Food protection techniques in bear country

Disclaimer. Ultimately you need to make your own decisions on how to protect your food in bear country. And you are fully responsible for the outcomes of those decisions. In this article I have tried to be candid and realistic, and to cut through some of the BS, red tape, and conventional wisdom that surrounds this issue. To be clear, I recommend that you listen to the land management agencies—their rules and their advice. If you feel sufficiently educated, informed, experienced, and comfortable to stray from those guidelines, that is your call.

What’s the problem with bears?

I love seeing bears in the backcountry, and consider myself fortunate that I have seen lots of them, both blacks and grizzlies. They are incredible creatures—they are big, deceptively fast, very clever, and resilient. And, just as important to me, they indicate that I’m in a special place—a tract of land that is sufficiently large, wild, and healthy to support a top-of-the-food-chain species.

But, admittedly, while I love being in bear country, it does make me more nervous, for two reasons. First, bear encounters have the potential to go bad: bears are strong and powerful, and they are sometimes aggressive, especially sows if their cubs are near. Second, bears are “resourceful” omnivores, i.e. they take advantage of any calories they can get—a ripe patch of huckleberries, a road-kill elk, an ant-infested log…or my food sack that is full of chocolate and Pringles. If a bear successfully obtains my food, my plans would have to change: I would need to shorten my trip, ration what I have left, starve, hunt and gather, and/or resupply earlier than I was anticipating. This article discusses techniques to protect your food from bears and prevent this from happening.

Besides keeping my hike on track and retaining my ability to nourish myself, there are other benefits of safeguarding my food from bears. First, I help protect the bear, since a problem bear is eventually a dead bear. (It is sadly common for bears to be exterminated after becoming too habituated and aggressive towards humans.) And second, I help protect the next backcountry user, since a bear that obtains my food is more likely to try again. Please, everyone, be a responsible backcountry user and learn how to protect your food from bears, which will help to protect us all.

Bears in the Lower 48

Based on the questions I most often receive during my slideshows, my sense is that bears instill more fear and concern in backcountry users than anything else in the wilderness. Backcountry users who may have no idea how to read a map and compass, keep themselves warm when it’s cold and wet, or achieve a taught pitch on a shelter seem absolutely convinced that their demise in the backcountry will be caused by a bear, not their own shortcomings. It seems that bears embody all that is unknown and scary about the wilderness. But these concerns are just not legitimate—bears are not the man-eaters that the media makes them out to be, and in the Lower 48 the likelihood of encountering a bear is limited to just a handful of areas.

Black bears were once found throughout Central and North America, but in the Lower 48 their range is now mostly limited to sparsely populated forested areas, including the Appalachians, Ozarks, Alleghenies, northern Great Lakes, Rockies, central and northern California, and the Cascades.

Grizzly bears could once be found roaming California’s Central Valley and even the panhandle of Oklahoma, but now they are entirely contained within five areas:

  1. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, e.g. Yellowstone and Teton National Parks, and surrounding areas like the Wind River Range and the Absaroka Wilderness
  2. Northern Continental Divide, e.g. Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness
  3. Selway-Bitterroots
  4. Northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, e.g. Selkirk Range, Cabinet Mountains
  5. North Cascades in north-central Washington

When to practice food protection techniques

You may want to start considering protecting your food whenever you are in bear country. If you know the bear population is healthy—i.e. if you hear of occasional bear sightings and/or see signs of bears yourself, like finding scat on the trail—you may want to consider it more seriously. Finally, if you are in an area with known “problem bears,” it is probably wise to take some measures. The one exception to these recommendations is the winter, when bears in some parts of the country go into hibernation and food-protection techniques become mostly unnecessary.

A “problem bear” could be described as one that rummages through dumpsters, breaks into cars, raids campsites, and seems to enjoy stand-offs with hikers. Bears become problem bears when they lose their fear of humans and are sometimes “rewarded” for it. This seems to most often occur in heavy-use, no-hunting areas (e.g. national and state parks, and popular sections of long-distance hiking trails) and when humans repeatedly fail to safeguard their food.

