Overnight Food Storage

An American Black Bear at the Bear Mountain Zoo.

There’s only one week to go before my  “Intro to Backpacking” Seminar at Harriman State Park with “Hudson Valley Hikers.”   If you’d like to attend, please sign up soon. Anyone who joins will be put on the waitlist until they email me a backpacking question.  For more information about the event, please write a comment at the bottom of this post.

Today, we will answer Liz’s question about overnight food storage.

Overnight Food Storage: Why?

While backpacking, it is important to store your food in a safe, secure way. Food left out in the open may attract animals. If an animal eats your food, you may run out of nutrition before the end of your trip; but it may also have serious consequences for the life of the animal:

  • Animals who are fed by humans, intentionally or accidentally, lose their fear of humans. Animals that frequently approach humans may become dangerous and may be killed by authorities.
  • When animals learn to steal food from campsites, they begin to visit those campsites more often and become a nuisance.
  • Animals who become dependent on humans for food may lose their natural instincts to find food on their own.

Overnight Food Storage: Bear Bags

The most common method of storing food overnight is in a bear bag. In its most basic form, this is just a sack that you put your food in and hang from a tree branch. Don correctly, a bears and other animals should not be able to reach it. To that extent, it should be at least 12 feet off the ground, 6 feet away from the tree trunk, and 6 feet down from the branch. If the bag is too close to the trunk or the branch, it will be easily reached by pesky critters who are all better at climbing than we are.

Most people hang a bear bag by throwing a rope over a branch, tying their bag to it, hauling it up, and securing the other end to an object on the ground.  Some clever animals have learned that if they cut the rope, the food will come down. In order to prevent this, we humans need to add an extra trick.  Here are the steps to hang a proper bear bag:

  1. Tie the end of your line to a rock or stick.
  2. Throw it over a sturdy branch that is about 18 feet off the ground so that it hangs 6 feet out from the tree trunk. (if you can’t find such a branch, be creative.)
  3. Tie one end of your line to the bear bag.
  4. Tie a figure eight loop into the line immediately above the bear bag.
  5. Pass the loose end of the line through this loop.
  6. Hoist the bag all the way up to the branch.
  7. Reach as high as you can on the rope and tie an object to it. This object should be larger than the loop you ties.
  8. Slowly ease out the loose end. Your object will rise and the bear bag will drop to meet it.
  9. Secure the loose end away from the tree the bag is hung from.

If you did this correctly, pulling down on the rope will cause the bear bag to go up. The only way to get it down is to untie your stopper object.

overnight food storage: bear bag hang
Correct Bear Bag Hang

Overnight Food Storage: Ursacks

Most people use common waterproof nylon stuff sacks as bear bags. In most cases, this is OK. In some cases, you may wish to have an added bit of security.  For these cases, many people rely on the Ursack.  An Ursack is bear bag made from bullet proof Kevlar. It is slightly heavier than nylon, but bears and other animals cannot chew through it. While an Ursack may be stored on the ground, it should be hung the same as a regular bear bag.

Overnight Food Storage: Bear Canisters

A bear bag is not always an option. Some regions are lacking of suitable trees for hanging bags, while other regions are governed by agencies that require more secure food storage. For these cases, we have the Bear Canister. A Bear Canister is a hard plastic barrel with a locking closure that animals cannot open. A bear canister is intended to be stored on the ground. While heavy and bulky, these canisters prove an affective deterrent against animal food theft.

Overnight food storage: bear canister
Bear Canister

Overnight Food Storage: Where?

A common mistake I’ve seen is to hang a bear bag or store a canister in camp. I’ve even seen backpackers hang their bear bag directly over their own tent. This is not a good idea. Neither canisters or bags keep food in. Bears or other curious animals may still come to investigate.  Smell from your food may lead these animals directly into your camp. A frustrated bear who can’t reach a bag or open a canister may see you as an easier target (or at least a good punching bag.)

To avoid luring animals into camp, your food should be stored at least 100 feet down wind.  This way, the wind will blow scents away from camp. Animals following those scents will get to the food and then stop, rather than wandering through your tent. It is important to realize that 100 feet is a minimum guideline. How far should you store your food? That depends on how close you are comfortable being to a hungry bear.

Overnight Food Storage: food should be stored at least down wind of camp.
Food should be stored at least 100′ down wind of camp.

Overnight Food Storage: Bear Boxes

Some designated campsites are equipped with steel boxes for food storage. These save backpackers the work of hanging a bag.  It is important to note that these boxes are not for depositing your trash. You should also not leave any food behind in these when you leave. Long term food storage will eventually attract animals ore lead to insect infestations.

Overnight Food Storage: Not Just Food!

Food isn’t the only thing that might attract animals. It is important to store anything with a scent in your bag or canister. (Some jurisdictions require you to hang your entire backpack, containing everything except what you need to sleep.) Here are some examples of other items that should be stored with your food:

  • Toothpaste + toothbrush
  • Chapstick
  • Insect Repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Soaps + Hand Sanitizers
  • Medications
  • Chewing Gum
  • Deodorant
  • Water bottles that have contained flavors
  • Mess Kits