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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 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.


  1. Well said, Philip. I enjoy your blog
    first thing each weekday morning.It is
    well crafted,thoughtful, educational,
    and fun to read.Your beautiful pictures add much to each posting.Keep up the fine work! Ed

  2. On a recent kayaking trip at Isle Royale National Park we discussed feeding wildlife human food, including seagulls or ducks at a local park. One member of the group presented a great arguement… if animals are eating crackers or french fries instead of their normal diet, they aren’t getting the nutrition they need to survive. They don’t get to make a concious decision to make sure they eat their fruits and veggies, they eat what is available. If humans are an easy target for an easy dinner they will go there and fail to get the nutrition they need. I had never looked at it from that perspective before then.
    His motto: “Save the Animals, don’t feed them”.

  3. Lets see. You showed me once how to bear bag. After that easy as that. Yet I saw terrible efforts to hang food – sheer reckless endangering of others, and the bears. The wilderness is a place where predators roam, the Apex of which is the Bear. Protect them!, or lose wilderness.

    I wonder how your next AT miles will go Philip down south. Bear Vaults and shelters with fencing to keep bears out due to poor camp craft is something I read about. Be interesting to see your observations on this say in the Smokies.

    Agree with your points 100% well said.

    • Martin – your constant wonderment at the Wilderness we have in Maine and the US made a deep impression on me when we hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness last summer. You really opened my eyes to why so many Europeans and Brits come here to hike our long distance trails – because there is still Wild-ness here unlike many, perhaps most,places stil on earth. I hope we are wise enough to preserve it.

  4. Finding a suitable tree can be difficult, getting the bear bag rope over the right branch can be dangerous, often entertaining, sometimes frustrating … but the effort is ALWAYS worthwhile.

    Thanks for your repeated postings on this topic, it is a message that needs to be refreshed once in a while.

  5. I also agree, well said! I’ve been using a Ursack for past several years after frustration with my bag hanging abilities. The entertainment value just wasn’t worth it. The Ursack immediately simplified my life.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. My favorite Cartoon from years ago and it has been so long since I first saw it and now cannot remember what Publication I saw it in but let me describe it; Forest Scene, two Backpackers in their sleeping bags sleeping on either side of a ember only campfire from which smoke lazily drifts up into the air, A full moon is in the background, A big tree is behind the two Backpackers where the heads of two Bears are seen poking out from behind the tree gazing upon the Backpackers with salivia drooling from their teeth….. One bear says to the other..” Oh Boy Oreo’s”…. enough said.

  8. I have just about completed hiking the AT through MA this year and I have gotten very use to the bear storage lockers they privide at each Shelter and Campsite! I’m dreading the thought of going back to slinging a bear bag over a tree branch.
    Still, your point is well made and I couldn’t agree more. You would like to think people who spend time in the wilderness care about keeping the wild wild for future generations to enjoy.

  9. Quality post! A+

    One question re: Ursack… correct me if I’m wrong but animals can still smell the food in the Ursack, they just can’t rip through it? A large enough animal could still damage your food inside the Ursack right? Are people just tying the Ursack to the base of a tree and leaving it on the ground in lieu of hanging it?

    • Absolutely – they can still smell it. I use an OPsack to line my Ursack because they’re supposed to be smell proof, which probably helps a bit, but I also recommend that you keep the Ursack off the ground and tie it up at least at head height to a sturdy tree that a bear can’t push over.

      • Philip, I believe a study done with OP sacks, published on BPL, showed they were no more effective than a Zip Lock baggie. You have to use extreme care not to get food odors on your hands, hence transfered to the outside of the bag, especially when loading them. They were using “sniffer” dogs. Bears have a better sense of smell, though how much better is debatable…somewhere between 3 and 50 times what a bloodhound can smell.

  10. This first paragraph should be repeated everywhere. Brilliant.

    • So this AT section hiker tells me “You can protect yourself or protect your food.” a few weeks ago to justify why he uses his food bag as a pillow in his tent. In other words, he completely missed the point. Unfortunately, this view appears rampant amongst many AT hikers – that bear bang hanging is for the benefit of people rather than keeping our animals wild.

      • I would think that you would want your food as far away from your head as possible. If a bear is going after my food, I’d rather him get the food than my head. Just my opinion.

        • Once the bear in your tent, I think the location of your head versus the food is probably irrelevant if only because the bear considers your head to be food as well.

        • How many documented cases are there of bears entering shelters in which there were both food and people?

          Of those cases, how many occurred in locations with frequent bear/human problems?

          The reason I ask: I’m unconvinced by the conventional wisdom with regards to bears and food. Personally, I have slept on or next to (usually on — it’s a great pillow or knee rest) my food for about one thousand nights, including all 200+ days of my Alaska-Yukon Expedition. I’ve never even had a bear come into camp, never mind enter my shelter. Luck or just extremely low risk? I think the role of good campsite selection is under-discussed — the problems usually arise when bears get too comfortable around humans, which visibly is the case around car campgrounds and heavily used backcountry sites.

        • I absolutely agree with you, but the White Mountains and the AT have a very different human to bear ratio than Alaska, so your experience there is probably irrelevant when it comes to the lower 48 and certainly the eastern seaboard.

          -There are 4 million people who hike in the White Mountains each year.
          -There are 3 million people who hike sections of the Appalachian Trail each year.

          You simply can’t get far enough away from other people in any of these areas to make campsite selection an important factor because bears can smell for 20 miles.

          (as an example – I was backpacking in one of the most remote parts of the White Mountains over the weekend and only 4 miles from Mt Washington which is a zoo on weekends)

          If there is a problem with the campsite selection discussion it’s that it is based on left coast backpacking experience and largely irrelevant to east coast/metropolitan population density and public land use.

