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In the process of backpacking, or camping in undeveloped areas, one has to find a way of storing food where animals can't get it. Usually, bears are the biggest danger to your food - due to their size, intelligence, and dexterity. One way of preventing bears from accessing your food (or trying) is 'bear bagging'. This is the process of suspending the food in counterweighted bags over a limb where the bear can't get it.

Here's the general idea of bear bagging:

  • You will need two bags of similar size, and a long rope. Put all food and other scented items in these bags, in roughly similar weights.
  • Find a tree with a strong branch sticking out, away from other branches or the ground. It should be strong enough to hold your food but not to hold a bear cub. If you are above the treeline, you may be able to use an overhanging rock - bears are less abundant in these areas, anyway.
  • Get one end of the rope over the branch. This is usually accomplished by tying the rope to a large stick, or a rock, and throwing it over the branch. This is much easier said than done, as it often results in swinging rocks and sticks flinging back at the unlucky hiker. Also, it has been known to knock seemingly strong branches out of trees.
  • Tie one bag to the rope. Raise the bag until it is far out of reach, almost to the branch. Then, tie the other bag as high on the rope as you can. If possible, leave the extra rope loosely coiled around the top of the bag so it can be used to retrieve the food later.
  • Using a stick, push the second back higher into the tree. The first bag should come down in response. Push the bag at least 7-8 feet in the air if possible. Don't push it too high, or you won't be able to retrieve it, either.
  • To retrieve the food, use a stick to hook the slack rope above the bag. Bring one bag down, and untie it, but dont let go of the rope or the other food will fall from the tree and smash to the ground.

    This method is used to bag food in California and other areas which have black bears but not grizzlies. If you are unsure of whether or not there are grizzlies in the area (they are abundant in the Yellowstone area and in Alaska), you should talk to a ranger. You might want to do this anyway, to get an idea of what the bear activity has been like lately.

    If you see a black bear nearby your food, you can try to scare it away by making noise and throwing sticks and rocks (NEVER directly at the bear!). If it has your food, this will probably be unsuccessful as the bear will be more interested in the food than you. NEVER directly assault a bear! If there is a chance the bear may be a grizzly, stay the hell away and be glad it's more interested in your food than you. Remember that you are in the bear's home, not vice versa. It is your responsibility to keep bears from eating human food - it can be bad for them, and if a bear becomes a repeat offender it may have to be killed in its own home, just for doing what bears do - eat.

    Note: Knife's method also works, and may in some cases be better. However, when using this method, the extra ends of the rope will be left dangling, and hungry bears may be able to pull on them until the food falls. If the rope is successfully tied high in the tree, it may be hard to retrieve, and leaving ropes suspended in trees is unsightful and may eventually kill the tree. Also, in many areas it is hard to find even one suitable tree for bear bagging, much less two. Either way, there is no 100% effective way of 'bear proofing' food and the main goal is to delay the bear until you can drive it away. Even bear-proof containers may fail, as the bears still know that they contain food and often carry them off to their den. There have even been reports of apparently frustrated bears throwing the food canisters in lakes or off cliffs after being unable to open them. The best way of looking at this is that the bears are probably almost as smart as you and they know the wilderness better. So, never assume that your efforts are excessive.

  • As mentioned in Inyo's excellent writeup, bearbagging is used to secure human food while backpacking or camping, since wild animals that have learned to scavenge from human tourists often become a danger to people and consequently themselves. The method described in the previous writeup (equally weighted bags of food and other smellables --- which include sunscreen, toothpaste, and trash, none of which should ever be kept near sleeping areas --- counterbalanced across a tree branch) is better than hanging everything over a branch from one end of a rope and tying the other to the tree. This is because many bears have learned to defeat it by chewing through the rope tied to the tree. In some highly visited areas, such as Yosemite National Park, bears have even learned to defeat counterbalances --- one ranger station has pictures of a mama bear who taught her cubs to climb up on her shoulders to retrieve bear bags. No kidding! In cases such as these, it becomes necessary to employ bear cans and bear boxes to protect your campsite and the bears.

    My opinion is that you should never simply tie a bear bag up in one tree. Bears and a number of other critters can climb trees and still get at your food.

    The technique I will describe for tying up a bear bag may be more involved, but is probably more secure. And which would you rather have, an easy time of tying your bear bag, or breakfast?

    You will need your bear bag, your rope and a good odd-shaped rock or stick. One person can do this; but it goes faster if two work together.

    Find two trees, about 30 feet apart, with no other trees between them. Make sure the trees have nice branches about thirty feet up.

    Tie the rock or stick to one end of your rope. Throw that over one of the branches in one of the trees, as high as you can. Now do the same with the other end of the rope.

    You should now have your rope strung between the two trees, with the middle of the rope on the ground between the two trees. Tie your bear bag to the middle of the rope.

    Now, if you have two people working on this, each person hauls on each end of the rope, thus suspending the bag between the two trees. Secure each end of the rope to its respective tree.

    If you are tying up the bag alone, you will have to do one end at a time, but the principle is the same. The bag should be suspended between the two trees, as high off the ground as possible.

    That's it. I was taught this method by a more experienced backpacker and I trust it. It occurs to me that if a bear chews the rope in one tree, the bag will swing down to the other tree. If you have picked good trees, you might be able to rig the bag such that it is still high above the ground when it falls. Then the bear has to chew the other rope. By this time, you should be awake and scaring the bear away from a minimum safe distance.

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