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 asked us for a “complete lowdown” on bear bagging, so here we go!

Bear bag

Photo by Brantley

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 being euthanized, while future hikers/campers are in danger of the bear.

Bear canisters

Photo by Brett L.

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: The ATC strongly recommends that hikers carry bear canisters, but they are generally not required on the AT.
    • Between March 1 and June 1, a five-mile stretch between Jarrard Gap (northbound mile 26) Neel Gap (mile 31) requires bear-resistant storage containers for overnight camping. Most hikers don’t camp during this stretch to avoid carrying a bear canister.
    • As of 2019, hikers in Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont are also required to store their food properly in bear-resistant containers.
    • Bear-related AT updates are posted here.
  • CDT: Canisters are not required on the CDT, but the Continental Divide Trail Coalition recommends that you carry one. The CDT is home to black bears throughout and grizzlies in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Putting food in bear canister

Photo by daveynin

A 12L 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. Bear bags are not nearly as foolproof as canisters or lockers, but in areas where bears have not learned to seek out human food, they are often adequate to keep your food safe from bears and vice versa.

What types of bear bags are out there?

Bear-resistant bags:

Ursacks are made of super strong bulletproof Spectra fabric and hold up to the Interagency Grizzly Committee (IGBC) test. Not only do Ursacks withstand bears, but they also protect your food from mice and raccoons.

Despite this, it’s important to note that many national parks that require bear canisters will not accept an Ursack as a substitute. Always check with the local land management agency to ensure that an Ursack is acceptable. If you just want to carry one for your own peace of mind rather than to comply with regulations, it’s a great choice.

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 it should be tied off to a tree 100 yards downwind from the campsite.

Smell-proof bags:

The OPSAK is a smell-proof plastic bear bag. It is made of thin plastic and is meant to be uased as a liner for a more durable sack or bear canister.

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 (or at least less detectable) to bears and rodents.

Dry bags:

From my experience on the AT, the most common food bag is a regular dry bag. I used the 20L 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.

Standard hang

Standard hang

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 rather than being tied off to a tree. This style of hang is safer from bear-tampering.

Here’s a basic step-by-step:

1. Walk 250 feet downwind from your campsite.

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-foot line (or place the rock inside a small bag attached to a line) and throw it over your branch. Avoid hitting anyone with the rock (including yourself — make sure you’re not stepping on the line before you throw it!).

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.
Clove hitch knot

Clove hitch knot. Raise the food bag to the branch and tie the stick in as high off the ground as you can.

5. Ensure that the bag is 12 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the tree trunk.

12 feet off the ground, 4 feet from the tree

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.

Camper's Food Bags Hung Out of Bear Reach

Photo by J Stephen Conn

Bear poles: Hang your food bag on the end of the pole and lift it up to hang it on the hooks.

Food bag on Bear Pole

Photo by Nick Postorino

Bear lockers: Store your food bag in the locker and ensure the latch on the door is secured.

bear locker

Photo by Alyse & Remi

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.

Featured image: Photo via Kate Lysaught. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

This article was originally published on 9 December 2016. It was last updated by our editorial staff on 16 April 2024.

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Comments 7

  • pineapplefish56 : Dec 9th

    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

    This document is from:–Reserved.html

    You will find plenty of other BEAR information there!

    • Fireman : Dec 16th

      I carried my bear canister all the way from Kennedy Meadows, into Canada because it was just so convenient, even with the weight penalty.

  • Brian : Oct 5th

    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.

  • Catalina : Apr 4th

    Just an FYI, you don’t need a bear canister in Glacier NP. You do need one in Glacier BAY National Park but that is in Alaska and not on the CDT.

  • Adrian : Apr 30th

    The SeaToSummit Lightweight bag referenced in this article is not rated for load. It has only one plastic buckle, small one… I am curios how much food (pounds) this held when you used it as a bear hang.


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