        • Andrew – I agree about good campsite selection being under-discussed. Sometimes it isn’t possible, but I always try to find places where there are no recent signs of bear activity. If there are scats, tracks, torn up logs, or overturned rocks anywhere around I simply don’t camp there unless there’s no other choice. I usually hang a bear bag, too, but always figured it was mostly my camping away from their usual haunts that’s kept them out of my tent. “Don’t give ’em a reason to come sniffing around and they’ll leave you alone” has been my rule.

          I think I learned about looking for campsites away from the bears’ favorite spots from Peacock’s “Grizzly Years”, although I’ve been doing it for years so can’t say for sure. Experts sometimes discount Peacock but he did live closely with bears for years on their turf and came through.

          And I guess there’s also the sad fact that humans are by far the most dangerous and deadly animals in the woods and animals that forget that tend to end up dead…

          (This is in northern Arizona / New Mexico so Philip’s later point about the situation being different from the AT probably applies to my experience as well.)

  11. Thanks for posting this. I’ve long been on my soapbox saying the same thing! Let’s do everything we can to ensure there is pristine wilderness for our great great grand children.

  12. Wilderness…wild-ness, I love it! Great post.

    • Exactly. I’ve been wrestling with how to express my horror/angst about this rapidly diminishing dimension of Wilderness experience for about 6 months and “Wildness” just popped into my head yesterday morning when I was writing this post. I should probably also give credit to Erik Schlimmer over in the Dacks (Trans Adirondack Route)) who always ends his personal emails to me with “Keep it Wild.” I think about that phrase a lot.

  13. Hanging the food bag has always been great fun for me. There are bear cables next to many AT shelters in GA/TN/NC, but they are not fool proof if you don’t attach the bag securely with a carabiner or a well-tied knot. Some have open hooks instead of a closed mechanism, so a food bag can fall to the ground if it gets to swaying enough. I observed a bear who knew this, forcefully throwing his body at the cables hoping for dinner to drop down. Thanks for this post Philip. Well said.

  14. Bear bag hanging is a joke, IMHO. Hanging food is easy to do; hanging food well enough that a trained bear can’t reach it is very hard to do. Bears will chew through the rope where you’ve tied it around the base of the tree; they will climb the tree and chew through the rope around the limb, or have their cubs do it if the limb is too thin; or they will simply snap the limb off the trunk. You really need “the perfect tree” and also a perfect hang, and let’s be honest in saying that backpackers have historically proven incompetent in securing either. Based on my personal experience in throwing hangs and in seeing hangs thrown by others, I think it’s almost arrogant to think that your hangs are sufficient against a crafty bear, and extremely skeptical that this is an effective method of “keeping it wild.” In other words, unless you’re a professional bear bag hanger (see: Kevin Sawchuk), you should find another technique that actually works.

    Many land managers (e.g. Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings, High Peaks, Rocky Mountain, and more) have acknowledged that backpackers won’t reliably hang their food properly and that the amount of education required to teach them how is impractical. Instead, land managers now simply require that all backcountry users have hard-sided bear-resistant canisters. (Ursacks don’t make the cut, sorry, because there are too many incidents of bears tearing through those and getting everything inside.) This policy seems to have caused a dramatic decrease in human/bear incidents, as canisters have essentially re-trained the bears.

    • Thankfully, the bears in the White Mountains aren’t as well trained as the ones out west, but at the current rate I wouldn’t be surprised if canisters become required here like they are in many parts of the Adirondacks given the recent rise in bear incidents. The forest service here already provides them for campers and backpackers who want to use them, as does the AMC. If canisters became a requirement in New England, it’d be a small price to pay to backpack in this magnificent place.

  15. It’s good practice to hang a bear bag even where bears are not known to abide. Practice. Thanks for the rant.

  16. Phil – from some of your posts and pics it appears you simply tie up your ursack at head level to a tree. Is this the case or do you sling up a line? I would think slinging a line and using the “pct” method would be best as the food is higher up and not reliant on the line tied to a tree. A bear can still grasp a bag tied directly to a tree..

    • I just tie it to a tree at about head height or on a tree that is angled over a slope above a ravine or river and would make it very difficult for a bear to get at from the ground. although slinging a line between two trees would be even safer. I’ve always assumed that the rope on the Ursack is made out of Kevlar too and gnaw resistent. Like I said – I’ve never had my food disturbed in New England with or without an Ursack.

  17. My (rather limited) experience trying to hang a bag properly in the White Mountains causes me to agree with Andrew. At least in this forest, there is no right tree. They’re all either too small, too dead, or don’t have limbs you can throw a line over. And once you find that tree, you have to find a *2nd* one 20 feet away, with no intervening vegetation. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it “right”, though I at least managed to not have it in my campsite, and probably safe from chipmunks and racoons. Fortunately, as far as I know, I’ve never had a bear drop by to test my skills.

    Though they aren’t “popular” or required yet in the WMNF, I’m switching to a hard-sided canister on my next outing. Call me a convert. This rant needs to be spread.

    • I takes time and practice – sometimes a lot of time. I usually allocate 1 hour in my time control plan for hanging a bear bag and I also usually find the perfect trees (which explains how an Ursack saves me time when daylight is short) I have also never had a bear disturbance anywhere in New England on one of my hangs so I must be doing something right because I get out fairly often. That or the bears have plenty of natural food to eat and don’t know what they’re missing in my food bag.

      But you raise a good point about being proactive. I should look into a canister that is smaller than my Garcia which holds 6 days worth of food.

  18. I agree with Skurka on this one. I hang about 50% of the time on the A.T. I definitely hang if I am at a shelter because I worry more about mice than bears. It ultimately depends on location for me.

