Top

Admission: Yes, I sleep with my food

Sunset in the Yukon Arctic. My food was stored in the clear OPSAK at the front of the shelter.

In a post yesterday I shared my recommended food storage techniques. Some readers responded skeptically to my fifth method — sleeping with it — so I thought I’d discuss it more fully. I’m intentional about when and where I’ll do it, and I don’t have a death wish.

First, a disclaimer

Sleeping with your food seems riskier than storing it further away from camp. There’s little (or no?) data to support that assumption, but it seems intuitive. If you decide to sleep with your food, it’s on you.

In this post I’ll explain my approach, but I’m not recommending that you do the same, nor can I guarantee that you’ll have the same results.

Defining “sleeping with food”

If I’m sleeping in an enclosed shelter, I’ll keep my food inside it. If I’m cowboy camping, I’ll sleep on it or immediately next to it. Often I use my food bag as a knee rest, to relieve pressure on my back; it can make a decent pillow, too.

The food cannot be left on the ground “nearby.” From the perspective of an opportunistic food thief, unattended food is open for the taking. Wildlife look for easy calories, and only the most brazen and desperate bears and mini-bears would try to take food that’s obviously in my possession.

Cowboy camp on slickrock in Escalante-Grand Staircase. My food bag is the clear bag on the far side of my sleeping bag and bivy.

Why do I sleep on my food?

When the conditions are right, I always sleep on my food. It’s the lightest, least time-consuming, least fussy, and least expensive storage method. In other words, it’s the most convenient.

When & where will I sleep on my food?

If I decide to sleep on my food, three conditions must be met:

  1. The land agency must not require a specific storage method;
  2. The risk of a bear entering my camp is acceptably low, and ideally zero; and,
  3. The risk of rodents in camp is also low, and ideally zero.

If the land agency requires a specific method, then I’ll adhere to the regulation.

If I’m not comfortable with the bear risk, I’ll use permanent infrastructure, a hard-sided canister like the BV500, or a soft-sided bear-resistant sack like the Ursack Major.

If I think that rodents may occupy my camps, I’ll plan to: hang my food out of their reach (a.k.a. “rodent hang,” which will not be out of reach for a bear, because the food will be only a few feet off the ground); or to use a soft-sided rodent-resistant sack like the Ursack Minor.

In areas where canisters are not required and where I’m not concerned about bears or mini-bears, I will sleep on or next to my food. This Wind River Range campsite was several miles off-trail, at treeline, and showed no signs of previous use.

Assessing risk

How do I determine the risk of bears or rodents? I rely on personal experience and research. What have I observed before, and what am I being told by area guidebooks, online forums, trip reports, rangers, and the local news?

I would consider an area to have low bear risk if:

  • Few or no bears live in the area,
  • Little or no bear sign has been seen (e.g. prints, scat, root digging),
  • I’m camping far from seasonal food sources (e.g. berry patches), and/or
  • There are no recent reports (and, ideally, no reports at all) of bears stealing food from backpackers or campers.

Assessing the risk of rodents is more straightforward, and also less consequential:

  • At high-use and moderate-use campsites, I expect mini-bear problems.
  • At low-use campsites, it’s rare but possible.
  • At virgin campsites, I don’t recall ever having a rodent issue.

The softest bed of moss on which I’ve ever slept, along Alaska’s Lost Coast.

Personal results

I haven’t kept count, but I’ve probably slept with my food for more nights than all other overnight storage methods combined. This includes many thru- and section-hikes of long-distance trails (e.g. AT, CT, IAT, NCT, PNT, PCT, CDT), a little loop around Alaska and the Yukon, and weeks on the Wind River High Route and Pfiffner Traverse.

I’ve had a few bears enter my camp, each time in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park (where hard-sided bear canisters are generally required, and always required for commercial groups). I’ve had far more problems with mini-bears, especially at high-use campsites in popular areas like the AT and in National Parks.

