“Hang your food in bear country” is common advice for backpackers and bikepackers. But if you’ve ever tried it — perhaps in the dark and the rain after a long day on the trail — you know hanging a food bag while backpacking is harder than it sounds.
Botching a bear hang is bad news. Best case scenario, you lose your food — or at least your rope — due to bad technique. I can’t possibly be the only person who’s tied a pocket knife to the end of a dead tree trunk to get my food down, right? (Yes, I’ll get into that below…)
Worst case scenario, you lose your food and get a bear hooked on Snickers and ramen. Such bears are a threat to future campers and are sometimes euthanized. So now you’ve lost your food, put other people in danger, and indirectly killed a bear. This is why correctly hanging your food while camping is so important.
But finding a suitable tree, warming up your throwing arm, engineering the perfect hang… It all takes time and effort. It’s oh-so-tempting to slack off and create a “bear piñata” instead, or simply sleep with your food.
This is why some experienced outdoorspeople don’t recommend bear hanging at all. It’s a controversial position, but I get it. In high risk areas you really should be using a hard-sided bear canister as reliable animal-proof food storage. Bears are smart, good climbers, and have an excellent sense of smell. If a bear really wants your food, a sloppily executed bear hang is no defense.
But for campers in lower risk areas who don’t want to sleep with their food, or those who carry an Ursack but want to hang it as an extra precaution, a bear hang may still be appropriate. And like someone may have taught you as a kid, “The devil’s in the details,” and “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” (Thanks Mom and Dad.)
We can all read step-by-step instructions, but sometimes knowing what NOT to do is even more helpful. In this post I’ll go through six easy ways to mess up a bear hang and snag your rope, lose your food, or worse. But first, a few basics…
Bear Hang Basics
I’ll talk about hanging your food in this article, but that’s shorthand for hanging everything that might smell yummy if you were a bear: wrappers, dirty dishes, garbage, and scented toiletries. While I personally have my doubts about most bears’ affinity for minty toothpaste, I’m not a bear, so who am I to say. I hang it all.
There are several bear hang methods, but the so-called PCT Method is one of the most reliable. Several of the common bear hang problems in this post refer to the PCT method specifically, so here’s a quick overview if you’re unfamiliar.
As a general rule, here’s the configuration you’re going for with any bear hang method: at least10 feet off the ground, 6 feet from the tree trunk, and 200 feet away from where you’ll sleep.
It looks so simple in the diagram, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Read on to learn about all the ways it can go wrong.
Choosing The Wrong Branch
The right tree and branch are essential for a successful food hang, and finding them can be at least half the battle. Taking time upfront to find a good branch can make the actual hanging part much faster.
Ideally you want a long horizontal branch sturdy enough to hold your food at least six feet from the trunk, but not sturdy enough to support a bear’s weight. In some types of forests this branch is a unicorn — it simply doesn’t exist. This is why some people use the two tree method, even though it does leave two rope ends that can potentially be cut by a bear to access the food.
A very common and frustrating bear hang mistake, especially when using the PCT method, is choosing a branch that’s too low. Remember, once the hang is finished your food will be halfway between the branch and the ground. At this point you’ve already finished the entire process before noticing your food is low enough to be a bear piñata. Starting over from scratch with a higher branch takes a lot of mental fortitude (but it’s worth it — save your food and save a bear!).
Personally, my throwing arm is not great. I’m a lower body kind of person. Years of running, biking, and hiking have given me quads of steel, but a branch twenty feet off the ground is nearly out of reach for me. If I’m going to hang my food correctly, I need plenty of time for the throwing part. Speaking of which…
Throwing With Too Much Angular Momentum
If your throwing arm is lacking, you might be tempted to get some extra distance by twirling the throwing end around in circles, lasso-style, as you release it.
Trust me, this is not a good idea. Get it wrong and the thrown end can wrap several times around the branch, becoming impossible to pull down.
Instead, try a strong underhanded lob that aims up and over the branch in one smooth arc. Having an appropriate amount of weight in your throwing bag (usually a small stuff sack with a rock in it) can be very helpful. You want just enough weight to carry the end over the branch and pull it down to the ground, but not so much weight that it’s hard to throw far.
