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.
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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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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• 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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• 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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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.
See a menu of all stories about backcountry skills at The Big Outside.