How to Store Food Properly in the Backcountry

On one of my earliest backpacking trips, two friends and I — all complete novices — hung our food very poorly from a tree branch a short walk from our tents. A few hours later, we awoke to the sound of a bear clawing up the tree after our food.

We somehow managed to retrieve most of our food and make it through that adventure without going hungry. But we went home with a valuable lesson learned.

Storing food properly in the backcountry is critical for a few good reasons:

  1. Failing to do so risks having your food taken or contaminated by animals that can transmit diseases, imperiling your group’s health.
  2. You are often required to do it by the land-management agency. In many national parks, you will receive instructions on storing food properly.
  3. Improper food storage puts you and your companions at risk of physical harm from large, potentially aggressive animals, like bears.
  4. Animals that become habituated to human food can become a nuisance, returning again and again to popular backcountry camping areas, threatening people. They might ultimately have to be killed by the management agency.

Follow these guidelines for storing food when in the backcountry:

Know the regulationsand options where you’re going. In many U.S. national parks — including parks inhabited by grizzly bears, as well as parks with only black bears — most backcountry camping is in assigned campgrounds that have poles or cables for hanging your food (bring stuff sacks) or metal lockers for storing food. Other parks require bear canisters. On public lands with fewer regulations, management agencies often still recommend using widely accepted methods of protecting food from animals.

Keep food out of your tent. Do not bring any food or items that smell of food (example: a shirt on which you spilled food) into your tent, especially in grizzly bear country. Put any odorous items, including toothpaste, sunblock, ointment, etc., with your stored food.

Never leave food out. Even in places where there are few or no bears, food must be stored properly to protect it from other animals, like mice, which are more numerous than bears almost everywhere and will often descend on food left unguarded even for a few minutes in an open backpack or a campsite.

Use a bear canister. Screw-top, hard-sided bear canisters like the Bear Vault BV500 ($84), the smaller BV450 ($74), and the Garcia bear-resistant container ($75) add weight (around 2 pounds) to your pack, are often bulky and are difficult to fit easily inside a pack. However, they are virtually impregnable to bears and very convenient because you don’t have to worry about finding an appropriate place to hang food. Leave the canister on the ground at least 100 feet from your campsite, ideally wedged between logs or in a place where it would be difficult for a large animal to roll it away. Just remember where you leave it.

Use a bear bag. While not as impregnable as a hard-sided canister, soft-sided bear bags like the various Ursack models ($90-$149) — made with tough fabric — are difficult to tear open, even for a bear. Still, if possible, hang it properly in a tree, so that even if a bear can reach out and swipe at it with a claw, it won’t be able to pin the bag to the ground and attempt to claw or bite through it, crush its contents or carry it off. Line a bear bag with a Loksak OPSAK odor barrier bag ($14 for 2 bags) to reduce odors that could attract animals.

Hang food properly from a bear pole or cable if available. If not, use about 50 feet of strong cord (6mm utility cord is good) thrown over a branch (using a small rock tied to one end of the cord), hoisting the food sack into the air and securing the other end of the cord to another tree. Suspended food sacks should be at least 10-15 feet off the ground, several feet out from any tree trunk, and at least 4 feet below the branch so a bear cannot reach it even if it climbs the tree.

At high altitudes where bears are not known to roam, like expansive alpine areas in the mountains, high above the nearest forest, and in the Southwest desert, food usually be can stored safely by hanging it low but beyond the reach of rodents, such as on a strong branch of a stunted tree.

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