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:
- Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, e.g. Yellowstone and Teton National Parks, and surrounding areas like the Wind River Range and the Absaroka Wilderness
- Northern Continental Divide, e.g. Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness
- Northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, e.g. Selkirk Range, Cabinet Mountains
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
I encounterd a problem bear on the AT lasst year and he shredded Ursacs in seconds !!!!
I caught some inaccuracies in your comments, which leads me to believe that your trying to sabotage people’s outdoor activities. NEVER urinate near your food, obviously as feces and the salt in urine attracts all types of animals.
Ur sack is not chew proof. Many customers have used it with negative results.
Please, stop giving advice that could potentially endanger someone.
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.
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.
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!)
“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.
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?
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.
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.
Did you end up doing the hike?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
As fall is a very active season for bears and bear hunting season just a week away (NC, GA, VA, TN) I felt compelled to post. Any one hiking the AT should read the White Blaze website for bear reports along the trail and particularly shelters. A number of shelters (all GSMNP shelters) are notorious – Tray Mtn (GA), Silers Bald (NC), Shenandoah (VA), etc. for bear activity in states that have active bear hunting seasons. Bear canisters are now required in the environs of the Blood Mountain AT (GA) seasonally and recommended year round.
Ironically, the area around Standing Indian Mtn. AT (NC) is a “bear preserve” i.e. where problem bears captured in other areas are returned to the wilderness. There is an annual bear hunting season in NC. The limit is set by conditions that year in relation to food availability. In 2014 the NC mountain counties reported 634 bears taken (food was plentiful, healthy population). In 2013, the mountain counties had over 1,200 bears hunted (too much rain resulted in bad mast/nut production, not enough food to sustain population). In addition over 100 bears are killed by cars. Who knows how many are taken illegally (not uncommon in rural mtn states). Information provided by NC DNR.
IMHO, whether bears are hunted or not, where there are a lot of bears and a lot of hikers, paths will cross and bears quickly figure out where to find free food. Hunting bears just means less competition for those bears that remain – their habits don’t change.
If hiding food only meant fewer rattler and copperhead snake encounters! In the southeast, a lot more hikers are bitten by poisonous snakes than encounter bears……(NC averages 190 snake bites per year, 60% poisonous – the most of any state in the USA).
Bill in Roswell, GA
I know that this is an old thread. However, people (like me) still come here for advice and suggestions.
Here is some recent news just to follow up and point out the fallacy of some of the statements in your comments above:
https://wlos.com/news/local/bear-attack-girl-great-smoky-mountains-national-park-campsite-gsmnp (16 year old girl mauled while sleeping – summer 2021)
https://wlos.com/news/local/area-of-appalachian-trail-closed-to-camping-due-to-bear-activity (sections of the AT closed due to aggressive bears seeking human food – including at shelters – summer 2021)
Heck the AT even references one of your later articles here:
I think that it would be responsible for you to go back through and update your comments and even offer a re-direct to your newer articles (if you don’t want to amend this one).
Of course, I do LOVE your writing. I just think that people often read things and take what they want from them and don’t automatically look for newer or more up-to-date information.
In places where the bears are hunted there are fewer problems. I personally see nothing wrong with signaling to them where they belong on the food chain. They are smart animals… they “get it” and in the long run a population of bears that avoid human contact are healthier than the ones in National Parks who have no fear. I also totally agree that normal “camp sites” are like bear/critter magnets. You avoid the developed campsite and you avoid 99% of the problems with animals and food.
While I’ve yet to have a problem with bears, I did recently have an unnerving experience with a pack of large coyotes (or something similar) while camping/backpacking for 3 weeks in Maine. We cooked far away from camp and didn’t bring any food back with us, but from dusk til dawn we we’re relentlessly harassed. Having between 2 (sometimes as many as 4) coyotes run into camp every 5-15 minutes, passing within 5′ of your hammock, grazing your guy lines makes for a really long night—and lots of yelling, throwing things, machete waving, and swearing. Best guess is that we accidentally set up camp near a den or something…my friend and I moved our camp a couple miles away the next night and had no more problems. In the future I would probably relocate immediately but we had no idea they would be so persistent. The whole experience was probably a fluke, but I’m not very likely to be doing any solo camping for a good while.
I’ll be in Yosemite High Sierra country during active bear season.
I’ll be carrying an approved canister, and I’ll use it.
My question: Do you think it wise for me to position the canister next to me at night? That is, I’ll follow the previous advice given, and wash myself and the canister exterior with chlorine salts (an excellent tip!), and I’ll use “no-scent” bags.
I’ve read the story above about the “soccer ball” plaything, and would rather not have to search for the canister in the morning.
Apparently, they can not be tethered / cabled to a tree, because, well, there’s no way to do it with approved canisters? (or, is there?).
If you have a canister, it’s unnecessary to sleep next to your food (which is in the canister) or to use odor-resistant bags (inside the canister).
I usually put my canister about 50 feet away, plus/minus. Try to find a natural depression so that it naturally won’t roll too far. Also, put your (clean) pot on top, so that if it’s knocked over in the middle of the night you will hear it and you can chase them off.
