Ennis, and I tried moose for the first time at their home.) They are some of the kindest, most generous people I've met.

I asked my friend Al how he would answer this question because I needed some backup. Al's a 62-year-old Montanan, through and through, and he has a lot more experience in the wilderness than I do. Al's spent 3/4 of his life in the wilderness. He's been teaching a hunter and bowhunter class for the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for the state of Montana, for 20 and 25 years respectively. Overall, Al has a great sense of what to do and not do in the wilderness. I trust what he has to say and want to impart his knowledge here. I think his responses provide a sense of sobering reality and relief. 

AL: "I think a person only has to fear one animal at night in camp, and that is a bear...The other animals, not at all. Don't let movies that show otherwise ruin a great chance to get out and enjoy the outdoors....MOST animals fear humans." 

I wholeheartedly agree that your fear shouldn't stop you from enjoying the wilderness, but there are some things you should definitely practice to be empowered to help yourself. 

IT'S ALL ABOUT PREVENTION.

AL suggests some best practices to avoid making dumb human mistakes that draw animals into our camps.

  • Plan your day to get to camp before dusk. "Most human/animal conflicts happen during the day, but can happen at night. Most happen when a human walks upon an animal while it's feeding, sleeping or has young. It goes into defense mode and bad things happen. At night, animals are not out looking to attack something, most of all, a human."
  • Don't set up camp right next to a water source. (This is a Leave No Trace principle as well.) "If it's easy for you to get water, it's easy for animals also and they might come at night to get a drink."
  • Don't cook and eat your meals in camps or in your tent. "The smell can last a very long time" and sometimes we might spill food. This is bad! In addition, "If you build a fire, NEVER throw food or its containers in the fire."
  • "Never store food or anything [with a scent] anywhere close to camp." You should put food in a bear canister or bear hang and have it at least 200 feet away from camp.
  • Carry bear spray and a light source with you at all times. There's a small chance you might encounter an animal when you walk away from camp to use the bathroom.

IF THEY DO ROAM INTO YOUR CAMP, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

  • Don't assume the animal wants to attack you. It may just be walking through your camp.
  • "NEVER run. Get your spray ready and turn on the flash light. Just seeing the animal will take away some of [your] fear." Al says it's probably not going to be the killer griz your mind might make up. It's likely a porcupine, raccoon or another little critter.
  • Talk to the animal in a low voice. "Don't yell. Hopefully hearing your voice will cause it to turn away and leave."
  • Keep the flashlight on it, and move it in small arcs. 
  • "Don't use the bear spray unless it attacks you. Using the spray to scare it away is just a waste of spray."

"We don't know why bears attack." But HERE'S WHAT TO DO IN CASE THEY DO

If a bear charges towards you, spray a one second burst using a sweeping motion (left to right or right to left).

  • Spray it where the bear will be, on it's path towards you (versus aiming for the bear). Bears are really fast and you want to have a cloud of bear spray in it's path. 
  • Be ready to spray again, holding your can with two hands. Stand and wait to see what it does.
  • Spray again if the bear keeps coming. 
  • If the bear halts, take a couple steps back, slowly. 

If the bear actually attacks you, there are different responses to different bears (relevant to the lower 48 states. Alaska is a whole other playing field.)

  • GRIZZLIES: Play dead. You'll get mauled; it will be painful, but play dead. Stay in fetal position. Protect your neck.
  • BLACK: Fight back with everything you have. 

ENCOUNTERING A BEAR AT DUSK

This one is a tough one to answer because it depends on what the bear is doing. Does it have cubs? Is it feeding on a dead animal? Is it moving away from you or moving towards you? 

First of all, you need to have a plan you can enact. Al sums it up with: Observe. Decide. Act. This is what he would do in that situation.

  1. Know how to use your bear spray. Practice getting it out removing the clip, holding it out, and fake-spraying.
  2. Get your bear spray out, slow and easy. It should be easily accessible! Not in your pack, but attached to your hip or pack strap.
  3. Rapidly assess the situation. Are there cubs? A food source? Is it a sow (mama bear)? Where are the cubs? Is the bear being aggressive? Is it curious? Which direction is the wind blowing? What's behind you? Are you between the sow and cubs? 
  4. Decide what you need to do. Stay calm and get yourself out of that situation without provoking the bear.
  5. Take a few steps away from the bear/cubs. Be ready with your bear spray and back up away from the bear. Keep slow and steady and get far away as possible. 
  6. Set up camp somewhere safe. 

