Bear Bags & Cans

Bear Protection Learning Objectives

After completing this section you should be able to:

  • Identify the need for bear protection
  • Identify characteristics of a successful bear bag hang
  • Hang a bear bag rope
  • Hang a bear bag using Straight Hang method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Counter Balance method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Pacific Crest Trail method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Two Tree method
  • Identify characteristic of bear canisters
  • Identify pros and cons of each protection technique

Bear Necessities

Bear Warning SignIf you are staying overnight in the wilderness, protecting your food from bears and other animals is very important. In fact, forest rangers will point out, not only is it important for you, but it is also important for the bears. A bear which has become too dependent on human food, may eventually have to be destroyed. Your mission then, for both you and the bear, is to store food and any other “smelly” items (such as tooth paste or scented lotions) in a way that bears cannot get them.

Depending on the circumstances, there are a variety of appropriate techniques which can be deployed. In some wilderness areas, bears have become so successful and spoiling bear bag hanging methods, that bear canisters or vaults are required by law.

Identify characteristics of a successful bear bag hang

The least expensive and most commonly used method of protecting your food from bears and other animals is bear bags. Regardless of the technique you use, they have a lot of things in common.

Hang a bear bag rope

All of the bear-bag hanging techniques require that you get a rope over the limb of a tree. This usually involves tying a rock or heavy object to the end of the rope and chucking it, or tying a small bag to the end of the rope, filling the bag with sand or something heavy, and chucking that.

It is not difficult to imagine the various challenges and hazards of this activity: rocks sailing free from their ropes, ropes tangled in the feet of the thrower, rock and rope successfully arcing over the limb, only to pendulum back into the face of the thrower. Our backpacking group referred to this rope throwing event as the ”bear bag Olympics”, or in some cases the “bear bag special Olympics.”

Even when you do get a rope over the limb, you may find that the weight attached (or no longer attached as the case may be) is not enough to lower the other end of the rope to you. You may find yourself flicking rope waves or throwing rope loops in an effort to lower the rope. In most cases, the solution is to pull down the rope, tie on a bigger weight and start the process all over again. Eventually, hopefully before nightfall, you will have your rope over the limb.

Hang a bear bag using Straight Hang method

In the straight hang, or what I like to refer to as the “bear piñata”, the bear bag is filled with food, tied to the end of the rope, hoisted high in the air (10 feet above the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk or limbs), and tied to a tree trunk or limb. Although the easiest method to deploy, it is also the least effective. The entire success of the hang depends on the rope end staying attached to the tree. Unfortunately, a bear, or other animal, pulling, yanking, gnawing and pawing can loosen the knot or sever the rope, bring the “piñata” of food crashing to the ground… for the amusement of all except of course the owner.

Before we completely write off the Pinata, there are times when this method is quick and efficient. In a camp with curious chipmunks or squirrels, this method may be fine for hanging your trash, your toiletries or your re-hydrating dinner. For overnight, however, there are far better methods.

Hang a bear bag using the Counter Balance method

A slightly more complicated, yet certainly more effective technique is the “counter balance” method. In this case, two bags balance each other, and the rope dangling down is not weight baring. In other words, shaking or cutting the lose line, does not bring the bear bags crashing down to the ground. To counter balance bags at 10 feet above ground, however, requires a limb significantly higher than the straight method, and certainly a longer rope.

To counter balance the bags (which should be fairly even in weight distribution), the first bag is attached to the end of the rope, via a loop knot and carabiner. This bag is then hoisted up to the height of the limb. Reaching up, a second carabiner is attached as high up as possible. The second bag is attached to the second carabiner. The counter balancer’s goal then is to send the second bag half way up, while the first bag comes half way down… leaving both bags at an even height, 10 or more feet above ground. This involves tossing the second bag (which can be quite heavy) into the air, in the hopes of achieving a miracle. A long stick can sometimes be used to push the bags up or down to adjust.

To retrieve the bags, the process is reversed. The loose rope is pulled to bring the second back to the ground and the first bag back up to the top of the limb. Make sure you have a good grip on the rope when you release the second bag… or the first bag may come crashing down on your head. Once the first bag is disconnected, the second bag can be lowered completely to the ground.

Hang a bear bag using the Pacific Crest Trail method

The Pacific Crest Trail method is a single bag technique favored by ultra-light backpackers, who want to carry shorter ropes, and fewer bags. In this method, the rope is attached to a single carabineer, and the single bear bag is attached to the carabineer. Before hoisting the bag, however, the loose end of the rope is fed through the carabineer. As in the counter-balance method, the bag is then hoisted as high as possible to the tree limb above. Once at maximum height, the hanger reaches up and ties a pencil sized stick to the rope with a simple clove-hitch. As the bag is lowered back down, the line feeds through the carabineer until the stick meets the carabineer and catches, thus preventing the bag from coming down any further.

As in the counter-balance method, the PCT dangling rope is non weight baring, and therefore shaking or cutting it would not release the bag. To retrieve the bag, pull the rope back down until you can reach the stick (the bear bag will now be back up at the maximum height). Untie the stick, and then carefully lower the bag to the ground.

