Q: I'm planning on doing some winter camping this year, and I wanted to know if it's still necessary to use a bear canister during colder months. I've heard that bears are not true hibernators, and I didn't know if one may wake up if they could smell the food. I live in Pennsylvania if that makes a difference.—Michael Daubert, via email.
A: As in so many things regarding me ad my furry kin, the answer is "that depends." While it's correct that I'm not a true hibernator, my actual behavior changes greatly depending on my species and where I live.
In places like Yosemite, bear canisters are required year-round. At lower elevations, I've been known to get up for a stretch and tromp in the snow for a bit before going back under. If you're nearby, and I smell accessible food, it's possible that I'll go ahead and indulge. The chances are minimal, but still there.
Olympic National Park, on the other hand, has a temperate climate at lower elevations and tons of active bears, even into winter (I once had a huckleberry party with nine cousins in a single day). Here, you're more likely to encounter winter bears—and bear canisters are required in several locations. (These bears aren't quite as crafty as Yosemite bears, so in some places you can use park-provided cables to hang your food.)
To get to your specific question, though, you'll probably be able to winter camp in Pennsylvania without much risk of bear intrusion. Winter freezes hard enough that bear activity will be extremely limited, and populations won't be as dense as in places in the west. You can leave the canister at home (pending local regulations), but it's still a good idea to hang your food in an Ursack or similar protective food storage bag. While I might not mess with your goodies, there are plenty of rodents, birds, and other winter-active animals who might.
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