Bears can be especially defensive if there are cubs involved or if they're feeding. Move away slowly. NEVER RUN. Even if you have to back track, stay out of that area. You're at risk of provoking the bear when it's most protective and defensive. You'll need to decide what direction you think the bear is headed and go the opposite way.

What about mountain lion? "If you see a mountain lion trailing you, you're probably lunch." (Al said that, not me! I don't want you or me to be anyone's lunch!) They attack people when they're moving around, not when you're settled in camp (necessarily). Make yourself as big as you can and make a ton of noise. Make it think it's going to take on godzilla! If they attack, fight with everything you have. 

When you're out of danger, remember to take some deep breaths. Get your heart rate down. Give thanks that you're alive. Decide on a new campsite and get situated to hunker down for the night. Sleep. Rest. Relax as much as you're able. Take care of yourself. 


On an adorable (and frightening) note: I couldn't resist posting these "bears at camp" photos I found on google. They tickle me silly! Please remember to practice being bear aware. Protecting your food = protecting the bears. 


Ask Liz / Tips for your first solo hike and how to get over the fear

Q: Any hot tips for your first solo hike...and how to get over the fear?


HOT TIPS ON GOING ON YOUR FIRST SOLO BACKPACKING TRIP

  • Tell your "team" of supporters exactly where you're going, when you're expected to come out, and contact information for the nearest ranger station. Here's an example. Make it easy for them to find you in case they don't hear from you.
  • Take a personal locator beacon (PLB) if that makes you feel safer. REI has a nice breakdown here.
  • Start small. For your first solo backpacking trip, try going to a more popular location or just for a day or two just to see how it feels. As you get more comfortable with being alone, try for a longer or more isolated destination.
  • Have a game plan for when/if you get bored. I've been alone many times and sometimes I'm like, "hMmm..what should I do?" If you're prone to getting bored, maybe think about some ideas beforehand. Here are some ideas:
    • Journal
    • Watch a flowing body of water
    • Take a nap
    • Read
    • Do some yoga
    • Daydream
    • Stretch
    • Clean your nails  :) 
  • Do you have any tips to offer? Comment below!

OK, LET'S TALK ABOUT FEAR.

I'm hearing more and more stories of women going on solo hikes and enthusiasm about women wanting to go on their first solo backpacking trip. It's awesome! And at the same time, there's been a rise in voiced concerns and fears about going out into the wilderness alone as a woman. I don't know all the answers, but I can share from my own experiences of solo backpacking.

First, take a moment: What do you fear most about going on a solo backpacking trip? 

  • Getting physically injured so badly and not being able to call for help?
  • Getting harassed or assaulted by some scary dude?
  • Running out of food or water?
  • Something creeping around in the dark?
  • Being lonely?
  • Getting lost and wandering in the wilderness until you eventually...
  • ...get eaten alive by a bear?
  • _____(Fill in the blank)_____

To sum it up, it seems the most, if not all fears have to do with one's SAFETY.

When I went on my first solo trip (which oddly, also happened to be my very first backpacking trip), I was so scared. Even though I was only 30 minutes from home and 1.5 miles from my car, I was afraid of all the stories my mind made up about the unknowns. 

I think it's natural to have fears about being alone in the woods. I feel like our lady minds are particularly good at coming up with some scary "what if" scenarios and act (or not act) on them. We humans are oriented to self-protect so going out into the unknown alone raises all those red flags. It's like you have this innocent thought, "I think I want to go on a solo backpacking trip," and all of a sudden, every internal siren is triggered and it's all ALERT!!DANGER!ALERT!!DANGER! in there. And then you tell your parents and they're all, "ALERT!!DANGER!ALERT!!DANGER!" except, this time out loud. It makes sense, females have been socialized to fear a lot of things. 

Here are some suggestions to get over your fears:

  1. Practice thought experiments to help you get to know your fears and where they originate from. Think about your worst case scenario. Got one? Now run with it. Ask yourself why you're afraid of it. Dig deeper until you get to the core of the fear. Then ask yourself what the opposite of that story might be. Thinking through the opposite version of the story is a helpful tool because it puts things into perspective that no one story is the Truth.
     