  19. Great discussion. An additional element of context not yet covered: two key reasons *why* it’s important to keep the wild bears (and other animals) wild beyond the original peeve:

    (1) excessive feeding by humans can result in the animals losing their ability to hunt/forage on their own, especially if generations are spanned — which has serious existential consequences in the event that the human-provided food source dries up.

    (2) (even more importantly) if a bear becomes comfortable around humans, it becomes a serious safety hazard — the only remedy for which is for rangers to put it down.

  20. Phillip
    Do you have any experience or knowledge of folks who have used PVC pipe to build homemade Bear Canisters?

    I had read somewhere that you can use the pipe and tie it to a tree. I’m not sure if I could get a piece of pipe w/ a big enough diameter for an extended trip, but I really hate hanging bear bags and I don’t want to carry a big clunky canister.

    • No, but that’s an interesting idea.

      • To follow up on this point in case anyone is interested, I went to Home Depot and tried to assemble the home made canister in the store. The parts were much heavier then I imagined and by the time you get all the fittings the cost starts to pile up ($25 or so + tax). Not to mention it’s an odd shape to put in your backpack. Your better off w/ a regular bear canister that’s actually regulated for National Parks out west.

        • Yeah, I checked it out myself. And, studdied up some on bears. It seems that all but the largest polar bears can not bite anthing over 8″. Meybe a few exceptions, but none that I know of. Anyway, that means starting with an 8″ diameter pipe. That is HUGE as far as plumbing supplies go. I priced out a 10′ length at $54. Fittings were expensive, too, but I don’t remember the price. I went out and bought one for $59 and quit trying to make one.

  21. For those who wish to not hang or canister. I hope you never have to see a bear put down. Its not fun to watch. What is worse is seeing the condition of the bear that has had too much human interaction via human food. Sores, teeth missing, matted fur.

    That one time in hundreds of times outdoors when the bear finally does have an interaction with your food, you have started or helped along the way a downward spiral for that bear. So think about that the next time you stager into camp a little too late and your tired and decide not to make the effort. Kind of like leaving meth for a 7 year old to get its hands on. Well maybe not so much on the last part, but close.

  22. 1. Haven’t bears eaten human food throughout human existence? I’d assume bears were eating Native Americans’ food long before Europeans arrived. I guess what I’m getting at is — hasn’t this been going on for at least a thousand years?

    2. Call me crazy, but I think many (apparently none on this blog!) would say that hanging a bear bag or putting food in a canister is meant to…protect people from unwanted bear encounters. No?

    • On point 1, I’m pretty sure Native Americans had a good solution to this problem since they knew how to hunt and understood how to share the land with wild animals.

    • It’s possible, but there were a lot less Native Americans than today’s american population so it’s doubtful that a bear could “make a living” of foraging for human food.
      Here in my country we haven’t got bears (well, there are ten or so in the high Pyrenees, which were repopulated on the late nineties, but they’re inter-breeding now and I don’t think they’re likely to last) but we’ve got similar problems with wild boars. Here, with the decrease of shepherding, wood-cutting and so on the wilderness has gone “wilder”. Very few people that own forested land keep the under-forest at reasonable levels which has made, on the one hand forest fires a lot worse to control (this is the Mediterranean) and a boom on the wild bear population. Let’s say that the ecosystem was used to have some hundreds of sheep and goats through summer, and their sudden dissapearance has ruined the balance. In my city there’s a very thick forest that “touches” the houses, and some of the neighbours thought it “cute” to let food for them. Now they are every time “braver” and they come foraging one or two kilometres into the city.

  23. To your second point, I think it works both ways. You want to protect humans from bears, you want to protect shelters from being a bear buffet and you want to protect bears from relying on human food.

    I have been hiking and camping in the North East for years and I have encountered 1 black bear from about 200 yards away. When I hang a bear bag or put my food in a bear storage bin, my bigger concerns are mice.

    When I was hiking Mount LeConte in the Smokies, I had 2 bear encounters on an 11 mile hike. Both encounters were near the Mount LeConte lodge. One of the caretakers at the Lodge told me a couple was having a picnic the day before and a black bear came up and stole their entire backpack. As exhilarating as it was to see Black Bears, it’s become a real problem in the smokies. They don’t fear humans and they survive largely on our litter and food.

    It would be very sad if this type of problem spreads along the AT and I think everyone has a responsibility to mitigate that risk… For the bears sake and for our sake.

  24. I agree that bears should be wild and we shouldn’t feed them or let them get our food — just thought it was interesting that this post says the PRIMARY PURPOSE is to protect bears, not food. I’d think the primary purpose is to protect humans from getting attacked by bears. Maybe it’s just semantics.

    • Bears don’t consider humans a food source unless we train them to. The point of this post is to nip the problem in the bud by limiting their food supply to their natural foods.

  25. I agree with many of the points here. I’ve only hiked in the White Mountains for a few weeks. All my other hiking – many thousands of miles – in North America has been in the West. Mostly I haven’t hung my food or used a canister but then I’ve mostly been in areas where bears are very unlikely to enter a campsite. In the national parks in the Canadian Rockies I hung my food (this was before canisters existed) as I was camping on well-used sites – there was usually a bear pole anyway – but on the second half of the walk along that range I didn’t. On a five week walk in the High Sierra I carried a canister. On the Pacific North-west Trail I mostly slept with my food, except in national parks with campsites with bear poles. I carried a canister the last few days along the Olympic National Park coast because of racoons. My view now is that if it’s a popular area where bears do take hikers food then I’ll use a canister but in other places I won’t.

  26. I’ve got one of these.
    It’s considerably lighter than the Garcia and even the Bear Vault with a corresponding price tag.
    Like those it’s too small for more than a few days food.
    With more food I hang. I’m surprised that folks find hanging difficult. But my hangs have never been tested. The only problems I’ve ever had were with campground bears and racoons. I don’t go back to campgrounds that don’t effectively manage their bears.

