What Should You Put in a Bear Bag?

What should you put in a bear bag?

Bear bags are intended to protect your food on backpacking trips and to prevent bears from becoming accustomed to eating human food. “A fed bear is a dead bear”, as the saying goes, and no one wants to see a bear killed because someone was careless and didn’t hang their food in a bear bag or some other bear-proof container, like a bear canister, a Ursack, or a bear-proof cooler.

What should you put in a bear bag or bear-proof storage? Is it limited to food or are there other things that you should store as well? The answer is yes.

Here are the items, I’d recommended hanging in a bear bag or storing in an IGBC approved bear-resistant container.

  • All of your food
  • Olive or cooking oil
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Deodorant
  • Mouthwash
  • Perfume
  • Soap
  • Sun tan lotion
  • Chapstick or lip balm
  • Bug dope
  • First-aid creams
  • Condiments
  • Gum
  • Scented tobacco
  • Trash

Here are some other items, you might consider storing at a distance from your tent even if they have no food value.There’s no point in encouraging a close inspection by an alpha predator at night.

  • Pots, pans, and utensils
  • Cooking grills
  • Water bottles or hydration reservoirs that have had flavorings added to them
  • Clothes that you have cooked in

Why take these precautions? Bears have an extremely good sense of smell that’s 100 times more sensitive than humans and 7 times more sensitive than a bloodhound’s. In other words, they can smell things that you’re not even aware have a smell.

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  1. Does hand sanitizer fall into the soap category?

    • IMO Yes. When a bear raided our camp while we were eating dinner near our bear hang, about 100 meters away, teeth marks were left in the toilet kit which was on a rock outside the tent. The kit contained toilet paper, hand sanitizer and a shovel. Only 1 of the empty backpacks was searched by the bear, we surmised the bear was attracted to that pack because of a nonscented plastic garbage bag used as a packliner which was still inside the backpack. The scent of plastic garbage bags may also equate to food for a bear.

      • Also, it seems like plastic—not only the soft plastic of storage bags, but harder plastics like those used in water bottles and other containers—can absorb odors. At home, i keep my backpacking water containers on a shelf next to, as it happens, a collection of essential oils i used to concoct an insect repellent, along with the mixed repellent, which uses alcohol (cheap vodka) as the carrier. That mix is in a plastic bottle with a push-sprayer top.

        I carried a couple of those water bottles on a recent hike. When drinking from them, with the container close to my nose, i noted an odd, yet vaguely familiar odor. It took a while, but i finally realized that was the scent of that herbal insect repellent.

        The repellent bottle wasn’t even in contact with the water bottles, but, apparently, being in close proximity in a semi-enclosed space was good enough for a detectable number of volatilized oil molecules to get absorbed into the plastic of the bottle.

        And if i can detect it, no doubt bears and other critters could as well.

  2. Geez,

    It is so hard convincing people of doing this. I really think it takes a bear coming on thier space. Unfortunately when this happens. It gets reported, they are the ones at fault, and then we have a cannister mandated. It makes it hard for everyone.

  3. On a recent trip to Yosemite a ranger told us, ” if it goes in your mouth or on your skin it needs to go in your bear canister.” That seems like a pretty easy way to remember.

  4. I will never understand why people don’t hang their “smellables”. Unless you are above tree line, it should be standard operating procedure. Here in the south bears can sometimes be a problem but usually I hang my food more because of the other smaller varmits.

    • Amen on smaller varmits. I hang food etc. for raccoons, mice, etc. at least as much as for bears. A buddy of mind once had a bad encounter with a skunk!

  5. What about a snoring hiking partner?

    …Or should I just stuff a ham sandwich in his pocket and boot him out of the tent for the bear to scare? That should cure the snoring!

  6. I wonder if bears like “Esbit” fuel smell….

    • Mine goes in my Ursack. I think the point is not that they like it, but they want to investigate. They are very smart animals.

      • That’s a good point. Even dumb small rodents (lab mice, the strains that I have worked with are considerably more stupid than wild animal equivalent) are curious. Of course the bears (and every other mammalian species with a decent nose) can smell humans, even shod humans, and only natural prudence deters them.

  7. So I’ve debated what to do with used toilet paper.
    Some areas in the West (Mount Whitney, Shasta) and Desolation Wilderness recommend or require keeping used toilet paper or even the full ‘package’ and disposing of it at the trail head (this is a sensible thing to do in high use, alpine areas).
    So do you put the double bagged cache of used toilet paper into your bear canister or bear bag?

    Common sense says that this is necessary, but do people really squeeze these items into their bear canister?
    Where possible I’ve bear-hung the used toilet paper in its own bag, and then but put my food etc into my canister.

    What do others do?

  8. I used to hate doing this but complied in bear areas anyway for the good of the bear. Now it’s almost routine for me to bring a canister in bear country…I got used to the camp stool and it frees up my camp site choices to not have to worry about a good hang tree. Of course my pack is 10 lbs lighter than I was a few years ago so that helps! At the beginning of the trip all the smellables go in, and by the end all the cooking gear does too.

  9. Only unscented tobacco can stay out? Does that mean bears smoke only menthols or is that just a reference to things like chewing tobacco (which is cured in sugar or molasses)?

  10. Does anyone actually hang the clothes that they used while cooking with in their bear bag? This seems like the kind of advice that is often repeated but rarely followed. I can understand hanging something if you spilled a significant amount of food on it but under normal circumstances I wouldn’t hang my clothes and i don’t know anyone else who does.

  11. Well, a fine cigar every now and then!

  12. What about freeze dried food in a vacuum sealed pouch? Can’t be much smell from that?

    • If any critter on the planet can smell freeze dried food through a vacuum sealed pouch it would be a bear.

      • I use them, but I have no idea if they’re smell proof.
        Doesn’t matter that much to me. They are leakproof which DOES matter. So I keep using them. I only really need 1 per year.

      • The thing is that even if OPSaks are 100% effective at keeping in the the odors on the stuff inside, it’s pretty much impossible to not contaminate the outside. You handle it with your bare hands to get it out of your bear bag. Then you maybe leave it nearby while you’re cooking. And then you go to pack up and you’re handling it again after eating and you have food smells on your hands. Oils transfer. And so on.

        So anyway. OPSaks do a job, and I really like them. Like Philip says, they’re leakproof, and they’re very durable–best “ziplock” money can buy. But I know that as a human I have a terrible sense of smell, so I’m generally just going to follow best practices around bears and the like.

  13. A bear tore up my camper top several years ago and ate everything but the freeze dried stuff and the ramen.

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