Bears, Critters, and Food Storage on the CT
Wildlife encounters are frequent on The Colorado Trail. Many trail users share the common, yet irrational, fear of bear and mountain lion encounters. While rare, they do of course happen. Wild animals, especially the elusive predators, typically avoid human contact. The exception to this is when animals have learned that humans often carry delicious, calorie dense foods that don’t run away from them. A bear looking to raid your food cache can lead to big problems, especially on a thru-hike where you may be many miles from a resupply. A more common occurrence, but often one we don’t usually plan for, is encounters with smaller wildlife species that are interested in our food or our mineral rich excretions in the form of sweat and urine.
Read on for more information, but if you’re just here for the short answer on what to do to ensure your food and the wildlife on The Colorado Trail stay safe, our recommendation is for thru-hikers to store their food in a hard sided canister like a BearVault.
Food storage deserves a deep dive into the methodology practiced for keeping our food and our backpacking gear safe from critters of all varieties. Fortunately, there are many strategies, and companies making strides, to solve these problems. While we all want to keep our food safe from critters, we also want to keep the critters safe from us. A bear that has become accustomed to raiding human food sources is apt to be relocated, or, in a worst-case scenario, euthanized. Statewide in 2022 Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported that 94 black bears were euthanized and 59 were relocated. CPW has an extremely thorough, albeit dated, report on Human-Bear Conflicts across Colorado. It’s worth a read for those interested. We want to maximize the trail user experience while simultaneously minimizing our impact to the land and the animals that live there.
First, let’s talk about USFS Food Storage Orders. The CT passes through 6 National Forests and 11 Ranger Districts. Each one of them, typically, has what is called a Food Storage Order with legal requirements pertaining to food storage. These orders are usually filled with legalese, vague, and challenging to interpret. If you’d like to read them all, you certainly can. As of November of 2023, there is no legal requirement to store food in a hard sided container on any portion of the CT.
Next, let’s talk strategy. There are two basic strategies commonly used in the back country: keep your food out of reach or store it in something that critters can’t bite through. Raise your hand if you’ve spent entirely too much time in a cuss word laden attempt at hanging your ‘bear bag’ in a tree that has the requisite characteristics to keep your food safe! Hanging your food has a long history as an effort to keep food away from bears. But bears, and smaller creatures, are clever and determined. They can easily climb trees and recognize a sack of food suspended from a branch. If they can’t reach it from the ground, there is little to stop them from shimmying along a branch to reach a highly sought after reward. Boulder local and expert at long distance backpack trips, Andrew Skurka, has a great article about this ineffective and outdated approach that has cost many a backpacker their food supply. This approach is also simply impossible in many of the alpine environments you will encounter on the CT, as there just aren’t any trees!
Innovation has led to the availability of several products that are designed to prevent critters from being able to eat your cache. We will cover two of them here, the Ursack and the BearVault. Both companies have products that are certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. The Ursack is significantly lighter, substantially more expensive, and much easier to carry in a backpack. The BearVault is cost effective, versatile (use it as a card table, a stool, and more), and extremely resilient to bears and other critters. A Google search on Ursack and BearVault will lead to many reviews, and reading through them will definitely lead most consumers towards BearVault. The gist of the reviews leads you to believe that Ursack products don’t actually prevent bears or other critters from getting to your food, and that they absorb water which leads to significantly more weight. Alternatively, the BearVault, if the lid is screwed on fully and stored upright, is impervious to critters and water.
As Food Storage Orders are revised, they often move more and more towards a hard sided product for bear safety, and CTF supports this direction. We are not alone in this effort to protect bears in the backcountry. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a press release encouraging trail users to use bear canisters. The Colorado Trail shares over 300 miles with the Continental Divide Trail. The CDT also recommends bear canisters. The Pacific Crest Trail, bear canisters. As you have learned, there is no legal requirement along the CT as it pertains to food storage. But please practice responsible backcountry ethics and do everything you can to keep bears alive and healthy, by keeping them out of your food.