For the same reason that bears learned to get into food (because they are smart), bears also now tend to avoid canisters — they’ve knocked them around enough to know they aren’t getting in.
Thank you, Andrew.
Excellent article. I’m planning a Colorado elk hunting trip and plan on hanging my food. We’re forced to carry a canister in the Adirondack Eastern High Peaks area. I’d like to avoid the extra 2+ pounds when hiking in CO.
Just an FYI, it is legal to hunt bears in the Adirondack High Peaks area of NY. Yellow Yellow, who could break into BearVault canisters, was shot and killed by a hunter.
Why do you need a canister? Why not use some form of lightweight soft sided bag? Seal your food so there is no odour. Then put it away from camp in a spot that bears have not been conditioned to look. If they can’t smell it, can’t see it and don’t trip over it wouldn’t it be safe?
1. In many popular areas, canisters are required.
2. Bears have an awesome sense of smell. I’m doubtful that you could avoid contaminating the soft-sided bag or the odorproof sack inside.
3. Even in areas where canisters are not required, for many backpackers it’s a good to have one. Specifically, backpackers who use high-use campsites, which have a “mini-bear” problem (e.g. mice, squirells, marmots) if not also a bear problem. The canister will keep them away. They’re heavier than a rope, but they’re faster and much more effective.
I personally think OP sacks are pointless. Unless you are meticulously clean, the outside of the OP bag, your food bag or canister, rope, etc. is going to smell like food. I suspect bears can smell where a person was hanging out a few hours ago, setting up their bear hang or placing their canister, and if hungry enough will go check out any trace of human activity to see if there’s easy pickings around. Stories of observing bears walk right past a canister is not because the OP sack may it invisible but because the bear didn’t want to bother wasting its time trying to open the canister.
The recommendation is to bag your deodorant, sunblock, toothpaste, etc. – but didn’t I just use that stuff on my body and smell strongly of it?
I hike in the White Mountains and at least there, my baseless recommendation is either camp at an established site with bear boxes, take a canister (which I do when backpacking with my family), or learn Skurka’s skills for bear avoidance and sleep with your food (which I do when solo, when I’m usually only sleeping for 6 or 7 hours and hiking a lot of night hours).
Generally agree, but I think it helps reduce some odors, thus marginally lowering risk. Maybe, just maybe, the bear would decide to visit your neighbor’s camp instead of yours, or would bypass it entirely because it didn’t smell as promising.
Thanks so much for an excellent article. Done a bit of walking, but not in bear country. This makes me feel that we will be prepared.
Here’s an interesting article on all known black bear fatalities in the US and Canada since 1900: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.72/abstract
Interesting point is that 92% of attacks were by males. It seems, for black bears at least, that females with cubs are not a major source of attacks.
For a good video of a bear resourcefulness getting a bear hang down…
When I watch videos like that, it is mystifying to me why any land manager endorses the hanging of food. Food hangs are no match for a determined bear. And if there are no determined bears around, then hanging your food is not necessary — it’s probably less likely that they will walk into an occupied camp than try messing with “free” food that is hung in a tree.
The funny part is she actually was almost getting the hand over hand technique down. Once she gets that down no cable hang will be safe! Bears aren’t afraid to fall considerable distances as long as they are clutching the food they are after. Never could figure out how the bears got the apples from the thin branches twentyfive feet up in my apple trees until I witnessed one rip the branches off and ride them down.
Hey Andrew, your link to Backpackinglight (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/bear_bag_hanging_technique.html) for the bear hang technique no longer works. The following is the website I have used for instructions on how to hang PCT style http://theultimatehang.com/2013/03/hanging-a-bear-bag-the-pct-method/
When hammock camping, do you take the food in the hammock to sleep on it or is leaving it under the tarp good enough?
Depends on the context. In general, the closer it is to you, the stronger statement you’re making about its ownership and the easier it is to monitor what is happening to it. I wouldn’t trust simply hanging above my food if I were in an area with heavy rodent pressure or I knew there were bold bears around.
Hi Andrew, my name is Aaron a.k.a Plant. I will be attempting a thru-hike of the C.D.T in ’18 and in so doing would complete a triple crown. My question is about measures to protect your food specifically on the C.D.T. I too most often sleep with my food next to me but was considering an ursack for keeping my food safe and maybe me a little safer too. At the same time half pound is a significant amount for my setup. Thanks
In areas where the bears are most active — Glacier and Yellowstone — you’ll have bear poles or bear boxes to store your food. There are lots of Bears in the Bob, too, but I don’t think there are many instances of bear/human food conflicts there.
Hey, Andrew, I was wondering what bear/food protection techniques you would employ on the Pacific Northwest Trail during the summer? Ursack, bear canister, odor-proof sack, or some combination of the above? Thanks!
I would abide by the regulations of the land agencies. In Glacier, that means using the food lockers at the designated backcountry campsites. In the Olympics, that means a hard-sided canister. I don’t know what the regulations are for the Cascades. Elsewhere, I would probably sleep on my food — the areas are low-use, and the local bears are unlikely to associate people with food or to be comfortable around humans. I would use an OP Sack, mostly because they are see-through; bears have a great sense of smell, and I’m skeptical that they can’t smell from very far away the food odors that get on the outside of an lightly used OP Sack.
