Just as you should protect yourself from snakes by wearing gaiters when hiking through some areas, you should also protect yourself and your food from bears in certain camping areas. But just how can you keep your supplies away from a four hundred pound animal with sharp claws and teeth?
There are several options for keeping your food safe from bears.
Bear bags, canisters, and poles are all popular methods. Combined with safe and hygienic practices your food will be safe from curious critters, including bears. Not all food storage options are created equal. Sometimes you may need a combination of items.
Bear Bags, the Most Popular Option
Bear bags tend to be the most used food storage item when camping and trying to avoid bear encounters. After all, though bear attacks are infrequent, not properly storing your food could lure a bear, making an attack more likely.
Bear bags make food storage easy, keeping you and your fellow campers safe. It used to be that a bear bag was any bag that could keep your food out of a bear’s reach, today they are a specific product. They are still hung, like the sturdy garbage bag or cloth bags used to be, but they have added features.
These sophisticated bear bags can be waterproof dry sacks, carbon fiber smell proof bags, and even Kevlar bags.
Dry bags often perform well as bear bags whether they are marketed as such or not. Commonly used to seal out water and keep your belongings dry when kayaking or boating, they are also efficient at locking in odors.
The heavy-duty seal of a dry bag makes them almost completely waterproof, this will come in handy when storing food as it will keep things dry and help trap smells. These bags are perfect for camping because they can be compressed and folded for carrying or storage.
Odor proof bags are similar to heavy-duty garbage bags but have extra protection against smells. Unfortunately, unlike dry bags, most are single-use. Their zippered closure or drawstring closure typically makes them waterproof, humidity-proof, and sand/dustproof.
Dry bags and odor-proof bags lock in smells, but it will all be for naught if the outside of the bag touches any food or scented items. This means the bear bag is no longer odorless. Even if you are using a dry bag or specialized bear bag, it still might be beneficial to use these smell proof bags as liners for extra security.
Finally, bear-resistant bags, specifically produced and marketed as such, are the most specialized form of bear bags. These bags strive to be both tooth and claw resistant. They are often constructed from bulletproof materials such as Kevlar.
Where you would want to hang a dry bag or odor-proof bag, bear bags claim that they do not have to be hung from a tree. Instead, they can simply be tied off to a tree located a safe distance from your campsite. Other types of bear bags still recommend suspension from a tree or a pole so be sure to read the instructions.
The Ursack Major Black Bear Bag is made from bulletproof fabric and includes a drawstring closure with a six-foot, 2,500-pound tensile rope. The Bear Outdoor Dry Sack/Floating Waterproof Bag is technically a dry bag but makes a good bear hang. It includes a roll-top closure with snaps. Finally, the BearVault BV500 Bear Resistant Food Canister is clear, lightweight, and durable. The FRONTIERSMAN Bear Canister for Backpacking & Hiking is not see-through, but is ergonomic in shape and has a screw-on bear-resistant lid.
Here’s another article we wrote that will be helpful- Foods And Scents That Attract Bears ( Information To Keep You Safe )
Other Food Storage Options
Some campgrounds located in areas with a lot of bear traffic may provide you storage options so that you don’t have to bring your own. These can include a bear locker, a metal bear-proof box that sits on the ground a safe distance from the campsites. Some campers prefer these boxes to bags or hangs because they are easier to use.
Bear canisters are another option. In fact, canisters are usually so bear proof that some areas of forest or national lands require canisters and do not allow bear bags. A canister is a rigid and durable container with a sealable locking lid. Unlike malleable bear bags, rigidity is a downside of bear canisters. They cannot be folded or squished to travel with and they cannot mold or expand to the amount of food you have.
Even though canisters are tooth and claw resistant, they should still be stored away from your campsite, just like bear bags. Nine times out of ten, bears cannot bite or claw through canisters but a bear could still haul it off. Therefore, you may still want to hang it or at least tie it off to a tree.
