THE BEAR NECESSITIES: CRITTER-RESISTANT FOOD STORAGE FOR BACKPACKERS
Most backpackers will agree that enjoying a satisfying meal out in nature after a long day on the trail is one of the best parts of the entire wilderness-nomad experience. But backpackers aren’t the only ones who crave a good, hearty dinner after walking around in the woods all day.
Bears inhabit wilderness areas all across the world—including over 30 states in the U.S.—and are well-known for getting into campers’ and backpackers’ food (and garbage, and deodorant, and any other interesting-smelling items). After all, it takes a lot of calories to power an apex predator. And because bears have a sense of smell several times stronger than a bloodhound, they can quite literally smell you from a mile away.
Taking the proper precautions to keep your food, garbage, and toiletries away from bears and other animals not only prevents your supplies from being ransacked while you’re asleep or away from camp, it’s part of being a responsible backcountry traveler. When bears learn to associate humans with food, they sometimes end up being put down out of necessity by wildlife rangers who are trying their hardest to balance the safety and sustainability of both species involved. And even though smaller animals don’t pose much of a threat to humans, developing a taste for human food can still negatively impact their health and the surrounding ecosystem.
The good news is, there are a variety of products and methods you can use to safely store your food and any other enticing items out of reach. Whichever one makes the most sense for you, there are a few key things to keep in mind.
WHAT SHOULD I STASH?
Anything with a scent—including soap, toothpaste, sunscreen, empty food wrappers, baby wipes, and much more. If you’re on the fence about a particular item, error on the side of storing it securely away from critters.
WHERE SHOULD I STASH IT?
You’ll want to pick a spot to store your food, trash, and other animal-attracting items at least a few hundred feet from your campsite, ideally downwind. Never leave food, trash, toiletries, or crumbs inside your tent or shelter—rodents can chew a hole right through the material, not to mention much bigger, stronger animals like foxes and bears.
HOW SHOULD I STASH IT?
There are many methods you can use to keep your food safe from bears and other animals, and all of them have pros and cons. We’ve narrowed down the list to our four favorites. There are certainly other options out there, but these are the critter-proofing approaches that we’ve found to be the most reliable.
Photo by anthony renovato on Unsplash
By far the most reliable method of preventing bears from accessing your food, bear canisters are durable, hard-sided containers designed to be difficult or impossible for bears and other critters to open. Some areas with particularly high bear populations actually require using canisters, and rangers can issue heavy fines to backpackers who are caught without them.
The downside of bear canisters is that they’re heavy and bulky. However, with a little practice, a bear canister can integrate seamlessly with the rest of your packing strategy, with the added benefit of serving as a nice camp seat when the lid is on. And because bears can’t open them or carry them away, you can leave them sitting right on the ground. (Though adding a bit of reflective tape is a good idea to increase visibility in low light.)
A somewhat more recent development in critter-proofing technology, bear bags are made of a super-dense synthetic fabric that bears and other creatures can’t slash or chew through. This saves a lot of weight and bulk compared to a canister, though since they’re not entirely odor-proof, they’re still somewhat at risk for being carried off by a particularly persistent animal. Using odor-proof plastic bags inside the bear bag can further increase your food security, as can hanging them off the ground using one of the methods described below.
While bear bags are great, they’re not necessarily an appropriate substitute for canisters if you’re backpacking in an area that requires strict bear-proofing protocols.
Bear Hang - PCT Method
Originally developed by through-hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail, the PCT method is an upgrade from the traditional bear-hang strategy of attaching a rope to a stuff sack full of food, throwing it over a tree limb, and tying the line to the tree’s trunk. Bears, smart creatures that they are, eventually learned to climb the trunk and bite or slash the line, instantly dropping the food to the ground.However, the PCT method is great because a bear can slash or gnaw at your rope all they want, and your food won’t go anywhere.
You’ll need about 50 feet of cord, a carabiner, and a bear bag or stuff sack. The general idea is to throw your storage sack with a rope and carabiner attached over a tree limb around 20 feet high, lower the bag, then run the other end of the rope through the carabiner. Once you’ve done that, you’ll raise the bag back up, reach as high as you can over your head, and tie a clove hitch around a stick, which will “jam” the carabiner as you release the rope, suspending the bag several feet below the tree limb. To get at your food, simply pull the line, remove the stick, and lower your bag back down.
Be sure to choose a limb without other nearby branches that could catch or tangle your line, in a spot that can support your food but not a bear’s weight. (About the thickness of your forearm or less is a good guideline.) You’ll want to be at least 6 feet away from the tree trunk, because bears are excellent climbers.
It takes a little practice, but it’s less complicated than it sounds. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this helpful video tutorial:
Bear Hang - Balanced Bag Method
The balanced-bag (aka counterbalance) method works somewhat similarly to the PCT method, though it’s better for bigger groups with more stuff to secure. You’ll need at least 50 feet of cord, and two food/storage bags containing approximately equal weight. Start by selecting a tree limb and tossing your cord over the top with the help of a rock inside a stuff sack. Then attach the first food bag and hoist it all the way up, before tying your second bag onto the line as high as you can reach. With the remaining cord or rope, tie a loop that dangles below the bottom of the second bag, before securing the excess cordage. (This loop is how you’ll retrieve your food bags at mealtime.)
Give the second bag a gentle shove with your hands, a trekking pole, or a long stick, and as long as you’ve equally loaded the bags and chosen an appropriate tree limb, they should balance themselves about 12 feet off the ground. Use the same stick or trekking pole to hook the loop and pull one of the bags back down whenever you need to retrieve something.
Check out this video to see an example of how the balanced-bag method works:
Now that you know how to store your food in the backcountry, you can rest easy knowing that your stash is safe, and with the knowledge you’re not causing any unnecessary harm to the land you’re exploring or the creatures that live there. And remember, always prepare your food and clean your dishes at least as far away from camp as you’re storing your food, trash, and toiletries.
TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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