For 8 oz, an Ursack is pretty good insurance.
I also tend to sleep on my food. I additionally almost always have my dog with me and she makes a lot of noise if anything is moving near our camp. Have to be a pretty determined bear to get at my food.
Maybe this is a silly question, but it will be my first time in bear country next summer/fall (I’m from Europe). I expect that my backpack contains some food odor… (e.g. I usually carry food for the day in my hip pockets)… what’s your take on where to leave you backpack? Do you leave in the tent or in the vestibule? And does this cause any problems/attract bears to your tent?
There’s very little science to answer this question.
Intuitively, I’ve always felt that if a bear can smell my food from 5 miles away (or whatever crazy distance), that it probably also knows as it gets closer that there is no food in my shelter and that it’s all stored in my canister. So personally I sleep on my backpack, because I’m not that worried about it’s food odors and because I appreciate the extra cushioning.
BTW, I should point out that after making dinner you and your clothes will have a food odor, too. If we need to keep our backpack outside because of food odors in our hip belt pockets, the same would need to be said of us and all of our clothes.
What would be your choice of food storage for thru-hiking the Colorado Trail?
First, I’d do some research to determine if bears are a problem anywhere along the trail.
The last I did it in 2006, they were not, so we just slept on/next to our food bags. YMMV.
I have a two-part question:
First, in the event that you have to sleep with your food, do you actually sleep with your food (most likely in your pack next to you), or do you continue to follow the guideline that you should place your food 100 yards or so away from where you are sleeping, as you would if you were using the PCT hang to bear-proof your foood? I can see the pros and cons of each, but my gut tells me that if you have to sleep with your food, put it next to you. That way, if a bear comes investigating, you have a much better chance of waking up and attempting to get it to leave your food be. You won’t even know it was there if your food is 100 yards away, and, since you don’t really have much in the way of odor protection if you lack a canister, you’ll wake up in the morning to no food. I suppose also that if you just have ziploc bags for your food stuffed inside your bear-hang sack and bury that or try to protect it however you can, that’s essentially ineffective. Critters will get into your food. Having it next to you in your pack is probably better. Is that right?
Second, are you aware of different fabrics having noticeable differences in the permeation of odors? For example, does nylon lock odors in better than polyester? I’m just curious because I have a cuben fiber pack with cuben fiber stuff sacks, and I was wondering if having food inside a ziploc bag, inside a cuben fiber stuff sack, inside of a cuben fiber pack would prevent odor dispersion more than say, a nylon pack with nylon stuff sacks.
When I say, “sleep with my food,” I literally mean that I sleep with it — immediately next to it, or on it as a pillow or knee rest. If you leave your food on the ground 100 feet away from you, you might as well just put it outside their den — they’ll think they own it.
I don’t know if some type of fabrics absorb odors more than others, and I don’t think it matters all that much. When I finish a trip with a bear can, the inside of my bear can has a distinct odor. It goes away when washed, because the plastic doesn’t “absorb” the odors, but most definitely the odors can linger on the plastic.
Do you burn your trash even if it’s plastic? Such as energy bars…etc also, I’m surprised not to read anywhere about bear spray as being part of the protection method if a bear is encountered rummaging around your site or through your food. Do you carry/recommend bear spray? If so what type? Cheers Russ
Yes, I do burn my trash, including plastic. Three caveats:
1. Don’t do this when there are fire bans in place.
2. The fire must be very hot, or the plastic won’t burn completely.
3. After you put the fire dead-out, fish out aluminum foil that didn’t burn (e.g. tuna packets, Hershey Kiss wrappers)
Bear spray is appropriate in grizzly bear habitat, but grizzly bears generally aren’t a problem with food protection — it’s much more of a black bear problem, and bear spray is not generally necessary or recommended for black bears. Instead, “retrain” bears to stay out of campsites by hucking rocks at them, hard and many.
I wish you weren’t recommending this burning practice. How many people do you think are going to make the effort to make sure everything burns and dig out any unburnt trash if that’s even possible to find? This is one of the biggest sources of litter I see in the backcountry, firepits with little pieces of trash that eventually get scattered all over. Not to mention that this increases lingering food scents in these sites for bears and other critters.
I agree 10,000%. If you take a can in, wash it out, pack it out, take in a special airtight container or heavy duty garbage bag for garbage.
Does sleeping with your food protect it from mini bears? We’ve slept in shelters and cabins where the mice will run across us in the middle of the night. Why would they not just stop for a snack?
Sleeping with your food may keep some critters away, but not the mice that you speak of — they are fearless.
Sleeping with food really got me .. I couldn’t quite believe you wrote that. Experts say do not eat or drink or take any food item in your tent except water. Bears live by their nose (except where they’ve learned to look into trees for hanging food packs.) Experts say stand upwind of your cooking. I change into pyjamas at night and wrap my clothes in a heavy duty garbage bag and stash them in the vestibule or in a bush, and that’s the latest advice on storing food in camp, airtight in a black bag and in a bush. But, if you want to invite a fight with a bear, that’s up to you.