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How to Kill a Bear

Bear Bag Hung between two trees, three feet off the Ground (WTF!)
Bear Bag Hung between two trees, three feet off the Ground (WTF!)

If you want to kill a bear, let it eat human food lying on the ground or easily accessible at your campsite. Bears that “steal” food, even if it’s left unattended and in the open, are shot and killed because they’re classified as “problem bears.” They’re blamed, even if hikers and campers fail to take the most basic precautions of hanging a bear bag at night or storing their food in bear canisters where required.

I hang a bear bag to protect the bears, not to protect my food from the bears.

While I’d like to believe that US campers and backpackers know enough not to feed bears and other wildlife human food, the evidence doesn’t indicate that they do. I can’t decide whether it’s ignorance, plain laziness or the misguided belief that campsites and shelters are immune to bear invasions because bears are afraid of sleeping people.

Another bad example: Food Bag hung two feet off the ground!
Another bad example: Food Bag hung two feet off the ground!

More tragic perhaps, are people who hang bear bags, but don’t bother to lift them very far off the ground. What’s up with that?

Several food backs hanging from the same branch - 4 feet off the ground
Several food bags hanging from the same branch – 4 feet off the ground

I asked the hikers who hung these bags why they did such a poor job of it and they responded by shrugging and saying they’d try to do better next time. I felt comfortable approaching them about it because we’d been hiking the same section of the Appalachian Trail for a few days and kept running into them. It really caught me off guard, since all of them are experienced section hikers with years of backpacking, search and rescue, and mountaineering under their belts.

I don’t get it.  Why don’t they care about the bears as much as me?


  1. Bear safe? None of those hangs are even mouse safe. Phenomenal.

    I must say, you picked the best possible title for this post. You definitely grabbed my attention.

    • Here’s the story behind the title. I was hiking in the 100 Mile Wilderness with a Brit and this was his first time in the US. Had to teach him the how and why of hanging a bear bag. He caught on immediately, particularly since the UK has managed to kill off most of it’s bigger wildlife, a thing they all regret now. So you can imagine my embarrassment when we see these terrible bear hangs, day after day, by US hikers. I said, “if you want to kill a bear….let it eat people food.”

  2. It’s just plain laziness for most people, they go through the motions to hang it but do a half-assed job at it. I’ve been on the AT with people and they had said something to me about hanging mine so high off the ground and taking my time to make sure it’s secure. I think being in the Mid-Atlantic people here have a false sense of security about having something either a bear or anything into your gear.

    • I was on a trip recently where I was the only hiker in the group who hanged a bear bag night after night.. I believe it’s a moral decision to hang one or not. People need to make moral choices (in the absence of enforcement) about their relationship with the wilderness. I choose to preserve it and leave a minimal impact the best way I know how in order preserve the wilderness for others to enjoy in the future. Those other hikers also made a decision. Not one I agree with, but I still hope they will follow my example someday.

  3. It maybe because everyone does not love bears as much as you do!!!

    • I don’t necessarily like bears, but I respect the role they play in the food chain. If you kill off the top predator, the weak and diseased prey animals are not culled. This can lead to species die-off because the gene pool is less resilient to disease or climate change.

  4. Yeah, a sad comment on hikers. Many hikers focus on gear, and the hike totally ignoring the fact that most trails pass through wild lands. Lands where we want to see animals, but not disturb them. One of the first things I do when setting up camp is to hang a bear bag. Well, not really hang it, but find a good tree and toss my rock sack over it, setting the line ready to hang the bag. Generally, about 15-20 feet up and 5′ out rom a climbable trunk. When I hang the bag, it hangs about 3′ down from the branch and 12′ above the ground. Out west, perhaps a bit more would be required. Beyond that, I USE it every time I leave camp for more than 5 minutes. Dayhikes, paddles around a lake, even gathering firewood, I pull my food up.