There are a few places that are renowned for their problem bears: Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra, “Jellystone” National Park, and the Adirondack High Peaks. Not coincidentally, these areas all share the same characteristics:

  • Healthy bear population
  • Heavy human traffic
  • Abundance of human food
  • Hunting of bears is prohibited
  • General lack of effective food protection measures on the part of the humans.

Thankfully the situation in all of these areas has greatly improved over the last decade, namely because effective food protection techniques are required and enforced.

Some sections of the Appalachian Trail in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia and the Smokies, also have a history of problems. But the AT Conservancy and the Park Service took steps to reduce incidences by installing bear cables near shelters and chain-link fences around them.

Food protection techniques

There are numerous ways in which you can try to protect your food from bears. They range in effectiveness, safety, availability, cost, and ease of use. The method(s) that you employ should be appropriate for the area that you are in—in areas with infrequent or no incidents, you can probably be more lax with your efforts without repercussion; in areas with frequent incidents, you should pull out all the stops.

Bear Avoidance

Regardless of whether I have a failsafe way to protect my food, I do not want a bear coming into my campsite, unless a good night of rest is not a priority, which it almost always is. Plus, I don’t want to find out the hard way that my “failsafe” technique was, in fact, not. So whenever I’m in bear country I practice a number of “bear avoidance” techniques. These include:

  • I do NOT camp where I cook. I cook at least a few hundred yards away from my campsite, downwind, preferably in an airy area where there is a gentle breeze to disperse the scents. Wiser still, I sometimes stop around 8pm near a water source, cook dinner, and then hike another hour before setting up camp.
  • I do NOT carry strongly scented food or other items. These would include things like fresh T-bone steaks, slabs of bacon, deodorant, or sweet-smelling toothpaste.
  • I do NOT camp in established sites or near popular trails. The bears live in the backcountry (duh!), and they know exactly where their “neighbors” live. And in heavy-use areas, it is more likely that a previous backcountry user has acted improperly and encouraged problem bear behavior (e.g. by leaving trash at their campsite, or leaving food unprotected on a log while they went to get water or watch the sunset). Bears are more likely to visit these areas regularly because they know their odds of obtaining an easy meal are better.
  • I DO camp in undesignated, non-established sites. When the bears make their evening “rounds,” they are less likely to come across me. If I am in an area where camping in designated areas is required (e.g. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks), this is sometimes not possible, but thankfully there is usually good food-protection infrastructure at these sites.
  • I DO carry my food in odor-proof bags. These bags (such as the OP Sacks from Watchful Eye Designs) will help make me “invisible” to the bears.
  • I DO burn my trash every few days. This helps to reduce my scents, especially if some of my trash is laced with food remnants, like chocolate coatings from energy bars.
  • I DO start hiking early and finish hiking late. The bears are most active in the morning and evening. So if I start hiking when the bears start roaming, and if I settle into camp at around the same time that they are bedding down, then I help to reduce the odds of an in-camp encounter. And, finally,
  • I DO travel and camp where the bears are not, when I can. Bears are most likely to be encountered near their food sources, so if you know what they are eating, you can avoid those areas and elevations. Grizzly bears in Yellowstone, for example, emerge from hibernation in the spring and descend to lower elevations with the hope of catching an elk or bison calf. During the summer they feast on roots, tubers, grasses, rodents, moths, and berries. And, just before hibernation, they head into sub-alpine white bark pine forests in order to eat the pine nuts.

