Home / Leave No Trace / Bear Bag Rant: It’s Not About Protecting Your Food

Bear Bag Rant: It’s Not About Protecting Your Food

Bear Bag Poster in the White Mountains
Bear Bag Poster in the White Mountains

I am always astonished when backpackers tell me that they can outsmart bears by sleeping with their food at night or by camping in spots not frequented by other campers. Let’s suppose it’s true that they can outwit an animal that can smell blood and food from 20 miles away. It doesn’t matter. The purpose of hanging a bear bag is not to keep your food safe.

THE PURPOSE OF HANGING A BEAR BAG IS TO KEEP BEARS WILD!

The primary purpose of hanging a bear bag at night or using a bear canister is to keep bears wild. Period. If a bear starts eating human food because of your carelessness or hubris (excessive pride), it’s possible that it will stop seeking natural food sources. Changing the food preferences of the top predator in the woods can have a huge impact on all of the other animals, fish, and plant life that depend on that bear’s  hunting and gathering behavior, where it shits, and the pollen and plants seeds that cling to its fur, if they develop a preference for pop tarts instead of termites, salmon fishing, and tree nuts.

Look around you. The amount of Wilderness (with a capital ‘W’) we have in the lower 48 shrinks each week. I’m not talking about Wilderness in term of acreage, but in terms of the “Wild-ness” of the Wilderness areas we’ve set aside. How wild can an area remain if is logged for lumber? If windmills and pipelines are built in it? If roads are built through it? If it is prevented from burning? All of these “land management” activities have a huge impact on wildlife, territorial species distribution, and animal behavior, even if they are hidden behind Interior Department rhetoric.

Hanging a bear bag may seem like a token gesture when compared to the disruption that a new forest service road has on local wildlife behavior, but it is something that is completely in your control to do or not do. And while it’s not always 100% effective, it may be enough to deter a bear from spending the night gnawing on your bear rope when there is other food available nearby like a rotting log full of insects that are part of its normal diet .

Hanging a bear bag or using a bear broof bag like an Ursack doesn’t take a lot of skill to do, so I can’t understand why people are so against doing it. But then again, people still throw cigarette butts and cellophane wrappers out car windows.

I hope there is some Wildness left in the lower 48 when you get to be my age. It is in greater danger of disappearing than you realize.

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108 comments

  1. I commend your use of OpSak bags, but I don’t use them because I believe their prown to failure. As mentioned in the article bears have a keen sense of smell. I’ve found that my pack and everything I carry has dust from food. That’s what the bears smell and I just don’t believe that anyone carrying food can avoid that. Sure clean your gear before you headout, but that’s already defeated when you pack the food into the pack much less unpack for the first time on the trail. Talk to anyone that uses an airlock and they’ll shoot down OpSack Bags as inherently designed to fail. I start with the premise them bears know humans have food and if the food is left alone they’ll try their best to acquire it.

    Over the years of hiking in the AT I’ve seen mice that put the Circus Soleil to shame. Chinese acrobats study under them.

    So in my book it’s either bear vault, bear box, UrSack or sleep with your food. Anything else is just not going to work if a bear’s determined. I remember having a Mexican standoff with three or four bears one night many years ago when cooking dinner. They wanted the food and we weren’t giving it up. After banging pots and pans for what seemed a very long time they finally left. Yes, we would had scattered and abandoned the food to them if the bears had actually attacked us but we quickly learned that bears don’t attack humans for their food. I’ve researched the issue and have never found credible instances of bears attacking humans to take their food. There are a few instances where bears attached humans to eat them, usually small children or women.

    Most hikers camp at locations that are heavily used and the smell of food is permanently part of the site. How can the bears know all the food is hung and there’s no food in the hiker’s tents (the tents probably also smell of food). I been at camp sites where bears have gotten in unoccupied tents while I was sleeping with my food. My conclusion is that bears can’t differ between tents with food and those without food, but can tell if a tents unoccupied. Hiker’s campsite, their gear and the hikers themselves smell of food. Yet they’ve not willing to attack us for our food, probably because it’s a very aggressive action that is prone to cause them injury and by the evolutionary process those bears that would have been so inclined have been eliminated.

    UrSacks are wonderful for mice, squirrels and other critters, but they’re not approve on the JMT. Perhaps for good reason or not. But if a bear vault is not available, there’s no bear cables or pole and I’m not carting a bear canister I’m placing my food in my UrSack and I’m sleeping with it. When someone shows credible evidence (not a my cousin has a neighbor whoms daughter heard about story) that bears are attacking hikers for their food, then perhaps I’ll reconsider my position. Until then I’ll shack my head in wonderment at all the hiker’s whom food is taken from trees.