If I repeated these trips, I’d do things differently in some cases. In the past fifteen years, the risks, regulations, available methods, and my thinking have changed or evolved, and will continue to do so in the future.

Have a question, opinion, or experience with sleeping with your food? Leave a comment?


The opinions expressed in this post are my own. I do not publish sponsored content or native advertising, and I do not accept payments in exchange for reviews. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products.

This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby in exchange for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like REI or Amazon, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links.

28 Responses to Admission: Yes, I sleep with my food

  1. Bart December 21, 2018 at 1:55 pm #

    As I said in the previous post, there seems to be no alternative for thru hikes.

    No one’s willing to carry a canister, as they’re too heavy/bulky/painful. Even then there’s usually not enough room to store a weeks’ food (AND personal hygiene items too). So you just end up with excess food outside the can and no where to put it.

    On the PCT, hanging food seems like a joke. As I’m walking I’ll frequently look around and think, “Where would I hang a bear bag here?” The answer is, “No where, because all the limbs are like 2 inches thick.”

    Even the Ursack adds a 1/2 pound to your backpack (in a world where people cut the labels off their clothes to save weight).

    So it seems your only choice is to practice bear avoidance and sleep with your food.
    Everybody can stop to cook dinner an hour before the place where they intend to camp. That’s just a no brainer.

    Presently I put ALL food and personal hygiene items into a clean, fairly new OP sack.
    Then I put the OP sack inside a trash compactor bag and twist that shut.
    Then I put the trash compactor bag inside my backpack, and close the backpack up.
    Then I put that right next to me in my Duplex tent. I fold the empty belt pockets under the pack (pockets which held snacks during the day and probably still have that smell) .
    So far, no problems.

    Thanks Andrew for being honest!

    • Andrew Skurka December 21, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

      I think the bear risk is unacceptably high along only a few stretches on popular long-distance trails. For example: the High Sierra and Desolation Wilderness along the PCT; and Yellowstone, The Bob, and Glacier along the CDT.

      Temporary use of a canister or Ursack is probably smart here.

      Mini-bears will be a much more common problem for thru-hikers. On the AT, for example, it’s really hard for ground sleepers to get away from high-use campsites. At 5 oz, I think an Ursack Minor could be really useful for the non-bear sections.

  2. bart.taylor3 December 21, 2018 at 4:42 pm #

    Totally agree on Yellowstone, The Bob and Glacier
    I hadn’t heard that Desolation was that active, but when you Google Maps Desolation it says, “Unspoiled lake & peak area & BLACK BEARS”! LOL! I’ve never seen Google give me a heads-up. That’s one of the sections I’m doing this summer (solo), Echo to Sierra City.
    Thanks for the help,
    Bart

    • Andrew Skurka December 21, 2018 at 6:20 pm #

      I don’t think Desolation is as bad as the High Sierra, but I think it’s an area to be cautious: it’s good bear habitat, gets a lot of use, AND canisters are not required, so I’m certain that terrible bear-hangs abound and that bears get food whatever night they want it.

      Those types of bears make me nervous — the kind that have been “trained” to walk into camps and check out the offerings because frequently they get a “reward.” Ironically, the bears in really wild places like Alaska scare me much less: when a grizzly walks into a camp in Alaska, it probably will get shot.

      • bart.taylor3 December 21, 2018 at 7:11 pm #

        Any time a bear walks into camp…I think, “He probably has a DAILY routine of walking into that camp on his way to get a drink in the stream. Every night it’s a new bunch of hikers. Hikers yell and scream. Sometimes he gets food, sometimes he doesn’t. BUT…a new bunch of hikers will be here tomorrow night! Sweet!

    • Nick December 21, 2018 at 9:40 pm #

      My wife and I didn’t see a bear on our entire NB PCT thru-hike until Desolation. I witnessed it sniffing around another hiker’s tent. Ironically, this was the first night in weeks where we didn’t have bear canisters. We mailed them home in South Lake Tahoe as we’re just out of the required area necessitating one.