Food-protection infrastructure

In heavy-use areas and popular campsites, land management agencies sometimes install infrastructure to help with food protection. If I can use this infrastructure, I normally do—it’d be foolish not to. At some shelters along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, for example, you will find “bear cables.” This system is comprised of a thick wire cable that is run horizontally between two trees and a half-dozen wire loops that run from this cable to the ground. Clip your food bag into a loop, pull it up to the horizontal cable, and lock the cable in place with a bear-proof carabineer. In Shenandoah National Park you will find “bear poles,” which are like free-standing coat racks—a center shaft with hooks at the top; the pole is cemented into the ground. Using a boom or a long branch, you can place your food sack on a hook. Finally, in places like Rocky Mountain National Park and the High Sierra, you’ll find bear-proof food lockers in some parts of the backcountry. In Rocky Mountain, the food lockers are old ammunition cases; in the High Sierra, they are custom made bear lockers.

Bear hang

If you are ever looking for footage worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos, film your hiking partner trying to set up a bear hang. Even better, keep the camera rolling when the bear enters camp after dark and debunks the system in about 2 minutes. Bear hangs used to be the standard food-protection technique in the High Sierra, but because so few people can do it properly, they have outlawed the practice. If done properly, the bear hang can be very effective. Usually, finding the perfect tree with a perfect branch is the hardest part. In some popular campsites in the northern Rockies you’ll find a log that has been horizontally strung between two other trees, which makes it much easier. When I hang my food, I use the “PCT Method,” named for the long-distance trail on which this technique originated, the Pacific Crest Trail. This method is excellently explained in the article, “Bear Bag Hanging Techniques,” from Backpacking Light Magazine.

Canisters

Bear canisters are hard-sided plastic or carbon fiber cylinders with a removable lid that is designed to protect its contents (namely, food and other scented items) from bears. The canister’s shape, hardness, and lid seal mechanism (which require opposable fingers to open/close) make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for bears to access the canister’s contents. Land managers in the High Sierra, Adirondacks, and Olympic National Park require the use of canisters, depending on the time of year and your route. The smallest volume canister is about the size of an industrial-sized roll of paper towels, like one that you’d see inside of a dispenser at an airport. Bigger models are larger both in girth and height. The lightest weight canister weighs about 2 lbs; the heaviest model is about 4 lbs. The cost ranges from $75 to $275, depending on the manufacturer, size, and material.

Here is my take on canisters… They are heavy, they are an added expense, and they are uncomfortable to carry—their cylindrical shape fits awkwardly in small packs, and their hard sides inflict bruises if not cushioned correctly. And, frankly, I think they’d be unnecessary if everyone practiced the “bear avoidance” techniques described above and mastered the PCT Bear Hang Method. But that’s wishful thinking, and the canister polices were implemented with the lowest common denominators (i.e. the careless, uninformed backcountry users) in mind.

Rocks

In areas with a lot of exposed rock, you may be able to find natural protection for your food. Sometimes you can find a nook in which you can tuck your food, out of a bear’s reach. Other times you can scramble up a rock face and place the food on a ledge, again out of a bear’s reach. (Do not discount a bear’s ability to climb!) Covering your food with rocks (with care given to not crush your food) is completely ineffective—if you were able to move the rocks, an 800-lb grizzly bear or a 400-lb black bear certainly can too.

Sleeping with your food

In areas with a low risk of bear incidents, and/or an area where no other food-protection technique is practical (e.g. a tree-less alpine area), I will sleep with my food. In bear language, this technique is interpreted as, “Hey Bear. This is MY food. And you’ll have to fight me for it.” Obviously I wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against a bear but they hopefully decide that there are easier rewards elsewhere.

20 Responses to Food protection techniques in bear country

  1. Jess March 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    I live in northern California and tend to camp in areas with more bear sign than people sign so I’ve been pretty disciplined about protecting my food. That said have you tried using UrSacks? They’re advertised as a soft sided bear canister. What they actually are is a chew proof cloth stuff sack that you can then tie to a tree.

    I’ve been using/borrowing one since 2009 and it’s worked great. If a bear goes after your food it will be a little flatter and possibly slobbery but still edible if you’re hungry and the bear doesn’t get anything.

