Tutorial || How to store & protect food from bears & mini-bears

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. My food sack is the see-through bag to the left of the blue stuff sack. I often will use it as a pillow or knee rest.

You’ve set up camp for the night and cooked dinner. Now what should be done with the Snickers, salami, peanut noodle dinners, and the other calories that will sustain you for the remainder of your backpacking trip?

Protect from what?

Most backpackers seem to protect their food overnight because they’re worried about bears. In places like the High Sierra, that concern is entirely warranted.

But proper food storage is important in other locations, too, even if the bear population is low or non-existent, and even if there are few or no reports of bears obtaining human food.

Why? Because of so-called “mini-bears” — the mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, marmots, pikas, racoons, porcupines, gray jays and other small animals that reside in popular frontcountry and backcountry campsites. Mini-bears may not run off with your entire food bag or give you nightmares, but they definitely can ruin a few chocolate bars, sometimes after first chewing a hole in your food bag, backpack pockets, and shelter.

A black bear in Bubbs Creek, Sequoia-Kings National Park

Protect what?

Anything that is supposed to go in you or on you should be properly stored overnight. That obviously includes food, but also lip balm, sunscreen, toothpaste, etc. The thinking is that wildlife may not discern between cherry-flavored Lipstick and a bag of Craisins.

I don’t protect my stove and pot, which I clean thoroughly after dinner. While they may have some residual food smell, most of my other gear does, too, and this isn’t the threshold for what should or should not be protected overnight.

How to protect your food overnight

I rely on and recommend five techniques to protect food overnight in the backcountry:

  1. Permanent infrastructure,
  2. Hard-sided canisters,
  3. Soft-sided sacks,
  4. Rodent hangs, and
  5. Sleep with it.

The exact method I use is determined or informed by local regulations, personal familiarity, local guidebooks, online forums, trip reports, and informal conversations with rangers.

Video: Overnight food protection

I’m no longer with Sierra Designs, but this video nicely summarizes my recommended methods:

In-depth: Food storage pros & cons, and best practices

1. Permanent infrastructure

High-use areas and campsites may have permanent food protection infrastructure. For example, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park has installed large bear boxes in 55 backcountry locations. Elsewhere, I have seen cable, pole, and cross-beam systems.

If this type of infrastructure is available, I use it. It’s effective, convenient, free, and weight-less — and it was probably installed for good reason.

A permanent bear box (lower-left) at a high-use campsite on the John Muir Trail

2. Hard-sided canister

Permanent infrastructure has downsides. It’s:

  • Expensive to install,
  • A contributing factor to concentrated use; and,
  • Undermined by dispersed camping.

So an increasing number of land agencies require that backpackers carry hard-sided bear-resistant canisters, including in Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings, Rocky Mountain, Olympics, Adirondack High Peaks, Canyonlands, and more.

When canisters are required, I carry one. Personally, I use the BearVault BV450 or BV500, because they offer the best volume-to-weight ratio and because I’m too frugal to spend $300+ on a carbon fiber Bearikade.

Where hard-sided canisters are required, I carry one. My personal pick is the BearVault (lower-right corner), which has the best volume-to-weight ratio among economically priced models.


3. Soft-sided animal-resistant sack

Hard-sided canisters are effective (well, mostly — they’re not idiot-proof) and they keep me compliant with local regulations, but of course I don’t like to carry them — they’re heavy and they don’t pack well.

I would rather carry a soft-sided animal-resistant food sack, which is ideal for an area where:

  • Bears and/or mini-bears are a potential problem; and,
  • Hard-sided canisters are not required.

You might think of these products as inexpensive and lightweight insurance. Two companies serve this niche: Armored Outdoor, which makes the Ratsack; and Ursack, which has rodent- and bear-resistant sacks:

  • Ursack Minor ($65, 5 oz), which is for mini-bears only;
  • Ursack Major ($80, 8 oz), which has been certified by the IGBC and is suitable for bears only;
  • Ursack AllMitey ($125, 13 oz), which is both rodent- and bear-resistant.

The BV500 and Ursack Major are both about 650 cubic inches in volume. But the Ursak is 60 percent lighter and is soft-sided. Which would you rather carry?

