ATC Recommends Bear-Resistant Food Storage Along Entire Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy yesterday announced the adoption of a new policy strongly recommending that all backpackers store their food in an approved storage container overnight. The organization says “food hangs” are no longer sufficient to protect food after several years of increasing human-bear conflict.

According to the ATC, “acceptable options for hiker food storage include (sic) the following land-manager provided systems available at some camping sites: cable systems, metal pole with arms and bearproof metal boxes; and personal bear-resistant containers carried by the backpacker.”

Bear-resistant containers are necessary for when other bear-proofing infrastructure may be broken, full, or nonexistent. Per the new policy, “by carrying a personal food storage container, A.T. visitors will be prepared should these more permanent systems be unavailable, full or damaged.”

IGBC Certified Bear-Resistant Containers

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certifies certain food-storage systems as “bear resistant.” Most of these products are hard-shell canisters, but it also includes soft-sided Ursack storage bags, including the Major and AllMitey. While the canisters can weigh 2-5 lbs, Ursacks generally weigh in at around or under half a pound.  These products are “bear-resistant” rather than “bear-proof,” as truly intelligent and habituated bears have sometimes been known to break into bear canisters. For these products to effectively prevent bears from being habituated, ALL food and scented items MUST be kept in bear-resistant containers.

Two black bears (some black bears appear brown). Photo by Jim Rahtz via here.

Loaner Programs

Proper bear storage can be expensive, so the ATC has several programs that loan out bear canisters for free. The ATC is pioneering a program to loan BearVault bear canisters to hikers in Georgia. They only have 50 canisters total, so availability will depend on the number of borrowers. They are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Thru-hikers may also borrow bear canisters, but they must be picked up from the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center and returned (or shipped back to) Georgia.

According to Morgan Sommerville, the ATC’s Director of Visitor Use Management, thru-hikers can use these bear canisters for the entire trail as long as they return them afterward. Hard-sided bear canisters are required if camping along the five miles between “Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap, between March 1 and June 1 each year,” according to the Georgia AT club. There is currently no cost associated with this program.

There is also a bear canister loaning program operated by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. BearVault bear canisters are available for free at several locations across Vermont. As in Georgia, canisters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

BearVault 500. Photo via Hugh.

The Problem with “Food/Bear Hangs”

In short: most of the time, they are incorrectly executed or the trees are not suitable, and habituated bears have been finding clever ways to access hikers’ food. Andrew Skurka has an informative, entertaining article illustrating the problem. A proper bear hang is “12 feet above the ground, 6 feet below the tree branch, and 6 feet from the tree trunk,” according to the ATC.

Often, there are no branches or trees that will allow campers to hang bags that meet these qualifications. Other times, hikers don’t properly hang their food, allowing bears and other animals to access it. When bears begin associating people and campsites with accessible food, they become habituated, lose their fear of people, and may even pose a threat. Habituated bears that are deemed a threat must be relocated or killed. As they say, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

A bear hang that is too close to the branch it’s hanging from. Photo from here via Cosmo.

Bear-Human Conflict

Over the past few years, there has been a notable increase in negative human/bear interactions along the AT, spurred in part by increasing numbers of bears along the East Coast. While only a few of these encounters lead directly to hiker or bear injury, many more result in bears taking hikers’ food.

“Years of legal protection, better habitat, and a reintroduction program have helped boost the population from as few as 200 animals to some 750 or more” in Louisiana since 1992, according to National Geographic.

In addition, reforestation encourages bears to return to their historic habitats that were once cleared for logging or farmland.

According to NPS, you can reduce the chances of a bear encounter by keeping your distance. Generally, if you see a black bear, it will be more scared of you than you of it. If the bear notices you:

  • Keep calm
  • Talk so the bear is aware of your presence, and knows you’re human
  • Pick up small children and pets
  • Keep all food and packs close to you
    • If a bear accesses your food, it is more likely to become habituated
  • Try to look bigger
  • Do not run or climb a tree (the bear will out-run and out-climb you)
  • Try to leave (while leaving the bear an escape route)
  • If you are attacked by a black bear and cannot escape, fight back by any means necessary

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Comments 15

  • Pete Smokestack Buak : Jul 15th

    The canister requirement is not for the first 5 miles. of the AT in Georgia. The requirement is for the area between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap (mm 26.3 to mm 31.3), March 1 thru June 1 and only if you are going to overnight between those points. At the current time only a hard sided canister is allowed.

    Reply
    • Penina Satlow : Jul 15th

      Thank you! Just corrected 🙂

      Reply
    • DaveM : Jul 18th

      I used an Ursack on my 43 day 700 mile section hike of the AT, from Central Virginia into Connecticut. Overall I was pleased with it. Easy to use. No bears got after it even though there was plenty of bear activity in New York, so I don’t know how it would have held up to a bear. I typically tied in the fork of a tree about 7 feet above the ground, away from my campsite. The only complaint I had was when it got rained on the Ursack stayed wet for awhile so I had to bag it in my backpack. I eventually started covering it with a plastic bag when I tied it in the tree.

