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 10 years 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 being 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.
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.
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Never Leave Food Unguarded
Even in places where there are few or no bears, like the desert Southwest, food must be stored properly to protect it from other animals, like mice, which are more numerous than bears almost everywhere and will often descend on food left unguarded even for a few minutes in an open backpack or a campsite.
Grand Canyon National Park—where mice and ravens commonly pilfer food in various areas of the park and rock squirrels are the leading cause of animal bites—requires using the metal food-storage lockers available in a few popular backcountry camps, and otherwise recommends using a bear canister, cooking pots with lockable lids, or cookie tins that seal tightly. That advice would be widely applicable in the Southwest.
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Use a Bear Canister
Screw-top, hard-sided bear canisters like the Bear Vault BV500 and smaller BV450, are virtually impregnable to bears and very convenient because you don’t have to worry about finding an appropriate place to hang food.
Leave the canister on the ground at least 100 feet from your campsite, ideally wedged between logs or in a place where it would be difficult for a large animal to roll it away (leaving you unable to find it).
The downside is that a canister adds weight (around two pounds) to your pack and is often bulky and difficult to fit easily inside a pack. Larger packs—generally at least 60 liters—are wide enough to insert a canister sideways. You may have to insert the canister upright in mid-size and smaller packs, which makes it a little more challenging to pack other stuff around it.
Use a Bear Bag
While not as quite impregnable as a hard-sided canister, soft-sided bear bags like the various Ursack models—made with very tough Spectra fabric—are more difficult for a bear to tear open. But they must be hung properly in a tree, where even if a bear can swipe at it with a claw, it won’t be able to pin the bag to the ground and claw or bite through it, crush its contents, or carry it off. Lining a bear bag with an odor-barrier bag or an aluminum liner may reduce odors that attract animals.
Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.
Hang Food Properly
When available, always use a bear pole or cable. If not, use about 50 feet of strong cord (5-6mm utility cord) thrown over a branch (using a small rock tied to one end of the cord), hoisting the stuff sack(s) filled with food into the air and securing the other end of the cord to another tree.
Suspended food stuff sacks should be at least 10 feet off the ground, several feet from any tree trunk, and at least four feet below the branch so that a bear cannot reach it by climbing the tree. That’s only possible in a forest with tall enough trees that have long branches with spacing between them that permits you to throw a cord over a branch; if the environment where you’re headed doesn’t have trees like that, you need a bear canister. But whenever I’ve hung food properly, it has been safe from animals.
At high altitudes where bears are not known to roam, like expansive alpine areas in mountains high above the nearest forest and in the desert Southwest, it’s usually safe to store food by hanging it low but beyond the reach of rodents—such as on a strong branch of a stunted tree.
Tip: Whether hanging from a tree or lifting food sacks onto a tall pole, bring enough stuff sacks and cords to disperse the food weight, to avoid having to lift one unwieldy load or risk shredding or snapping a cord.
Wondering whether to hike solo in bear country? Read my tips about that.