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.
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:
- Permanent infrastructure,
- Hard-sided canisters,
- Soft-sided sacks,
- Rodent hangs, and
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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″ (long-term review). 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 have elaborated on my rationale, 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.
Questions about food storage techniques, or have an experience to share? Leave a comment.
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