  27. Well said! It’s also about safety. Bears habituated to seek food where humans hang out, only endangers other hikers.

    • While revisitng a childhood haunt at Floodwood Pond just outside of Tupper lake in late September of 2010 I walked past an old Camp near the Railroad track and noticed that the heavy wooden front door had been torn up pretty badly by a Bear. I took a film picture of the damage and it was pretty extensive with half inch deep scratch marks in the door. But the door being heavy lumber with some heavy steel hinges did not fail. Later on that day at the Nature Conservancy property at the end of the road, I spoke with at watchmen there who told me the Black Bears in the Adirondacks were a constant problem at their property and were becoming very aggressive…

  28. It’s important to match your bear protection strategy to the local environment and bear smarts. My sister-in-law’s sister and husband (sister in law once removed?) are rangers in King County CA and they just laughed at the idea of an Ursack. But here on the east coast most of the time an ursack is great. On a scout trip canoing in northern Canada we just used a “bear canoe” where the noise of the bears searching the canoe would help scare them off (never saw one so I can’t say it worked), but that only works because the campsites were occupied once every couple of years.

    WRT the Opsack – I can smell the difference between it and a ziplock bag – but they are hard to seal correctly and unsealed I doubt there’s much difference between types of plastic bag.

  29. On the AT our food bags were hung nightly from a tree or on a provided pole or in a box if it was available. I consider my husband to be on the higher quality end of bear bag hanging than most and we certainly saw some poor bear bag hanging on the AT.

    That said, we’ve been plenty of other places where bear density is low or non-existent and have done hanging in some areas for other animals and also just stowed our food in our packs in the vestibule as well. I’ve also seen ants tear through our bags on the ground at night too.

    While hiking in the Enchantments in Washington State a year ago we managed to find a place among the minute amount of trees to hang our bag, not for bears but for mountain goats. The mountain goats were all over and as soon as we set up camp several different sets came from across the frozen lakes over to our campsite. It was obvious they were well accustomed to humans and were likely fed from time to time. So, it isn’t just bears to keep wild or protect yourself from.

    It would certainly be nice if outdoor ethics were taught in schools alongside regular recreational activities.

  30. Nice Rant, but totally wrong. Hang a bag, kill a bear, should be the new saying. I’ve seen many beats rip bags from trees, and I’ve yet to see a hanging bag survive a bear. The reason is simple, campers just don’t know how to hang a bag properly, assuming that it’s even possible to do so. As noted above there’s no record of bears attacking hikers for their food, so sleeping with your food is a proven technique that works, as opposed to hanging food which is a technique that doesn’t work. When you hang a food bag you’re leaving the food alone and that’s the problem. You should never leave your food unattended. If you do then eventually a bear will get into the food if there’s one around, unless the food is in a bear proof storage location. No the bears are not becoming more aggressive, as has been reported every year for the least hundred years. Records of bear attacks show different inspite of all antedoctal (non)evidence to the contrary. Yes, they’re just stories embellished to scare you. Read the authorative scholarly research instead of bear stories and you’ll realize that bears do not attack people for food whether they’re hiking with the food or camping (sleeping) with the food. Yes, I believe in using effective bear proof storage if available, but hanging food is not effective. I do use a usack but only because I believe it’s effective against smaller critters, I haven’t had the opportunity to see how well it tests against a bear. On several occasions when my food was in my ursack the bear didn’t get my food because it wasn’t hanging in a tree. I had the food with me. Yes, the bears did get the food belonging to the other hikers that had hung their food bags as they had been taught. I had explained to them that their hanging skill were no match for a skilled tree climbing bear but years of teaching (indoctrination) leaves little room for logic. Ok, I understand that most can not agree with sleeping with their food instead of hanging, but before you state how wrong I am find actual documeted cases of bears attacking sleeping campers for their food. The evidence simply shows that it doesn’t happen. Whereas the evidence shows that food hanging in trees is regularly taken by bears, and whenever a bear figures out there’s food in those hanging bags you’ve created a problem bear.

    • Well, I have been camping in the ADK’s for over 40 years. I have never had a bear steal food from a properly hung bag. I have had more bear than I can count through and around camp. They see too many people up there. By the end of fall, they are hungry and looking for a spot to den-up. There was one article I was reading (last year I think) about people being attacked in YellowStone after not properly securing their food. I think someone was killed as the bear dragged the guy out of the tent. The woman admitted there was food in the tent.

      ADK bears are not stupid, they just like food. People supply that with poor hangs, not closing the lid on a bear can properly, or sleeping with food. Yes, they are getting more aggressive. There is less hunting, and, more bear. Fortunatly, they still maintain their fear of people, especially during the day light hours. Yellow-Yellow was the only bear known to be able to open a bear vault, regularly. She lived in the Marcy Dam/High Peaks area of the ADK’s. Bear vaults came close to being outlawed up there, but you cannot buy them in the nearby towns/villages.

      A proper hang is 12-18′ up. The limb is small enough to not support a bear, but large enough to support a bag. The bag should be 4′ out, hanging 2-3′ down. Soo, the minimum height is actually 12′, final. It shold be clear of other trees. The line should be at a 20-30 degree angle, held high, then wradded around another tree some distance away. It should NOT be highly visable, orange, neon green, etc. They do not work as well as darker, more camo lines. It should be around 2-3mm thick to prevent sawing into the branch. The bears KNOW it is there. But, after sniffing a bit, they wag their head around a little, then ignore it. (I don’t think they bother with something clearly out of reach that takes considerable effort. They just look around for possible avenues to the food, they do not use tools, like a stick, as smarter animals are known to do.)

      All of the adirondacks is prone to bear problems. Occasional moose go through. I consider a moose more of a problem than a bear. They used to allow bears to go through the camp sites at one time. Now days, this is highly dicouraged with rubber bullets, etc.