    • FredT4,
      Here is one such encounter in the ADK’s.
      http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2013/11/hiker-recounts-dramatic-encounter-black-bears.html
      The woman was hiking, the bears were after her pack, I believe.

    • I know the Opsak is only an incremental improvement because it’s been in contact with everything else that smells like food and it’s inevitable that food will also contact the outside of the bag at some point, however, since I organize my food by keeping it in a bag, that’s what I use.

      Now, for a bear story: Recently, I was visiting with a gentleman who took a bunch of Boy Scouts to Philmont, where bears are common and a real nuisance. One scout had athlete’s foot and sprayed his feet with some medication. At camp, everything, including the foot spray, went up in the bear hang. It was a warm night and all were sleeping outside on top of their bags when they were awakened by the most unearthly screams imaginable. The scoutmaster flicked on his flashlight to illuminate a bear licking the athlete’s foot spray off a terrified boy’s toes.

  2. Marco, was the bear after her or her pack. Either way she wasn’t sleeping with it. In the Smoky Mountains National Park there have been two or three incidents where a bear killed and partially are several victims. All incidents involved persons while hiking and not camping.

    Many years ago when the shelters in the Smoky Mountains had wire fencing hikers would feed the bears from the safety behind the fencing. The Park Service removed the fencing because it created problems and didn’t provide any real benefit. After the fencing was removed there hasn’t been attacks by bears on sleeping hikers. Before the fencing was removed there were regular incidents with bears because they expected to be fed and got especially annoyed when the food ran out. Interesting enough I don’t believe anyone was ever killed in all those feeding incidents. But what’s important to note is that the Park Service didn’t appear to think that hikers lives were endangered by removing the fencing.

    • This was just a reply to: “When someone shows credible evidence (not a my cousin has a neighbor whoms daughter heard about story) that bears are attacking hikers for their food, then perhaps I’ll reconsider my position.”

  3. @Grandpa, I love bear stories because they’re really good for scaring newbie campers. But I also love to pick them apart. The scout didn’t retract his leg from the bear? The bear wasn’t startled by the screaming and calmly continued about his business? Somehow I find the story a bit more than truthful, perhaps it’s more about “bear stories” than about a real bear story. Been fishing before and I know how stories seem to have a life of their own.

  4. @Grandpa, my stories usually have more than barely the facts, I figure that a few extra “facts” only enhance a good story. Plus if you’re in a shelter with a metal roof a well placed stone at the right moment can really provide some enhancement.

    @Marco, I appreciate the link. There’s been various bear attacks of campers while sleeping that did everything correctly in having a clean camp. http://www.westernhunter.com/Pages/Vol03Issue12/azbearattack.html So, my argument doesn’t suggest that bear attacks won’t happen, just that food doesn’t appear to be a significant factor. Or that campsite are so permeated with food odors that whether you have food or not is irrelevant. In 2011 there was a study by a biologist that concluded that bears that were accustomed to getting food from humans particularly at dumps didn’t attack human. The largest group of human bears incidents involved situations where the human chose to interact with the bear, such as at a zoo, circus, private bear reserve or similar. He further stated that he couldn’t find any incident of bear attacks related to food storage, and after inquiry nor did other biologist report any incident to him.

    So I’ll continue to believe that the bear attacks for improper food storage will continue to be very good camper stories.

  5. Here’s an interesting new study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140303084412.htm

    “Unfortunately, according to Hopkins, once a bear gets used to eating human food it will continue looking for it, and even when visitor compliance is high, there will always be a few people who make the mistake of leaving their food where bears can get it.”

    Hanging food bags is difficult to do correctly and bears will learn how to defeat your efforts. Using bear canisters or perhaps Ursack bags is the only reliable option. Perhaps the Ursack is not reliable, see studies and legal case to make your own determination.

    So it’s down to bear canister or sleeping with your food. If you wish to hang your food please do so with a bear canister.

    • Well, I guess you just do not accept the evidence. One fact: Bears have killed campers with food in their tents.

  6. A few years ago, my brother hiked with some others to Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park. While he fished on the lake, the others scrambled up nearby Pyramid Peak, not bothering to secure their cooking gear in the provided bear box. A Ranger happened by and served the only one at the camp site, my brother, with a $75.00 citation, even though his gear was properly stored. When the young whippersnappers returned from their peak bagging expedition, my brother presented them with their ticket to the backcountry, which they paid since it was their fault.

