By Michael Lanza
On our first night in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park on one of my earliest backpacking trips, two friends and I—all complete novices—hung our food from a tree branch near our camp. Unfortunately, the conifer trees around us all had short branches: Our food stuff sacks hung close to the trunk.
During the night, the predictable happened: We awoke to the sound of a bear clawing up the tree after our food.
Despite our nervousness and incompetence, we somehow managed to shoo that black bear off, though not before he (or she) departed with a respectable haul from our food supply. But by virtue of having started out with way more food than we needed—another rookie mistake that, ironically, compensated for this more-serious rookie mistake (read my tips on not overpacking)—we made it through that hike without going hungry and ultimately had a wonderful adventure.
And we went home with a valuable lesson learned.
I’ve learned much more about storing food properly in the backcountry over the more than three decades since that early trip, including the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. This article shares what I’ve learned about protecting food from critters like bears and, more commonly, mice and other small animals and birds like ravens.
Follow the tips below and you’ll not only save yourself and your party or family from going hungry, you might save a bear from developing a habit of seeing humans as sources of food, which too often leads to a bad outcome for that animal.
If you have any questions or tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Storing food properly when backpacking or anytime you’re in the backcountry is critical for several good reasons:
- Failing to do so risks losing some or all of your food to animals or having your food contaminated by animals that can transmit diseases, like mice, imperiling your trip and group.
- Public lands-management agencies often require proper food storage in the backcountry. In many national parks, you will receive instructions on storing food when picking up a backcountry permit.
- Improper food storage places you and your companions at risk of physical harm from large, potentially aggressive animals like bears—or at the least, a penalty or fine.
- Bears and other animals that become habituated to human food can become a nuisance, returning again and again to popular backcountry camping areas, threatening other people. Tragically, those bears may ultimately be destroyed by the management agency.
Follow the guidelines below for storing food when in the backcountry.
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Know the Rules About Food Storage
In many U.S. national parks—including parks inhabited by grizzly bears, like Glacier and Yellowstone, as well as parks with only black bears, like Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and many others—as well as in parks in the Canadian Rockies and elsewhere with large bear populations, most backcountry camping is in assigned campgrounds that have poles or cables for hanging your food (bring stuff sacks) or metal lockers for storing food. Other parks, like Grand Teton, require bear canisters. On public lands with fewer regulations, management agencies often still recommend the use of any of a few common and widely accepted methods of protecting food from animals.
Keep Food Out of Your Tent
Whether in a place with grizzly or black bears, do not bring any food or items that smell of food (example: a shirt you spilled food onto) into your tent. Put any odorous items—including toothpaste, sunblock, ointment, etc.—with your stored food.
Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.
Wondering whether to hike solo in bear country? Read my tips about that.
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