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

  1. FredT4 May 6, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

    @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.

    • billweberx May 7, 2014 at 2:09 am #

      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.

  2. VTMike July 21, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    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.

    • Philip Werner July 21, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      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.

      • VTMike July 24, 2014 at 8:58 am #

        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!

        • Philip Werner July 24, 2014 at 9:16 am #

          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.

  3. Kevin O July 26, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    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.

  4. Buck Nelson October 28, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    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.