  2. Read stories about other women's solo tales. There's power in learning about other women's stories and how they've gone before you. It's emboldening! Here are some inspiring women to look into: Grandma Gatewood, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Liz "Snorkel" Thomas, Mary Moynihan
     
  3. Trust yourself. A large part of getting over fears is to trust that you're smart, capable, and have the ability to deal if something goes wrong. Part of this might mean learning a few things. For example, taking a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course might empowering. It was for me. I loved it so much, I became Wilderness-EMT (WEMT) certified. (Note: WFA is a 2-day course vs. WEMT is a 3 week intensive)

What helps you get over your fears? (Comment below!)


Ask Liz / Do you carry any sort of weapon or spray to protect yourself from people who might be dangerous?

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: I DON'T INTENTIONALLY CARRY A WEAPON TO PROTECT MYSELF FROM POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS PEOPLE. BUT...

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As a woman, the fear of something truly horrible happening (e.g. getting raped) is definitely a consideration when going backpacking, or more accurately, in life. Maybe it's not rape, maybe it's just getting harassed by some heebie-jeebie dude(s). Regardless of whatever scenarios might be playing out in your head, it's probably safe to say these thoughts probably cross the minds of most women, even if just for a brief moment. I certainly have played out harassment scenarios in my head, even when I'm in the middle of nowhere and haven't seen a soul ALL DAY! 

All that to say, I have definitely considered carrying some kind of weapon, but hadn't until just a year ago when I started carrying a pocket knife. My primary reason for carrying it isn't to use as a weapon though. (I would be terribly slow at getting it out and flipping it open; and it would be hardly intimidating!) The main reason is to have one in case of a serious emergency (or if I feel like whittling a piece of wood). For real though, I carry it for the same reason I carry a lot of extra first aid materials. After getting Wilderness-EMT certified, I now know how to use all the extra things I take and want to have it available in case it might save someone's life. This includes the knife. (Before, I didn't even feel comfortable opening my pocket knife!)

But back to the fear of dangerous people. I think that fear can be especially strong when you consider being out in the wilderness, out of reach from civilization. I mean...."what if something happens and there's no one around?!?" 

The key phrase here is being "out of reach from civilization." Did you catch that? It seems that most of the bad things happen when you're actually surrounded by people in civilization. It's highly unlikely that some dangerous person is lurking out in the wilderness waiting for you. (That'd be a lot of food to pack in!)

Most people on the trail are there for the same reasons you are: to get away from daily routines and the noise of the city and to get nourished by being in the wilderness. Haha, actually, I find that people can definitely be amazingly friendly on the trail, but they usually want to avoid people. :-) 

If it gives you a sense of security to take pepper spray, take it for the first few times you go in the wilderness. Once you get more experience, I have a feeling you'll likely start leaving it at home. But girl, do what you gotta do. There is nooooo judgement.

On a side note: In bear country, I absolutely carry bear spray with me. You sure can use that on any dangerous folk if they're coming after you, but since that's an unlikely scenario, I'd save it for the bears! 

Hope this helps!

PS. If you're curious about some statistics about rape, I found a helpful infographic here.

Ask Liz / Do you just do day trips or do you spend the night in the woods?

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: Both. I go on day trips or spend the nights in the woods, depending on what I'm feeling up for.

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Here's the full question: "Hi Liz! Long time listener, first time caller... Seriously tho. Do you do just day trips or do we spend the night?"

First of all, whoever you are, you CRACKED ME UP. Thank you for that.

Well First Time Caller, I do day trips if I don't feel like spending the night outside, but still need some wilderness rejuvenation. Sometimes even hiking a couple miles will satiate me. But if I want some extended time in the quiet, away from technology and away from the voice of comparison that invades my head when I hop on social media, then I go backpacking. I spend the night in the woods. I can usually tell when I really need to go.

Honestly, it's way easier to just stay at home where there's a comfy bed already set up, running potable water available at a flick of my wrist, and no pack on my sweaty back that I'm carrying for miles. (And often times, I prefer it.) But I think some deep part of us knows we want -- no, we need -- the challenge of carrying a pack, hiking miles and miles, and immersing ourselves deep in the wilderness. Our souls need it.

I'm curious First Time Caller, what inspired your question? 

xo

Ask Liz / What do you put in the bear canister and where do you put it?

