There are few aspects of camping more dangerous than encountering bears. Though bear attacks are somewhat rare, there are a couple of ways in which bears can be lured to your campsite, making an attack more likely.
One of those ways is improper food storage. A bear bag may help you solve this problem, keeping you and your companions safe.
So what qualifies as a bear bag?
Just about any type of bag that can be tied and hung up in a tree qualifies as a bear bag. With that said, most seasoned campers and hikers believe what qualifies as a true bear bag is a dry sack. These are preferred since they are basically water-proof and by nature more durable than many other types of bags that you may use as a bear bag.
If you want to find other ways to keep food away from bears, be sure to read this article that we wrote How to store food in bear country.
Types of Bear Bags
Traditionally, any bag that was able to be suspended and out of reach of a bear could qualify as a bear bag. The bag could be a sturdy garbage bag or even a cloth bag. This bag was then hoisted in the air, typically using a tree and rope.
Now, there are more sophisticated bear bags than a garbage bag. There are waterproof dry sacks, carbon fiber smell proof bags, and even Kevlar bags.
Some dry bags are marketed specifically as bear bags while others are not, but work just as well. Dry sacks are commonly used to seal out water and keep your belongings dry when kayaking or doing other activities.
Dry bags typically have a heavy-duty seal in order to make them completely waterproof, this will come in handy when storing food as it will keep things dry and help lock in smells. They can also be compressed and folded for carrying or storage.
Smell proof bags are similar to garbage bags but have extra protection against odors. They are not reusable, unlike dry bags. They feature a zippered closure or a drawstring closure and are often waterproof, humidity-proof, and sand/dustproof as well.
These bags lock in odors, but it is important not to let the outside of the bag touch any food or scented items. Once the outside of the bag comes into contact with food, the bear bag is no longer odorless. It can be beneficial to use these smell proof bags as liners inside a dry bag or another form of bear bag.
Bear resistant bags are the most specialized form of bear bags. They claim to be tooth and claw resistant as they are often constructed from bulletproof materials such as Kevlar. If they can withstand bears than they can certainly keep out squirrels, raccoons, and other opportunist animals that may tear into your food supply.
Bear bags also claim that they do not have to be hung from a tree, but can simply be tied off to a tree located a safe distance from the campsite. Other types of bear bags recommend suspension from a tree or a pole.
How to Hang a Bear Bag
There are a few different ways in which you can suspend your bear bag, whether it be a dry bag, a smell proof bag, or a marketed bear-proof bag. One of the most important factors is hanging the bag downwind and away from your campsite.
In order to hang the bag, you will need rope; you should plan to bring about twenty to fifty feet of lightweight but sturdy rope. You want the rope to be strong enough to withstand rubbing against the tree bark and hold the weight of your bear bag. A few types of specialized rope are even reflective so that they can be seen in the dark.
When hanging a bear bag it can be helpful to hang the bear bag upside down. A few bags even come with a drawstring or strap attached to the bottom. Hanging the bag upside down prevents any water or rain from seeping into the bag and leaving you with a soggy mess.
No matter which method of bear bag hanging you choose, they all follow some basic guidelines. The bear bag should be at least twelve feet off of the ground, fifteen feet if you want to be extra cautious. This is to prevent the bear from reaching it by standing on its hind legs.
The bag should also be at least six feet away from the tree trunk, some experts recommend four feet, but six is likely best. Ten feet is more than adequate but it can be difficult to find a sturdy enough tree limb to accommodate this. Keeping the bag away from the trunk prevents the bear from climbing the trunk and reaching out to grab the food or gnaw the line.
The bag should be suspended in a tree located downwind of your tent and cooking area, at least 200 feet away. A triangle set up, with the bag located 200 feet downwind of your tent and 200 feet from the cooking area is optimal. You certainly don’t want to lure a bear to your tent at night with the smell of your food bag or cooking site.
The most simplistic method of hanging your bear bag involves using a rope to tie off the bag and hoisting it into a tree. However, bears can climb and are sensible enough to figure out how to cut the rope by chewing or clawing through it.
To hang your bear bag quickly and easily (but somewhat ineffectively) locate a tree with a sturdy branch ten to fifteen feet off the ground and thick enough to support the bear bags weight. Then throw one end of the rope over the tree approximately six feet from the trunk.
Tie your food bag to one end of the rope. Hoist the bag into the air as high as possible then secure the other end of the rope to the tree trunk. The problem with this method is that 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 most preferred method of hanging a bear bag, though it can be a bit difficult. 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, locate a tall tree with a branch about twenty feet high. Throw your rope (hopefully you are somewhat skilled at throwing) six feet out from the trunk and over the limb. Attach a carabiner to the end of the rope that fell over the limb and then attach your food bag 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 your stick (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 allow 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 comes into contact with 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 chew through.
To get the bag down pull on the dangling rope to lower your stick and untie the clove knot. Then you can lower your food bag.
For this method to work, you have to be skilled at throwing, and depending on the weight of your food bag, it may be difficult to tie the stick while holding the bag suspended. However, it is almost a guaranteed bear-proof hang.
Some campsites or areas may offer bear poles or bear cables, this will save you from having to locate a tree. Cables are usually attached to a tree on one end and over a cable suspended between poles at the other end. All you have to do is unhook the cable at the tree and pull it until the hook or carabiner comes down; then attach your bag, hoist it in the air, and refasten it.
Bear poles are high vertical poles with smaller poles attached to the top on which to hang your bag. Attach your food bag to the end of the pole then lift it up to hang it on an available hook at the top of the pole.
Other Bear Resistant Storage Options
Instead of cables or poles, some campgrounds might have a bear locker, a bear-proof box on the ground located a ways away from the campsites. Some campers prefer these boxes or cannister options to bags or hangs.
Bear canisters are an alternative to bear bags, and some areas of forest or national lands require canisters as bear bags are not allowed. A canister is a rigid container with a sealable lid. One of the cons of canisters is their rigidity, as they cannot be folded to carry and they cannot mold or expand to the amount of food you have.
Canisters should be stored away from your campsite, just like bear bags. In most cases, bears cannot bite or claw through canisters but you should still secure them to a tree so that a bear does not haul it off.
Bears can be attracted to anything scented. This includes food, lotions, and much more. Anything you believe may attract a bear should be stored in a bear bag (or cannister) and properly secured downwind and away from your campsite for your safety.