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Reader Poll: What Do You Put in Your Bear Bag?

Bear Bag System
Bear Bag System

When I go backpacking, I usually hang a bear bag, even if I end up spending the night in a maintained trail shelter. Although I’ve had a few bear visitations at night, I’ve never actually seen a bear on a backpacking trip or lost any food that I’ve hung. I attribute this to good bear bag discipline and making sure that I hang all my food at night, including:

  • My remaining food
  • All of my trash
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Soap
  • Cook Pot
  • Spoon

This has always been sufficient for me, even when I’ve hiked in areas with very high black bear populations such at the New Jersey Appalachian Trail, where there is a population density of one bear per square mile. I’ve also packed the same stuff when I have to use a bear canister in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks, where canisters are required.

However, over the weekend I found out that some people hang even more “smellables” than me in their bear bags, specifically at Philmont High Adventure Scout Camp in New Mexico, where they have  a high density of black bears and very strict bear policy to limit human-bear encounters.

In addition to my list above, Philmont backpackers are required to hang the following items, which are also considered “smellables” and have odors that bears might find interesting and want to investigate.

  • Batteries
  • Duct tape
  • Film
  • Pens
  • Insect repellant
  • Medicines, unless required at night
  • Any bottle that has EVER had anything in it besides water
  • Deodorant, lotions, lip balm, and sunscreem
  • Blood (Scout vampires and zombies?)

I don’t hang the majority of these items today and I was surprised to see that some of them like duct tape and batteries were on the list. Out of curiosity, I figured I’d ask what other things people put in their bear bags, bear canisters, or Ursack at night, just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on other items that might be worth hanging.

What do you hang in your bear bag at night?

Please leave a comment.

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29 comments

  1. Well, it’s a BEAR bag, so I think bears go in it… If you leave the bag on the ground, they’ll go in voluntarily.

    I insert all my food, trash, toiletries, medicines, cooking gear (including stove, bowl, utensils, dish rag). I’ve never thought of putting batteries, duct tape, film, and pens in. Without the batteries, I’d have nothing left to throw at the bear. The deodorant, lip balm, etc. is already there with my toiletries and meds and I really do my best to keep all my blood contained within my own personal circulatory system. I really don’t want the bears messing with that!

    • Generally, anything that has a fair smell except sleeping gear. Most of the stuff you mention is included. But I don’t carry lip balm, sun screen, etc. My stove is almost never put up. There are things that smell like food and things that are simply smells. WG smells like oil. This is not a food. Generally I rely on the bear’s intelligence to know the difference.

      I have had bears rummaging through a camp. I have watched as they sniff things. Stoves are one thing they ignore after a good sniff. Fuel bottles (for WG) stays down. Again they ignore the fuel bottle after sniffing. One thing they DID like, which was a bit surprising, was my tarp. He sniffed this for almost 10 seconds. Water bottles are simply placed on the ground. They have never been botthered. Course, if they have some sort of flavouring, they *do* go up.

      On longer hikes, a week or two, this can get difficult. So, I place everything I carry in three categories.
      No Risk-Those items that never contact food or any way to pick up food odors.
      Mid Risk-Those items that have touched food but are clean, and, those things that smell like food but have no food value. Pots, pans, stove, etc. Flavoured water.
      High Risk-Food, lip balm, soap, packets and other food containers.

      I had never heard of putting batteries up. Good Tip!

  2. Apart from the standard things, as a fisherman I have to think about contaminated clothing and de-fishing soap (usually scented with anis to help remove/block odor).

  3. Food, trash, cook gear, toothbrush/ dots.

  4. My remaining food and all of my trash go in my BB. Hadn’t considered the cookpot and spork before but those will be added. Moved on to Colgate Wisps this year & haven’t been putting those in my BB either, but might now.

    I follow the practice of having the cooking area, sleeping area and bear bag hang as a triangle with as much separation as practical without getting lost.

    The cooking area separation thing is only at supper time. I will prep breakfast at the sleeping area since that is just boiling water for coffee. I have gotten away from hot breakfast since it makes breaking camp a much more time consuming task.

    I have had a few times when I had trouble finding my bear bag the next morning which makes an interesting couple of minutes.

    • Haven’t we all. I think using a GPS might help!

    • I’ve started cooking earlier on the trail in the summer and shoulder seasons putting me about an hour out from camp to eliminate food odors near where I sleep. Once I find a good spot for camp, I walk about 200′ further up trail and hang the bag so I can pack up camp and drop it in my pack on my way out.

  5. Some of those other smellables are things that the “minibears” (ground squirrels) like and/or are things where they used to use animal based glues to seal on the labels. The minibears can do a lot of damage to gear in a small amount of time.

    Being rigorous and somewhat pedantic about what you store helps make sure that the scouts and (more importantly) some of the adults take this stuff seriously.

    The other thing to remember with Philmont is that the campsites are occupied all summer long so things that would be minor lapses in other contexts can add up to a real bear (or minibear) attractant. What is truly amazing there is the degree to which the sites do not show the effects of heavy use.