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Q:  What do you put in the bear canister? Where do you put the bear canister?

Here's the full question for reference: "I was wondering if you've had any experience using a bear canister. Where do you keep the canister overnight? What about your cook kit? Do you transfer chapstick, sunscreen, etc. from pack to canister in the evening? Do you distance cooking area from canister from sleeping area? How far?"

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: Always put everything that has a scent in a bear canister (or a bear hang) before you go to bed. If you're not sure if you should, put it in. Find a secure spot away from ledges about ~200-300 feet away from camp. Better safe than sorry!

Bears are definitely one the most frequently voiced fears I hear about when people talk about going into the woods! "The bears are gonna eat me!" It's both funny and real (no, not that the will eat you necessarily...), so knowing how to protect yourself and the bears is a skill you need to learn if you're going to backpack in bear country.

Bear canisters are great because (sure) it keeps your food safe, but mostly because you can use it as a seat (as demonstrated in the photo above) or a small even surface. Unfortunately, they can be heavy and fit awkwardly in your pack.


Types of Bear Canisters

The bear canister I use is the Bearikade Weekender. It weighs a hair under 2lbs and I bought it after spending 7 days hiking with an old bear canister rental from the ranger. OMG. It was so heavy and hard to fit everything inside, I decided to go lighter and more spacious. Here are three of the most common bear canisters out there listed in order of lightest to heaviest. (From L to R: Bearikade Weekender, BearVault BV500, Garcia Bear Resistant Canister)


How far should you go from camp?

You should place your bear canister about 200-300 feet from your campsite. Take ~70 steps away from your camp and then start looking for a secure spot. I try to lodge it somewhere it would be a bit more challenging for a bear to get to. That's not always available, so use your judgement and do your best with your situation. Also, keep it away from water sources (where it could get rolled into and disappear forever) and ledges (where it could fall off and *sad face*). 


What should you put in your bear canister?

A general rule of thumb is to put anything that has a scent in your bear canister. If you're not sure, take your item through this decision tree. 

COMMON BACKCOUNTRY SCENTED ITEMS

  • Chapstick
  • Cup/bowl
  • Deodorant
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • Floss
  • Food (all of it!)
  • Cook set
  • Snacks
  • Soap
  • Spoon/spork
  • Sunblock
  • Tea bags
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Trash

STUFF YOU DON'T NEED TO PUT IN

  • Clothes (unless you spilled your dinner all over it or it smells like your food!)
  • First aid kit
  • Hand sanitizer (non-scented)
  • Map
  • Your stinky socks (but golly, I hope you don't have to smell that all night)  ;-P

PROTIP #1: People tend to forget to check their backpack hip pockets at the end of the evening. There's always something small and bear-baitey hiding in there. Check it!

PROTIP #2: Here's a process that works well for me so I don't forget anything. Most people eat dinner after they set up camp. If that's you...

  1. Check EVERY pocket for trash, wrappers, snacks, and other scented items. Gather your bear canister and everything that has a scent including your toiletries.*
  2. Take it all with you to the place you're going to eat dinner (about 70 adult steps or more away from camp).
  3. After you eat your heart out, take care of your teeth and APPLY CHAPSTICK LIBERALLY (if you're that type). You're going to need to put your chapstick in the bear canister, so this is it for the night.
  4. Go find a place to secure your bear canister by moving away from your camp area.
  5. Walk back to camp and get horizontal! (I love laying down after a long day of hiking! It's the best.)

*Trust me, it is crazy annoying to be ready for bed and all of a sudden you find a snickers in your tent or something. You have to get out of your warm sleeping bag and walk for what seems like forever in the cold to put it away. (Can you tell I've had to do this before?)


Alternatives to Bear Canisters

Bear canisters can get heavy (upwards of 2lbs). An alternative is to carry the supplies you need for a bear hang. This might be a using something like an Ursack or making your own by using a stuff sack and getting some rope and a carabiner. 

This will be a lighter and more flexible option since it's a bag versus a rigid canister. You will need to figure out how to hang it, but it's a fairly simple skill you can learn. (Bear hang basics coming soon.)


Other helpful tidbits on the internetz.

How to pack a bear canister
Bear canister basics from Leave No Trace

Any comments, questions or feedback? I'm human and sometimes miss things! Please let me know if you think of ways I can improve this article. xo