If you are going to be camping in bear country, then you absolutely must know how to keep your food safe from bears. There are two options. One is to get a bear canister to keep all of your food in and, in some localities where bears are common, this might even be required by law. The other option is to hang a bear bag. Since I don’t have room in my pack for a large bear canister, I always choose the bear bag method.
- Bear Bag Basics
- The 5 Ways to Hang a Bear Bag
Bear Bag Basics
Bear Bag vs. Bear Canister
Because bears have gotten so good at getting into food (even when hung!), 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.
Compared to hanging a bear bag, using a bear canister is really easy. You just keep all your food and smelly items in it. However, there are some issues with bear canisters:
- Fitting all your food: This can be tricky, especially if your food is vacuum-sealed and not malleable.
- Extra weight: Bear canisters are definitely heavier than carrying rope for hanging a bag.
- Bears batting around at your canister: Bears can still smell food through the canister. So, many backpackers have stories about listening to bears batting at their canister all night long. Terrifying, right!
Note that bears will still smell your food even if you hang it. They might not give up so quickly on getting it! One solution is to get an odor-proof bag to keep your food in. The odor-proof bags by LOKSAK are popular with backpackers.
Why and When to Hang a Bear Bag?
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 a bear bag even if there isn’t a real risk of bears.
Supplies for Hanging a Bear Bag
1. Food 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 bear 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. In general, you’ll need about 20-50 feet.
3. Odor-Proof Bags (Recommended)
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. 😀
What to Put In Your Bear Bag
Everything that is scented should go in your 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.
Not sure what to eat while outdoors? I’ve just written an eBook with over 50 dehydrator trail recipes, plus tons of advice on meal planning for backpacking trips.
Where to Hang Your Bear Bag
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 far away from the campsite, and downwind from the campsite.
Hanging a Bear Bag Isn’t Easy!
When you take a look at the diagrams 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:
- The only suitable tree for hanging the bear bag is surrounding by a field of poison ivy – or some other issue which makes it difficult to find a good tree
- Your aim sucks and it may take several tries to get the rope over the tree
- You clonk yourself on the head with the weighted rope when tossing it over the tree (yes, this really does happen!)
- The woods is really dense and your rope keeps getting tangled on branches
- You got to your campground too late and now you’ve got to hang the bear bag in the dark…
If you don’t have much (or any) experience hanging a bear bag, please HANG THE BEAR BAG EARLY! 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. Scout out a suitable tree right away and get the rope set up. IT WILL TAKE YOU LONGER TO HANG THE BEAR BAG THAN YOU THINK.
5 Methods of Hanging 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:
- YOUR FOOD BAG MUST BE AT LEAST 12 FEET OFF THE GROUND. Some experts recommend at least 15 feet!
- YOUR FOOD BAG MUST BE AT LEAST 6 FEET AWAY FROM THE TREE TRUNK. This is because bears can climb the tree and reach out to grab the food bag. Some experts recommend keeping the food bag 10 feet away from the tree trunk!
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!
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!
- 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.
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.
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.
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.