    I am glad to be out with the critters. Lean-tos means minibears. I see many creatures out in the wild, some I would just as soon not see. Bears are one of those critters that I I respect, but really don’t want in camp. Cooking can be just as bad. Oily food scraps (like bacon grease) need to be burried well away from camp. Not so much for me, since I will leave in the morning, but for others that decide to use the camp. If I am stealth camping, LNT dictates this stuff be totally cleaned out, anyway.

    It only takes once for a bear to become “habituated” to checking out a campsite. While most bears wander in the ADK’s, eventually, they will set up a larger circuit of places to visit for food. Bluberry/blackberry patches in late summer & early fall for example, But, once a bear breaks into a larger, very rich food supply at a campsite, they will return several times to check for more. This causes problems for the bear and visiting hiker. Often the bear is killed because he is a pest. Not good. At least in the ADK’s, the DEC often deters bears with rubber bullets, first, before passing a death sentence. (Unless someone is hurt, of course.).

    • Hey Marco:

      I’m wondering what ADK and DEC stand for. LNT I’m familiar with. Thanks.

      • ADK = Adirondack National Park
        DEC = New York Department of Environment and Conservation

        • Well, ADK is shorthand for the Adirondack State Park. It is not really a national park. It is generally devided into 7 regions:
          Adirondack Coast
          Adirondack Lakes
          Adirondack Seaway
          Adirondacks – Tug Hill
          Adirondack Wild
          Lake George Region
          Lake Placid Region
          It is the largest park in the lower 48 states. There are literally thousands of miles of hiking and canoeing trails running through it. As far as I know, the Finger Lakes National Forest is the only national park in NY. The ADK’s has a population density of about 3 people per mile, mostly in the towns. There are no cities. A residential population of about 100,000 people live in the area of the 5 smallest states of the US. More than 10MILLION people visit the area.

          The DEC is New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. They are also responsible for the Catskills. The ADK’s and Catskils are the ONLY constitutionally protected forests in the US.

  5. I think its another example of the “dominion over all things” attitude. Some go to conquer, some to connect, worship, or just plain been there done that. Some see the glossy photos, dramatic TV shows and want in on the fun.
    They don’t see the things like hanging food and digging cat holes as part of the experience. Which if not for these things its just a stroll through the park. I just wish someone could train the bears to dig a cat hole, put the improperly hung food in it and defecate on top of it.
    Sorry just came out of the Whites after four days, very beautiful country. But I was very disgusted by the amount of excrement just a few step off the trails. It makes it hard to enjoy all your fellow hikers.

    • Yep – indeed – so sad. The nice thing about bushwhacking the Whites (you might want to try it) is that you don’t have to put up with anyone’s shit. LOL.

    • I did my first section hike on the AT this year. It was quite an eye-opener, and some aspects of it made me wonder if I want to continue, if it was all I thought it was going to be.

      The first was the human excrement, as you said, just a couple of steps out and behind the shelters or around the edges of campsites. What kind of person does that? Add to that the fact that the water source is just down the mountain a little way…

      The second was people leaving food packaging trash in the fire rings. It didn’t matter if I hung up my food or not, the last guy is attracting bears!

      I have since decided I’ll give it another try (or two) before giving up on it. I just hope the next couple of sections are a little less discouraging.

  6. All of these pictures were taken at sunrise on our way out of camp while everyone was still sleeping. That’s why the light looks a bit funny.

  7. Excellent post highlighting ignorance!

    I’ve always had a problem with how Fish & Game or National Park officials treat “problem” bears. It seems to me we’re trying to turn the world into a giant zoo. Food habituated bears are doing nothing more than what they’ve evolved to do – utilizing an easy food source to help them survive. And bears who for whatever reason, attack and/or eat a human are just doing what they’re evolved to do – defending themselves or finding prey they’re capable of taking down and eating to help them survive. I don’t think either instance justifies their death and I certainly wouldn’t want a bear that attacked me to die as a result of it.