4. Rodent hang

As a substitute for a Ratsack or Ursack Minor, food can be successfully protected from rodents by hanging it. Keep it a few feet off the ground, a few feet from the trunk, and a few feet below the limb.

This is not a bear hang. An adult should be able to hang it and take it down without throwing a rope or standing on someone’s shoulders, and it can be set up a few feet from your shelter. To suspend it, use the drawstring on the food sack — or, better yet, add a length of heavy-duty fishing line, which rodent’s can’t climb.

At this established camp at the foot of the Dinwoody Glacier, I should have known that rodents could be an issue, and either hung my food or used a rodent-resistant sack. Instead, one chewed a small hole in my OPSAK food bag.

5. Pillow or knee rest

If I’m not required to store my food in a hard-sided canister and if I’m not concerned about bears or mini-bears, I will sleep on my food. I think I can get away with this because of where I backpack and where I camp — in big wilderness areas and at low- or no-use campsites. Surely, don’t try this at a Yosemite Valley campground, a designated backcountry site in Rocky Mountain National Park, or an established camp on the Appalachian Trail.

A food sack makes a decent pillow, though I prefer a pneumatic model like the Sierra Designs Animas Pillow ($25, 2 oz). As a back-sleeper, I prefer to put it under my knees, which helps to reduce pressure on my back.

To store my food I use OPSAK Barrier Bags 12″ x 20″. These bags are odor-proof, at least when new — within a few days, I bet the exterior smells like food. I still like them though: they are tough and see-through.

Discouraged: Bear hangs

You may have noticed that the classic bear hang does not make my list of recommended protection techniques. I discourage bear hangs of any variety, including the counter-balance and PCT Method. I may elaborate in a future post, but in general I find them to be:

  • Time-consuming, frustrating, and dangerous;
  • Infeasible where trees are spindly, short, or non-existent; and,
  • Largely ineffective against a determined bear.

I think bear hangs are akin to triangulation: they’re old-school techniques that are taught by some programs as if it’s still 1970. If you’re really serious about finding yourself, stay found, or use a GPS. And if you’re really serious about protecting your food from bears, use one of the first three methods I described in this post.

Completely ineffective: a typical bear hang on the Aspen Four Pass Loop.

Questions about food storage techniques, or have an experience to share? Leave a comment.


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Posted in , , on December 20, 2018
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36 Comments

  1. Hiking Dude on December 20, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    Saw your instagram post and came here – thanks for explaining why you feel triangulation is outdated, using GPS instead. Even though I use trail apps on phone, I still use the concept of triangulation all the time on trail – identifying landmarks and keeping a good idea that I’m still on track.
    My son & I each had our own Ursack for our thru-hike of the PNT in 2017, and rented a canister on the Olympic Coast where it was required – not for bears, but for raccoons. Mini-bears destroy LOTS more food than mega-bears! The bags saved tons of time at night.
    I don’t sleep with food because about the most embarrassing situation I can think of is to explain to my family/friends why my tarp/quilt/body got shredded one night… 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Hike On!

  2. Ryan on December 20, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    To clarify, where do you recommend storing a soft sided sack if it isn’t hung? Keeping it in a campsite seems less safe/effective, but I’m concerned that I might lose it when I hide it further away.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 20, 2018 at 6:06 pm

      I don’t hang the soft sided sacks in bear country. That’s not effective, and they’ll run away with the whole bag.

      Instead, tie it to a tree, as close to you camp as your comfortable with. I want to be able to hear a bear messing with it, and frankly if I’m willing to use a soft-sided sack I’m probably not too concerned about bears coming right into camp (and might even think that my camp is a deterrent) — for that kind of bear, use a bear canister.

  3. Bart on December 21, 2018 at 11:42 am

    What would you use in doing the Pacific Crest Trail?
    It seems there’s no good answer.
    I’d guess at least 80% of the hikers just sleep with their food. (of course Yosemite/Seki excluded)

    Is there any part of the PCT in NorCal/Oregon/Washington you’d say is safe from bears?
    It seems it’s like saying, “the parts that have no deer”. There was a GutHooks comment on NorCal Section O where the hiker was saying that he “Saw a bear while walking into camp and was going to keep walking to a place that didn’t have any bears.” I thought, “Where’s that? Downtown Redding?”