  3. bart.taylor3 December 21, 2018 at 4:52 pm #

    I was listening to Bart Smith being interviewed yesterday. He said the only time he’s had a bear encounter (in 35,000 miles of hiking) was when he was eating his wife’s home made chili in camp.
    He was cowboy camping, and said that night a bear bite him through his sleeping bag and into his butt cheek. He jumped up and screamed. The bear ran off. He said the chili was giving him terrible farts.

    So, that’s one to add to the list!
    1) Don’t bring food that has a lot of smell (chili).
    2) And don’t bring food that give you lots of GAS!

    I’ve never thought about it, but I would imagine bears would interpret gas as a huge food smell and is probably something they could smell from a long way off.

  4. Ted December 21, 2018 at 6:19 pm #

    You’ve got me re-thinking my long-ingrained habit of hanging bear bags. I’ve definitely had sites where an appropriately sized and located branch was hard to find.

    That said, I’m not sure about the recommendation of keeping your food closeby, regardless of the method. It seems like the recommendations are to store food away from camps to keep bears from associating people with food and food smells, and the reason for that is just as much (or more) about the safety of the bears rather than people or their Snickers bars.

    Even in the absence of data, the logic seems sound, and I’d be inclined to go with that for the sake of the bears over a questionably marginal improvement in the safety of my food due to having it close by. I’ve had a gear stolen and chewed for salt by “mini-bears” while I slept blissfully unaware nearby.

    • Andrew Skurka December 21, 2018 at 6:27 pm #

      I don’t recommend hangs, ever. They’re fussy and often impractical (due to tree availability, as you stated). Better alternatives — that is, safer, faster, more effective, and more reliable — would be a hard-sided canister or a bear-resistant sack. You don’t need to keep either one near you, although I like to so that I could run off anything that starts messing with it.

      An Ursack Major weighs only 8 oz, and it easily pays for itself in the 30-minute time savings each night versus hanging your food. And it will be more effective when that determined bear comes into camp.

  5. Will December 21, 2018 at 6:51 pm #

    Thanks for this post, it seems to be somewhat verboten to actually write out loud on the internet but it seems that most serious backpackers often sleep with their food.

    For me a big part of the calculation is also the behavioral adaptions of bears in a given area. For instance, I’m pretty happy to sleep with my food in the Bob since bears are hunted there and many have experiences getting buckshot from a guiding outfitter if they come into camp looking for food. In dispersed campsites in Glacier on the other hand I’ll usually use an Ursack, since the different management regime produces a different set of behavioral adaptions in the population.

    • Andrew Skurka December 21, 2018 at 6:59 pm #

      Very good point re behavioral adaptations.

  6. Tac December 21, 2018 at 8:37 pm #

    The logic behind sleeping with food is that bears (talking about black bears here) are afraid of you and will not risk a human encounter to get food. You NEVER hear of a bear going after a pack of food while a hiker is wearing the pack. Nearly all stories of problem bears involved bears going after unattended food. Those who say you are irresponsible for sleeping with food will cite rare cases of bears going for food in tents with people. However you rarely hear the whole story. It is just as likely that bears have learned that tents are,a good place to find unattended food. Part of the strategy is to minimize food odors (I use odor barrier bags) AND maximize human odor by not using scented toiletries. Smelling bad (ie like a human) is part of good food management. The other key thing is to keep your food with you 60/60/24/7 (every second of every minute of every hour of every day). Bear biologists have told me this is all scientifically sound based on what we know, but the only way it can ever be tested is for a management area to require this in an area to see if indeed bears do not learn to be a nuisance as they do in areas that require traditional storage methods. Unfortunately, there is no wildlife management agency bold enough to do this experiment.

