At the end of a long day on the trail or the river, you’re not the only one at your campsite who’s going to be hungry. All kinds of critters are going to want in on whatever food you’re camping with; animals from field mice and marmots, to raccoons and bears.
If you’ve never experienced a four-legged food thief on a backpacking trip, take it from me; even a mouse can easily chew its way through your shiny new backpack while you’re asleep. And when it comes to bigger animals, securing your food—and toothpaste, sunscreen or other smelly toiletries and gear—isn’t just to keep animals from taking a bite out of that summer sausage you brought along, or even to keep them from smashing a window and rummaging through your rig while you’re car camping; it’s also to keep them from taking a bite out of you.
On top of that, preventing unwanted human/wild animal interactions will help keep wildlife safer, too; bears that become too familiar and comfortable around people often become a nuisance, if not downright dangerous, a situation that can lead to human and/or animal injury and the ensuing necessity of wildlife destruction.
With that in mind, there are a couple of options when it comes to backcountry food storage. (Bear in mind—no pun intended—that whatever option you choose for securing your food, it’s important to place it 100 yards downwind from where you intend to sleep, and for both your sleeping area and your food storage are to be 100 yards from where you cook your food; think of a triangle with each of these spots making up the corners. That way, if a bear or other large animal catches the scent of your food and comes over to explore, he’ll still be far enough away from your tent that he’ll hopefully leave you alone.) Bear Canisters: Bear canisters are hard-sided, usually plastic containers that are designed to be nearly impossible for bears to break or to open. In some places, they’re legally required if you’re camping overnight. The problem with bear canisters is that they heavy, large, and can’t be folded down or compressed in order to take up less space. That said, if you're camping in an area known to have aggressive wildlife, a bear canister is a great choice. They’re certainly easy to use, and they a solid choice for short trips where you’re less likely to be concerned about pack weight. They are also a great for car camping, when you can bring everything but the kitchen sink and not have to worry about weight at all. And, in some cases—like places where there are no trees from which to hang a bear bag, or in places where bears are savvy enough to bring down a bear bag—they’re your only option.
Bear Bags: My personal go-to for food storage in the backcountry, a bear bag provides a lightweight, easily packable option that, while perhaps not as secure as a bear canister, can easily keep your food and other interesting-smelling items out of reach of critters. And they make up for their less-durable construction by taking up significantly less room in your pack, and by costing a fraction of the price of a bear canister.
Though purpose-built bear bags exist, all you really need is a durable storage sack or stuff sack large enough to hold all your smelly stuff, about 50-to-100 feet of nylon cord… and that’s really it (though some folks tie a carabiner or other weighted item to the cord to weight it when thrown).
These are the basic components of my bear bag: the REI Co-op Durable Stuff Sack, and PMI's 3mm Utility Cord - Package of 50 ft., both available at REI.
And this is how you rig up a basic bear bag hang:
Tie one end of the nylon cord to your bear bag, and tie a rock, heavy stick, or—if you brought it with you—heavy carabiner to the other end of the cord.
Now you need to find a tree branch that will allow you to hang your bag 10-to-12 feet off the ground, extends at least four feet away from the trunk of the tree, and can support the weight of everything in your bag… but not the weight of a curious bear.
Toss the weighted end of the cord over your selected branch—or, if the campsite has a purpose-built bear bag hanger/bear pole—load up your bag with all your fragrant items, and haul it up so it’s hanging in the air, again, 10-to-12 feet off the ground, and four feet away from the trunk of the tree.
Tie off the nylon cord around either the tree from which you bag is hanging or another one nearby, and you’re set!
And there you have it: Two great options for keeping your food—and, hopefully, yourself safe from critters, and for keeping critters safe from unwanted human interaction and dangerous habituation.
Now all you need to do is practice tossing a weighted cord over a tree branch…