    I think all that’s left is just “bear avoidance” that you talked about here (https://andrewskurka.com/2011/food-protection-techniques-in-bear-country/) and what Cam Honan talked about here (https://www.thehikinglife.com/2018/05/tips-for-backpacking-in-bear-country/)
    At this point I don’t bother trying to cook anything. I cold soak everything. And the food I carry has almost no smell. Not terribly satisfying, but that makes the food in town just taste that much better.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 21, 2018 at 3:18 pm

      Once you hit the High Sierra, it’s continuous bear habitat all the way to Canada. So your next question is: Where and how often are bears stealing food from PCT hikers? If it was happening, I think you’d hear reports, because of how quickly word spreads along these trails.

      Like most thru-hikers, I’d probably send my canister home north of Yosemite and start sleeping on my food, until I heard reason not to. If you can’t handle that, then think about a Usack Major XL. It’s big enough to store all your food, strong enough to fend off a bear until you can run it off, and weighs only 9 oz.

      Mini-bears are probably going to be a bigger issue on the PCT. There’s a lot of camping and food along that corridor, and I’m sure the rodents around the most heavily impacted campsites are pretty comfortable around smell thru-hikers nowadays. An Ursack Minor would be a good insurance option for these types of campsites, and weighs only 5 oz.

  4. Bart on December 21, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    So far I’ve sectioned 1/2 of the PCT. I’ve never heard of any PCT hiker’s food being stolen.
    I HAVE heard about people on overnighters having problems, especially in Yosemite.
    But Yosemite is mobbed with people.

  5. Katherine on December 23, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    To clarify about the regs at Olympic National Park – it depends partially on which part of the park.

    The main reg to know there: they don’t recognize Ursack in place of a hard-sided containers, but in some parts that elusive perfect hang is theoretically w/in regulations. There’s also permanent infrastructure—hang wires—on some popular areas including Hoh River Valley and Enchanted Valley. But then you’re limited to camping there.

    And so, I bring the BV.

  6. bill on December 28, 2018 at 11:52 am

    my regional area for most of my back country camping/backpacking is full of black bears but canisters are only required in the national park. I am simply not comfortable with bears coming into my camp nor sleeping with my food in this area, so it seems my best choices are always carrying a bearvault or using an ursack + a proper pct hang when I’m not in the national park. would you agree or disagree?

    • Andrew Skurka on December 28, 2018 at 12:11 pm

      If the black bear density is as high as you say it is, I can understand your sentiment.

      In the park, I would use a hard-sided canister, per regulations.

      Outside the park, I would use an Ursack Major, but I would tie it off to a tree as Ursack recommends. I would not hang it — for a determined bear, that’s usually a gift. If the bear manages to get it down, it’ll run off with your Ursack.

      • bill on December 28, 2018 at 12:53 pm

        thanks for the reply. what would be the advantage of tying the ursack as per instructions vs. a pct hang?

        • Andrew Skurka on December 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm

          The “drawstring” on the Ursack is made with 5-mm spectra rope. When flush with a tree trunk or branch, a bear can’t chew through it, and its too strong for the bear to snap it by pulling on it (unless the bear breaks the entire tree).

          The vulnerability of the Ursack when it’s tied off to a tree is that a bear could gnaw on it for hours, eventually maybe getting an opening. It’d also crush all your food and slobber all over it. But the Ursack has been certified by IGBC, so it has to be tough. Even so, maybe it’s best to think of the Ursack as buying you time — time to get out of your shelter and run the bear off. If you’re dealing with bears that don’t “run off,” then it’s probably time to bring a hard-sided canister.

          • Mark on January 24, 2019 at 9:26 am

            An Ursack Major is supposedly not as good protection against mini-bears as an Ursack Minor. So if an Ursack Major is tied to a tree trunk or heavy branch, what is to stop a mini-bear from crawling up there and gnawing a hole in it? After all, raccoons do live in trees so you are essentially dropping the Ursack on it’s front porch. Mini-bears are practically everywhere so it would seem like the best protection in bear country would be an Ursack Minor inside an Ursack Major. That is fifteen ounces or so. Ugh! May as well just go with a full-blown bear canister.



