The Backpacker’s Guide to Bear Bagging
What is the deal with bear bags? Which type should I use, or should I use a canister? Once I have one, what do I do with it?
A reader recently asked for a “complete lowdown” on bear bagging so here we go!
Protect the Bears and Future Hikers
Proper food storage prevents bears from becoming habituated to high-calorie hiker food. Dense fats and sugars are not easy to find in nature, so bears will keep coming back if they find it. Once a bear habituates to human food and becomes aggressive, the bear is in danger of euthanization and future hikers/campers are in danger of the bear.
Some Areas Require Specific Food Storage Methods
First, know when canisters are required. Bear bagging is sometimes ineffective against certain bear populations, so each park and forest has their own regulations. If you have any doubts, consult the website for the area you are heading to.
- PCT/JMT: Numerous stretches in the Sierra Nevada of California require bear canisters. It’s important to know which brands and models are allowed. See what’s required by national parks and US forests here.
- AT: Between March 1 and June 1, a five-mile stretch (northbound miles 26.7-31.7) requires bear-resistant storage containers for overnight camping. Most hikers don’t camp during this stretch to avoid carrying a bear canister. Bear-related AT updates are posted here.
- CDT: Canisters are required in Glacier National Park in all treeless areas. More info here.
A 12-liter bear canister is a common size. This may change from hiker to hiker depending on amount of food as well as pack type.
Store the canister 100 yards downwind from camp, away from cliffs or streams, and upside down to direct a bear’s attention away from the lid. If a bear finds your canister, let them bite and claw it until they eventually lose interest and move on. Do not try to scare the bear away from it, as they may decide to confront you. Place reflective tape on it to make it easy to see, but don’t attach a rope and tie it off to a tree – this will make it easy for a bear to carry off.
What About Bear Bags?
When a bear canister is not required, bear bags are usually preferred. Bear bags are lighter and the shape conforms to the amount of food as well as the inside of a pack.
What types of bear bags are out there?
Ursack bags are made of super strong bulletproof Spectra fabric and hold up to the Interagency Grizzly Committee (IGBC) test. Not only do Ursacks withstand bears – they also protect your food from mice and raccoons.
The rope that ties the mouth of the bag closed should also be long enough to tie around a tree trunk. There is no need to hang an Ursack, but they should be tied off to a tree 100 yards downwind from the campsite.
OPSAK and BaseCamp offer smell-proof bear bags. Do not set the bag on a picnic table or allow the exterior to contact anything with a food scent. If used carefully, smell-proof bags should keep their contents undetectable to bears as well as mice.
Consider using a smell-proof bag as a liner inside your bear canister or Ursack bag.
From my experience on the AT, the most common food bag is a regular dry bag. I used the 20-L Sea to Summit lightweight dry sack. At full capacity, it held 5-6 days of food. Waterproofing prevented soggy food packaging from overnight moisture. I used the same dry bag for my entire thru-hike. It wasn’t pretty by the end, but it served its purpose.
How to Hang Smell-proof and Dry Bags Using Standard and PCT Method:
To be completely safe, hang smell-proof and dry bags. The bag should be 12 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the tree trunk. On the AT, that usually means tossing a line over a branch, hoisting the food bag in the air, and tying the line to a tree.
To take it one step further, someone devised what is now known as the PCT method. The PCT method keeps your food bag suspended, but the rope hangs freely and safe from bear-tampering. Here’s a basic step-by-step:
1. Walk 250 feet downwind from your camp site.
2. Find the perfect tree with the perfect branch. The branch should be between 20-25 feet from the ground and extend at least four feet from the base of the tree.
3. Tie a rock to a 50-ft line and throw it over your branch. Avoid hitting anyone with the rock.
4. Let the rock pull the line down to the ground.
- Connect a carabiner to the line and hang the food bag from the carabiner.
- Feed the free end of the line through the carabiner and pull the food bag entirely up to the branch.
- Secure a small stick in the line as high as you can reach by using a clove hitch knot.
- Let the food bag slide back down and the stick will catch on the carabiner. This is known as the PCT method and is worth watching on YouTube.
