While out on the trail, you will need to protect your food from small animals and bears. Backpackers need food for energy and it would probably put an end to your trip if you lost more than a couple of days’ worth of food. Even in areas where bears are not a problem often times mice and other rodents are. They can chew through your backpack or tent in the middle of the night and they carry all sorts of diseases that you don’t want to risk contracting. Taking precautions with your food can not only keep you safe, but the critters as well. When animals get into our food, it disrupts their natural diet and can habituate them to humans. This is really dangerous for bears because they become a nuisance around busy areas and if they cause too much trouble can end up being put down. Let’s be responsible with our food storage for backpacking so that we keep ourselves and our animals safe!
There are four different ways to do this.
- Bear canister
- Ursack (bear proof bag)
- Bear hang
- Food protection infrastructure
Many national parks and forests require the use of bear canisters when camping in the backcountry. These are hard sided, plastic containers that bears cannot damage. They are made to fit in most backpacks, however they are heavy and the cylindrical shape often makes for an uncomfortable load. Bear canisters are bulky and inconvenient but in heavily used areas are somewhat necessary. Rangers can and will give you a ticket if you are in an area that requires one and you are not using one. I know I’ve personally been stopped by a ranger and asked to show them my bear canister. Canisters do make for a nice camp seat and some are good for transporting water in an emergency type situation. Make sure to store your canister downwind of where you will be camping and be careful not to put it too close to a cliff or river where a bear could knock it and you would be out both food and a bear canister.
If a bear canister is not required where you will be travelling, consider taking an Ursack instead. These are much lighter and less bulky than canisters. These bags are made of “bullet proof” Spectra fabric. They have an optional aluminum insert that will prevent your food from getting crushed. It is also a smart idea to buy odor proof bags to line your bear bag. Ursacks do not have to be hung but you might want to consider tying it to a tree so that a bear doesn’t drag it away. The bear proof version is called the AllWhite and it comes in two sizes. While the AllWhite bags are bear proof, they are prone to smaller fabric punctures from little critters. There is a third option, which is both bear and critter proof, called the AllMitey. Its a bit heavier than the AllWhite bags but still much lighter than a bear canister.
For the bear hang you will need a food bag, about 50 feet of rope, and a carabiner (optional). This method can be very effective if it is done correctly. The most difficult part is finding an appropriate tree branch. What you do is you tie your rope to something heavy, like a large rock or a small bag full of rocks, then you toss that over the designated tree branch. It will probably take quite a few tries. Once you get that, untie your heavy object and tie your food bag onto the end of the rope. Next, pull the free end of rope so that your food bag becomes suspended. Last, tie the free end or rope to a tree trunk. You want the bag to be 10-15 feet off the ground and at least 4 feet from the tree trunk. Keep in mind when doing this method that if it rains and your food is not sealed in waterproof bags it could get wet. I like to opt for an ultralight waterproof bag for my bear hangs.
The Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil View Dry 13 L bag makes for a great bear hang bag. It is made of siliconized nylon fabric which is very durable. Its polyeurothane coated, seam sealed, and totally waterproof. I like that this one has the clear window on the front so I can see where all my food is. Weight: 1.9 oz
For your bear bag rope, I recommend the Dynaglide Arborist Throw Rope. You will probably only need 50 feet of rope to hang your bag. I like the Dynaglide because it will not damage the tree bark like paracord will and it is super strong.
Zpacks makes an ultralight bear bag kit which includes a 12.3 Liter roll top bag, 50 Feet of Dyneema Z-line Slick cord, a rock sack, and a mini caribeener. All this weighs in at 3 oz! The food bag is roll top and made of Dyneema Composite Fabric which is durable and rodent resistant.
Food Protection Infrastructure
In areas that are heavily trafficked, land management agencies often install infrastructure to help campers protect their food. Sometimes there are metal bear lockers or often I’ve seen bear poles which you would hang your food bag from the same as you would from a tree branch. At some points along the Appalachian Trail there are bear cables which you can hang your food bag from.
Choosing Your Method
The method that you use should be appropriate for the area which you are traveling. Some areas and national parks require bear canisters. If bears are not really a problem, you can be more lax and probably get away with just hanging any bag from a tree. If bears are a huge problem where you will be camping, you should definitely take the bear canister and follow all rules and regulations surrounding its use.
Feel free to comment below and let me know what your preferred food protection method is while backpacking.