Bear bags are a stubborn fixture of the backpacking world. Hanging is recommended, taught, and practiced by influential organizations and individuals even though it is less effective, less foolproof, less reliable, less efficient, and less safe than other food protection techniques, notably hard-sided canisters and (to a lesser degree) soft-sided bear-resistant food sacks.
I have not hung a bear bag in at least a decade, and I find it to be so irrelevant that I no longer include a bear hanging module in the curriculum for my guided trips. It’s an outdated and ineffective method of food storage, and backpackers (and bears) would benefit from a reprogramming on this topic.
What is a bear hang?
A bear hang is an improvised system of cord, sacks or bags, and sometimes carabiners and pulleys used to suspend food in a tree, primarily to protect it from black bears, as well as from rodents (especially in high-use campsites) and grizzly bears (in select areas only).
There are a few popular hang configurations, such as the simple tie-off, PCT method, and counter-balance. In a perfect world, the end result is this:
Last month I gave in-depth explanations of my preferred food storage methods. But briefly:
- If permanent infrastructure is available (e.g. lockers, cable systems), use it.
- If hard-sided canisters like the Bearvault BV450 are required, carry one.
- If bears regularly (or even occasionally) obtain human food where you are camping, carry a hard-sided canister even if it’s not required.
- If you are camping in bear habitat but there are no reports of bears stealing food and no hard-sided canister requirement, use an Ursack Major or Ursack AllMitey (which is also rodent-resistant). And,
- When using high-use campsites in bear-free habitats, rodent hang your food.
Depending on the local risks and your risk tolerance, you may also consider sleeping with your food. This is widely practiced, but few are willing to talk about it.
The effectiveness of most methods can be enhanced by a Loksak Opsack (my long-term review), which is a heavy-duty odor-resistant plastic bag with an airtight seal. On its own, it is an inadequate method of food storage.
Bear hangs versus rodent hangs
The concept of a so-called rodent hang is the same as a bear hang: suspend your food in the air, out of reach. But it’s simpler and less robust: it can be kept in camp, placed only a few feet off the ground, and needs to protect only against mice, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and maybe an occasional fox.
Unlike bear hangs, I advocate rodent hangs. They’re perfect for bear-free areas, like most of the desert Southwest.
Reasons not to hang a bear bag
I no longer hang bear bags, and never recommend it. The technique is plagued with problems:
1. You probably suck at it.
Like other outdoor skills, learning to properly hang a bear bag takes time and repetition. And because most backpackers don’t backpack often enough to get the requisite practice, most bear bags are hung really poorly. Like, they’re laughable and woefully inadequate.
But unlike other outdoor skills, the consequences of a poor hang are immediate and widespread. If you fumble with map and compass or struggle to find 5-star campsites, it impacts only you, and you can do it better next time. But a failed hang becomes a problem for the bear, for the land agency that may need to relocate or kill the bear, and for the next backpacker(s) who stay in or near your campsite.
If you plan to hang your food in bear habitat, you need to have mastered this skill already by practicing dozens of times in bear-free areas like your backyard or a neighborhood park. If you’re not willing to do that, you shouldn’t even consider hanging your food.
2. It’s often impossible.
The effectiveness of a hang depends largely on the tree(s) in which the bear bag is suspended. It’s recommended that the bag is positioned about twelve feet off the ground, five feet away from the trunk, and about five feet below the closest limb.
Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to find a tree in which these thresholds can be met or exceeded. Above treeline and in arid areas, no trees are available. Near treeline, the trees are too stunted. In some regions the dominant tree species are ill suited, like the spindly lodgepole pines, Engelmann spruce, and sub-alpine firs found throughout the Mountain West. And other forests have been ravaged by wildfire, mountain pine beetles, spruce bark beetles, and ash borer.
3. It’s time-consuming
In a best case scenario (i.e. skilled hanger, light food load, favorable trees nearby, and no mistakes), hanging a bear bag takes about 15 minutes. But it rarely works out that way:
- Most backpackers have limited hanging skills and experience, and are therefore inefficient.
- Heavy food bags require more hangs and/or more complicated systems.
- Perfect trees can be hard to find, resulting in a long walks from camp. And,
- Mistakes are commonplace, e.g. the throw-rock slips out of the knot, the throw misses its target limb, the rope gets stuck, the limb breaks, etc.
For soloists, I’d recommend budgeting 30 minutes; for groups, an hour. A bear hang kit weighs less than a hard-sided canister or Ursack, but the savings is entirely negated by its inefficiency.
4. It can cause injury or death.
The throw-rock is a hazard. It can bounce out or off of the tree in odd ways, and can snap back if you accidentally step on the cord while throwing it. It sounds like an elementary mistake, but it’s easy to do (I’ve done it) and it’s a common role-playing scenario in many wilderness first aid/responder courses.
Deaths are very rare, but needless and much more tragic. Several years ago, the news of this fatality in the northern Rockies spread through the outfitter-guide community.
5. It’s rarely effective against a determined bear.
To put this point in context, let’s watch some videos. Black bears are extraordinary climbers!
Grizzly bears have less Spiderman-esque talent, but they shouldn’t be discounted:
Unless your hang is textbook perfect, a determined black or grizzly bear will probably get your food. No hang method is immune — bears can:
- Chew through your cord.
- Lunge from the trunk, and either grab or cut open your bag while they’re falling.
- Break the limb, or push down the entire tree. And,
- Send their cubs out on the limb to chew the cord.
I have met only one person who could truly bear-proof his hangs. Kevin Sawchuk learned his craft in the 1970’s, when hangs were still permitted in the High Sierra. Unfortunately, not everyone read Kevin’s tutorial or could replicate him, and land managers decided that hard-sided canisters were the most effective strategy against their wily black bears.
6. More user-friendly options exist for less audacious bears.
Thankfully, the High Sierra is the exception, not the norm. In most other areas, the black bear population isn’t as healthy and the bears don’t nonchalantly walk into occupied camps.
In these types of areas, bear bags are a widely accepted food storage technique, and are believed to be “effective.” But very few hangs are probably ever tested. It’s like wearing a garlic rope around your neck to keep away vampires — it must be effective if the vampires don’t get you, right?
Better options in these types of areas are the Ursack Major and Ursack AllMitey. These bear-resistant bags are lighter than a hard-sided canister (25 to 50 percent of the weight, for the same volume), pack more easily in a backpack, have been certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), and can be quickly and easily anchored to a tree.
I don’t trust Ursacks as much as a hard-sided canister, but I think itthey’re acceptable in low-risk areas where they’re unlikely to be rigorously tested. In the unlikely chance that I wake up to a bear chewing on my Ursack, I can probably scare it off by making lots of noise or throwing, um, pine cones at it or around it. I don’t think that I would have been any better off with a hang — if the bear was willing to approach my camp for an Ursack, it would have been willing to go after my bear bag, too.
What’s been your experience with bear bags? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment!
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