      In most areas of the ADK’s, it is only 5-6 miles to any road (sometimes it is a logging road, though.) The general population density has gone up from about 50000 people in 1970 to about 100,000 people. The *visitors* are well over 10 milion people. I would guess than all bears beyond the age of a year have seen humans.

    • Until you chimed in I was mostly alone in my stance on bear hangs, so thank you. Hangs have failed hundreds, probably thousands of times, with bears being rewarded with food as a result. Whether the explanation was user error or a clever bear, it really doesn’t matter — neither factor is going to change going forward.

      In light of this data, it’s shocking to me that so many comments are in agreement that hanging your food is the proper thing to do, or that this post makes this argument. I guess it’s an easy argument to make if your hang has never even been tested by a bear in your camp and/or if you don’t have enough field experience to question wisdom that dates back 60 years, as if we haven’t learning anything new since then.

      One only needs to look at backcountry policies to understand what’s effective and what’s not with regards to food storage. In areas where there have been regular bear/human incidents (e.g. the High Sierra, ADK High Peaks, Olympics, RMNP), land managers now require canisters. In Glacier and Yellowstone, backcountry sites are equipped with a bear locker and/or a hanging system that no bear can climb. Good luck in arguing with a backcountry ranger that a hang is effective in protecting your food (and a bear) — maybe they’ll reduce your fine from the $5000 max, but they almost certainly will escort you out of the park.

      • Are you saying that the most effective system on the east coast:

        -Where we have much higher population densities than in the west,
        -Mostly unregulated backcountry usage (no reservations/lottery required)
        -No funds for ranger enforcement
        -Far less aggressive bears than the Grizzlies/brown bears out west

        Is to:

        1) Insist that everyone camp near a metal bear box where they can put their food at night.
        2) require the use of bear canisters for food storage at night by all overnight visitors
        3) sleep with your food at night
        or to:
        4) teach people how to properly hang a bear bag properly, since they obviously don’t know how to.

        • Speaking for myself – I would gladly do 2 or 4 if it contributes to keeping bears wild. Getting back to the original point of my rant…it doesn’t matter what bear protection system you use,the primary purpose of hanging or cannisters or ursacks is to keep bears wild not to protect your powerbars. What matters is that we work together to keep bears wild.

        • Can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk. I just bought a Bare Boxer Canister to try out. Holds up to 3 days worth of food.

          Capacity: 275 Cubic Inches, 4.5 liters
          Diameter: 7.4 inches, 18.8cm
          Height: 8.0 inches, 20.3cm
          Weight: 1.6 Pounds, 726 grams
          Price: $66.95, including postage.

        • If you really want to protect your food (and a bear) because you think there’s a decent chance of an unnaturally behaving bear entering your camp, then you should carry a canister or only stay in campsites/campgrounds with bear-proof lockers. For a trained bear, hangs are a joke. That there are not more stories of bears retrieving hung food in the East is an indication to me that the bear/human concern doesn’t require much attention, NOT that bear hanging is an effective storage technique — it’s not.

          If you think it’s very unlikely that a well trained bear will enter your camp and attempt to steal your food — perhaps because there are no documented cases of bears pestering campers or hikers, and because a ranger you spoke with verified such — then you have more options. Sleep with your food, throw a crappy hang, whatever, it probably doesn’t matter. If your assumption proves wrong, then you either got unlucky or you didn’t have good information.

          I think it’s completely impractical to think that the backpacking community can be taught how to properly hang their food. It’s an important skill, but there’s no way that every backpacker is going to master it before their first night out.

        • Andrew – completely agree that teaching newbies how to hang a bear bag is challenging, perhaps even pointless. Here are many examples of awful attempts I saw in Maine last summer.

        • You haven’t read RJ Secor recently. He recounts an incident where a guy lost his ear using his food bag as a pillow on the JMT.

          The only incidences of bear caused injuries to people in California are related to having food or food-smelling items in tents.

        • Can you cite a reference?

        • It is, by the way, ILLEGAL in canister mandated areas to “keep watch” over your food.

        • What exactly does “keep watch” mean. Please vote your source. If it means you can’t have you food out of the canister how would you cook or eat?

        • Andrew, I do not agree that bear bagging is ineffective. At the least, it puts smells well above their normal foraging height. I suppose he could just jump on a branch, grabbing the bag as he fell and land safely from 10′ after locating it. Likely this would break the line or clip I use to hang it. This attributes a greater intelegence than I have seen them display, though. Yes, I have seen a bear under the bear hang. I was more curious to find out if the damn thing actually worked…but he saw/smelled me and left. I have only seen a few bear, even though I know there are a couple thousand in the ADK’s. I hiked through Stephens Pond (where the encounter occured) in late June and saw one. But not the three the woman suggested. He did follow a little, but he gave up.

          The big problem comes in from not knowing how to do it properly. Hanging in a crook of a 6″ tree is likely not too safe. It has to be 3-4′ out from the trunk. 40 years of averaging 30 nights out per year have shown me what works.But, my uncle suggested sleeping with the bag when I was younger…never had a problem that way, either. But, lack of evidence is difficlt to prove one way or the other. Most people in the ADK’s hang stuff. Though I see more and more cannisters the last 10 years. Only a few sleep with their bags. I do not share a shelter with them.

          Yes, in some areas, I have slept with my food bag. But I was never really comfortable with the idea, though my neck surely appreciated the pillow. But for more populated areas, where bears can get used to people and how they smell, I remain unconvinced. If hanging *is* extra work that is unneeded, OK, I can live with that. And, if hanging doesn’t work, at least it will be well away from camp and I might be verrry hungry for a couple days, I hate to see a bear that has gone bad, but I can live with that, too. If sleeping with my bear bag could attract a few usine friends, I am not sure I could live with that, though.

