First Time Backpacking - What About Food and Bears?

by Josh Walton
(Minneapolis, MN)

Don't invite bears to dinner!

Don't invite bears to dinner!

Hey Guys! Finally a site where you can ask questions.

I love going to the stores larger than most continents like REI and Gander Mountain to look at all the great stuff. But I hate asking the kid working in the "tent" section a question about backpacking when the only experience he has carrying a pack is getting off the bus to go to high school.

Anyway, my friend and I wanted to get into backpacking so we did our research on all the products, pros and cons, etc... In that area I think we are pretty solid but we have some really really basic (dumb) questions that I know you would be able to answer. Here we go

QUESTION 1) What do you do with your food at night? Tie it in a tree? Bear container? Place it like 700 miles away from your camp site? So many different ways and no real answer...What works and what is the proper way?

ANSWER: Yes, your food needs to go into a container of some sort and be put up off the ground high enough that a bear cannot reach it. Most people use a bear bag, which can be bought from a store or can be just a strong, sturdy bag like a plastic / tyvek type of feed sack from a seed and feed store.

Whatever type of bag you use, you should hang it at night (or in daytime if you're going away from the campsite for a side hike or other activites). For this you'll need a strong rope that is 50-75 feet long (it can be lightweight, but must be sturdy enough to handle the weight and the friction of pulling the bag up with the rope over a tree limb.

You'll throw the rope over a high tree limb (or bear line wire in some trail camps), pull the bag up, then tie off the rope around a nearby tree.

QUESTION 2) What do you do with your pack at night? Same as food? Some people say leave all the zippers open so if animals do get in they wont rip holes in your pack? I have no clue...the way some guys talk about food and your pack its like no matter what you do bears are either a) going to get your pack regardless if you do tie it 900 feet off the ground b) get your food no matter what even if you leave it at home and c) they will find you.

ANSWER: Your pack doesn't need to go up in the air. Just lean it up against a tree (with a pack rain cover on it) about 50 feet from your tent if possible.

BUT be sure you don't have anything inside the backpack that has a smell of any kind. All of your toiletries (deodorant, toothpaste, etc) must go into the bear bag, along with any candy, chewing gum, snack bar wrappers, and so forth. Don't leave anything with a non-human smell at ground level. If you have spilled food on your pants, they go up in the bear bag at night, too.

As for opening the pack zippers so the animals won't try to chew their way inside... Stop and think for a moment. If you don't leave anything inside the pack that has a smell, the animals won't have any reason to get into the packs. So clear out everything with a smell (don't forget to check for loose peanuts or raisins from trail mix, etc -- best to keep all food items inside ziplok bags when carrying them in your pack to avoid spills).

QUESTION 3) Cooking is another question. From readings on the internet it appears you also have to cook your food over 200 feet from camp? Is this true? Watching Discovery Channel, we see these guys with no fear of animals because they are cooking a steak right in their tent.

ANSWER: Don't cook in your tent. Don't cook anywhere close to your tent. And don't eat close to your tent.

If you are in bear country, they WILL pick up the food scent (or any other scent like deodorant or cologne you put on right before bed) and they will come into your tent looking for it. Keep your tent a food-free zone.

One helpful tip we learned at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is to set up your campsite using the "bear-muda triangle" pattern: A triangle formed by the location of your fire ring cooking area, your dish cleanup area, and your bear bag area. Keep yourself, your pack and your tent OUTSIDE that triangle and as far as possible from the cleanup area which might have some food smells.

Oh yes, about that cleanup area -- don't wash the dishes and just dump the water with food scraps onto the ground. Put ALL food scraps no matter how small into a trash bag that you will pack out to the nearest trash container the next day. That trash bag, of course, goes into the bear bag at night. Try to avoid big batches of leftover food by eating everything you cook (no matter how it tastes) and then licking the plate and cooking utensils and pots. You'll then need to use less water for cleanup.

SUMMARY: Anyways these are the basic questions we have so far. we just don't want to get up there and have "lumber Jack Dave" see us cooking food on our camp site and throw us a beating. Any other advice you have send it my way!!! Thanks for your time and advice in advance!!

ANSWER: We hope you have a great time backpacking, Josh. Please drop back by here afterwards and add a comment to this article to let us know how it went and what you learned on the trail.

Comments for First Time Backpacking - What About Food and Bears?

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Smell proof bags for day hike
by: Janice

We're going to do some simple day hikes in Glacier NP. Do we need to pack our lunch in smell proof bags? What precautions do we need to take for a few hours on the trail?

