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Sending the Bears off to School: Yosemite or Jellystone?
What we can learn about packing from smarter than average bears
Zip. Swish. Shuffle. Swish. Zip. Zip. Swish. All set? I popped out the tent door, festooned in the many layers that, when put together in ensemble, gave me the girth of the Pillsbury doughboy albeit a lot more colorful. At 10,000 feet, even in mid-September, morning temperatures were dipping towards the freezing mark and I had to get up and make breakfast. Just what did I bring again?
Sweeping aside the thick morning cobwebs and trying to recall where things were in camp (it had been a long, solid night of sleep), I recalled that the cook set was over to the left of the tent and just how could anyone forget the long steel cable overhead that ran like a telephone wire over the long string of campsites. For this was bear country. What? Come again? Do bears use phones? Well, after first checking in with Yogi and Boo-Boo to see how they’re doing in their new digs at the assisted living home, most bears love calling their closest cousins to report a good picnic basket. But on closer inspection, this was no telephone line overhead. It was a twisted wire rope strung between poles from which one counterbalances food bags to keep them away from the bruins. Ruin by bruin is not the best way to start a backpack trip.
Yosemite is chock-full of black bears, well-educated ones. So crafty are these creatures that they’ve figured out how to open car doors (if they’re nice enough not to just smash the windows and doors to break in), open garbage bins that are not properly chained up or equipped with bear-proof handles, and send their cubs out on missions to lend a helping paw to old ma. The bears up in this particular backcountry campground perched amongst the peaks that surround Tuolumne Meadows have not yet been awarded red tags which would exile them to a remote section of the park, like its northeast corner where backpackers seldom go (I’ve got a few good red tag bear stories for that part of the park, which I’ll save for another post). However, the campground I was in must have been on the parcourse for bears aspiring to have their tags upgraded from green to yellow to red.
Before the days of portable bear canisters that backpackers now stuff their food into, hikers were required to gather all their food and other smelly items, drop them into stuff sacks, and hang these goody bags in counterbalance from a stout branch high up in a tree. While a physics class would help in imagining all the steps and dynamics involved in the proper hanging of these stuff sacks, suffice it to say that these food bags need to be fairly equal in weight for a proper counterbalance.
You see, bears-in-training on the parcourse circuit have figured out that if they send one of their cubs out on a limb and get them to bounce up and down like the excited youngsters they are as they eagerly anticipate their next meal of fig newtons and crunchy peanut butter, the bags that are hanging from said branch will move. The heavier bag will settle. All the way to the ground! From there, mama can munch into the bag and rip it off the rope. Lo and behold, the other counterbalanced bag that had been pulled way up to the top of the counterbalance (think vertical seesaw) comes crashing down in a glorious two-for-one meal deal that’d make any average bear happy!
In any case, that’s why the rangers had installed this long thin steel cable suspended over the campground. The bear classes in these parts were no circ-de-soleil training courses. Tightrope walkers and acrobats they are not. Even if a stray circus bear could make his way to camp and somehow manage to ascend a skinny telephone pole, the theory is that the cable would be too taught to gain any significant amplitude to cause an unbalanced food load to settle to the ground. Written like an engineer! See! I knew my engineering degrees would come in useful one day.
So, back to the story, I walked over to the cable to apply some human-learned, bear-proof trickery to get at the food bags, when the campers a few sites down sauntered over. Perfect timing! That guy’s a little taller than me…maybe he can reach the pull cord just a little easier with this stick. “Um…we weren’t sure anyone was in your camp last night.” Huh? That’s strange. I was in my tent all night for a good solid 10 hours. I don’t think I even got up to go pee.
“Are you looking for your bag?” the woman asked. “It’s probably over that way. The bear dragged it past those trees next to those rocks. The whole camp was up. We were banging pots and pans to scare it away. It had your pack, but we were thinking your site was abandoned because we couldn’t believe that anyone could’ve slept through all that.” Though legendary I was for sleeping through all kinds of train wrecks and other nonsense, staying knocked out cold while a band of raucous campers serenaded a bear with kitchen cutlery accompaniments surely takes the cake.
Dropping any thoughts about breakfast faster than an overstuffed food bag plummeting from a cable, where was my pack?!? Talk about an essential item! But why did it take my bag? Yeah, I love it too, but I wouldn’t think it’d fit mama bear quite right. It wasn’t an XXXXXXL. Quickly lacing up my boots, I scurried off towards the rocky outcropping. It didn’t take long. Maybe 10 yards into the trees, I found my pack. The long skinny side pocket had been ripped (or munched) open and little bits of plastic and scraps of garbage were everywhere. I managed to drum up a few chuckles between tears over losing a good pocket, for the bear had found only a ziplock garbage bag. No lips were smacked at this roach coach unless I had forgotten to eat the last peanut sitting at the bottom of an otherwise empty trail mix bag.
It all added up though. Take any average bear who can smell things way better than any average dog, a forgotten garbage bag sitting in a side pocket of a backpack must’ve smelled something like one of those dreamy steaming hot pepperoni pizzas that cook up inside the heads of backcountry backpackers after eating couscous for a week. Wake up from that kind of dream in exchange for a concert of campers with their cutlery?!? No thank you! I’d prefer to keep those pizza dreams alive with a few more hours of sleep.
So this long story about a bear brings me to my point. Too many pockets in a pack is a problem. Not only can you forget what you put where, you can also forget to empty one of them, as had happened to me with my garbage bag or perhaps you with your passport as you move stuff into your locker.
Now I can already hear all you veteran backpackers loudly protesting that you know exactly what you keep in exactly which pocket because you never deviate from the pattern lest you forget what is where. You always pack the same things in the same spot. I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve owned and used a dozen different backpacks, small, large, external, internal, loaded with pockets, big sacks without pockets, etc, and have used them on all kinds of outings, adventures, and travels. But one universal truth is that the larger the backpack and the more pockets you have, the greater the capacity you have to bring more stuff. It seems to be human nature to fill any available extra space with those luxury items that you were thinking about not taking.
From an ultralight travel perspective, the obvious mindset is to reduce the number, size, and weight of things that one may take. There’s no better way to do this than by using a small, single sack backpack. For starters, all those pockets, deely bobs, and other special features of a complicated fandangled backpack just add to the tare weight of your setup. The construction of a single compartment backpack with minimal frills and made of lightweight materials cannot be beaten when placed on a gram scale. Also, the principal disadvantage of a single compartment, organizing and finding things in a sea of stuff, goes away if you use a small pack and minimize the number of things you take. Fewer items, easier to find, lower weight.
I must admit that it is helpful for the pack to have one minor pocket to hold things like a car key, ear buds, or other tiny items (like PP, the precious pebble!) you don’t want to get lost in your pack or to stuff your pants pockets with, but this pocket should be tiny to prevent you from over-bringing extra things you don’t really need when traveling through and between cities and the country. Everything else should fit into one main compartment.
Of course, this only applies if you take a small pack like I do, 20 liters, and not a giant 100 liter expedition size backpack on your back with a “smaller” 40 liter day pack on your tummy. If you elect to travel with such behemoths, let the good lord help you as you set off on your way to travel the world so that you can spend precious moments organizing, reorganizing, packing, lugging, unpacking, fixing, laundering, and otherwise managing all the stuff that you’re carrying until you end up giving most of it away.
Yogi Bear once said to Boo-Boo “I don’t think we get smarter as we get older. I just think we run out of stupid things to do.” I couldn’t agree more.