        • Hangs will work, no doubt, but the execution needs to be flawless — perfect tree, perfect throw, perfect cord, perfect knots or tie-off configuration, etc. Can you expect a backpacker that doesn’t have 30 years of experience to do this? Heck no. But, even you said, you’ve only seen a few bears and none that were particularly crafty. How do you know that even your hangs have been bear-proof, then? And what’s to say that sleeping with your food would have resulted in different outcome?

  31. Sorry but there was no fatal bear attacks in Yellowstone in 2012. There were some in 2011 but the attack occured while hiking not camping. Therefore the story goes under “my neighbor knows someone who’s cousin met that”. You also state ” Yes, they are getting more aggressive.”, perhaps a bit of proof would be in order.

    “Given that there are about 900,000 black bears in North America, the number of attacks is small, but it has increased as both the human and bear populations have grown. Eighty-six percent of attacks occurred between 1960 and 2009, 17 of those since 2000.”

    Outside Magazine had a story about bear attacks that stated ” But all parties interviewed for this story stated their belief that the partial consumption by grizzlies of two people in two years was not connected to a decline in food sources, and that a mere two incidents do not provide compelling evidence of a hungry bear population altering its behavior to hunt humans. Understanding this requires taking a close look at a number of issues, starting with the incidents themselves.” Further down the article it states, “Whichever side of the debate they come down on, most experts agree that increasing bear populations and increasing human visitation to Yellowstone will almost certainly result in more run-ins between people and grizzlies. Still, as gruesome as four human deaths in two years may be, the fact remains that human-bear encounters are far deadlier to bears than to people. Between 2003 and ’06, an average of about 16 Yellowstone-area bears were killed by people annually. Over the past four years that average has leaped to 38, the result of federal or state wildlife agencies removing bears or of increased encounters with hunters.” It seems fair to conclude that the increase of attacks in Yellowstone isn’t due to more aggressive bears but due to more bears, which had been previously exterminated then reintroduced. I understand that many will wish to use fear prove their point but declaring that bears are now more aggressive simply doesn’t make it so. Perhaps a few can successfully hang their food but obviously thousands upon thousands cannot. I hiked the AT in 2011. Hundreds of AT hikers slept with their food and yet none were attacked, but many that hung their food had it taken by bears. This has been true both before 2011 and since. One would think there’s a pattern and would conclude that hanging food is an error but yet fear enters the picture and most conclude that hanging food is the remedy.

    So repeat after me, “Hang a bag, kill a bear”.

    Repeat as necessary.

  32. Great post Philip. I love the message and it’s a very important one.

    I’m totally with you, protecting your food is about protecting wildlife and the wilderness, not about you! There are a lot of backpackers who just don’t get that. I recently ran into some hikers who hung their food poorly on their last night and said, “It’s not a big deal, we’re hiking out tomorrow.” Clearly the entire point of food storage was lost on them.

    I also share a lot of the same opinions as Skurka about bear bagging though. If you do it exactly right, it can be an effective method, especially in areas where bears aren’t trained to pull down bear bags. But all too often I see hikers hanging terrible bear bags that will be an easy target for any bear. When that happens, hikers have essentially taken their food, put it far away from their campsite, and given bears enough space to get an easy meal without any concern of human contact. That creates problem bears and is clearly not going to protect our wild areas.

    I’ve hung bear bags, used bear canisters, and slept with my food in my tent. I’ve used each method hundreds of times in many different wilderness areas. In my experience, bear bagging has been the least effective method. Not because my food has been stolen, but because of the countless stories that I’ve heard from other backpackers who have had their bear bags ripped down. I can only assume that they are hanging their bags poorly, but they are still creating problem bears. Here’s a story that I recently posted with pictures of an obviously poorly hung bear bag that was ineffective:

    I think it comes down to the fact that proper bear bagging takes a lot of time, you need to find the right tree, you need to know how to do it right, and well trained bears are really good at getting them down. Some people just don’t know any better and some people are just too lazy.

    I’ve never heard or seen any evidence of bears attempting to get someone’s food while they were sleeping with it. I thru-hiked the PCT in 2010 and I never saw any other thru-hikers hanging bear bags. They all slept with their food in their shelters. Bears are afraid of humans, they want to avoid human contact at all costs, and they know that you’re in your shelter. Even though they can smell your food, they’re not going to risk getting close to you to get it.

    If a bear is willing to come into your campsite looking for food, they are already a problem bear. Even if that’s the case, which is rare, they’re probably not going to risk getting close to you to get your food. A previous reader commented to ask if anyone has any evidence of bears attacking humans to get their food. I’m curious to see if there’s any information like that out there. If so, I’d be willing to change my approach, but I’m not aware of any such evidence.

    If you’re not comfortable with sleeping with your food, which I can totally understand, protect your food in another way.

    The foolproof answer is to require backpackers to cary bear canisters or use bear boxes, which eliminates the possibility of human error. But bear canisters are heavy, obnoxious to pack, and have limited space for longer trips. I always cary them when they’re required, but I seldom do when they’re not. I like Ursacks too, which are lighter and easier to pack. I think that Ursacks will continue to grow in popularity and may become more widely accepted. It’s just a bummer that they aren’t approved in many popular national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain National Park to name a few.

    I think this topic is really important and I think your message is well received. Protect your food! It’s not just for you, it’s for the animals.

    Keep the wilderness wild. I’m down with that.

