Backpacking with a Bear Food Bag

Backpacking with a Bear Food Bag

I’ve been backpacking avidly for the last 10 years, but I only recently learned and practiced a bear hang.  I’ve done most of my backpacking in the Sierra Nevada where bears are very habituated to humans and bear canisters are recommended or required in most areas. Bear canisters are heavy and bulky and I was ready to ditch the weight and learn how to hang a bear bag for one of my short backpacking trips here in the Pacific Northwest.  If you’re just starting out backpacking with a bear food bag, here’s what you need to know.

What All Goes In Your Bear Bag

You will need to put all scented items into your bear bag when you hang it overnight.  Bears have a really sharp sense of smell and they could mistake your sunscreen or chapstick for food.  Be sure to include toothpaste, lotion, soap, deodorant, trash, and anything else that has a scent, even if it is a non food item.  If you have room, you could even include your cookpot because it will most likely have food residue in it.

Choose Your Method

  • The most popular method these days seems to be the PCT Method.  This is the method I learned for my recent trip and its pretty simple.  It uses one rope thrown over a high, sturdy branch which is then clipped with a carabiner to your food bag.  The other end of the rope is then strung through the carabiner and the bag is then hoisted up in the air.  A stick is used as a stopper to hold the food bag in place.  The PCT method is considered one of the best bear hang methods because there aren’t any ropes that the bear can chew through or pull on to get the food loose.  If you want to learn more, check out this awesome video that really helped me learn the PCT Method.

  • The Double Rope Method, or Counterbalance Method, is another great option for hanging your food bag.  For this method, you divide your food into two bags so its a good one to try if you’re on a longer trip or with a larger group.  You will need to find a higher tree limb to do this hang and it uses a little more rope than the PCT method.  It can also be a bit tricky to retrieve your food because you actually have to use a long stick to pull on the rope.  To learn more about the Counterbalance Method check out this helpful video.  One tip they don’t mention in this video is to tie your rope in a loop on the second food bag so that it is easier to pull down.

  • The Two Tree Method is good for those that are not so great at aiming and throwing their rope over a really high branch.  You can use lower limbs for this method but you do, however, have to throw two ropes and you need a little bit more rope than the other methods.  Its usually easier to find trees for this hang versus the other two hangs.

Basic Rules to Follow for Any Method

  • Food bag should be at least 12-15 feet off the ground
  • Food bag should be at least 6 feet away from the tree trunk (s)
  • Food bag should be around 6 feet below the supporting limb (s)
  • Try to cook and hang your bag downwind of where you will be sleeping

Practice Makes Perfect

Hanging a food bag is a lot harder than it looks.  You could run into difficulties, such as finding a suitable tree, not being able to throw the rope high enough, not having great aim, getting the rope tangled on other branches, rain, wind, and darkness to name a few.  When you get to your campsite, make it a priority to locate where you want to hang your bag and to get your rope hung.  That way you won’t be scrambling around and getting frustrated at dusk.  Its also a good idea to practice in your yard, at a local park, or local wilderness area so you know exactly what to do out in the wild.  Hanging a bear bag is a skill that takes practice and patience.

Choosing a Food Bag

You want to choose a food bag that is water resistant so if it rains the contents will not be ruined.  If you happen to use a bag that is not waterproof its a good idea to hang it upside down (with the drawstring on the bottom) so rain water will not go straight inside.  Its nice to have a bag with the ability to clip a carabiner to so that you can easily clip and unclip your rope.  If you want to save weight, you can use a bag that you are already taking for something else such as a sleeping bag stuff sack.  I like to have a designated food bag for storing my food and keeping it organized in my pack.  Many hikers use something called an Ursack which is a rodent and bear proof bag.  No need to even hang it, but you might want to tie it to a tree to make sure it doesn’t get carried off.

Recommended Bags


Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack
10 / 15 / 20 / 35 liter1.4 / 1.6 / 1.8 / 2.4 ounces7 x 17 / 8 x 19 / 9 x 20.5 / 11 x 24.5 inchesYes, fully taped seamspolyester with polyurethane coating, PVC freeStarting at $20.00 on Amazon

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil View Dry Sack
13 / 20 / 35 liter1.9 / 2.3 / 3 ounces8.6 x 21 / 10 x 24 / 12 x 27 inchesYes, fully tapes seams15 denier siliconized nylonStarting at $14.66 on Amazon
Grub pack
Grub Pack
1178 / 1684 cubic inches8 / 9.5 ounces15 x 18 / 20 x 18 inchesNoKnitted stainless steel wire meshStarting at $34.99 on Amazon

Choosing Cord/Rope

You will probably need 40-50 feet of rope for your bear hang.  Any rope will do, but some are better suited for the task.  If you use a very abrasive rope or cord, it could be harmful to the tree bark.  Arborist rope is made specifically to be easier on the tree and usually slides easily over branches.

Recommended Rope

Linezing it
Zing It Throw
1.75 mm x 180 ft8-strand solid braid, special slick coating for gliding over branches$29.19 on Amazon
Dynaglide Throw Line
1.8 mm x 200 ftStrong and slick$35.16 on Amazon


Which bear bag hang method do you prefer?


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4 thoughts on “Backpacking with a Bear Food Bag”

  • Very informative, thank you! I want to one day back pack and honestly haven’t even thought about using a bear bag. I wasn’t even sure about how high up the tree it was supposed to go. I imagine you’ve found success when you use a bear bag? What do you do personally when you’ve come across a bear in your site?

    • Hi Melissa,

      Using a bear bag can be tricky if you are camping near or above treeline where there are only a few short trees.  I only bring a bear hang bag if I know I’m going to be at lower elevations where trees are plentiful, otherwise I take my bear canister.  If you’re smart about how and where you camp, you shouldn’t have a problem with bears at your campsite.  Make sure to keep a clean camp, cook and store your food downwind from where your tent will be, and sleep in clothes different from what you wore to cook.  If you do encounter a black bear, make some noise, hold your arms up, and back away and it will most likely run away.      

  • Hi Katie,
    Thats a great article. I wish I would have known about these bags a few years back when a few of us were having no fun at all hanging coolers from trees.
    PCT style looks pretty straight forward, thanks for including the video.
    Nice mention of hanging the other scented items, my kids don’t seem to believe me that deodorants and soaps would attract bears. ‘Bears don’t eat soap’, that’s what they tell me LOL.
    One question though
    I live in an area with predominately pine trees, have you found if any one of these techniques works better than the others on pine trees?

    • Putting away other scented items is especially important in heavily trafficked areas where the bears have become habituated to humans.  Those bears will break into cars for a tube of chapstick, I’ve seen it happen! 

      I’d have to see what type of pine tree you’re talking about.  You just need a high long branch to hang your food, so if the trees near you don’t have that look into getting an Ursack or bear canister instead.  

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