Hanging Your Food
Aside from having a good storage container, another must when protecting your food supplies from bears is hanging it. There are a few different ways in which you can suspend your bear bag or canister. Hanging a bear bag usually involves a little bit more than just tossing a rope over a tree branch. One vital factor is hanging the bag downwind from and a safe distance away from your campsite.
To suspend the bag, you will need a rope. This means you will need to pack about twenty to fifty feet of lightweight but sturdy rope. The rope should be fray resistant and tough enough to withstand rubbing against the tree bark while holding the weight of your bear bag. A reflective rope is even better so that it can be seen in the dark.
This CactusBloom Rope and Locking Carabiner Clip – 65 feet is a great option as it is UV resistant, fray-resistant, and includes a locking carabiner.
Depending on the type of storage container, it can be helpful to hang the bear bag upside down. Some bags even come with a drawstring or strap attached to the bottom just for this purpose. If you hang the bag upside down you are less likely to have water or rain seep into the bag.
Hanging food to prevent bears follows a few basic guidelines. First, the finished hang should be at least twelve feet off of the ground, fifteen feet if you want to be extra cautious. Bears can reach a decent height when standing on their hind legs.
Next, the hang should be at least six feet away from the tree trunk. You might be able to get away with four, but six is optimal. Ten feet, another sometimes prescribed number, is probably more than adequate and it can be difficult to find a sturdy enough tree limb to support the hang at this distance. The reason for keeping the bag away from the trunk is to keep a bear from climbing to in reaching distance of the rope, at which point it could gnaw the container down.
Find a tree located 200 feet away and downwind of your tent and cooking area. A triangle set up, with the bag located 200 feet downwind of your tent and 200 feet from the cooking area is preferred.
The easiest way to do a hang is to use the rope to tie off the bag and hoist it into a tree. However, bears can climb and are sometimes savvy enough to figure out how to cut the rope by chewing or clawing through it.
If you want to take your chances and just hang the container quickly, locate a tree with a branch ten to fifteen feet off the ground and sturdy enough to support the container’s weight. Toss one end of the rope over the tree approximately six feet from the trunk.
Secure your food well to one end of the rope. Hoist the bag into the air as high as possible from the ground, then tie off the rope to the tree trunk. This method is a quick but risky hang because a bear may be able to chew or claw through the diagonal part of the rope to release food.
The PCT method or Pacific Crest Trail hang is considered the optimal bear hang. For this method, you will need a tree and rope, similar to the simple hang, but you will also need a carabiner and a stick.
First, find a tree with a branch about twenty feet high. Throw your rope, or use some other launch method, over the limb at a point six feet away from the trunk. Attach a carabiner to the end of the rope that fell over the limb and then secure your food to the carabiner.
Put the other end of the rope through the carabiner and lift the bag as high as it can go into the air. With the bag hoisted, tie a stick at least one inch thick and six to seven inches long onto the end of the rope using a clove hitch. This hitch will assist in the removal of your bag from the hang.
Then slowly let go of your rope. The stick will go up and the food bag will come down until the stick eventually becomes lodged against the carabiner. The stick will not be able to pass through the carabiner and your bear bag will be left suspended without any rope tie-off for a bear or animal to get at.
To release the hang pull on the dangling rope to lower your stick and untie the clove knot. Then you can lower your food.
If you find yourself in the thick of bear country, many campsites or areas may have bear poles or bear cables. Cables are usually lines attached to other lines suspended between trees or poles. All you have to do is unhook the cable at the post and pull it until the hook or carabiner comes down; then attach your bag, hoist it in the air, and secure it.
Bear poles are high vertical poles with smaller poles attached to the top on which to hang your bag. Simply secure your food canister to the end of the pole then lift it up to hang it on an available hook at the top.
Remember, bears can be attracted to anything scented. Beyond food, this includes lotions, sprays, dog food, and more. Anything you think may attract a bear should be stored in a bear bag, canister, or locker and properly secured downwind and away from your campsite.