    My point on this is that if the law calls for a certain way of handling food in bear country, it’s a whole lot simpler (and cheaper) to just follow the rules. I’m not into feeding bears and I’m also not fond of ticking off people who carry guns and badges.

    For me, finding and executing a good hang is part of the adventure, although I realize that if I had to do it forty nights in a row that portion of the adventure would get pretty stale.

  7. @Marco, you claim you have facts that I should accept, but I don’t see a link.
    If you’re worried about bears actually attacking you then you should know the bear that’s likely to actually attack you, but they’re not coming for your food. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110511074807.htm

    • http://www.bearsmart.com/becoming-bear-smart/play/securing-food-garbage
      http://www.bearsmart.com/becoming-bear-smart/play (item 10)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear_danger
      http://www.udap.com/safety.htm
      http://www.americanbear.org/awareness/camping-hiking.html#
      “http://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.com/bear-country.php?PHPSESSID=aa18b7447e51d4ca66756b988f4f0390”
      http://www.centerforwildlifeinformation.org/BeBearAware/Hiking_and_Camping/hiking_and_camping.html
      http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2011/BearProofCamping.htm
      You can check the records at Yellowstone, if you like. Though this would be more for hard sided bear canisters.
      Hundreds of other links…I won’t pretend I am the smartest camper, nor the neatest camper, nor the cleanest camper. But part of camp chores is to put up a bear bag every night. I never get lazy and just throw it in the tent in bear country.

      • Last in first out:
        http://fwp.mt.gov/mtoutdoors/HTML/articles/2011/BearProofCamping.htm#.UxeQcWjTn0w

        “In Holmes’s case, nearby campers had been careless. They’d left out food, which attracted the bear that bit into Holmes’s tent out of curiosity.”

        Notice it doesn’t say there was food in the tent, but would that have mattered?

        “In July 2010 three people were attacked, one fatally, by a grizzly one night at Soda Springs Campground near the north­eastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. The incident occurred even though the campers and others nearby had kept their campsites clean and free of food, garbage, and odors.”
        (Even if you follow proper procedures the some (many) previous campers very likely didn’t. Therefore any campsite is suspect.)

        So the operative factor doesn’t seem to be “having food in the tent”.

        “Food storage
        The first consideration for carefree, bear-free camping is proper food storage. You must ensure that bears cannot obtain a single scrap of food or garbage.”

        I agree with that statement, because once a bear is successful, it’ll try, try & try again. Hanging bear bags has been proven unsuccessful by many hikers on so many occasions. You personally may be able to hang a food bag successfully, but as a technique for bear management it’s a failure. Hanging food bags is not a legal or acceptable alternative when bear canisters are mandated. Simple reason is been there, done that, is just doesn’t work. Notice I don’t make the rules, so the fact it doesn’t work is not just “my opinion”, it’s a fact.

        So face the facts and repeat the following: Hang a bag, kill a bear.

        Say it three times and a bear will leave an acorn on your sleeping pad the next time you go camping.

      • Every one of those links recommended hanging as the first methode of securing a bear bag.

        I believe that Yellow-Yellow was killed last year, but she knew how to open bear canisters in the ADK’s. She might have passed on the secret to her cubs. So even this was not recommended in the Peaks. Luckily, this was only one type. (www.bearvault.com)

        Backpackinglight.com ran a test with OP sacks vs ziplocks. There was no difference between them.

        Bears are attracted to anything they think is food. At least one of the above links listed them as bear “attractants.” No, I will never sleep with my food and attract a bear to me. In my 40+ years of camping, I have seen more’n my share and have no desire to complain about his breath.

        In bear country, I always follow the rules. Like Grandpa, I believe they work, both for the safety of the bear and me. NONE of the rules or links above ever recommend sleeping with your food. If you are willing to experiment with it, fine. Dawin awards are easily won.

  8. If the guy with the badge and gun says, “Put it in the bear box”, I’ll put it in the bear box. If the guy with the badge and gun says, “Use a bear canister”, I’ll use a bear canister. If the guy with the badge and gun says, “Hang it”, I’ll hang it. No way the guy without the badge or gun (me) will use his bear chow as a pillow. I don’t want to argue with the guy possessing the badge and gun, and I don’t want to argue with the bear either. I’ve been married 41 years, 5 months and 1 day (but who’s counting?) and I don’t even want to argue with my wife!