          • Andrew Skurka on January 26, 2019 at 5:20 pm

            If you’re worried equally about bear and rodents, then get the Ursack AllMitey. I think it’s 14 oz, and it’s essentially a Major and Minor in one. But even at 14 oz, it’s still about one-third the weight of a bear canister of similar volume, and more importantly it’s soft-sided so it’s much more packable than a hard-sided can.



  7. Coolish on December 31, 2018 at 6:27 am

    I’m planning an A.T. thru-hike but have never hiked in the US and have little experience with wildlife stealing my food.
    Hard sided canisters are not required along the trail and it looks like regular hanging is the most popular way of protecting food on A.T. I’m going to use established campsites most of the time, what would be your recommendation?

    • Andrew Skurka on December 31, 2018 at 10:58 am

      I don’t recommend traditional bear hangs, ever. Other methods are more effective (e.g. hard sided canisters), or equally as effective but easier (e.g. Ursack).

      Camps/shelters with high bear activity usually have food protection infrastructure. For example, a few shelters in Georgia have a cable system, and in the Smokies the shelters are protected with chain link fencing. If you find infrastructure, use it.

      Elsewhere on the AT, I think it’s standard practice to hang your food from the shelter rafters. That was the case in 2002 was I thru-hiked it, and I don’t think that’s changed. Maybe someone who spends more time on the AT or who has thru-hiked it more recently can confirm.

      Mini-bears will be your biggest problem along the AT. An Ursack Minor at just 5 oz seems like it’d be a pretty good insurance option if there’s no easy way to hang it just out of reach from mice and other rodents.

  8. Gerry B on January 3, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    I have one of the first generation Ursacks. Do you think I should replace it with one of the current models? Secondly, do you see any value in doubling up with two Opsaks inside an Ursack?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 5, 2019 at 9:25 am

      The original Ursacks were not IGBC approved. I think the problem was the stitching — if a bear could get into it, game over. If I had a first-gen model and thought there was a real risk of a bear chewing on it, I’d upgrade.

      Doubling up on Opsaks sounds like a marginal value-add to me.

  9. Bob on January 5, 2019 at 8:01 am

    You don’t mention ratsacks. Why not?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 5, 2019 at 8:10 am

      I did. Read technique #3.

      • Bob on January 5, 2019 at 8:36 am

        I really like these for the desert-well anywhere that the mini-bears are a problem: https://bit.ly/2VyCXhD

  10. RevLee on January 10, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    At the Fontana Hilton shelter on the AT, I encountered someone using the pillow method . About 4am he bolted out of the shelter with his food bag, swatting the mice from his head.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 10, 2019 at 1:19 pm

      Definitely not the place to use that technique. Guess he got what he deserved.

    • PS on February 25, 2019 at 9:49 am

      ROFL

  11. Matthew on January 12, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    There are more subtle benefits of a canister. For me the beauty of the canister is that I can sleep peacefully at night, in confidence that I won’t be rudely awoken. The canister allows me to leave camp for a day hike, and not have to take all my food with me. So I use a Bearvault which I leave out of earshot of my tent. My clean pot goes alongside the canister with lid separated – that way a interested bear/minibear won’t wake me with clanging in the night. I’m paranoid about the bear walking away with the pot, so I use a lanyard. I’ve seen a bear actively move large objects (5 gallon buckets 200 yards) some distance, so I tend to wedge the canister between logs/rocks, that way it can’t roll away and is unlikely to be moved far.

  12. Zachary Robbins on January 20, 2019 at 10:36 pm

    Curious if you have an opinion on the Ursack aluminum liner. I’ve had the Ursack for a few years and typically try to hang it about 6-8 feet up a tree trunk and haven’t had issues. But that likely means I haven’t had a determined bear pawing at it and probably crushing everything inside. Do the liners work in that situation, where a bag is hung close to the trunk? It is listed as 0.65 lbs so it better be very effective for that additional weight and cost.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 22, 2019 at 8:02 am

      The liner serves only one purpose: to help protect your food from getting crushed. But the liner is not as solid as, say, a hard-sided bear can. So if a bear messes with your food for a while, it’s still going to be “compacted,” which I suppose is one notch better than crushed.

