If you are going to be camping in bear country, then you absolutely must know how to keep your food safe from bears. In a lot of situations, this means hanging a bear bear. This post will go over all the ways to hang a bear bag (with lots of tips so you don’t end up doing something like hitting yourself in the head with the throw rock!).
- Bear bag vs. Bear canister
- Why hang a bear bag?
- The 5 Ways to Hang a Bear Bag
- Tips for hanging a bear bag
Bear Bag vs. Bear Canister
Because of how good bears are at getting into food bags, many national parks now require backpackers to use a bear canister. Rangers might even stop you and ask you to show your bear canister. If it doesn’t meet regulations, then you will get fined or even kicked out of the park.
Even if a bear canister isn’t required, you might still want to use a bear canister. Why? Because bear bags are notoriously difficult to hang. First you have to find the right tree for hanging. Then you have to throw rope up at least 12 feet over a branch — which is a lot more difficult than it might sound, especially when other tree branches are obstructing your path. A lot of people don’t hang a bear bag correctly, so a bear canister is much more secure than hanging food.
On the flip side, bear canisters are really bulky, hard to fit in your pack, and weigh over 2lbs. Fitting all your food into the canister can also be problematic.
Use a Bear Canister If:
- It is required
- Bears are a problem where you are going (Yosemite, Lake Tahoe…)
- Trees will likely be scarce
- You suck at throwing
- Weight isn’t an issue
- You’ll be getting to camp late
- You want convenience, even if it means carrying some extra weight
Use a Bear Hang If:
- Bears aren’t likely to be seen where you are going
- Your food is more likely to be stolen by critters than a bear
- You will get to camp early enough to hang the bear bag properly
*Bear Vault is the most popular bear canister for backpacking (available here at Amazon and here on REI). There is also the option of using a Ursack instead of a bear canister (Amazon, REI). It’s a bear-proof bag made from Kevlar material. It does just as good of a job at keeping your food away from bears, but is much lighter and easier to carry.
*Read the difference between bear canisters and Ursack here.
Why Hang Your Food?
- Critters also steal food: Bears aren’t the only wild animals which will be attracted by the smell and come to eat all of your food. There are also animals like raccoons, foxes, rabbits… to consider. For this reason, I always hang my food even if there isn’t a real risk of bears. In these situations though, I might do a “lazy hang” and only keep the bag about 8 feet off the ground instead of the 12 feet required for bears.
- Keep wild animals wild. Hanging a food bag isn’t just about keeping your food safe. It’s about keeping food away from wild animals. When wild animals learn to eat human food, they learn to associate humans with an easy meal. It can create a serious safety issue if bears start following hikers around. It also messes up the ecosystem when animals are eating human food instead of the ants from that rotting log, etc.
- Safer than keeping food in your tent. I know a lot of backpackers sleep with their food to keep it safe from animals. This is incredibly dangerous in bear country. Do you really want to be awoken by a bear tearing through your tent to get at your peanut butter protein bars?
Important: Bears Will Still Be Able to Smell Your Food
Bears have amazingly good senses of smell and, according to the NPS, some bears can smell food from 20 miles away. Whether you hang your food or put it in a bear canister, bears will be able to smell it.
Assuming you hung the bear bag correctly, the bear won’t be able to get at the food. However, the bear might spend all night scrambling up and down the tree trying to get the food. Likewise, lots of backpackers have stories about how they had to listen to bears batting at their bear canisters all night long in attempt to get at the food. It’s hard to sleep when you’ve got a wild animal thrashing at your food!
One solution is to get an odor-proof bag to keep your food in. The odor-proof bags by LOKSAK are popular with backpackers. These aren’t a 100% perfect solution; the outside of the bags will pick up odors when you touch them with your hangs. However, it provides a good deal of protection against animals finding your food storage to begin with.
Supplies for Hanging a Bear Bag
1. The Hang Bag
Your bag needs to be sturdy enough to hold all of your food, and ideally you should be able to seal it fairly well so bugs and birds don’t get to the food inside. The best bear bag is a waterproof drawstring bag with a strap on the bottom. You actually hang the bag by the strap so it is upside down. This way no water can drip into it if it rains.
If you don’t have one of these bags, don’t fret. So long as the bag is sturdy and waterproof, you are fine. A heavy-duty shopping bag will work in a pinch. I have a waterproof cover for my backpack, and I use this as my food hang bag too.
You’ll need some lightweight, strop rope for hanging the bear bag. Pay attention to which hang you want to use. Some hang methods require more rope. Usually you’ll need about 20-50 feet of rope to hang a bear bag.
Important: Thin rope can damage trees.
