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Ask a Bear: Foolproof Bear Bag Technique?

Our resident expert answers all your bear questions in his weekly feature.

Q. Dear Bear,

How high should your food bag be off the ground and how far from the tree it is hanging from? I use the PCT method of hanging food and sometimes the bag is only 8 feet off the ground. P.S., I only hike in black bear country. —Randy Kent, via Facebook


A. Dear Randy,

First of all, I salute your efforts to keep me from finding your tasty stash when you camp in my house (the woods). Hanging a bear bag is a relatively effective deterrent — when used properly.

And here’s where I have a few quibbles. Eight feet off the ground is definitely not high enough; a large black bear standing can reach six feet, and an outstretched paw can reach as high as seven or eight – definitely too close for comfort. Some exceptionally large black bears might be able to reach as high as nine feet. The U.S. Forest Service and most PCT method guidelines suggest hanging bags no lower than 12 feet off the ground. Keep in mind that to accomplish this, you’ll need to find a tree limb roughly 16-20 feet high, as the bag needs to hang six feet below the limb it’s tied to. Additionally, your stash should hang at least six feet out from the trunk of the tree (some sources recommend 10).

But here’s my clawed caveat: Some of my smarter cousins have found ways to foil even perfectly executed bear-bag hangs – and those can be hard to pull off, even for the veterans at BACKPACKER. Brilliant bruins have learned to sever diagonal ropes to drop a bag; others learn to shake or break a branch to gob your gorp. What’s more, bear bags can be limited by your surroundings – a lack of suitable trees, or an unexpected day above treeline, for instance. The only foolproof method? On-site lockers or park-approved locking canisters (avoid the screw-top canisters – honor-roll bruins like Yellow-Yellow have figured those out, too). Locking canisters are weighty and bulky, but they are the best way to keep prying bruins at bay, and as a bonus they also block out smaller meddlers like rodents, who can scamper down ropes to reach your stores. Besides, cans are getting lighter and more functional all the time.

All that said, hanging bear bags is better than nothing. But talk to fellow hikers who visit the areas where you plan to backpack. They’ll know for sure if you’ll be hiking near smarter-than-average bears.

—Bear

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