The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods

By Michael Lanza

Stashing a backpack in the woods is just what it sounds like. If you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip and want to take a side hike of any significant distance, like to a summit, and then return to the same spot to resume your backpacking route, it’s a waste of energy (not to mention entirely pointless) to carry your heavy pack with you. But there are ways to do it wrong, and ways to make sure your pack and everything inside it are still there and not torn apart or gone when you return. Here’s how to do it right.

The tips below are based on my experience of many thousands of trail miles and more than three decades of backpacking, dayhiking, climbing, trail running, and taking ultra-hikes and ultra-runs—including more than a quarter-century of doing this professionally and testing and reviewing gear as a past field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog.

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A backpacker hiking the Spray Park Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt hiking the Spray Park Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo to read about that trip.

Basically, you want to make sure no animals (including humans) will find it and take or damage the pack or anything inside. Most hikers aren’t dishonest, but some adults might mistakenly think a pack was inadvertently left behind and assume it’s fair game for whomever finds it, or that they should deliver it to whatever agency manages the land so that its owner might reclaim it later (which is not helpful to you for the remainder of your hike); and kids will more readily take something they find.

That’s more of a concern for me on popular hikes that attract a lot of inexperienced hikers. In more remote areas, where you’ll generally only see experienced backpackers who aren’t likely to make that assumption, I worry less about a pack being visible to people.

Wild animals are a concern virtually everywhere. Rodents, squirrels, and larger animals like raccoons and bears can be attracted by food odors, and might chew through or tear up your pack to get at food. Many animals, including bears, have a much stronger sense of smell than people, so they’ll find a pack that’s well hidden from sight. Other animals, like deer and mountain goats, will lick or chew on pack straps and hipbelts for the salt left behind when you perspire, and can cause damage.

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A backpacker on the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Bechler River Trail, Yellowstone National Park. Click photo to read about that trip.

Since you can’t lock up a backpack, you have to hide it in a way that avoids attracting an animal to it. Here’s how:

• If stashing it in an area with heavy human traffic, look around for a spot well off the trail and hidden from sight, in trees or bushes or behind a large rock, beyond where people are congregating or walking. If you’re in open terrain with little or no vegetation, you may have to walk farther off the trail to leave the pack hidden by a terrain feature out of sight of the trail.

• Don’t leave any food inside the pack. In a park like Yosemite, where you’re required to carry a bear canister, anyway, remove the canister from your pack and hide it at least 50 to 100 feet from your pack. I like to stick a bear canister in a depression in the ground, or in a slot between heavy rocks, where a bear can’t easily roll it far enough that I have trouble finding it.

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A backpacker on Trail 95 at Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
A backpacker on Trail 95 at Alice Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click photo to read about the best backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.

• If you’re not carrying a bear canister—which isn’t necessary or required everywhere—remove all food from the pack and either carry the food with you (if you have a daypack or some other means for carrying the food) or hang it in a stuff sack from a tree branch high enough to be beyond the reach of a bear on the ground; a food bag should also be hung far enough below the branch it’s on, and far enough from the trunk of the tree, to lie beyond the reach of a bear climbing the tree (which black bears do very well—especially Yosemite bears!).

• Be careful not to ever spill food inside or on your backpack, to avoid it having food odors when there’s no food inside. If you do spill food in or on your pack, clean it up with a wet cloth or T-shirt.

• Carry whatever you’ll need for the side hike, which may include some food, water, a jacket, and perhaps valuables that you don’t want to take even the slightest risk of losing, like your driver’s license, car key, and your camera.

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A backpacker on the Fisher Creek Trail in North Cascades National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Fisher Creek Trail in North Cascades National Park. Click photo to read about that trip.

• Hang your pack from a tree branch just high enough that small animals, deer, mountain goats or other animals cannot reach it from the ground to chew on its for salt. Within arm’s reach for an adult standing on the ground is generally high enough.

• Before leaving your stashed backpack and bear canister, take a good look at where you’ve left them, so you’ll remember when you return. Ideally, pick a hiding location with a distinctive marker you’ll recognize, like a big boulder or a downed tree. Look back as you’re hiking away from where you’ve hidden them to familiarize yourself with what the area looks like when you’re approaching again from a distance, because a forest can look ubiquitous. Leave a distinctive natural marker in or beside the trail to mark the spot, like a stick or two sticks crossed—as long as they’re not so conspicuous or in the way that another hiker might toss them aside.

