As I continue to add necessary gear and move towards my first overnight on the AT, I’m immersing myself in as much study of the nuances of the experience as I can in an attempt to avoid stupid newbie mistakes. The last week or so has found me devoting my time to the subject of food storage. And, as with many other things related to the backpacking experience, this topic is rife with contention.
As far as I can tell, these are the main camps (pun intended) into which backpackers are typically divided:
- Just throw your food into a bag and keep it in your tent. Use it as a pillow. Bears won’t attack people in their tents for food.
- Buy a bear-proof bag and learn how to do a proper hang or lash it to a tree.
- Buy a bear canister. They’re easy to use, can double as a stool, and when an area requires them, you don’t need to rent/borrow/buy one because you already have one as your primary storage solution. Just place it 100 yards downwind from your campsite.
- Lash your tent to a tree with your bear-proof bag inside and hang from a branch at least 12′ off the ground all night with your headlamp and an air horn to scare off any rogue bruins.
Of course, there are several variations on these themes (especially #4), like “I keep my bear canister in my tent at my feet,” or “I use a Ursack, but leave it in my vestibule at night.” You get the idea.
So, as a newbie looking for a “best practice” to guide me, I’ve hit another stone wall. Now, I’ve seen a black bear a couple of times in the wild, and they’re pretty skittish creatures. So I can see the point of the “Just keep it in your tent!” crowd. The problem I’ve read about concerning this philosophy is people leaving food in their tents and wandering off, only to return to a perfectly untouched tent with a missing food bag. Or in some cases, mini bears like mice gnawing a hole through your tent to get at your food, ruining both your expensive sleeping quarters and some of your food on the same mission.
Buying a bear-proof bag and hanging it or lashing it to a tree sounded like a great idea, until I read that most veteran backpackers admitted that teaching a newbie to do a proper hang each and every time was nearly impossible. Lashing to a tree sounds good, but bears and other animals like raccoons will have a go at it if there’s food scent on the outside of the bag for some reason.
Number three might seem like the best option, but comes with a pretty severe weight penalty. A Ursack weighs about 8 ounces. A typical canister that would hold the same approximate amount of food weighs a full two pounds more. Two extra pounds. Ouch. Anecdotally, I found a bit of disdain for bear canisters. I went into my local outfitters and asked the two guys behind the counter if they had any. They smiled at each other and replied that they’d had a few in stock for a while, but those gathered dust and finally sold only when put on steep clearance. I guess that bear canisters are not de rigueur in Maine.
Ultimately, my goal isn’t to protect my food as much as to protect the bears who love it. Once bears becomes accustomed to human food, they begin to turn their backs on their learned foraging behavior and seek out more of our yummy treats, sometimes aggressively, which leads to them being put down. I don’t want to be a party to that.
Right now I’m leaning towards a canister (in spite of the weight penalty) for the simple reason that I can use it anywhere, from the Hundred Mile Wilderness to the High Sierra. One solution for every problem.
Though I might be tempted to wrap it in a smelly t-shirt at night and leave it in my vestibule rather than shlep it 100 yards downwind from my tent…