Forces of nature: When bears attack your car

If you're heading out to a national park or anywhere rustic enough to bring close encounters with wildlife, don't leave food in your car. The smell of food can be enough to entice bears, which will stop at nothing to reach their goal.
In 2010, bears in Yosemite National Park broke into 188 cars, causing nearly $96,000 in damage, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Some of the damage they can cause includes:
  • Breaking windows.
  • Crushing the roof of a car.
  • Bending frames.
  • Rupturing camper or RV walls.
  • Tearing into back-seat areas to reach a trunk.
Comprehensive auto insurance coverage, if you have it, will pay for animal damage. This type of protection is not automatic -- you'll have to add it to your policy, and it will raise your premium. You'll also likely have to pay a deductible before coverage kicks in.
In addition to the repair bill, you'll likely be hit with a fine as well. National parks, including Yosemite, often fine visitors for failing to store their food properly. Failure to comply with Yosemite's food storage rules, for example, can bring a fine of up to $5,000, vehicle impoundment and revocation of your camping permit.
Given the expensive consequences, it's best to prevent bears from targeting your car in the first place. For one thing, you'll avoid having your car ripped apart. In addition, you'll be protecting the bears themselves. Bears that become dependent on human food quickly become a nuisance, according to NPS. They start spending too much time near people (and their food), and if bears become aggressive, they have to be killed.
Yet bear-proofing your car is no easy feat. Yosemite alone has hundreds of American black bears. They are strong, curious and clever, and have an excellent sense of smell. Even food that has been removed from a car hours ago can leave an aroma strong enough to attract bears. Things that campers may not think twice about can pique a bear's curiosity -- like trash, soap, cosmetics, canned goods and unwashed dishes.
NPS provides the following guidelines for food storage:
  • Campers may store food in vehicles only during the day. The food must be hidden, and your windows must be completely closed.
  • Never store food in a pickup truck bed, or strap it to the top or side of your car.
  • After dark, remove all food from your car and store it in a bear-proof food locker. Many national park campsites make these lockers available to visitors for overnight food storage. Remove food only if you plan on eating it right away. Keep trash in the food locker as well (or put it in a bear-proof Dumpster).
  • Clean up the inside of your vehicle each day. Remove food wrappers, crumbs and beverage bottles.

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