Don’t get any rope thinner than 1.5mm (ideally a bit thicker) so it doesn’t cut into tree branches and damage them. Thicker is heavier and bulkier, but it is the better thing for nature.
3. Odor-Proof Bags
As mentioned above, bears can still smell your food even once it’s hung. They might spend hours trying to figure out how to get it down. The solution is to put your food in bags which are odor-proof. Then the bags won’t know there is food there, and thus won’t try to get at it.
Odor-proof bags aren’t perfect, so you will still need to hang your food properly. However, it is an extra layer of protection. The large bags are also great for putting your stinky clothes into. 😀
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How to Hang a Bear Bag
There are multiple ways of hanging a bear bag. It is good to familiarize yourself with more than one of these because each has its pros and cons, and some are more suitable for certain types of trees.
Note that with each of these methods, there are some basic rules to follow:
- Hang bear bag at least 200 feet downwind from camp: As I keep emphasizing, bears have really good senses of smell. They will be able to smell your food in the bear bag, and will likely try to get it. The last thing you want is bear trampling through your campground because the scent of food is there. For these reasons, you need to make sure your bear bag is hung at least 200 feet downwind from camp!
- At least 12 feet off the ground: Bears can be over 8 feet tall when standing. Since they can reach up, your food bag should be at least 12 feet from the ground to be out of bear reach. Some experts recommend at least 15 feet off the ground.
- At least 6 feet away from the tree trunk. Bears can climb the tree and reach out to grab the food bag. Some experts say to keep it 10 feet from the trunk!
- Hang on a branch which cannot support the bear’s weight. You don’t want the bear climbing onto the branch to get to the food. Also make sure none of the branches right under the food bag can support a bear.
- Put ALL scented items into the bear bag: That includes your soap, toothpaste, dish soap, perfumes, body creams (not sure why you are bringing these items camping though 😉 ). Since you will need your toothpaste at the end of the night, you can put it in a smaller bag and attach it to the main food bag.
1. Simplest Bear Hang Method (Not Recommended)
This is the easiest method of hanging a bear bag, it doesn’t require much throwing skill, and it is easy to find a suitable tree. The problem is that BEARS ARE VERY SMART ANIMALS. They can easily figure out how to make the food bag drop simply by cutting/biting through the diagonal part of the rope. Hence, this method is NOT RECOMMENDED in bear country. I do use it when not in bear country, such as to keep foxes and other animals out of my food.
- About 20-25 feet of rope
- Find a tree with a branch about 15 feet above the ground with nothing below it that could support the weight of a bear. The point where you will hang the bear bag needs to be at least 6 feet away from the trunk. This point should be about 1-4 inches in diameter – strong enough to support the food bag but not enough to support a bear’s weight.
- Throw one end of your rope over the branch.
- Tie your food bag to one end of the rope.
- Pull on the rope so the bear bag goes as high as possible. Tie the rope to the tree trunk.
- To retrieve the bear bag, untie the rope at the tree trunk. Slowly release the rope so the bag doesn’t come crashing down!
2. Marrison Haul Method
This is very similar to the simple method shown above, but it uses two carabiners and is secured by both ends of the rope to the tree. This makes it easier to hoist/lower the food bag. But, like with the method above, BEARS CAN CUT THROUGH THE ROPE TO MAKE THE FOOD BAG DROP. This method is NOT RECOMMENDED in bear country.
Once when I was little, my dad set out on a backpacking trip. He was supposed to be gone for a week, so we were surprised when he came back home 2 days later. “What happened?” we asked, thinking some injury had occurred. Nope. A bear had eaten all his food, even though it was hung with this method. So I know that it can happen!
I do like this method for hanging food from smaller critters though. Because the carabiner setup takes some of the force off the rope, the hang rope is less likely to damage trees than with other methods.
- About 50 feet of rope
- 2 carabiners
- Find a tree with a branch that is at least 15 feet from the ground and isn’t strong enough to support a baby bear but is strong enough to support your food bag (about 1-4 inches in diameter)
- Toss side A of the rope over the branch. The rope should be at least 6 feet from the trunk of the tree.
- On side B of the rope, make a “trucker’s hitch” knot about 6 feet up.
- Attach carabiner 1 into the knot you just made.
- Run the end of side B through the carabiner.
- In the loop you just made, attach carabiner 2 and attach the food bag to this.
- Tie rope side A to a nearby tree; tie as high up as you can
- Now tie rope side B to the same tree
- To retrieve your food bag, just untie and release rope side B slowly.