  7. bart.taylor3 December 21, 2018 at 10:02 pm #

    I was thinking about what Native Americans did right and wrong (in our modern opinion).
    –Think about it. They were probably always cooking food and smoking meat and fish right in their campground. I think I could smell smoked salmon a half mile away, much less what bears could smell.
    –They always slept near to water sources, to feed the ponies.
    –They slept with their food. Probably lots of smells of buffalo meat was also there.

    Things we would think was right:
    –They were probably always in groups of 4-6 men.
    –Their ponies would go ape if a bear or mountain lion walked into their camp after dark.
    –They were always well armed with rifles, hunting Bows, tomahawks, hunting knives

    If a bear was STUPID enough to walk into a say, a Cheyanne or Sioux hunting party campground…then the next day they were smoking fish and…bear meat…and happy to not have to go hunt it down. That’s just called Darwin.

    Times have changed.

    • bart.taylor3 December 22, 2018 at 10:01 am #

      But then…they probably wouldn’t understand why any person would:
      walk off into the wilderness alone
      covering 20 miles a day
      without any weapons
      without a horse
      carrying everything on their back
      for the “fun” of it…

    • TimH April 21, 2019 at 6:54 pm #

      Keep in mind that native Americans didn’t have ponies or rifles for 10,000 years until the white man came. Times have indeed changed.

      -Tim-

  8. Sam Cooper December 22, 2018 at 9:58 pm #

    Thanks for this nice write-up! I have a question regarding the PCT. I am scheduled for a 2019 NOBO, and I have yet to decide what food storage system I will use. Obviously, I will use a bear can (BV500) when required, but what about the other times? I was thinking about buying the hanging kit from ZPacks, but I’m not sure about the usage of it (especially in the desert). Maybe just a large OPSack and sleep with it? Thank you!

  9. Ioanna December 23, 2018 at 1:42 am #

    I hike in Europe, mostly countries like Norway, Iceland, the UK or Spain, Poland, Greece. There are no bears in those areas and the only animals I could worry about would be rodents or wild boars.
    I always sleep with my food in my tent. I don’t even care all that much about careful packaging. I just stuff it all into dry sacks. I even eat in my tent sometimes (oh, no, the horror!) and never had any issues.

    I typically wild camp and sometimes use established campsites. Even there I didn’t encounter any rodents.

    If I were to wild camp in the Balkans or Romania I would be more careful as there are bears there… but as I’m a lazy hiker, I prefer to go safe lands – they are plenty of stunning trails in Europe where I don’t have to worry about bear safety!

    • Dano February 18, 2019 at 8:44 am #

      Would love to hear strategies on dealing with bears in Romania and in Scandinavia. Not sure how aggressive these bears are and how used to people food they are.

      • Geert van Mourik February 18, 2019 at 8:54 am #

        I have done a lot of hiking in Sweden and always sleep with my food. The Swedish ‘outdoor-authorities’ (STF) advise this as well. Bears have, if I recall well, killed 12 people in Sweden since people invented fire (so to speak) most of whom were hunters and the others people with dogs.

        Cute story a friend of mine told me: the bus he was in when travelling from Kiruna to Lulea, was flagged down by an ecstatic elderly Swede who just hád to tell someone he saw his first bear! Had been living there his entire life.

  10. Erin McKittrick December 23, 2018 at 9:21 pm #

    One method not mentioned is a portable electric fence. We sleep with our food a lot, but when I’m worried about bears, or leaving a camp full of food unattended for awhile (group camp for trail work, base camp with kids), I set up one of those. They run on AAs, and pack smaller than a bear canister, and can surround your whole rent if you want to sleep with food worry free. Also, I think conditioning bears that tents hurt is probably a good thing for them and other hikers.

  11. Bart December 24, 2018 at 7:25 pm #

    Andrew, check out this video. What would you say he did wrong? (other than letting the bear eat his tent)

    https://youtu.be/WAQZK5qjlOc?t=97

    This is a great series of a wildlife manager in Mammoth Lakes. He’s probably THE most knowledgable person I’ve seen on black bears. (But I don’t think he hikes).