    A little weird, but I’ve also started peeing near where I tie up my food in an effort to mark territory and keep the bears away. Haven’t had any bears go after my food since I started doing it (~1.5 years) but that doesn’t say much as bear attempts are pretty infrequent to start with in my experience.

    Additionally all your advice centers around bears. No problems with mice, raccoons, or porcupines? I have to admit I haven’t lost any food to those critters, but the rock method would make me nervous.

    • Andrew Skurka March 7, 2012 at 2:52 am #

      I used the UrSack in 2006 while on the PCT. It had been conditionally approved that year, but the approval was later revoked. I only carry a canister when it’s required, and in those cases I’m forced to carry an approved hard-sided canister.

      Because I usually select virgin campsites, I rarely have to deal with “mimi bears” like mice and raccoons. These critters congregate around heavily used campsites, creating another reason to avoid them, in addition to hard ground, availability, and their location (usually the wettest and coldest place around).

  2. California Girl March 14, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Appreciate the thoroughness of your consideration of all options, but wanted to add because it is so so so popular especially for newbie backpackers in search of scenery and Sierra awesomeness: You absolutely follow the food storage rules in Yosemite. The park has been so heavily used and people have tried every single trick in the book, and the only consistently effective and LEGAL method in the park is to use canisters from their approved list of tried and true bear canisters. Because the bears have defeated well hung food, Ursacks, and any other food storage method other than the bear lockers (which are not widely dispersed through the backcountry) and canisters. You MUST clean out your car thoroughly and remove or conceal even empty ice chests, and you MUST keep your backpack with you in particular areas – packs that are empty have been stolen out of campsites simply because some of the bears know what they are now on sight, and the same with ice chests or bags or boxes – bears total cars breaking in to investigate any item they understand might contain food, no matter whether there is a food smell or not.

    The problems in Yosemite are a very good reason to practice good food storage elsewhere – don’t let bears become habituated and you won’t have the mandates that are necessary in Yosemite developing in other areas.

    • David April 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

      I agree that we must work on not letting bears become habituated. However, I disagree with the only effective methods “in Yosemite” being the food canisters. I have used Ursack bags for about five years and have never had any animal get my food. It all comes down to proper use and technique. Close the Ursack bag properly and no reward will be had. I have watched mice try to get in my Ursack while it was hung in a scout shelter (mice I know on the AT could get into anything they reached) with no luck. I have watched a bear try to take it out of a tree in the High Sierras, again with no luck. Technique and closing the bag properly I full heartedly believe is the reason no animal has ever gotten my food.

      Everything else is spot on. Even “newbies” can learn proper techniques. Not even bear canisters work all the time. I have seen canisters sitting around camp with the lid off or not closed with no one around. This is asking for trouble. It ultimately comes down to how responsible you are willing to be in the wilderness. I hope we all will be responsible when we venture out next time.

  3. MItchell Keil July 2, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I concur with the comments above and would add the following. Many campers using the canisters make a mistake by not using Opsacks inside to eliminate the smell factor. I have seen canisters used as soccer balls and kicked for hundreds of meters away from campsites because the camper failed to scent proof the canister. this makes the canister itself an attractant to the bears. Thus making backcountry use also problematic, especially with younger bears who have not learned that they can’t get at the food in the canisters.
    My take is that you need to make yourself invisible to bears and their noses. So, as Andrew does leave no trace but don’t use the heavily trafficed sites if you can help it. Don’t carry your bear resistent device unsealed. Don’t carry smelly foods or other smell prone gear. Instead of toothpaste use baking soda. Use the deodorant crystals not Ole Spice. And wash yourself after eating to remove food smells. I use granular pool chlorine, carried in a small container, desolved into my wash basin to wash my utensiles and me after eating. It’s then clean and smells of chlorine (not a health risk) and not of food or soap.Wash the outside of the canister with the same stuff to eliminate food odor from your handling of it.
    I have been in backpack campgrounds (like the one near Glen Aulin in Yosemite) where bears have maurauded and have seen bears walk right by my canister as if were not there (or Ursack when I can get away with it. I hate those canisters!)