If I expect to be gone for an hour or more from my pack, I’ll put a pack cover over it just in case of rain; and I like to have contents, like my sleeping bag and extra clothes, inside waterproof stuff sacks in the pack. Even on a sunny day in many mountain ranges, afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon and can materialize quickly from a clear sky.

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Ramona Falls on the Timberline Trail, Mount Hood, Oregon.
Ramona Falls, on the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood. Click photo to read about that trip.

The steps I’ve suggested above may seem inconvenient or time-consuming. But it really only takes a few minutes to properly hide a backpack and food, and it prevents a much larger problem that can result from a person or, more likely, an animal discovering and taking or damaging your pack and food.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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24 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods”

  1. Two points. Bear spray is not allowed in Yosemite and if it was it doesn’t make sense to leave it behind while carrying food on the side hike.

  2. Hi. And thanks for sharing your tips.

    I find that if I am planning longer side-trips, I prep a small note that put inside a ziploc bag and is attached to outside of bag. Should anyone ‘stumble’ upon my main pack, they ought to see the note that reads “Please do not touch. I am coming back today.”

    The note makes it unclear *when* I am coming back so that anyone dumb enough to take my pack *might* encounter its owner on trails. Are you ready for an awkward encounter?

    But as you mentioned, the overwhelming majority of backcountry hikers are respectful of others gear.

    Happy trails!

  3. Not to toot my own horn but I am a master of hiding my pack and gear In a metropolitan area, let me tell you I have done both and in the city it’s so freaking hard to do, but I have mastered it and uh yeah just thought I would throw that out there .

  4. Seemed mostly like common sense, but everything was very well-presented and thorough. Plus, there is noting like hearing it from someone who has the experience to genuinely qualify as an expert who know what (s)he is talking about. Thanks for taking the time.

  5. Unless you’re on a day hike I disagree with this entire idea. Your backpack is your lifeline. Why would you hide your lifeline in the wilderness? It makes no sense. For example, I couldn’t imagine separating myself from my backpack on a thru hike. That sounds like a nightmare to me. There are very few things that would cause me to ditch my backpack. It sounds silly to risk your life to make the summit easier? Crime is on the rise! Put your mask on!

    • This article explains some of the valid reasons you might leave your pack behind for an out-and-back side hike for which you wouldn’t need most of what’s in your pack. It also points out: “Carry whatever you’ll need for the side hike, which may include some food, water, a jacket, and perhaps valuables that you don’t want to take even the slightest risk of losing, like your driver’s license, car key, and your camera.”

      It would be extremely rare that parting with some contents of your pack for a short time during a multi-day hike would “risk your life.” Most backpackers understand that. And I won’t bother responding to your comments about crime being on the rise (in the backcountry??) or needing a mask when you’re mostly alone in the middle of the wilderness.

    • I guess that works if you never plan to bag nearby summits or enjoy a side hike. But you would be missing out on some fine adventures that, in retrospect, may turn out to be a trip highlight. The risks you seem most worried about are highly unlikely and rarely life threatening. Loss or damage due to critters is always a possibility, but minimizing those risks is the point of the article. And covered quite well, I might add. Thanks, Michael.

  6. From someone who has “lost” a camp in a forest—at least for a time on return from a day hike. Take a fresh waypoint with your GPS or app on your camp or cached pack before setting off on your day adventure. Something I am doing on my next trip is a luggage tag with my SMS text number for my messenger if my pack is discovered by another anxious hiker or ranger.

  7. I suspect you can still lock your pack with a lightweight lock. Or even leave a sign in case someone comes across. Don’t freaking touch it. You can also put ribbons on trees or branches to leave a mark. People won’t bother those. Just remember to remove once you return to the pack.

    • Honestly, Ryder, I don’t think any of those measures are necessary. For the most part, you don’t really have to worry about a person taking your pack, except for maybe a very inexperienced hiker who might mistakenly assume that someone, somehow, forgot their pack rather than having temporarily set it down. On busy trails, you can just hide it far enough off the trail to avoid detection by people if you’re worried about that. This story’s tips are primarily intended to prevent animals from damaging the pack.

  8. I agree, photos are helpful. A GPS waypoint is helpful too, but since GPS always has error, a photo is a good compliment. Nice that you also reminded people that distance from the trunk and the branch above is key for food hanging. I see so many foodbags tied near trunks or close to neighboring branches. Most of the time, when we are hanging, we are critter (racoon, etc) bagging, not bear bagging.

  9. Michael,

    As usual very good and and useful information. Something I have started doing when having to find where I left a pack or even a trail junction is to take a photograph. Maybe it is the advancing years or too many trails but a photograph can help find that stash.