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuGhlhNgflqC8I8PcpEAQ3Q/videos

  12. Joe January 4, 2019 at 1:58 pm #

    Huh. First, I’m old. 66.
    I’ve had lots of trouble with what y’all call mini-bears, more and more with passing time, and have sadly abandoned some previously treasured places for that reason.

    Mice running across my face in the night has a significantly negative effect on my wilderness experience.

    Regarding REAL bears, I carry a powerful handgun, without regard for laws that govern that practice.

    I’m skilled in its use. I don’t carry it openly, but it is quick to hand.

    Humans are inherently defenseless against large predators, but there have been ways to address that deficiency for a few thousand years, and I choose to employ them.

    And yes, I will risk my life to save yours.

    Bear and lion problems in the west have increased as it has become less acceptable to kill renegade predators.

    Predators are smart, and they are teachable. Sometimes mama has to die to teach Junior to leave humans alone.

    • Chris April 12, 2019 at 2:07 am #

      To be honest I am more concerned about people who carry guns during a leisure activity, use overly macho language and are quite open about their lack or respect for the law, than I am about bears.

  13. Geert van Mourik January 14, 2019 at 6:59 am #

    Andrew,

    I just read the new IGBC list of approved containers.I see that the Ursack is approved, does that mean that for example Gates of the Arctic now allows Ursacks?

    And I take it you would have brung a sack rather than a hardsided container to the Brooks range?

    Thanks!

  14. Bart February 3, 2019 at 10:38 am #

    Interesting, in case people haven’t read this from “Yogi’s PCT Handbook”:

    Yogi: “I put my food bag into my pack with all my other gear. Then I put my pack under my feet as I sleep.”
    Anish: “Bear canister in the Sierra, otherwise it’s in an OPSAK under my feet.”
    Bink: “Outside of bear canister required areas, I sleep with it next to me.”
    Hiker Box Special: “Bear can in the Sierra. Slept with it everywhere else, no ploblemo.”
    Scrub: “At night my food always went in an Ursack Minor…I put the bag right next to me (when cowboy camping) or right outside my tent door (when tenting). If I had hung my food in a tree or stashed it far from me every night, I would have had problems all the time.”

  15. Chris April 12, 2019 at 2:03 am #

    So I think this advice seems logical and is clearly based on years of experience. but one thing occurs to me. Saying you would take different sort of bags and containers depending on where you were and what the local bear/rodent conditions are is fine for shorter trips, but for a thru-hike you would need to have one solution that will do for the whole hike.

    Assuming I was to decide I am comfortable in principle with the idea of sleeping with my food in my tent, would you use the Opsak alone for a thru-hike of the AT? (Not planning to camp in that short section where canisters are compulsory, and will be avoiding shelters except where necessary – will be camping in an enclosed tent)

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2019 at 10:44 am #

      During a thru-hike there are opportunities to adjust your system, though I see your point — at a minimum, you’ll likely be crossing jurisdictions with different regulations before you have an easy opportunity to swap.

      Mini-bears are the most consistent thread on the AT. This is especially the case if you are ground sleeping, because nearly every single potential ground campsite has been made into one. As a side note, I would strongly recommend that you consider a hammock, rather than a ground shelter. A hammock has many advantages, one being the ease of staying away from impacted sites.

      But let’s assume that you stay with a ground shelter. If you bring your food into your shelter, you run the risk of animals chewing through your shelter to get at it. I don’t know how often this happens on the AT — maybe someone can chime in. I certainly would expect this behavior if you were, say, camping at Trail Lake below Mt Whitney. So I’m thinking that the combination of an Ursack Minor and LOKSAK would be a good plan. It’d reduce your food odors, and it’d give you the option of rodent-hanging your food outside your shelter.

      If you are ground sleeping, I would also suggest you be more open to staying in shelters, especially on really wet nights. Unless you bring a large tarp in addition to your shelter, a tent gets pretty cramped and wet if it’s raining hard.

Leave a Reply