      If it’s any indication, I don’t own the liner. It doesn’t advance the primary mission of the Ursack, which is to defend my food from the bear, and it comes with additional weight and cost. I would also say, normally when I use an Ursack it’s because there’s a low chance of a bear coming into my camp. So the Ursack more of a “just in case” insurance plan. If I need a full-fledged defense, the BearVault is coming with.

  13. Zachary Robbins on January 22, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Thanks Andrew, I never really thought purchasing it was necessary so I’m glad to know you don’t use it.

  14. bill on March 6, 2019 at 11:09 am

    andrew, would you choose the ursack major over the ursack allmitey? I want to pick up one or the other for general 3 season hiking across the US.

    mostly wondering if the extra weight and price of the allmitey is worth it vs. the lighter and less expensive major. seems to me that if I were to correctly use the major and tie the knot tight enough, it should be rodent proof, correct?

    thanks

    • Andrew Skurka on March 6, 2019 at 11:13 am

      The debate of Major, Minor, or AllMightey really hinges on where you are backpacking.

      If you are normally in areas with mini-bears but no bears, get the Minor.

      If you are in areas with bears but don’t need a canister, and can keep it away from mini-bears, get the Major.

      If you are in areas with bears and mini-bears, but no canister regs, get the AllMitey.

  15. bill on March 6, 2019 at 11:25 am

    I mostly hike in the mountain west area (so the usual forest critters and all the alpine critters). seems like the allmitey would be the best choice for all places that do not require a hard canister, but I’m wondering if the major would be good enough if the top knot is tight enough so critters cannot get inside. I havent handled one in person, so I’m not sure.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 6, 2019 at 11:29 am

      It’s not a matter of them getting inside. It’s that they can chew through the fabric — their teeth are sharp enough. The Minor is made with a different fabric, and they can’t chew through it — but bears can rip it apart.

      I’m also in the Mountain West, and rarely have issues with mini bears (although I stay away from impacted sites). I’d get the Major, just as insurance against the random bear.

      • Mark on March 6, 2019 at 1:59 pm

        Seems to me that rodents are everywhere so you’ll always want to be on guard for those pesky varmints. In areas that also have bears, how about using a Zpacks “Large Roll Top Food Bag” as an inner liner to an Ursack Major? The Zpacks bag is heavy-duty DCF and they claim it is highly rodent-resistant, and it weighs only 1.5 ounces. Ursack Major combined with Zpacks bag comes out to about 9 ounces as opposed to the 14 ounces for an All-Mitey. The Zpacks bag can only be bought as part of their Bear Bagging Kit that includes cord and a carabiner (http://zpacks.com/accessories/bear_bag.shtml).

  16. Chris on May 4, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    I normally hang my food, but your approach makes sense and I’d like to try it. My difficulty comes from the criteria “Bears and/or mini-bears are a potential problem”. I do not know how to judge this. Do you have any guidance?

    Does the mere presence of black bears in the area qualify them as a potential problem?
    Does camping at a prior used site make this a potential problem?
    Do there need to be reports of aggressive or camp-wandering bears to qualify?

    Much appreciated

    • Andrew Skurka on May 4, 2019 at 9:01 pm

      Great question. I would:

      1. Look for information (or lack thereof) in online trip reports, forums, agency websites, etc.

      2. Ask for reports (or lack thereof) from other backpackers, trail associations, and rangers.

  17. Thomas on July 1, 2019 at 9:03 am

    Any use in making small smoky fires in the established fire ring at designated campsites? Recently, (North Cascades, WA), I worried about the steam from my pot of beef stew settling onto my insulation fabric. I figured woodsmoke would mask this. Winds were light and breezy into all directions.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 1, 2019 at 10:08 pm

      Doubt there’s much data on this, but I suspect that the bear can smell your smoke and your dinner, and differentiate whether it’s just dinner scent in your insulation or whether you have tomorrow night’s dinner in a bear hang 100 feet away.

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