Backpacking Q&A: Food And Bears

QUESTION: 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: 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; or 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: 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.

Have any more questions about camping in bear country? Want to share a suggestion or tip? Drop us a line in the comments!