    Just as it was eventually determined that suppressing ALL fires in the wild was actually detrimental to the ecosystem, perhaps some future scientific study will find hanging is harmful to the bear population and come up with a better solution to food storage in the wilds of bear country. In the meantime, I’ll follow the law so as not to attract undue attention from bears, either the Smokey or furry kind.

    • Darwin was a proponent of science and the rejection of assumptions. Continuing to use hanging food bags as a method assumes it’s effective. The facts show it’s not. Darwin would agree that one should not hang one’s food bag.

      You forget what the point of the article is about, it’s not about protecting your food, it’s about protecting the bear. Implicit is that it’s also not about protecting you. Continue use of the food bag hanging method continues to endanger the bears.

      I know it’s painful to change but try saying it at least one time: Hang a bag, kill a bear.

      I choose to sleep with my food, unless mandated otherwise, because bear canisters are bulky and I find they offer little benefit over use of the Ursack. I don’t hang the food bag because the evidence shows it’s a failed method. I’m not advocating sleeping with your food, that’s a choice you must make for your self. I understand that inspite of the evidence to the contrary many will still fear they’ll be attacked by a bear if you sleep with your food. What I don’t understand is the continued advocacy of hanging food bags when the evidence clearly shows that it endangers bears and that it’s a failed method for bear management. If you don’t wish to sleep with your food there’s a option that’s proven successful, carry a bear canister. Notice in all the bear advice columns there’s always the point about never leaving your food unattended. When you hang your food guess what, your leaving your food unattended. So, get with the program and no longer hang your food bag.

  9. That was an amusing exchange. I guess you guys don’t agree. Can we give it a rest now and let others have a say.

  10. Fun exchange. From a purely analytical view, it seems to me that FredT4 presented the strongest arguments. The opposing arguments for hanging food are mostly based on historical (and current) recommendations that don’t seem to have any evidence to support their efficacy. Sleeping with food runs contrary to intuition, which would lead most people to reject the method even if evidence supports it as effective against food theft by bears. I am very uncomfortable sleeping with food in bear country, yet intellectually, it seems to be the reasonable alternative. I have a Bear Vault 500 canister and can see how heavy it is and how difficult it is to pack in my 60 liter bag. I’m hiking the PCT this year and really don’t know what I will do about food storage. The Sierra section is settled. Bear canisters are required. I’m only sure about one thing. I won’t be hanging my food.

  11. @billweberx, thanks for the shout out. However there’s the nagging issue with my position which you rightfully point out, which is that most hikers (especially new hikers) will never sleep with their food, which then brings up the question (as noted by the previous comment) what should one do?

    The following is part of the instructions for the BearVault BV500:

    With the lid fully closed the BearVault also makes a great camp seat
    This BearVault model has approval from both the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group and Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee
    Store BearVault at least 100 yards downwind of campsite, preferably in the shade to keep contents cool
    Never keep a bear canister inside your tent!
    There is a bear in the Marcy Dam area of the Adirondacks in upstate New York that has learned to open BearVault food containers. BearVaults are approved for use everywhere except the area encompassing the Lake Colden/Marcy Dam corridor and the Johns Brook valley in the Adirondacks.

    I take note that having the vault in the camp site isn’t considered dangerous (while used as a camp chair, further note that when used as a cha). There’s the note to not have the vault in your tent, which given our product liabilities law is probably required by their lawyers and insurance carriers.

    I’m guessing that most users are lazy and don’t keep the vault 100 yards downwind and actually keep it in the camp site. It would be nice to have some feedback on actual use, as to whether it’s kept in camp or 100 yards downwind. (My money is on in camp.)

    If it turns out that most users keep it in camp, then I would suggest that using a UrSack and keeping it in camp (but not in the tent) would be a reasonable step. Having read the lawsuit about the UrSack I’m not positive that it’s actually bear proof, perhaps someone can provide additional info on this. If the UrSack was combined with an electronic device that delivered a nasty sting to inquiring bears (critters) then I believe it would (could) be effective. Such a setup should be sufficiently low weight (and size) and flexible that most hikers should be willing to adopt.

    The reason I suggest the addition of the electronic defense is that I believe leaving a food bag (even a UrSack) unattended is a fatal error (at least to the food and eventually the bear). Without the electronic defense bears will probably create a huge commotion in camp upon discovery of a UrSack (unattended food) attempting to rip open the UrSack and eventually some will succeed, resulting in the mere sighting of an UrSack becoming an incitement to very bad bear behavior.

    Perhaps someone with knowledge (experience) of electronic bear defense systems could provide further insight into this possibility.