Hang a bear bag using the Two Tree method

There may be times when you cannot find that perfect tree, the one with a sturdy, reachable limb that will hold a bear bag 6-8 feet away from the trunk. In those cases, you may be able to find two” less than perfect” trees you can string a bear bag between. This technique, known as the two-tree method, requires a significantly longer rope (or two ropes combined together). It also requires two “rope over the limb” events, doubling your rock throwing fun.

Once you have a rope end in each tree, you attach the bear bag in the middle. By pulling up and tying off each rope, the bag will be suspend between the two trees. To retrieve the bag, you must release and lower both ropes.

Identify characteristics of a bear canister

In certain wilderness areas, crafty bears have figured out how to foil bear bag hanging techniques. They have been known to chew through ropes, chew through tree limbs, or even go so far as to push their own cubs out on tree limbs to break them and free the bags. These bears are bigger than you, stronger than you, and apparently, a lot more determined to enjoy your dinner.

To protect both you and the bears, land managers in certain areas no longer allow bear bags. Approved bear canisters or vaults are often required by law, and you will likely be asked to show them when picking up your wilderness permit or if approached by a ranger in the park.

The major downsides of all bear canisters may be apparent to you. They add weight and bulk, and they are expensive compared to a nylon bag and a rope. If you are going on a week long trip, with a large group of 12-15 people, the expense to purchase one per person can be quite significant.

Since not all parks require bear cans, your first reaction might be to simply plan trips to places that don’t require them. Although a viable strategy, you would miss out on some pretty spectacular places, such as Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Tetons, Adirondack Mountains, Olympic, Sequoia, and a growing list of others. Luckily, however, you can usually rent canisters in parks requiring them, at a fairly reasonable rates.

After renting bear canisters a couple of times, however, you may find there are other advantages making the investment more attractive. Once converted, you may find you win back quite a bit of time each night that you previously dedicated to finding a tree and engaging in the bear bag Olympics.

Because you are lugging the weight and giving up the space of a canister, you want to make sure you get maximum its use. They make a great little stool, much more comfortable than a rock or the ground. You can also use them as a small table for cards or other purposes. As you consume your food and accumulate garbage, they make a very nice trash can, which does not break open inside your pack. As your food stocks dwindle, you can redistribute supplies, including freeing up a canister to carry and store water at camp. We use them as a water filter pumping stations, and a camp fire buck.

An important thing to remember about bear canisters, is that even though they may decrease the release of odor, they do not eliminate it. Bears can and will smell the food you have in a canister. The trick is not preventing them from smelling your food, but rather to prevent them from being able to take it from you. Manufactures recommend that you store canisters 100 yards downwind from your campsite, so if attracted, they will be lead away from your tent. For fun, in high bear areas, we have stacked our bear cans like bowling pins, taking gentlemen bets on how many will be knocked down or bantered about.

The bears inability to get a good grip on a bear can is critical. If they can’t get their mouth around it, or a good grip on it… then can play, but the food will stay.

Some vendors sell straps so you can attach you canister to your pack. Be very careful with this. If you leave a strap on a canister, or if you leave it in or attached to a pack, you have now provided the bear with a very convenient handle to carry off your canister. I have heard of and seen in Yosemite bears carry off entire packs in the middle of the night. The fact that the bear cannot open and eat your food is of little consequence, when you know you cant either.

There are two primary bear canisters on the market: the Garcia and the BearVault.

The Garcia

The Garcia is the classic bear can, and is likely the type you will receive when renting at a national park. They are black, made of sturdy ABS plastic, reasonably priced, and easy to open with a coin or screw driver. There capacity is approximately 610 Cubic Inches (10 L), and they way a moderate 2 lbs, 12 ounces.

Bear Vault

BearVault is a newer lighter weight, translucent design, and comes in a large (BV500) and smaller solo model(BV450) model. The large is 700 Cubic Inches or 11.5 L) and weighs 2 lbs, 9 ounces. Although usually costing slightly more than the Garcia, the translucent design makes it easier to find what you are looking for, especially when traveling with multiple canisters. It has a wider mouth, which can be opened without requiring any tools. Some people complain, however, that pushing the tabs and turning the lid can be difficult, especially in cold weather.

Identify pros and cons of each protection technique

Method Pros Cons
Straight Hang
Simple, easy, good for temporary hangs from small animals Single point of failure, bears have repeated foiled
Counter Balance Hang
Effective against bears in most regions, greater storage capacity More complex, requires multiple bags, less convenient when retrieving food
PCT Hang
Light, single bag, effective against bears in most regions Requires some practice, less storage capacity
Two Tree Hang
Alternative when no good tree limb available Most complex to hang, requires more rope, two tie off failure point
Bear Canister Effective, time savings, required in certain regions Weight, bulk, cost more than bear bags

Bear Protection Review

You should now be able to:

  • Identify the need for bear protection
  • Identify characteristics of a successful bear bag hang
  • Hang a bear bag rope
  • Hang a bear bag using Straight Hang method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Counter Balance method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Pacific Crest Trail method
  • Hang a bear bag using the Two Tree method
  • Identify characteristic of bear canisters
  • Identify pros and cons of each protection technique

Select the review quiz icon to take the Bear Protection Quiz.

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