    • I think you’re absolutely right that making it a “serious matter” gets people to treat it seriously and carry the lesson forward through life. We want more of that.

      Love that term – “minibear.”

  6. I generally put everything “smellable” in the bear bag, although duct tape and batteries never occured to me. I do hang my Snowpeak even though I do FBC because I usually boil dehydrated hamburger with the water. It may be overkill but is easy- so why not?

    I make a habit of hanging the rope as soon as I reach camp, then hang whatever needs to go in before I go to bed. I generally hike with others so there isn’t a lot of risk before bed when I go get water, etc. I was very surprised to see most thru-hikers hanging their food bag from a nail in the shelter (or even using their food bag as a pillow) the majority of the time. Generally the biggest danger seemed to be from shelter mice (I use a home-made Ursack so not an issue for me). It did produce some hilarious late night mice attacks for some.

    RevLee and hiked through the Smokies last year and saw 11 bears (and 2 wild boars). That will definately make you a believer in hanging a bear bag!

  7. I always use a Bearicade cannister, no good at throwing rocks don’t need trees. It contains Food, toothpaste, deodorant, trash, and my hip belt pouch that I carry snacks in. Clean cookpots won’t reward a bear.

  8. When I was a Scout I was fortunate to go to Philmont twice and am familiar with the bear policy. Although, the list of required items that go in the bag seems to have increased quite a bit. It was 32 years ago. Anyway, what I learned there sticks with me today. I always hang a bag and in it I put all of my remaining food, garbage, soaps, toothpaste, brush, floss, lip balm, and sunscreen. I find it interesting that you put your pot and spoon in there. I hadn’t considered those items before but, it makes sense.
    As a side, during my first year at Philmont we lost most of our food one night to a bear because we didn’t hang the bag properly. We were short on food for two days until could get our next pick up. That also made an impression on the importance of hanging a bag and doing it well.

  9. Never bothered hanging one. So far I always have had the good fortune of camping near very large dogs in the Whites. Missed some camp site bear raids by a week everytime I go though.

    I did a XC ski trip in Glacier Park though. If I was camping in Grizzly country I think I would sleep in a bear bag. The warning signs alone freaked me out.

  10. Sometimes, I hang the clothes I cooked in. Though when I can afford to carry the extra weight, I carry a bear canister.

  11. I’ve always hung anything that smells different than I do to myself.

    I find some of these lists interesting because at some point you should really hang everything that you are not wearing or sleeping in as everything is of potential interest to wildlife, so where, and why do they draw a line at that point?

  12. I have some great pre and post bear sighting pictures of our bear bag hanging skills. Let’s just say they improved exponentially overnight! Never thought of batteries our duct tape though…

  13. I love the phrase minibears. They are the only ones who ever gave me a problem with a bear bag.

    I include everything in my bear bag that is food related or has a scent. I never thought about duck tape, though. I do keep one water bottle with me, but it’s one that has never been used for anything other than water.

    Here’s my question regarding Philmont’s inclusion of batteries- what about the batteries in my headlamp? I keep that in my tent at night.

    The tip on lip balm/lotion/repellent is especially important- I had a friend whose tent was ripped apart in Alaska by a grizzly. The culprit was a little one ounce tin of lip balm. Thankfully they were out hiking when the bear went to investigate.

  14. I go a lot with kids (scouts). We keep the rules simple – basically, there are clothes, pots/pans/stoves, electronics, and everything else. Clean the pots, pans, and stoves; sump the food waste and cleaning water. The “everything else” goes in the bear bag (e.g., spare batteries go in but cameras and GPS don’t). We use a lot of carabiners to clip water bottles on the outside (on the rope). Water bottles go up cause the guys like flavorings. Moving to canisters with water bottles adjacent.

  15. When I went through Philmont (95 and 97) we didn’t have to hang batteries. Film did have to go up unless it was in a camera. The deal with the water bottles applied. In addition we were not to use sunscreen and chapstick after 3 in the afternoon so any scent of it would be off of us by the time it was time to go to bed.

  16. I am in grizzly bear country.
    I have at least two large OPSak’s: one for food and one for garbage.
    I also use smaller aLoksac’s for toothpaste and soap leaves, etc. to be added to the OPSak for food.
    If I cannot find a tree, I put the “bear bag” far away from my campsite.

  17. I’m not in grizzly country usually so I just put food, toiletries and my cooking bandana in the ursack. I always tie my pot to the outside mostly so it’ll make a banging sound if a bear actually goes after the food. First time it happened we thought the banging was elk fighting until we woke up enough to scare the bear off. He didn’t get any food though. :)

    Haven’t ever worried about water bottles, batteries or duct tape. Haven’t heard any stories about critters going for them either so *shrugs*

  18. Use baking soda to brush your teeth and you won’t have to hang the brush or “paste”. It’s also a great leave no trace technique.

  19. What about matches and lighters??? I’ve read at least one or two websites that indicate these items should go in the bear bag / canister, too. Any thoughts?

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