3. PCT Method
PCT stands for Pacific Crest Trail, and this is considered one of the best methods for hanging a bear bag because there aren’t any ropes which can be chewed through, causing the bag to drop. I personally don’t like this method though. The first reason is because I am terrible at throwing, and this method requires you to have an extra-high tree (because the bag will come down a bit when you release it). It also is rather awkward to tie the knot while the bag is swinging in the air.
- About 40 feet of rope
- 1 carabiner
- 1 stick, about 7 inches long and 1 inch thick
- Throw a rope over a tree branch about 20 feet high. The rope should be about 6 feet away from the trunk and the branch should not be strong enough to support the weight of a bear. (Picture 1)
- Attach a carabiner to rope end A. Then attach your food bag to the carabiner.
- Put rope end B through the carabiner. Pull rope end B to hoist the food bag into the air as high as it can go.
- While holding the food bag in the air (it will help to have a friend at this point), reach up and tie a stick onto the rope end using a clove hitch.
- Slowly release the rope. The stick will go up and the food bag will come down. They will eventually meet, and the stick will “jam” in the carabiner, preventing the food bag from going down any further.
- To retrieve the food bag, just pull on the dangling part of the rope. It will cause the jam stick to lower so you can remove it and lower the food bag.
4. Double Rope Method/Counterbalance Method
This method of hanging a bear bag works well when you’ve got a lot of food, because you will need to divide the food into 2 bags. The downside is that you will need to find a higher limb, and that you will need to carry more rope with you. It is also a bit difficult to do this bear hang alone, and retrieving the bear bag can be a bit tricky (which is no fun when you are hungry!).
You Will need:
- About 40 feet of rope
- 2 carabiners
- A long sturdy stick
- Find a tree with a branch at least 20 feet high with nothing below it that could support a bear’s weight. You will toss the rope around the branch at about 10 feet away from the trunk. This point should be sturdy enough to hold your food bags, but not sturdy enough to hold the weight of a bear (about 1-4 inches in diameter).
- Toss your rope over the tree branch so both ends are now touching the ground.
- Divide your food into two bags of equal weight. Attach one bag to rope side A.
- Pull on rope side B to hoist the food bag into the air. Pull it as high as it can go. If you have a friend to help, have the friend hold the rope now.
- While your friend holds the rope so the food bag stays in the air, tie the second food bag to rope side B. Attach it as high as you can reach. Create a loop with the extra rope. You will use this for retrieving the bear bag.
- Let go of the ropes. Now, use a long stick to push the second food bag up (this will lower the first bag). Both food bags should be level with each other. They should be at least 12-15 feet off the ground.
- To retrieve the bear bag, use your long stick to grab the loop and pull it down. You can then remove the food bag and lower the other food bag down.
5. Two-Tree Method
This is the bear bag hang method I usually use. I like it because I don’t have to throw the rope as high (again, I’m terrible at throwing), and it is easier to find suitable trees. The downside is that you have to throw the rope two times, and that you need to have a significantly longer rope (or two ropes tied together).
- 1 rope at least 50 feet long, OR two ropes at least 25 feet long
- 1 carabiner
- You will need to find two trees which are 12-20 feet apart, and each have a branch which is at least 15 feet high.
- Throw one end of the rope over a branch. Tie the end to the trunk of the tree. If you are short on rope, make sure you tie it high up on the trunk!
- Throw the other end of the rope over the second branch.
- Using a carabiner, attach your food bag to the rope between the trees
- Pull on the loose end of the rope to hoist the food bag into the air between the two trees.
- Tie the rope to the second tree. To retrieve the food bag, slowly untie one end of the rope and loosen it so the food bag gently comes to the ground.
Tips for Hanging a Bear Bag
When you take a look at the instructions below, it might seem rather straightforward and easy to hang a bear bag. But rarely does it work out as perfectly as in the diagrams. Here are just some of the issues you may have when hanging a bear bag:
- Give yourself lots of time. It will probably take you a lot longer than you think to hang a bear bag. Scout out a tree and get your hang set up immediately when you get to camp. Don’t wait until after dinner!
- Make sure you have enough daylight: Don’t wait until the end of the day, because darkness will quickly fall and then you’ll really have a blast trying to hang it.
- Use a throw bag instead of a rock. To get your rope over a tree branch, you’ll need to tie it to something heavy. Unless you are really good at tying knots, I’d advise against using a rock. The rock can loosen and hit you in the head. Yes, this happens often! It’s safer to weigh down a small bag, tie your rope to it, and use this for throwing.
- It’s worth the effort to find the “perfect” tree. Your throw rope will get tangled in branches. Or you won’t be able to get it over the right branch because of all the vegetation in the way… By spending an extra 10 minutes to find a good tree, you can ultimately save yourself a lot of time.