    Dave Collins

  33. Quick check on wiki-pedia fatal bear attack list, documents a few incidences of people being attacked while in their tents it doesn’t mention if food was involved.
    I think this is a very interesting discussion, since I have done a few thru-hikes and have done the variety of food storage methods talked about. One thing I recall on majority of my hikes is that I always started hanging food until I became more comfortable with the environment I was in, as well as understanding how the black bears were reacting to my mere presence. About a month or so into my hikes I would sleep with my food, buried in my pack which had a garbage bag liner and all my smelly hiking crap around the food. I would sleep with the pack under my legs. I’m not saying this method is the right method or even a safe method, but I was aware of the risks and I did not put any other humans at risk.
    I now co-own a company that teach’s the lighter side of backpacking, and general backpacking self reliance courses, and we teach Leave No Trace ethics while in the backcountry. Bear bags hung 15′ – 18′ off the ground, 6′ away from the trunk of the tree, and 4′ from the hanging limb.
    Now I agree with A. Skurka, sometimes you need to find that perfect tree and it can be a huge pain in the ass, but that’s what I feel safe teaching new backpackers. To date we have had bears in our camp and have never lost a bear bag. Maybe we have just been lucky. Also after hiking about 10,000 miles both personally and professionally I have yet to get my food taken from my hang nor have I ever hiked with anyone where I personally witnessed the crafty bear winning. With that said I have never had any animal go after my food while I slept with it. Just trying to keep fair with all my experiences.
    From an educational standpoint with our courses we always say if you feel you can’t hang your bear bag at about that 15′ height you should invest in some sort of bear storage canister. We always want what’s best for the human/animal backcountry experience.
    I’m curious if anybody that feels sleeping with their food is a safe method, is willing to take responsibility and accountability if an incidence takes place. This seems like information that is being passed to 1st time backpackers and at some point will be referenced. My hiking partner & co-owning partner of our business constantly reminds me that with all my hiking experience there are nuances of the backcountry life that I do through many years and miles of experience that sometimes even the avid backpacker over looks.

    Great discussion thus far.

  34. Yes, there’s a few incidents of campers being attacked in their tent. There’s also two deaths in Yellowstone of hikers being attacked while on the trail. I know several hikers were killed in the Smokey Mountains while hiking (various incidents). This proves that bears can and sometimes will attack people, though it’s extremely rare and you’re more likely to be attacked or killed by another person.

    Obviously many feel safe sleeping with their food since most long distance hikers do so. That you have never lost a bag to a bear simply proves that it’s possible to hang a bag properly, but that so many have lost bags proves that hanging bags is a method that is not effective for most campers. I’m willing to wager that fewer bags have been lost to bears by experienced hikers sleeping with their food than by experienced hikers hanging their food. Recently hiked in Sequoia National Park and found of that bear boxes have been placed at many if not most backcountry sites. Seems like they don’t believe hanging is an option.

    As for accountability and responsibility I’ll suggest that each and every individual hiking should accept it’s theirs or they shouldn’t be out there. What I’m amazed is the lack of people recommending hanging food also accepting their accountability for recommending a method that basically doesn’t work and normally results in damage to bears.

    A study was released in 2011 that documented that bears don’t attack humans to get their food. It also found that most persons injured by bears chose to interact with the bears, usually as part of their job or stupidity. The biologist conducting the study stated that he couldn’t find any biologist that knew of any encounters of bears attacking people for the purpose of getting their food. A few of the persons killed by bears were children that were hunted by bears. But basically few if any were killed by bears trying to get the hiker’s food. During the 2011 season one AT hiker threw her pack at a bear she encountered on the trail, but this still didn’t lead to any hikers being attacked by bears.

    So the question is what should new or inexperienced hikers be told. Certainly they should not be told that hanging a food bag is an effective method or that bears attack humans for their food. The data simply doesn’t support either statement. They should be told that food storage lockers are effective, but if they’re not available then sleeping with the food and use of bear canisters are effective methods. Fear mongering shouldn’t be used. It only leads to bad decisions by hikers with the result being that bears will die. Perhaps they should also be told that a few (as in very few) hikers are able to effectively hang their food bags but that experience has shown that generally it doesn’t work. But ultimately hikers should be told that they need to comply with applicable food storage regulations (usually there’s a reason for them), but that it is their responsibility to prevent bears from getting their food. As has been noted by several on this thread one can hike for many years and never have your food taken by a bear therefore failure should not be an option.

    • Fred, whenever I read “long distance hikers say” I cringe, because in my experience I think about AT thru-hikers who seem to have few backcountry skills. Most have never backpacked before, few know how to use a compass or even read a map. Have you considered that the vast majority of bear bag incidents that seem to occur on the AT are the result of them lacking proper bear bagging skills? Especially down south before their numbers have thinned and most drop off the trail. Perhaps the failed hangs you rant are merely the consequence of trail crowding and overuse by thru-hikers, and not too different than campgrounds.

      Second, you guys are arguing about several different species of bears. Grizzly and brown bears are very different from black bears. Lumping them all together is like lumping together rattlesnakes and garter snakes. We need more precision in this discussion.

      Finally Fred you fail to acknowledge the hundreds of hangs that several of us on this thread have had without any incidents. That just doesn’t stack up against your claims about bear predation. We live in black bear county where the bears are smaller and more timid, and bear bags or ursacks are just fine. We don’t hike on the AT because it is too crowded with thru-hikers. Perhaps we have less incidents because we avoid them and heavily used campground, too.

  35. Phillip I think you are wasting your time. A prime example has been the campaign against Texting while driving, yet every week I read of another person(s) who wrapped their car around a tree and have caused grief for so many people. Same with Bear Bagging. All we can do is warn them and then let go. It is also called doing your homework, for instance on the Southern half of the Pacfic Crest Trail Bears are not a problem, but Rattlesnakes and field Mice and ground Squirrels are. So the need to Bear bag is not a problem. But in the 1860’s there were Grizzlys living in that same area and who says they will not come back or be re-introduced. Once you get past the Desert and start the climb up into the Sierra’s the problem worsens as one hikes further into the wilderness along the John Muir Trail and beyond. You are taking a Risk by sleeping with your food, just like you take that same risk texting while driving. On short Trips up into Bishop Basin to Blue Lake and Hungry Packer Lake Piute Lake Bears are rarely a problem and were so for some 20 years that I visited that area. But then on one trip I ran into Horse Packers and Backpackers who stated there were at least 3 Bears in the Basin and they were eating everything and were very aggressive and did not appear to fear humans to the extent that one would like. So you can Preach all you want and these youngsters who know it all because they been on 5- 20 trips to the woods where nothing happened so they are not going to listen to you and will argue for hours on end. As in I’m always watching the road while I text and nothing happened to me….Yet!

