Bears are a problem anywhere in the California Sierras, but especially at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. These normally shy creatures stay away from humans, but they also possess a keen sense of smell and once they've tasted human food, they can't resist it. They're strong and can easily rip the window out of a car door or rip open a locked trunk. In the Yosemite and Sequoia parks, bears break into parked cars every night - more than 1,300 cars in Yosemite alone in 1998.
Bears are also smart. They know what ice chests look like and can smell food even if it's wrapped in plastic and locked in your trunk. Consider this astounding statistic we found posted at the Sequoia National Park visitor center: bears can smell food as much as 3 miles away.
These tips will help you and your belonging stay safe from bears, no matter where you are:
- Cars: Never leave food or scented items inside at night. Infant seats and child seats smell like food (and so do some cosmetics and sunscreens - think peppermint lotion or banana-scented suntan oil) and will attract the bears. So will canned drinks, baby wipes and empty food wrappers. Don't forget to check the glove box and center console. If you've got a minivan, be especially careful - in 2009, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Service reported that bears break into them more than any other type of vehicle.
- Camping: Follow the tips above for getting things out of your car. If metal boxes are provided, use them for all your food items and anything else with an odor. Latch the box completely. If no boxes are available, seal everything in plastic to contain odors. A bear will enter a campsite even if people are present, so take these precautions even if you're not going anywhere.
- Camping in an RV: The Yosemite website says you can keep food out of sight in hard sided trailers and RVs if you keep the windows, doors, and vents closed when you are not there, but if there's a bear-proof locker nearby, we'd recommend putting the smelliest items in it - the inconvenience is small but the cost of damage could be high.
- Other Lodging: Cabins aren't immune to break-ins. Close and lock all the doors and windows when you're not around. Keep the door closed when you're inside.
- Hiking or Backpacking: Bears can defeat any attempt to hang your food in a tree. Instead, store it in portable canisters. They weigh less than three pounds and will hold enough food for up to 5 days. If you don't have one, you can buy or rent them at some park visitor centers.
- Place all garbage in a bear-proof dumpster or trash can. It's not only a common sense precaution to keep yourself safe from bears and the trouble they can cause, it's the law and cars found containing food after dark can be impounded.
- If you encounter a bears while hiking or camping: Don't approach it, regardless of its size. Act immediately: wave your arms, yell, clap your hands, bang pots together, throw small sticks and stones to scare it. If you're with other people, stand together to look more intimidating. Keep your distance and don't surround the bear, giving it a way to escape. Be especially careful with a mother bear who has cubs. If the bear has taken some of your belongings or food, DO NOT try to get them back. Report all bear encounters to a ranger right away.