Hang A Bear Bag In 5 Minutes...In The Dark

Can a food-hanging skeptic quickly secure her smellables from marauding bears—without going crazy in the process? Our scout set out into the night with a rope and stopwatch to find out.
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Can a food-hanging skeptic quickly secure her smellables from marauding bears—without going crazy in the process? Our scout set out into the night with a rope and stopwatch to find out.

I’VE NEVER put much stock in bear bags. For one, they’re often moot—many bear hot spots, like Yosemite and the Tetons, require the use of bear canisters or provide lockers for stashing backcountry snacks. Then there’s the question of effectiveness: It only takes one YouTube video of a black bear expertly inching its claws across a food-hang rope to fill me with doubt about this old-school method.

But in many forests across the country, where you’ll find neither lockers nor Mensa-smart black bears, hanging food is the norm, and backpackers happily trade the weight and bulk of canisters for a little rope and know-how. Not me. My past attempts at bear-bag hanging have been so painfully inept that I’d rather lug a 3-pound canister than get tangled in my own rope. (Really. You can see the evidence here: backpacker.com/bearbag.)

So when BACKPACKER threw down the bear-bag gauntlet, I accepted. I may not have the best throwing arm, but I still have my pride. And if it’s really possible to master the fine art of bear bagging in five minutes or less, maybe I’d reconsider my canister-only policy.

One night this spring, I set out into a darkening forest along Puget Sound with 100 feet of reflective cord, two carabiners, a headlamp, a stuffsack full of food, and my fiancé, armed with his iPhone timer. Naturally, it was raining.

After 15 minutes of searching by headlamp, I found the perfect candidates for the two-tree method (see why I chose this technique below): twin maples about 25 feet apart, each with a sturdy horizontal branch to support the rope. I spent another five minutes untangling the cord, which—predictably—had gone from neat loop to rat’s nest in my pack. Then, I knotted one end around a heavy-duty biner (those who don’t want the extra 4 ounces could use a rock-weighted stuffsack) and cocked my elbow back for a practice throw. And throw. And throw. Rain dripping into my eyes, I tossed and fetched the carabiner again and again, my fiancé shouting helpful tips like “Throw it over there!” and “That was too low!” Perhaps bear bagging is a skill best practiced without an audience.

I realized after several minutes of this that the branch I’d been aiming for was close to 30 feet high—certainly overkill. Luckily, the same tree had another branch about 15 feet up; I switched my aim to that one, and nailed it. After a few more practice runs, I felt ready to face the stopwatch. Was the practice cheating? Hey, you try to run a marathon straight off the couch.

The clock started ticking, and I went to work. My first few throws either sailed too low or got stuck out of reach, and I felt a familiar stab of frustration. But I’d already done it in practice—I knew I could do it again. Hitting my next toss, I sprinted over to tree two and let the line fly; the carabiner snagged on some high leaves, forcing me to yank it down and start again. Determined, I hooked it on the next attempt and ran over to attach the stuffsack. I hoisted it, only to realize I’d tied the loop way too close to tree two, well within reach of even a lazy bear. I expected to hear the timer’s buzz of failure any moment, but I released the cord and retied the loop anyway. Re-clip, re-hoist, tie off, and—drumroll, please—four minutes and six seconds!

Finally, I’d outsmarted the bear bag. Brimming with confidence, I pulled it all down and restarted the clock to prove this was no fluke. After a few more drills, I had a new PR: one minute and 46 seconds flat.

THE VERDICT

PASS

...if you count only the time required to actually hang the bear bag. Scouting the right trees for an effective setup took seven times longer than rigging the bag. Given that—and the fact that I got thoroughly wet and muddy in the process—I’ll still take the extra pounds for the stress-free, go-anywhere ease of a bear canister.

HANG A TWO-TREE BEAR BAG

❶ Find two trees about 20 feet apart, each with a branch at least 15 feet high. ❷ Tie one end of a 100-foot, 3mm utility cord (widely available at outdoor stores, about $5 for 50 feet) to a carabiner. Tie the other around one tree’s trunk. ❸ Throw the rope over the first branch; pull out most of the slack, then throw it over the second tree’s branch. ❹ Tie a loop in the cord at least 6 feet from each tree, and clip the food bag to it. ❺ Pull on the free end of the cord to hoist the bag. ❻ Tie off the cord to the second tree’s trunk.

key skill

Two popular food-hanging options, the counterbalance and the PCT method, both require one tree with the perfect branch: 20 feet high, at least 4 inches wide, extending at least 10 feet out, and sans lower branches that could hold a bear. This can be hard to find—but our two-tree method is more forgiving.