The days of Yogi Bear hunting down a pic-o-nic basket are long gone. In this day and age, you need to keep your food locked up tight before a bear or smaller critter gets to it first! Not just to keep your belly full, but for an animal’s safety as well.
The saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” is about the fact that bears who learn humans = food are very likely to have to be euthanized as a result. While the likelihood of a smaller animal like a raccoon or mouse getting euthanized is tiny, these animals can destroy your pack or tent in an attempt to get to your food. So keeping food–and any other scented toiletries–safe is a great way to keep you and your gear safe, as well as to abide by Leave No Trace principles.
There’s many ways to keep your food safe, some methods easier than others. No method is entirely fool-proof–bears are constantly getting smarter and craftier with these items, and keep in mind that some areas (mostly national parks) have strict requirements on what they approve of for food storage. Just because an area doesn’t require food storage does not mean you are safe–I bring my bear can along any overnight hikes in the western part of the state, just in case. Many places that require cans will rent them.
The easiest and cheapest option is staying at a place with a bear locker. A bear locker is a metal box that latches similar to special garbage cans designed to keep critters out. Bear lockers are very common in state and national park campgrounds, I loved using one in Crater Lake National Park as it was a great flat surface for food prep and cooking. There are some backcountry camping areas that have bear lockers as well (like Baker Lake), but do your research and double-check before assuming you’ll be safe without any further precautions. A bear locker is not insulated or refrigerated in any way, but at least at Crater Lake, it was big enough to hold our cooler. Sometimes mice can get into bear lockers.
The next option is a bear canister or bear can. There are several brands (ranging from $70-85), but the gist is they are a canister made of heavy puncture-proof plastic with a locking lid. I own a Bear Vault in the smaller size. I chose this one because being clear, it is easy to see what’s inside and reach for what you want. Packing a bear canister is often like creating a 7-layer dip: You want to think about the order you will use things when you pack it. Some people organize their food in bags by meal type or day for easy grabbing. As you want to have EVERYTHING that’s touched food or is scented in the can (including lip balm, wipes, packed out waste, etc.), that does includes pots/pans and any plates eaten off–washing an item is not good enough to keep a bear at bay.
Once you are tucking in for the night, you want the bear can stored at least 200 feet from your tent. Some people lash their can to a tree, others try to somewhat bury it or tuck it in a hidden spot. I have heard a story of a problem bear at Goat Lake finding a camper’s Bear Vault and, when defeated by the lid, hurling the canister into the lake in frustration. Other bear stories have the bears trying to throw or roll cans down hills or cliffs to get them open, so putting some reflective tape on a can can aid in finding it the next morning.
The biggest drawback of cans is the weight they add. My smaller-sized Bear Vault weighs 2 pounds before there is any food in it. My trips using one, I’ve had it and the food while my companion got to carry the tent, stove, and water filter. The nice thing is, on the journey back, the canister is far lighter!
If the idea of a heavy can when backpacking scares you, there is another option–hanging food. A very popular product right now is the Ursack bag for hanging food. The main model is only 7.6 ounces to hold up to five days worth of food for one person. There were a few things that stopped me from using a sack–at this time, they are not approved by some national parks (including Olympic) for use. The other issue with the sack is hanging it. First, you need to know that the place you’ll be camping will have a tree (again, 200 feet away from your camping area) with a branch tall enough and with branches that stick out enough for safe hanging. In order to deter bears, a branch must be 15-20 feet high and stick out at least 6-8 feet. Then, there’s the actual hanging part. The most recommended method, the PCT method, requires knowing how to tie multiple types of knots. Me being lazy, I’d rather just use a can, but everyone has their preferences!
A hanging bag alone is not enough as it is not scent proof–it is recommended to buy an additional aluminum liner or use a Loksak Opsak bag that blocks scent to further ensure the safety of your food. Similar to bear cans, some critters have outsmarted these products. If a bear bats down the bag, they might not get to consume the food, but they can scratch and crush everything inside your bag to be inedible. The hole at the top of the bag can also be large enough for a mouse to climb into.
If staying in an area where there are no bears, some companies make smaller ‘critter bag’ to prevent rodents chewing through a pack; or even just a Lopsak to block the scent of your food. I’ve used an Ursack Minor to keep rodents out of my tent in bear-free areas. Again, no one method is perfect for all situations. Do your research before heading out on what is required and what others recommend. Cans can easily be rented, while a smaller item like an Opsak will have to be purchased. While the weight of a can or the pain of tying food can be annoying, keep in mind that the hassle you put into to using these items means more than a full belly for you in the morning–an animal’s life and the safety of other hikers in the area is at stake, too.
Have you ever backpacked in bear country? How did you choose to keep your food safe?