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Beginner Skills

The Definitive Guide to Hanging a Bear Bag

Learn the easiest way to hang a bear bag and keep your camping snacks safe from rummaging paws.

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Knowing how to protect your food from hungry critters is an essential skill for all backpackers. Even if you’re not hiking in bear country, bear bagging keeps your snacks away from curious squirrels, scavenging mice, and other peckish rodents. Luckily, food storage options for backpackers are numerous, from bear canisters to protective sacks. In some areas, campsites are equipped with bear-proof lockers in which campers are required to store their food. Each of these methods has pros and cons, and bear bagging is a staple for a reason: A bear bag isn’t bulky or heavy like a canister; it’s cheap, and you likely already have all you need to do it; it’s great for large amounts of food and big groups; and when done correctly, it’s effective at keeping your food away from animals.

If you’re looking for an absolutely fool-proof method for keeping your food safe, bear bagging might not be for you. It only works in areas where tall trees with sturdy branches are abundant, it can be tricky to master, and it often takes a bit of time to get it right. What’s more, bruins in some areas have figured out how to get even perfectly-suspended food. For backpacking trips in the alpine, desert, or other treeless areas, consider a different method, and for a no-fuss guarantee, stick with the canister. But if the benefits of bear bagging suit your backpacking style, make sure you do it right. While there are other techniques out there, these two methods are the simplest to master—remember, the most effective bear bag is the one you hang correctly.

Be sure to check in with the land manager where you’re hiking before setting out; some parks and zones require backpackers to use a canister or specific storage method.

The Standard Bear Bag

(Photo: Douglas Sacha/Moment via Getty Images)

This most common method of bear bagging is simple to understand but can be tricky to get right. It requires a tree with a perfect hanging branch, and you’ll need a good throwing arm, too. Another downside: Especially clever bears can retrieve your food by slashing the line; don’t use this method in areas where bears are used to people and might be practiced at scavenging bear bags.

You’ll need:

  • 50 feet of cord
  • A fist-sized rock
  • A food-storage bag or stuff sack with your food
  • Optional: A carabiner and small stuff sack
  1. Find your tree: Your food sack should hang at least 12 feet above the ground and 6 feet away from the tree trunk in order to be out of a bear’s reach. Look for a tree with a branch that’s about 20 feet above the ground and sticks straight out from the trees trunk. The limb should be sturdy enough to support the weight of your food—be cautious of dead branches that can crash down and cause injury. Make sure it is at least 100 feet away from your campsite.
  2. Hang your line: Clove hitch one end of your cord the the rock (it’ll hold, we promise). If your knot-tying skills aren’t up to par, place the rock in a small stuff sack and tie or clip the end of the rope to it with a carabiner. Now comes the fun part: Throw the rock over your chosen branch, aiming to get it far from the tree trunk. Lower the rock or stuff sack back to the ground. Your line should now hang neatly over the branch.
  3. Haul your food: Replace the rock or small stuff sack with your food back. A carabiner makes this quick and easy, but you can tie the bag directly to the line, too. Grab the other end of the line and hoist your food into the air until it’s at least 12 feet off the ground. Do not pull the food directly up to the branch, as critters could crawl onto the limb and reach it from above; 6 feet below the branch is a good rule of thumb.
  4. Secure the load: Tie the free end of the line to a nearby tree (or the same trunk, if there are no others around). Any knot you can tie will work fine, but when in doubt, a simple friction hitch is an extremely easy method: Wrap the remaining rope around the trunk as many times as the length will allow, then tuck the end back under one of your wraps. Like magic, friction will hold the line in place.
  5. Get your breakfast: To retrieve your food, untie the end from the tree and lower your food to the ground.

The Two-Tree Method

This system is slightly more complicated than the standard method, but works well when you can’t find a tree with a branch high enough to hang your food. In this setup, the foot sits inline with rather than below the branch, so you can get away with a 12-foot-high (rather than 200-foot-high) limb.

You’ll need:

  • 100 feet of cord
  • A fist-sized rock
  • A food-storage bag or stuff sack with your food
  • Optional: A carabiner and small stuff sack
  1. Find your trees: Select a pair of branches 20 feet apart and at least 12 feet off the ground. (Again, hang your food at least 100 feet from camp.) Unlike in the method above, the rope will hold the food far from the trunk, so you don’t need to find especially long branches.
  2. Hang your line: Attach one end of cord to your rock as in the method above. Tie the other end to a tree trunk or any nearby sturdy anchor. Throw the rock over the first branch, lower the rock so you can grab it, then throw it over the second branch. Before your second throw, make sure there is enough slack so that the cord between the tree stays within your reach once the line is hung over both branches.  Your line should now hang over the two branches with a loose line in between.
  3. Haul your food: Tie a knotted loop (bight) in the cord midway between the branches. Attach your food bag to the loop using a carabiner or an overhand or slip knot. Pull on the unsecured end of the cord to lift the bag high enough to be out of a bear’s reach from the ground (at least 12 feet) or in either tree. Tie it off as in the method above. Your bear hang should resemble a loose clothesline with your food hanging in the middle.

Troubleshooting:

Bear bagging wouldn’t get such a bad rap if things always went as planned. But alas, every backpacker has had their fair share of mishaps while attempting to hang food. Don’t panic: Here are some ways to improvise if you run into a common problem.

Problem: You can’t find a suitable tree.

Solution: If there are trees around but not one with high branches, it could be a perfect time to try the two-tree method. If there are no trees at all, well, you could have planned better. Do your research before heading out—if you plan to backpack in open areas with no trees, bring a canister or bear-resistant sack. If you’re dead-set on bear bagging, plan your campsites in forested areas. Too late for that, and conditions make a retreat impractical? Do your best to stash your food in a spot bears will have trouble accessing it (wrapping the bag in a tarp can help reduce smelliness), leave it far away from your camp, and cross your fingers.

Problem: Your rope is stuck.

Solution: If all the wiggling and shaking won’t release your rope from a stubborn branch, you may need to break out the big guns. Find a long stick or fallen branch and use it to scootch your cord along the branch until it comes free.

Problem: You suck at throwing.

Solution: Take a deep breath, walk away, and try again once the frustration has simmered down. It may take a few tries, but you got this.