Reply to Karla
by: Chris

Hi Karla = GMC/AMC stands for Green Mountain Club and Appalachian Mountain Club. These 2 clubs provide organization and oversight, trail maint., Hut and Summit caretakers, Guide Books, Shelter construction, and on, and on, ... for the Long Trail (LT) and the Appalachain Trail (AT).
The GMC takes care of the LT in Vermont which runs from the MA to Quebec borders and the AT(which the AT builders overlaid onto the existing - and older - LT in southern VT) from Sherburn Pass to the Connecticut River Crossing.
The AMC Chapters do the same for the remainder of AT.
Shelter Logs often give great info on Bears - Like the one up on Pine Cobble at Seth Warner Shelter who had figured out how to find the attachment point on a Bear-bag line (vs the cross line) and chew through it to get the food bag to drop so he could get at it! Hut Masters have a wealth of knowledge and are usually willing to share it!

Good Info
by: karla

It's always good to learn new things! I'd never heard of the Bear-Muda Triangle, sounds like an excellent plan for eliminating, or greatly reducing, the chance of an unwanted midnight visitor.

The comments section was also informative, but I want to ask Chris (or anyone who knows) to define the term 'GMC/AMC' for me! Please...

EDITOR'S NOTE FROM DAVE: Someone else will have to explain what GMC/AMC stands for, but here is a great explanation and diagram of the "Bear-Muda Triangle" method taught at Philmont Scout Ranch to minimize chances of bear encounters. The idea is to keep your tent outside of the triangle formed by the locations of your cooking area, wash-up/sump area, and bear bag. Note that packs and all clothing worn during the day or during cooking activities are kept within the triangle and away from the tent area (and clothing with spilled food smells is required to go up in the bear bag).

Bear Habituation
by: Chris

Overall a good job describing what to do in 'bear country' but after hiking the LT in VT 2x and most of the AT from the NY line to ME border I have found that 'bear country' is a broad category. It is more important to be educated in how habituated bears are in the area you are planning on backpacking then taking precautions to the extreme.

Finding out how aggressive the bears are, and their population densities vs food availability, in any location can really provide some guidelines to figure out sane levels of protection required.

We have lots of bears in VT and NH; yet we have only observed 2 on the trails or around the camps in 35 yrs of hiking (200-300 miles/yr)!
Rarely do we ever carry bear canisters and have only had to take bear bag precautions once to prevent bears foraging (vs frequently hanging bear bags to discourage bears from getting habituated to people!).

Checking in at Ranger Stations, Trail Heads, Shelter Logs, and with GMC/AMC Camp staff for input will give you good current local guidance on precautions required. Happy hiking!

Utensils/water bottles
by: Liz in Seattle

Nicely done, gentlemen! I'd like to add dishes and utensils to the list. It doesn't take up much more room (I only use a cooking pot, a spork, and a long spoon).

Also, and I've heard this from Philmont guys, if you're going to have a powdered drink mix, limit it to one bottle. Then put that bottle in the bag, even if it's been washed out.

Just some thoughts :-)
Liz in Seattle
T67 Chief Seattle Council, heading to Philmont 2011

EDITOR'S NOTE FROM DAVE: Great tips, Liz! And remember if space in the bear bag is getting tight, you can hook your "smelly drink" bottles on the bear rope with carabiners.

Hanging Bear Bag
by: rhonda

I would add to the comment for the first time backpacker to check out bear bag hanging methods on YouTube. The PCT is an easy method to learn. It takes more than just throwing a line over a branch and hanging than that. You have to consider distance to the ground and distance from the tree limb and trunk as bears are great climbers and very creative if they want the bag. Also check the national parks site for many trails and areas that require canisters. The "Bear-Muda" triangle has worked us me for over 12 years. I've seen bears but never in my camp. Happy Hiking.

What did I think? Read, find out.
by: Yes-anonymous-no-anonymous

Great page. Not too exhaustive, but not too skimpy. It is lacking a little bit, but you guys did a good job with the info. I do think that the "NO COOKING FOOD NEAR YOUR TENT" thing was a little bit extreme; had no problems with it so far. Just keep your pack in your tent with you is what I would say. (unless there has been news of bears around that area getting too close for comfort) I give this three stars.

EDITOR'S NOTE FROM DAVE: Thanks for your comments. We like to urge people to take extreme precautions when camping in an area with bears (based on what we were taught at Philmont Scout Ranch in the mountains of New Mexico, where there are plenty of bears and where the thousands of people trekking there each year have an awesome safety record).

Keeping your pack in your tent is a recipe for trouble if you are in bear country, and it's generally best to try to eliminate any possible smells and sources of curiosity for bears near your tent. Keep the pack and anything with a strong smell away from your tent and you improve your chances for safety considerably.

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