      Reply
  • thetentman : Jul 16th

    It would be nice if the ATC installed Bear Boxes at every shelter along the trail. It keeps the food from Bears and does not provide any food for the Shelter mice. I know that NJ did it years ago and it works. A win-win.

    Reply
    • Peter : Jul 18th

      You are correct. The bear boxes along the AT in NJ are the way to go. These large boxes hold 20 plus hikers bear sacks. Hikers should be responsible to keep clean inside and around these boxes. That is also important.
      Local hiking clubs, that claim maintenance to “districts” should provide fund raising options to members and the public (via outdoor retailers?) .
      I do not want to be regulated/mandated by the ATC to be carrying a canister. 2.5 pounds is 10% of my carry weight !

      Reply
      • Zach : Jul 20th

        They’re heavy, and they take up a lot of pack space too. When I lived in California, a bear canister was just part of Backpacking. So was carrying a gallon plus of water. It was just the way it was, but we have switchbacks.

        Now that I live in the Appalachian, where trails go straight up and down the ridges, my 2.5 pound Rab pack is tough to carry, so I’ve stepped down to an 11 ounce Z Packs pack, and don’t have any room for my Garcia bear can.

        It’s not only a 2 pound can, but also adding another 1.5 pounds with needing to take my bigger pack. 3.5 to 4 pounds isn’t that much, but those pounds feel exponentially heavier after I get above 20 pounds total.

        I like the idea of bear boxes at the Shelters.

        Reply
  • Rich Kurnik : Jul 16th

    Can we donate bear canisters so they can be used by others?

    Reply
  • Robert Fitch : Jul 17th

    Maybe we have enough black bears now and can stop encouraging them. The AT isnt te only place, infact its just the mos recent place that black bears have become a nuisance.

    Reply
  • Brent Mcintyre : Jul 17th

    On a Georgia section in 2019 we found cables for food hangs at every shelter. However, at 5’ 8” tall I could easily reach my bag after raising the it. As an alternative, I opened one of several Bear boxes in shelter area. Much to my surprise there were two mice looking back at me from the box. I have a cannister I purchased for Rocky Mountain trips but at 3 lbs it’s tough on my aging back these days. I also own a Ursack all mitey which has served well.

    Reply
  • Pinball : Jul 18th

    I did the first 50 in GA. My first multi night, in May recently. I was blown away by how few suitable hanging branches there were. I ended up only using shelters with built in cables and metal bear boxes. At some point I’ll be back out and I’m sure my logistics won’t align with shelter camping, so I guess I’m going to buy a canister because I’ve seen mixed reviews on ursacks and it’s hard to tell if the bad reviews are due to user error or not.

    I always wonder about the bloggers and if they’re stressing about food every night.

    Reply
  • TBR : Jul 21st

    I avoid camping in shelters, unless wise to do so because of heavy weather, so bear boxes and cables are something I could not use (though sometimes I camp near enough to a shelter to do so).

    A bear canister makes sense for me.

    I hope this policy leads to further development of the canisters. Limited options at the moment.

    My AT hikes were years ago, with fewer hikers and better-behaved trail users. Bears were not an issue.

    Reply
  • Remy : Jul 26th

    I carried a BearVault 450 (the short one) over 1000 miles of the AT. It weighs slightly less than 2 lbs.

    Bear cans are great for:
    1) Areas like the Grayson Highlands where trees aren’t tall enough.
    2) ‘Side quests’ – I could roll it into the bushes and go off on a blue blaze without worrying.
    3) Camping wherever you want and not worrying about getting to a shelter with cables or bear storage. (Including trails less travelled that don’t have this infrastructure).
    4) Camping between March-June when bears are awake and hungry but food is not yet abundant.
    5) They are waterproof. And you can sit on it!
    6) MICE

    Bear cans are NOT great for:
    1) trail sections where dispersed camping is not permitted, and bear proof options are provided anyway.
    2) trails with strenuous knee to elbow climbs or tricky descents (they make your pack too-heavy!)
    3) camping in off-seasons, with little to no bear activity.

    I understand the concern over increased bear/human encounters; even those that only lead to camp sites being closed /off limits. But asking this of thru-hikers ONLY will not really address this problem. The real solution here is to provide bear proof storage options at popular camps and shelters. And a real public education campaign that using these options is … not optional.

    Reply
  • Paws On The Trail : Jul 29th

    After a long hard day I dreaded the hang ritual of trying to hang my food. I’ve been using the BV500 and on occasion the BV450 for about 10 years nows. In 2019 did 1,000 mile on the AT with the BV500. On that trip in Virginia many hikers lost their food to bears and one night found myself and a few others fending off a bear in a tree attending to get a meal from a hanging food bag. The bear walked right by my BV500 on the ground and headed for the easier hang. I look at it as the BV500 is no heavier then a liter of water. I can use it as a seat a laundry tub and as a food valt.

    Reply

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