5. Ensure that the bag is 12 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the tree trunk.
6. To lower the bag back to the ground, pull the line down and remove the clove hitch and stick from the line.
In some areas, you will find bear cables, bear poles, or bear lockers
Bear cables: Unfasten the cable at the tree and pull it until the food bag hook comes down. Attach your food bag, pull the cable, and refasten it to the tree.
Bear poles: Hang your food bag on the end of the pole and lift it up to hang it on the hooks.
Bear lockers: Store your food bag in the locker and ensure the latch on the door is secured.
Aside from food, bears will be interested in your trash, toothpaste, sunscreen, chap stick, soap, bug spray, and cook pot. If there’s any chance it has a scent, it should go in your food bag or canister.
Keeping food away from bears is everyone’s responsibility. Allowing a bear to get its paws on food will become increasingly aggressive. Not only is the bear in danger of being destroyed (killed), but hikers and campers coming later are also being put in danger of an aggressive bear.
Bear bags don’t have to be fancy, odor-proof, or waterproof. If you’re in a pinch, you can hang food in a tree with a garbage bag or any other way you can get everything suspended. The important thing is to keep it out of reach of the bears in any way possible.
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10 Easy Steps to Tie Your Food Up in a Tree — or – 3 Steps to Using a Bear Canister (Factual Humor)
10 Easy Steps to Tie Your Food Up in a Tree
1. Put a rock into a Ziploc bag and tie bag to rope. Locate a tree with a suitable branch that will hold your food.
2. Try to fling bagged rock over branch and avoid hitting someone with rock, repeat as often as required. Find that Ziploc bag is not strong enough to hold rock securely.
3. (a.) Try tying rope directly to rock, when rock flies off, on first swing, then…
try re-tying the rock more securely, and once again repeat as often as required.
(b.) Bandage head of kibitzing bystander. Try Step #3 (a.) again.
4. (a.) Divide food, trash and ‘smellables’ into two bags of even weight.
(b.) Tie one food sack to one end of rope and hoist it high into the air.
(c.) Discover your branch choice was a bit too flexible or not high enough.
5. Spend next hour finding a better branch. (Note to self: Start process earlier next time to avoid hunting for suitable tree branch in the dark) Re-fling rock over branch (Step #3. (a.) [ Try to avoid Step #3. (b.)] Then repeat Step #4. (b.))
6. Tie second sack as high up on rope as possible. Discover the weight of each sack was not as even as you thought, untie bags and sort contents, repeat as needed.
7. Coil remaining rope and attach it to second sack. Send second sack up even higher, with a great fling. Observe that both sacks are now totally out of reach of the bears …and you.
8. Finally go to bed and spend the entire night worried about your food, and jerking awake at every noise because you just KNOW that’s the sound of your food being destroyed, because the NPS has told you that: “Hanging your food is not considered effective”.
9. When bears, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines, marmots etc. or bad weather have destroyed your food, then gather the remains and the packaging trash and place the entire mess in a garbage bag and carry to the trailhead for proper disposal.
10. Buy new food locally (at outrageous prices) or cancel the rest of backpack outing.
3 Steps to Using a Bear Canister
1. Put food, trash and ‘smellables’ in canister and secure lid.
2. Walk 50 to 100 feet outside of camp and put canister down.
3. In the morning walk 50 to 100 feet outside of camp, open top and get food. Secure lid.
kib·itz intr.v. kib·itzed, kib·itz·ing, kib·itz·es. Kib’itz·er n Informal
1. To look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others.
2. To chat; converse.
NPS: National Park Service Or other Land Management entity
You will find plenty of other BEAR information there!
I carried my bear canister all the way from Kennedy Meadows, into Canada because it was just so convenient, even with the weight penalty.
I used to try tying the line around a rock to throw it, but now I find it’s totally worth the extra ounce to carry a small bag to put a rock in for throwing. No more fiddling with different arrangements of rock on rope, no having to re-do it if it comes off after a failed throw, and you can fill it with dirt, etc. if there aren’t any good rocks around.