Yogi and Boo Boo have nothing on Sierra bears. Those Jellystone miscreants snagged a few unguarded picnic baskets with their clever schemes, but for athletic achievement and cunning, Yosemite bears – the superstars of Rancheria Falls, Tuolumne Meadows and Little Yosemite Valley – take all the awards. A bear’s incredible sense of smell and voracious appetite naturally lead him to wonderfully smelling, calorically dense human food. What would you eat if you had to spend the summer eating to survive a winter without food? A few berries, leaves, and grubs? Or a backpacker’s bag of Molasses Chews?
I’ve seen bears send cubs onto limbs too thin for a full-grown bear to go out on. I’ve seen them do full release dyno moves from tree to food bag. I once thought I had a bearproof hang, until mama carefully began testing branches to figure out which the food was hung from. Using the moonlight, she saw the food bag wiggle when she walked out onto my particular branch. When she started to chew on my slightly too thin hang branch, I spent the next half hour throwing rocks, yelling, and running to scare her to someone else’s camp. She spent much of the rest of the night unsuccessfully working on my better second food hang before wandering off with her twins (I typically split my hangs in high bear traffic areas such as Tuolumne Meadows).
In order to keep your food to yourself and to keep backcountry bears from becoming "problem bears" – that is to say, "dead bears" – you’ve got to protect your food. Where bear hangs are allowed, an excellent bear hang goes a long way in protecting both your food and the bears. But… what constitutes an excellent bear hang? Rangers report that most backpackers can’t hang their food well enough to keep bears from getting it. Because of poor techniques, more and more Sierra Nevada wilderness areas prohibit hanging your food. For the lightweight backpacker, the inability to hang food – whether by personal limitation or mandate – means adding a minimum two pounds of bear canister to your lightweight load and subtracting $225 from your bank account. For a mere $80, you can get a canister just under three pounds, but no matter your choice, the weight penalty is severe.
If you consider the extra volume, weight, and durability of a pack needed to carry a canister, the net effect may be closer to three or four pounds, depending on your specific choices. Being required to contain all of your food in canisters makes longer, non-resupplied trips much more difficult. On longer trips, it may be hard to fit all of your food in a single canister and if two are required, well, you’d better be a superultralighter in everything else to bear the weight. Learn a few techniques, practice them to become proficient, and perhaps bear hanging will remain a viable option in most backcountry areas.
Hungry bears – protected from hunters in most of the Sierra – aren’t afraid to invite themselves to dinner.
Picking a bear hang starts with finding a tree with an appropriate branch. Fifteen feet up and five feet from the base of the tree is the minimum required, but with ursine acrobats, the higher the hang, the better. If you can hang your food from a limb thirty to fifty feet high, it’s much more risky for a bear to attempt. It also gives you the option of placing your food bag ten to fifteen feet below your hanging branch, which further confuses bears. If possible, pick a limb that really sticks out, is six inches in diameter at the attachment to the tree, and has multiple branches – preferably that obstruct a bear’s progress.
It’s best if your branch stands somewhat alone – it’s easier to keep the food away from other branches the bear could use, and it helps keep your food from getting stuck when retrieving it. It’s important to pick a branch too thick for a bear to break off, but to hang your rope far enough out on this branch that it won’t support a bear’s weight – even a cub’s. Ponderosa pines and ancient lodgepoles most frequently have branches that meet these criteria. Pick a live tree and branch for your hang, because dead wood, even when very thick, is much more brittle and easy for a bear to break. The rope is less likely to slip off of your branch if the branch tip turns up or if there are perpendicular side branches to catch the rope. You don’t want your rope to slide off of the branch should your adversary bend it while walking partway out.
If you’re at high elevation or in an area such as Colorado, dominated by spruce, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to find an appropriate single branch for a hang. In these circumstances/areas, the “double hang” technique can provide suitable protection. Pick two trees ten to twenty feet apart with branches at least fiteen feet from the ground. The side branches will likely reach only one to two feet from the trunk of the tree. Hang one side of the rope over the best branch available, then the other end over a branch on the other tree (you may also use two separate ropes). Tie your food bag in the middle (the figure of eight on a bight works well and unties easily). Pull up one rope leaving your food bag three to six feet from the top, then pull up the other rope so that the food bag is approximately half way between the trees. While less than ideal, this technique can provide pretty good protection.
Two amazing hangs were possible from this open Ponderosa Pine.
You should carry at least fifty of rope for hanging your food. Even with fifty feet, the perfect branch can be just out of reach, and I carry a minimum length of one hundred feet to maximize my hanging options. Your rope should be at least three millimeters thick and have a tightly woven sheath. Too thin, and you run the chance of it getting stuck by sawing into your branch. Too thick, and it’s heavy to carry and harder to throw up into the tree. Loosely woven ropes are prone to snags and getting stuck on branches.
Although Spectra ropes are amazingly strong for their weight, the extra strength isn’t usually needed (who’s going to carry one hundred pounds of food?) and can be a liability should your rope get stuck during the hanging process. If you snag a 300-pound test, you have a chance of breaking the rope and retrieving most of it. If you snag 600- to 1000-pound test, the rope is going to stay there for good. In this same vein, I generally leave the inevitable nicks that occur when the hanging rock lands on the end of the rope. If you have small nicks in your rope near the rock, you have a better chance of breaking the rope should it get stuck. However, you want to tie off your food bag above the nicks.