  4. MBB July 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    “Black bears were once found throughout Central and North America, but in the Lower 48 their range is now mostly limited to sparsely populated forested areas, including the Appalachians, Ozarks, Alleghenies, northern Great Lakes, Rockies, central and northern California, and the Cascades.”

    While true, bears are still found widely, not just in mountainous regions

    It might surprise you that even flat swampy Florida has a population of about 3000, Ga only about 5000 and Arkansas only about 4000. Floridas populatin decline is due to loss of habitat. In the 80s florida had MORE bears than Ga and Ar put together. It was one of the few states with a huntable population.

  5. Tim Nielsen July 24, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    Andrew – I intend to write a column sharing your knowledge about bears. Your post is by far the best information I have ever read on the subject. I will quote you and give you full credit, of course. Do you have a really good bear picture that I could use with the column?

  6. Steve kaiser October 7, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    I have a FoodSaver vacuum sealer machine. Will vacuum sealed food be oderless and good food protection from da bears?

    I’m preparing for pct thru hike in April 2013. My first hike ever.

    • ricky November 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

      First i cannot tell you how bad an idea it is for that to be your first hike. ask anyone on any hiking forum and you will get the same answer, don’t do it!! do other smaller hikes first. get your walking down, get your prep down, get your gear down, learn what to have and what not to. good god, that a 2000 mile hike you want to do on your first try!

      oh and the food saver bags won’t work either. sorry.

  7. Joel January 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Andrew,

    When using the PCT method and the bag is hung, you still have the cord hanging to the ground. Is that a problem? Will bears use the cord to get at the food? If they do pull on the cord, will or could the food drop to the ground( even if properly hung )?

    What is your recommended way to handle the loose cord? or is this not an issue?

    Also you say you sleep with your food. Is it better to sleep with your food or use the PCT method to hang the food? Assuming you are not in a canister required area and you follow your guidelines for bear avoidance.

    • Andrew Skurka January 9, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

      If the bear figured out how to pull the cord and remove the stopper, it’d get your food. I haven’t heard of that happening, but it probably has. The more common failure with the PCT method is the branch: if it’s too low, they’ll swipe at it from below; if it’s too high, it’s hard to set up; if it’s too thick, they’ll walk out onto the branch and chew through the cord; if it’s too thin, they’ll break it off at the trunk, or it’ll break under the weight of your food. See the problem? If bears are that big of a concern, just carry a damn canister.

      If I am not in an area where canisters are required and if I’m confident in my bear avoidance techniques, I’ll sleep on my food, but I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have to ask.

  8. Bob April 14, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    While working for the NPS in the backcountry office at Rocky, I had to explain to people why canisters are required. Rather than just give the, “It’s policy” reply I did a little research. What I found is that canisters are the only way to ensure the safety of both bear and food. Hangs are not 100% effective and bears, in some parts of the country, have learned how to get them down. It’s difficult to read someone claiming to care about bears and yet take such issue with canisters. The comment about the “LCD” seems almost condescending. The simple fact is that the wilderness is available to all, regardless of experience. Yes, canisters are heavy, but isn’t the weight a small price to pay to help save a bear? I applaud your record of positive experiences in bear country. Nevertheless, I feel your lukewarm comments about canisters are somewhat irresponsible.

    • Andrew Skurka April 15, 2013 at 8:51 am #

      Bob – I think there are two issues here: first, the effectiveness of canisters in protecting food against bears; second, whether they are necessary.

      I would agree that they are the most effective solution for food protection, at least versus other conventional techniques, notably tree hanging and odorproof sacks. If I was ever forced to throw my food into a bear cage, I would absolutely want it in a canister.