    • Unfortunately, an electronic device that is powerful enough to deter a bear will require quite a sizable battery, which will be quite heavy. I’m guessing the device with battery will not be small. Most thru-hiker types are trying to cut ounces. This battery is pounds. I don’t think most hikers will pay the weight penalty or they would just use the bear canister. At least then, they get the stool. I ordered a UrSack today.

  12. Philip – this was such a rolicking topic and after hiking with you this spring, would love to see how/if your ideas have changed much re: bear hanging/sleeping with food etc.

    • They haven’t. I hung my food in an Ursack on Andrew’s trip and continue to do so. I have given up however on teaching people how to do a traditional hang. It’s pointless. use an Ursack or a mini bear canister.

      • Point taken! I wish I had payed more attention to how you handled your food storage. Just to be clear: You don’t advocate sleeping with your food or hanging it nearby? You place your Ursack several hundred feet away from your tent? Obviously you and Andrew differ on this and I want to make sure I am clear on both perspectives. Thanks!

      • I place my Ursack 50-80 paces away from my campsite when I camp alone. I’m really not worried about a bear getting into it, but I don’t want to be woken up at night or have a face to face confrontation with a bear. I wouldn’t sleep with my food at night. I don’t have any hard evidence that it’s dangerous to do around black bears, but I’m not interested in becoming a statistic, Me and Andrew have different opinions about lots of things. but he has convinced me that trying to teach people to properly hang a bear bag is an excercise in futility. I still believe we need to prevent bears from eating human food and that that is the primary goal of bear “protection” while I believe Andrew is more focused on protecting his food and thinks that sleeping with it is the best defense. Its a subtle difference. He’s willing to confront a bear and I’m a chicken and willing to carry an Ursack to avoid it.

  13. I did a 48 mile section of the LT last weekend. On Saturday night in a shelter with easy road access through a side trail, there were roughly 18 of us. 8 or so hikers and 10 guys who took the side trail just to party (not exactly the remote solo experience I was expecting North of Maine Junction).

    Not one person hung a bear bag or used a bear canister. This is pretty consistent with what I’ve seen all over the AT / LT. In the nearly 400 miles of AT I’ve section hiked and the 124 miles of LT so far, I’ve only met 1 duo who insisted on hanging their food. Needless to say I expect as much from the party goers, but I do hold hikers to a higher standard. We are ambassadors for these trails and have a responsibility to preserve them.

    While I’ve never encountered a bear in the North East (I have in the south and I may have seen one from a few hundred yards in Maine.), I do believe not hanging food is creating problems in heavily used designated camping areas. At night, the woods come alive. Mice, Chipmunks, rabbits and porcupines move in on these shelters. I was in a hammock about 100 yards from the shelter and all night I could hear wrestling leafs. These animals are moving in because humans have provided a substantial unnatural food source.

    The result isn’t good for animals and as the partyers who woke up with holes eaten through their tents will tell you, it’s not good for the hikers.

    I didn’t use a bear bag this weekend and truthfully I haven’t used one all year. In the past, I have, but after hiking for years with thru-hikers and experienced outdoorsman who got a huge kick out of watching me try to sling a rock over a branch, I gave up. After this weekend I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this.

    No matter how foolish I may feel, I’m going back to my bear bag or buying a Ursack. I won’t be able to curve or stop the trend of hikers sleeping with their food or hanging it in shelters, but at the very least I won’t contribute to the problem.

    My son is approaching the age of 2 and one of my biggest concerns is, with the increased use of these trails and so many people struggling to follow basic LNT concepts, these trails won’t be nearly as accessible to his generation.

  14. Great blog, Philip, I really enjoy it.

    On this topic I have to say I agree with virtually every word Andrew said.

    I have spent a whole lot of time in bear country, have observed how they behave, and seen hikers’ efforts to protect their food (which protects the bears.)

    The best way to keep bears from getting food is a dedicated bear proof container, like a bear box or bear canister, or a perfectly designed hanging device sometimes established at popular campsites. As Andrew pointed out, land managers agree with this based on real-world results.

    Like Andrew, I usually sleep with my food in bear country. Keeping food in my direct control like this works just like it works during the day. If there are local rules about food storage, I try to follow them.

    My observation has been that most bear bagging is improperly done. Few people take the time or have the knowledge to do a proper hang. It’s clear to me that bear bagging is much less effective in keeping food away from bears than sleeping with it or dedicated containers.

    The very worst method is stashing food away from your tent on the ground because of excessive fear of bears.