Backpacking Food Storage Made Easy – Bear Hangs, Boxes, Cables and More

By Chelsea Parrott

info@worldsbestadventures.com

 

Food storage is so important while backpacking. How important? Securing food items away from animals could be the very difference between life or death – for animals and fellow hikers.

A large American Black Bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Animals that access human food can become conditioned to associate campsites or backpacking gear with high-calorie jackpots, leading to aggressive behavior and potential removal or euthanization of animals.

Remember that animals have a significantly greater sense of smell than us humans – they can become interested in the smallest smelly item, even a few dropped noodles or an empty granola wrapper left in a pocket. All smelly items could attract an animal, drawing that animal into human spaces or leading to the consumption of trash. 

Whenever you are sleeping or otherwise leaving your food items unattended, be sure to properly store your food, trash, chapsticks, lotions, soaps, wipes, bug spray, toothpaste, cooking gear, and anything with a scent. 

 

Fool-Proof

Modern methods for storing food and “smellables” away from animals include using sturdy bear-proof equipment such as a bear canister or bear box. 

These methods can be the most “fool-proof” as they do not require any technical skills and can be operated consistently and accurately. Human error tends to lead to most food storage issues including poorly tied knots or poor placement decisions for food bags. 

Backpackers hang food bags in a tree.
Backpackers hang food bags at a campsite in North Carolina.
  • Bear Boxes – When available, choose a bear box for your food and smellables storage. These are large, metal rectangular boxes that are able to keep animals out, while also keeping your food dry. 
  • Bear Cables – When available, these established metal cables are strong enough for multiple backpackers at a busy campsite to simultaneously hang food items. However, some black bears have been known to shake these cables hoping to dislodge bags on hooks. Mitigate this risk by securing food bags to the bear cables with a fully closing carabiner.
  • Bear canisters – Hard-sided bear canisters are recommended more and more frequently by land management agencies. Simply stow your smellables inside the sealed canister and animals cannot cut, slice, or otherwise penetrate the container. Bear canisters should be placed away from cliffs or large drops as they can smash and break open from large falls.   

 

Hang Tight

Other methods for securing food and other smellables include various suspended “bear hang” methods including the single tree and double-tree technique.

These methods require practice and fastidious effort to deliver effective results. Take it from me, I’ve seen the scattered waste of too many poorly hanged food bags. 

WBA Guide Chelsea Parrott completes a Double Tree method Bear Hang in North Georgia.

The biggest issue? People don’t tie accurate knots. If a bear hang is not done properly, the negative results include a hiker without any food, a habituated animal, and ecological implications from trash in watersheds. 

  • Single Hang – Prepare to hang your food, trash, and smellables by locating a tree that is at least 200 feet away from campsites, water sources, and trails. The tree will need to have a branch that grows at least 6 feet away from its trunk with enough strength to support the weight of your bags, but not enough strength to support (or encourage) a curious large animal to walk on the branch and swipe for your suspended items. You will need to hang your food using a few tools; a rock bag (a small sack used to throw your line over the desired tree branch), 50 feet or more of paracord or line, a carabiner, and a stick or tent stake. The “PCT” method is the modern choice for tying the food well above the ground so that bears cannot slice the line with their claws. 
  • Double Tree Method Where there are no adequate branches for a single hang, try to find two trees that are 12 to 20 feet apart from each other. With your paracord and rock bag, you will throw both sides of the line into the two trees so as to catch along the trunk at least 20 feet above the ground. The food bag will be suspended in between the two trees hanging on the paracord at least 20 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from the trunk of both trees.

Consult with your local land managers and find the safest, most effective means of food storage for your adventure. Remember that we all share these public spaces and the burden of responsible recreations falls on each one of us. Happy hiking!

 

Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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