Once you’ve picked your tree and branch, you’ve got to get your rope over the branch. If you try to throw the coiled rope over the branch, you’re likely to get only a tangled mess. You’ve got to have weight at the end of the rope. If there are rocks, or even a dense piece of wood, you can tie this to the end of your rope. Rectangular rocks are easier to attach and keep attached to your rope. Rounded river rocks often become independent projectiles. While this may be entertaining, there’s a clear risk of injury. Goliath is rumored to have met his end while David attempted to hang the Israelite’s food.
If you’re camping in areas without rocks, a small silnylon bag (preferably padded with a small piece of insulite or a dirty sock) can be filled with sand or pebbles and used as your rope weight. Whatever you choose to throw, pick your weight carefully. Lighter weights throw higher, but are difficult to retrieve from the branch. Heavier weights severely limit your throwing range.
Other bear bag hangs.
As pointed out earlier, the ability to hang your food high opens up options that help keep your food away from bears. Most people throw overhand style – like a baseball pitcher. However, even professional pitchers are rarely called on to strike out the man in the moon. Throwing upward is much more difficult than throwing forward. Generally, it’s hard to throw a rock more than twenty to twenty-five feet up with the overhand technique. However, using the "cowboy throw" a technique I have practiced since childhood, it is possible to reliably achieve heights of forty to fifty feet. This technique involves spinning the rope tied rock around in a counter-clockwise circle (clockwise for us lefties) and releasing the rope when the rock is on a trajectory to fly over your chosen branch. There is a learning curve to this technique, and your practice throws had better be far away from things you don’t want to break. However, once the it’s learned, there’s no throw that’s going to get your rope and food higher in a tree. You should still keep your backpack partner well out of range despite how impressive your hanging technique may be.
Since the highest hangs are achieved only with fairly light rocks, there may be some trouble getting the other end of the rope back to the ground. Whipping the end can assist when the rock won’t slide down by itself. It doesn’t always work: I’ve had to pull down otherwise "perfect" hangs when I couldn’t get the rock end of the rope back to earth.
Once you have the rope over the branch and have retrieved both ends, there remain several choices to finish off your hang. Traditional teaching promotes the "counterbalance" technique, whereby two food bags of equal weight are made, one is pulled up partway into the tree, the second attached, and a stick or hiking pole is used to push the second up to the level of the first. This method relies on a perfect branch and finding a long stick to push the food up/down. The counterbalance method limits the height of your hang to the length of your reach extended by a stick or hiking pole. It is often difficult to fully equalize the weight of your food bags, and bears can shake the branch and gradually bring the heavier bag down without even getting near the rope. Counterbalancing also makes it more difficult to get the food up and down.
Because of these limitations, I prefer to pull my food up and tie off the rope to a second tree. If you use the "tie off" method, there are several wrinkles you need to know to maximally protect your food. First, walk back underneath the branch your food is hung over to shorten the angle of the hang and reduce the risk it could slip off the end of the branch.
A wide angle makes it easier for the rope to slip off the end of the branch (left). Walking back underneath the branch narrows the rope’s angle, making it less likely to slip off (right).
Second, walk a long way away from the tree your food is hung from and have the rope hit the "tie off" tree above your head level. This limits the possibility that the bear might accidentally bump into your tie off rope. Choose a tie off tree that is flexible, or at least has some flexible side branches to reduce the risk that the bear could snap the rope. Bears have generally poor vision and probably can’t see the rope. However, they may accidentally bump into it and will swat at it with their paws. With thinner ropes, high friction hangs, or heavy food weights, consider wearing gloves or wrapping the rope around a stick to facilitate getting your food into the air. Speaking of friction, try to make sure that you wrap the tie off end around the tree so that your knot alone doesn’t take the weight of your hang bag. On cold mornings, having tied an easily broken stick in your figure of eight knot on the food bag end makes the knot at this end much easier to untie as well.
A variation to the tie off method involves feeding your pulling rope through a carabiner attached to your food bag. This both narrows the angle of the hang and allows you to pull your food further away from the tree. It’s pretty impressive to have your food thirty-five feet in the air, fifteen feet below the hanging branch and twenty to twenty-five feet from the trunk of the tree. What’s a bear going to do if he sees this hang? Walk to someone else’s camp or start digging for termites!
People give perspective to just how high this bag is hung. Note the "through the rope" technique.
The "PCT method" is another variation that narrows the angle of the hang and doesn’t involve tying to a second tree. With this method, you tie a stick to the pulling rope as high as you can after you’ve pulled up the food. When you release the pulling rope, the food begins to slide down – until the stick you’ve tied wedges in the carabiner and jams its further descent. The free end of the pulling rope dangles below your hang until you pull it up in the morning to retrieve your stick, then retrieve your food. Bears can’t duplicate this delicate feat of dexterity, and the hanging rope is useless to them. This method allows a pretty good hang with a shorter rope, but doesn’t allow very good adjustments over final food placement.
More on bear bag hanging techniques can be found here.
A good bear hang is the crème fraîche on a cake and berry campsite. It serves as a conversation piece, a source of admiration, and can even improve your sleep. More importantly, it keeps you and your food safe from bears and bears safe from the ranger’s gun. Like nearly everything in life, little details can mean the difference between success and failure. A cheery breakfast greets you if you succeed, and a hungry hike points its finger back to your car if you don’t. Practice the techniques, learn the subtlety of rope, branch, tree, and throw and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of a technique few can duplicate. Also satisfying: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.