    Of course if F&G and Park Rangers didn’t take this approach, it is entirely possible that average people would develop a negative (or more negative) view of bears and potentially be more willing to accept their outright extermination.

    A previous poster described it well, a feeling of “dominion over all things.” This is probably one of the most harmful ideas that has been passed through the generations (mostly by various world religions – though many have a much different view of our fellow animals) and the idea that we are humans, separate from the rest of the “savage” animals, really shows through with both our policy decisions and how we interact with the world. I always ask students this question: ‘What is the smartest animal?’ I get a variety of responses, mostly “monkeys” or “chimpanzees,” or the more rare “dog” or “pig,” but not once have I heard “humans.”

    • Extrapolating. Perhaps we should just let the bear incidents happen (like forest fires) because that’s the only way to get people to change their behavior. If people get more scared of bears, maybe they’d be more cautious.

      • An interesting thought – you are far more optimistic than me. In many fire-prone areas that contain significant human property you often have an overwhelming pressure on wilderness managers to suppress any fires that could potentially threaten said property. Ironically enough, not allowing the fires to burn freely increases the risk of bigger, harder to control fires.

        Since it is easier to eliminate a majority of bears than it is to control fire starting conditions such as lightning and irresponsible campers, I fear that would be the end result of a rash of attacks and the ensuing public outcry. I mean just look at what is happening with wolves in many western states right now. Some local residents view them as problem animals and campaign (unfortunately successfully in many cases) to implement policies to exterminate them.

  8. What bugs me the most is the people that are experienced hikers not doing whats best for these animals. I recently went on a 3 day hike around he Presidential’s and found my self in a camp site with a large group of hikers that just happen to be here. After talking to them for a while they were all very experienced with one telling me how he grew up hiking the white mountain all his life. They all failed to follow proper procedures. Eating next to their tent and hanging low bear bags on one tree, 5 ft away from their tent. Lucky my tent site was a little further away and my wife and I ate and hung our bear bag properly and the right distance from our tent. How would you approach a group of people doing the wrong thing without coming off as a know it all? Especially when the group is technically more experienced than myself.

    • That’s a real issue because people shut down when you criticize them or say that they’re not following park regulations.

      The best thing to do in that situation may be to say “I heard there have been some bear-food incidents in this area and that people are being advised by rangers to hang their bear bags 15-20 feet off the ground and to cook away from their tents to prevent potential tent invasions.”

      I realize this is not entirely truthful (although it likely is), but it helps to transfer the decision to change behavior back onto the other people by making them reconsider the consequences of their current behavior.

      • That is some good advice. Most experienced hikers that I come across that break the “rules” do it because they never had an encounter or a problem so they get lazy or confident that it will not happen to them.

        • I concur, which is irrational when you consider that each time they go to a new area, it will be a different bear’s territory and hence an independent set of circumstances and probabilities.

  9. On another backpacking website, someone told the story of a bear that cut through the tie off rope on his bear hang. The cast iron skillet in his bear bag knocked the critter out cold. He gathered his gear and snuck off.

  10. I don’t think you win friends and influence people by using overly dramatic, rhetorical statements (“how to kill a bear”). Obviously, your point is a valid one, and I like your proposed approach to raising it with people on the trail (low key, not lecturing, informative). I have had many encounters with bears, including sharing my limited food with people who used poor bag hanging techniques (requiring me to hike out earlier than planned). And I do understand that bears “conditioned” to find food in campsites or near humans become more aggressive in that regard, and thus become endangered. But trying to say to someone, in effect, “Hang your bag like that and you just killed a bear”, well, isn’t going to accomplish much except making you look a bit irrational yourself. Sorry. That’s my view.

    People with greater wisdom and skills should, carefully, humbly, honestly, share them with others when warranted. And I agree, poor bear bag skills = warranted. It’s just a matter of being effective. Which should be your primary objective (not looking clever).