  36. I realize that – you know I couldn’t care less what method they use as long as they keep the food out of booboo’s hands.

  37. RPhilip, yes I acknowledge that not just hundreds but thousands hang food bags that are not taken. In the last sentence of my previous post I take note that several that have posted to this thread have hiked for many years and have never had good taken. Noticed I didn’t limit it to one’s sleeping with their food. However food having has a high failure rate. Whereas sleeping with your food doesn’t have a high failure rate. The question is not whether to use food storage lockers or bear canisters (or ursacks) vs sleeping with your food. Food storage lockers appear to work (but I remember many years ago when the Yellowstone bears were winning), so yes by all means use food storage lockers when available. Bear cables work as long as used properly. They have been defeated but not with such frequency that I’m willing to say they don’t work. Bear poles also work, though a few bears have learned that by swinging the pole back and forth that a overloaded bag will cause the hanging cord to snap. But again I don’t have reason to believe that it’s not an effective technique.

    So the question is food hanging vs sleeping with the food when there’s no other option. We know bears don’t attack hikers sleeping with their food because every years thousands do so and there’s no reports of such incidents. Yet we have data of most if not all bear attacks both fatal and non fatal. So anyone that wishes to argue that sleeping with your food is dangerous needs to bring some data to the party to be taken seriously. Bears go into tents, cabins and cars on a regular basis but yet the don’t snatch food from sleeping hikers, perhaps there’s an easy explanations. That hikers never sleep with their food – We know that’s not true. That hikers sleeping with their food are the luckiest people on this planet – sorry but I haven’t won the lottery so that’s not a good explanation and – besides many bears have been around hikers and campers with food in their tents in thousands of camping sites, so I’ll suggest it’s not just luck. I’ve personally seen over twenty or thirty (never kept count) incidents of bears taking food bags from trees, tents, cars, unattended backpacks, coolers and campground tables. They all have one thing in common, the food was left unattended.

    If you hang your food you generally hang it some distance from yourself. Bears that happen upon unattended food will attempt to obtain the food. Given the high failure rate of food hanging this leads to bears becoming skillful at this task and then they’re problem bears.

    Whether the blame is the technique or the implementation of the technique is irrelevant because years of experience shows that there’s a high failure rate, so we’ll not be able to educate our selves out of that mess or modify the technique to make it work.

    I’m merely suggesting that enough is enough and we should try something different than food hanging.

    The data available shows that there’s not a failure rate for sleeping with your food so until there’s a better alternative I’ll strongly suggest that it should be seriously considered. If anyone has data showing that sleeping with your food is dangerous then they should present it. I understand that being attacked by a bear is potentially fatal or at the least very unpleasant but the mere possibility of something doesn’t make it probable. Yes I could possibly be hit by a meteorite but it’s not probable. I know of one incident of someone being hit by a meteorite but don’t know of anyone being attacked and having their food bag taken.

    As for thru hikers, most will hang their food early on but after a few months and lots of experience (compared to most hikers), they’re not hanging their food. So yes I’m basing my argument on the premise that most hikers are inexperienced and when they try to hang their food they’ll fail so that’s not a technique that should be suggested. Sleeping with your food is not a technique that needs training and it’s shown to have a high success rate.

    As for texting while driving I accept it happens but what I don’t understand is texting will hiking.

  38. NO! The THE PURPOSE OF HANGING A BEAR BAG IS TO KILL BEARS. You’re not keeping bears WILD! by hanging a food bag. On of the John Muir Trail in California you’re not allowed to hang a food bag. If you do there’s a citation and find waiting for you if a Ranger finds out. Bears have and will defeat any hanging technique you can devise, and then you have set up that bear as a problem bear. So, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no! ‘ to hanging your food bag. And as for your ‘they can smell blood and food from twenty miles away’ show me the incident report of a Hiker having their food bag taken while asleep. There’s enough rangers around to take reports and hikers sleeping with their food daily much less yearly for this danger to be on part with UFO sighting. There’s no reason to believe bears attack sleeping hikers with food or that aliens sighting are real, otherwise there would be plenty of incident reports not just blogs asserting same.

    So repeat after me, ‘Hang a food bag, kill a bear!’

    • Bears are quite intelligent and Yosemite bears are “smarter than the average bear” and have figured out most of the common techniques, which is the reason for the extremely strict rules in play there. In most other places, the bears haven’t been exposed to as much hiker use and, since they have no opposable claws or internet to study up on the Yosemite situation, procedures easily solved in Yosemite may still stump them elsewhere. All that being said, there are some bears in the ‘Daks that seem to have a wifi connection they use for their post doc studies on Yosemite food snagging.

      Personally, I’m not comfortable with sleeping with my food supply in the tent. I use Opsak bags but I still hang if there is no bear box at the site I use. I also keep a small Opsak for toiletries and what I want handy in my shelter.

      So far, I haven’t done any overnighters in a place a bear canister is required, however, I know that will probably change at some point.

  39. 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.
      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.

  40. 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.”

  41. @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.

  42. @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. 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.

  43. Here’s an interesting new study

    “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.

  44. 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.

  45. @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.

    • (item 10)
      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:

        “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. (

 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. @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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.