Not Securing the Other End While Throwing
Before attempting to throw one end over the branch, always secure the other end of the rope to something solid. This could be a nearby branch, your backpack, your body, or a helpful hiking partner. The goal is to ensure that if the thrown end flies farther than the length of the rope, it won’t pull the loose end up and out of reach.
If you do make this mistake, in most cases you’ll just need to pull the rope down by the weighted end and start over. In the worst case though, you could end up with your entire rope stuck out of reach up in the tree. So tie off that loose end before throwing!
Snagging Your Bag or Rope
If you’ve been waiting since the intro for the part about tying a pocket knife to a dead tree trunk, here it is!
My husband and I were hiking an average of 24 miles a day on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We were hungry, and on our last night we were desperate to get our food hung with no good trees in sight. We hauled our food up to the top of a scraggly pair of trees and tied the rope off to a branch, said a prayer to the backpacking gods, and fell asleep.
In the morning our food was safe from bears, but it also turned out to be safe from us. The minute we tried to lower the bag it snagged on one of the many small branches and refused to budge. The tree was too small to climb, but too big to bend. Pulling harder only made it worse. Did I mention we were famished?
The solution remains one of the greatest team efforts of our marriage. We found a ten-foot trunk of a small dead tree and tied our knife — which by some magic twist of fate was not in the bear bag like it should have been — to the end of it. Then we hoisted that sucker up to the snag in our food line and clumsily sawed back and forth for an eternity. When the bag finally fell to the ground, that protein bar was pure ecstasy.
So learn from our mistakes: Beware of trees with too many small snag-able branches. Minimize the size of any loops and loose ends in your rope. And if you’re going to hoist the food all the way up to the branch and simply tie off the end (not a recommended method anyway), don’t pull it so far up that it catches on something.
Using a Rough Rope
A rough rope or cord is more likely to snag on branches, more work to pull your food up with, and does more damage to the tree as it saws into the bark.
For a smoother bear hanging experience, choose a smooth rope. Spectra / UHMWPE, commonly used for marine applications because it floats and doesn’t soak up water, is lightweight and slick. Paracord is less smooth, but helpfully comes in reflective designs that are easy to see in the dark.
Whatever you do, don’t use a braided cotton rope that will snag on every single rough edge.
Using a Non-Locking Carabiner for PCT Method
I haven’t personally experienced this one, but after watching the video below it makes perfect sense. With a non-locking carabiner and some really bad luck, the free end of the rope can potentially slip through the clip. Now the stick or tent stake that was blocking your food from falling down is blocking you from pulling the food up so you can reach the stick and untie it. Whoops!
The Case For Bear-Resistant Containers
As you can see by now, hanging your food properly adds time and hassle to the end of your day. Getting it wrong is all too easy and can have serious consequences.
This is why some backpackers choose to carry a hard-sided bear canister in high risk areas, even if it’s not required. Yes they add a couple pounds to your pack, but they simplify your camp routine and offer peace of mind.
The lightest option, Bearikade from Wild Ideas, is expensive but can be rented or bought and sold used. The Bear Vault is a bit heavier but much cheaper. Here’s a detailed bear canister buying guide with even more options, along with tips for how to use them. Trust me, it’s much easier than hanging your food!
If a hard-sided canister feels like overkill for your trip, the Ursack Major is a reasonable compromise. Because it’s bear-resistant, in theory you can simply tie it to a low branch instead of hanging it. In practice, I have heard of Ursacks failing in the paws of a determined bear. When I use an Ursack I hang it in high-use / high-risk areas, but don’t generally bother in lower risk areas.
Safe Food = Safe Campers = Safe Bears
Like so many other outdoor skills, hanging your food takes practice and patience to get right. It might seem like a pesky annoyance to be rushed through as fast as possible, but hey, the bears were there first! If we’re going to recreate in their home, it’s only fair that we make a solid effort to avoid tempting them into causing trouble.
Avoid these bear hang mistakes to keep your food, yourself, and the bears safe next time you’re camping. Do you know of any other “gotchas” to avoid? Share your bear hang stories in the comments below!
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More Backpacking Resources
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- What’s The Best Water Carrying System for Backpacking?
- Thru Hiking the Colorado Trail: Essential Q&A
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Or, visit the hiking and backpacking resources page for much more.
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