  11. Philip where are bears being shot and killed for stealing food?

    • They’re not being killed for stealing food exactly. A bear that steals/acquires food from humans becomes bolder around them as it begins to form the association of humans = food source. More often than not, this process ends in one of two ways. One way is a bear wanders into towns in search of food where it is often shot by overzealous police in an effort to “protect” the citizens or by property owners. The other is it becomes aggressive towards people which then gets it labeled as a problem bear which means it will either be relocated (best case, provided it hasn’t attacked anyone) or shot and killed (worst case, often includes killing any cubs as well or they spend the rest of their lives in a zoo).

  12. Of all the surpises of my 9 week section hike in 2010, perhaps the biggest was that almost nobody we met ever hung a bear bag (with the exception of RevLee and I). The vast majority hung their food bag in the shelter on a mouse trapeze, and I will admit after a while we did too in some cases. Many even used their food bags as pillows (which made for some great moments for a post that could be entitled “when mice attack” but that is another story). I never tried nor will try that one.

    I always hung a bear bag when I wasn’t in a shelter and when we were in or around a shelter used the cables whenever they were provided. After that trip I went back to hanging a bag every night- maybe it was seeing 11 bears during our section hike in the Smokies last year, or maybe I just got my common sense back. In any case it is the right thing to do and I like and agree with your post title. I know they have had to destroy problem bears in SNP, the Smokies and several other national parks, so your message is the real world. While we were in the Smokies they even had a bear trap next to a shelter we were using. That doesn’t help your sleep!

  13. I have some funny – and then not-pictures of bear bags before and after our group actually saw a bear. Let’s just say there was a vast improvement in technique.We were just ignorant but facing the reality first hand motivated some quick research! We always hang as directed now and encourage others to do the same.

  14. It took me all of five minutes to learn how to hang my food away from bears. I got on with it after that, making sure my food was out of reach of bears. Not hard to do, no excuses not to. Bears don’t need to be a problem to people. People not keeping to basic ground rules allow bears to be classed a problem. Our actions impact on them. They make wilderness for me. Keeping them safe is the responsible thing to do.

  15. Excellent title, definitely got my attention. We gripe and complain about it a bit, but hanging the bear line is one of our favorite parts of every day on the trail. Finding a decent branch seems to be the most common issue. We had one of the best hangs ever last weekend just a few hundred yards from Snowmass Lake where like 40 people had hangs like the one you pictured. I was kinda afraid a bear would come through our space sprinting to their food. And we did see a bear the next day on the trail…and 2 on the drive up to the trail.

  16. Even our raccoon bags are higher than those. Our local Scout camping is in non-bear country, but we have plenty of “minibears”.

    For extra credit, try hanging a bear bag without trees. Here is how we did it at Middle Emigrant Lake.

  17. I love the edit on this sign. It originally said “Persons allowing bears access to food will be cited.” The last word has been changed to “bited”.

  18. it may be worth noting that one of the few successful means of hunting black bear is over a bait site. Although even this means has a low success ratio, the older,, therefore bigger bruins know to come in after dark when the hunter has left, I think it demonstrates how bears can become accustomed to being fed at specific locations. If one clown feeds Yogi, even by accident, Yogi will be back, and bringing BooBoo with him to mooch of the next crowd to show up. There was a bumper sticker that said ” a fed bear is a dead bear”. very true, even if you only fed the beast because you couldn’t be bothered to hang food up properly.

  19. So canisters are recommended and seem effective in deterring bears from getting at food, but I wonder how many people become complacent and lazy and simply throw the stuff in the bear bin without actually taking the time to try to prevent the scent?
    Seems like the biggest thing should be to prevent the smell of any contents from attracting a bear.
    What’s to say they aren’t constantly attracted to a bear bin (because of smells coming out from it) thereby increasing their “interaction and comfort” with campers?