      I don’t think we disagree on the necessity of canisters either. Because land managers can’t rely on backcountry users to reliably protect their food via other means — e.g. bear prevention techniques like those described, which at this point have been successful for me well beyond statistical doubt, or even excellent tree hangs like those rigged by Kevin Sawchuck — they have had to require canisters. I’m not backing off the statement that canisters are a “lowest commmon denominator” solution. (However, don’t twist my words — I’m not saying that less experienced users shouldn’t have access to the backcountry. They absolutely do.)

      In many places, including Rocky, the need for canisters is even greater because land managers require that backcountry users stay in designated campsites. For a bear, these are like restaurants, grocery stores, or huckleberry patches — they know that food is reliably there. Thus, a policy designed to protect sensitive wilderness environments has the byproduct of a human/bear problem, further supporting the need for a canister requirement.

  9. David September 24, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    What resources would you suggest on understanding patterns of bears in various locations? Specific examples – how to know if bears make their way through an area, what time of year they will, hibernation time periods, etc.?

    • Andrew Skurka September 24, 2013 at 9:15 am #

      Your best resource will be a wildlife officer, preferably a bear expert, in the area you are backpacking. Beyond that, use anecdotal evidence: scat, prints, and stories from other hikers.

  10. Marvin February 27, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    Somewhat beginner hiker here, about to do some more camping along the Appalachian trail.

    If I am sleeping in a tent in an area known for bears, will I have to hang EVERY last bit of food that I have? What I mean is – let’s say I am settling in somewhere, cook my dinner, clean up and hang my reserves but want to leave some trail mix with me in case I wake up starving, is that a serious issue? What about something simple as a Snickers wrapper I forget to leave in my pocket? Do I have to hang any and all trash/containers that has some lingering food scent?

    And also other scented items such as deodorant and creams (I know, I know; best to leave these items at home but just speaking hypothetically if I choose to spend some days in town). Will having that in my tent with me be an issue?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka March 3, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      The official line you will hear is that you must protect every scented item, which would include everything from your food to your deodorant.

      But the experiences of thousands of AT thru-hikers prove that the official line is BS. Many thru-hikers hang their food at the start of their trip, but almost all slowly realize that it’s unnecessary. When in shelters, it’s wise to hang your food from the rafters to protect it from mice, but as far as I know no bear in recent history has entered a shelter to steal hiker food. When not camping at shelters, most hikers sleep on or adjacent to their food, and again as far as I know no AT hiker has ever had food stolen from them.

      When hikers hang their food, that’s usually when bears get it. Why? Because hanging your food perfectly is hard to do, and anything less than perfect is an easy meal for a bear.

      • Roseline Hayden March 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

        Hi Andrew,

        I have been reading a awful lot about protecting our food from bears while hiking and tent camping. Very little information out there on cabin camping. I am going cabin camping at Gallatin in Bozeman, MT. Is it necessary to put my food in those odor free packs or bear canisters while we are not at the cabin. I intend to not leave food out and keep it tidy.

      • JB March 28, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

        Andrew, I can assure you that in some areas of the AT, bears entering shelters to steal food is NOT an altogether rare occurrence, thus rafter hanging is a very bad idea.

        A bit more than a year ago, I was at the Cosby Knob shelter (GSMNP) when during the night a bear entered the shelter multiple times and escaped with 3 packs that were rafter hung. One pack was never found, two others were found after much search but of course were shredded.

        There were excellent cable hangs provided and the hikers ignored the warning (6ft square) on the wall of the shelter and the verbals warnings from other hikers. The bear did all this within 10ft of racks full of humans.

        A ranger called me at my home in California a few weeks later to tell me that two of the hikers were located and ticketed and the shelter closed while the bear was captured. Unfortunately, this was a bear that had been captured and tagged before for similar behavior so the ranger said it would likely be killed.

        Just Google “cosby knob shelter bear” and you’ll read threads of that shelter and others.

        JB

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