Safe Food Practices
- Put it Away
Most bears only come to campsites because of one thing, the smell of food. Human food, pet food, and garbage all can lure them in. And when they smell food most bears will chew or tear through almost anything to get to it. As a camper, it is your responsibility to prevent wild animals from being enticed by your food items for your safety and theirs.
Food may cause bears to become bold and aggressive in their search. They can rip apart tents, backpacks, bags, and even damage vehicles. To avoid this dangerous and costly fate, abide by a few rules and practices.
First, never leave your food unattended, whether it be the daytime or nighttime. If you are leaving your campsite for any reason, certainly don’t leave out food. If you do leave your supplies, make sure they are put away safely and securely.
When you are hanging out at the campsite, keep your food in a cooler or your car unless you are actively cooking or eating. However, it’s a good rule of thumb never to bring the food inside your tent; not for storing or eating. The residue and odor can attract bears, especially at night, resulting in a dangerous situation for those sleeping inside.
When you leave during the day, you may be able to get away with storing your food in a car or cooler. But during the night, always use a bear-proof container, such as a bear bag, a storage locker, or a canister.
Keep Things Clean
Food items are not the only things that can attract animals. But the cooking smells and residues can be enticing as well. You must store the actual food products but also anything that comes into contact with your food supplies, preferably after cleaning it.
As soon as you are finished cooking and eating you should clean up thoroughly. Each utensil and pot or pan should be cleaned either in a camp water source or a natural water source a safe distance away from your campsite.
Like your bear hang, where you cook should be located at least two hundred feet away, downwind of your tent. But don’t cook below where you hang your bear bag, the cooking area should be two hundred feet away from there as well. This setup is known as the “Bear-muda” triangle.
Once you are finished cooking, eating, and cleaning, change your clothes. Wearing clothes smelling of food, especially into your tent, is a recipe for calling in the critters. It’s a good idea to seal and store cooking clothes along with your food items.
Another practice that goes hand and hand with cleaning is trash disposal. Don’t leave any trash such as wrappers, peels, or used paper towels out in the open. Pick up any food or garbage that falls on the ground and dispose of it properly.
You can bury or burn biodegradable food leftovers but you must seal up any non-biodegradable trash until you can throw it away. Be meticulous in gathering every scrap of food and/or trash.
Stop the Smells
The wind can carry much more than food odors. Bears can be attracted to scented bug sprays, lotions, perfumes, and body sprays. Odorless or unscented products are ideal when camping in bear country.
Even citronella candles, commonly used for bugs when camping, have been known to attract bears. Anything that is scented should be stored with your food items in a bear bag, canister, or locker. Don’t bring scented items into your tent.
Some Final Tips
Choose a campsite that is upwind from your cooking site and storage area. If you are dispersed camping choose a safe area, not one located in a raspberry patch or area of potential interest to a bear.
Take note and heed any signs notifying you that you may be in a popular spot for bears. This means looking for animal rails, tracks, or broken branches.
Some studies show that bears seem to be attracted to bright colors. Keep this in mind when packing clothing items, storage containers, and even your tent. The goal is to make yourself and your campsite as uninteresting to bears as possible.
Pets can also attract wild animals. Try to minimize barking or other animal noise and never leave them unattended. When you are walking or sitting at the campsite keep them on a leash at all times, even if they usually mind very well.
Store your pet food the same way you store your food. Do not leave any leftover food out and clean all of their dishes.
Cleaning up after your pet is another part of maintaining a clean campsite. Bears can smell poop so you must bag it (biodegradable bags that can be buried are best) flush it, or dispose of it safely along with your other trash.
Some hikers and campers choose to attach a bear bell to their pet’s collar. This will alert bears that you and your pet are in the area and give them a chance to vacate the area before an interaction occurs.
The Coghlan’s Bear Bell with Magnetic Silencer includes a handy strap so it can attach to anything and when not in use it has a magnet that can silence it.
To review, you should avoid smells, practice good campsite hygiene, and properly store all of your items and your pet’s items. Be aware of bear habitats and set up outside of attractive areas. Be cognizant of your pets food, waste, and whereabouts. These things are for your safety as much as the bears.
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