Don’t leave your bear bag at home this winter

You’re packing for a winter camping trip. Tent, check. Warm clothes, check. Food, check. Bear bag… Do you really need a bear bag? It’s winter, after all. Aren’t the bears hibernating?

Well, first of all, bears don’t hibernate like other mammals. Their body temperature drops by about 12 degrees during their wintertime slumbers, as opposed to smaller animals like squirrels and chipmunks whose body temperature can plummet by 50 degrees or more. This allows bears to quickly come out of hibernation if disturbed.

Hibernation also depends on location. Grizzlies in Alaska can stay cooped up in their dens for half the year while black bears in southern states may hibernate for a few weeks. Plus, some bears might get up throughout the winter months.

So if you’re going camping in bear country during any time of year, you’re going to want to bring a bear bag. Even if you aren’t in bear country, you might want one to keep other critters out of your stash.

If you don’t know if your campgrounds might be inhabited by bears or not, call the park ranger or check out these range maps:

Hanging a bear bag

A black bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound. That means if you have anything fragrant — from lip balm to water bottles that had bug juice in them — you’re going to want to throw it all in a stuff sack for the night. Fill the sack with all of your “smellables,” and take it at least 200 feet downwind from your campsite (300 feet to be on the safe side).

While it’s still daylight, find a tree with a sturdy branch that’s about 20 feet above the ground. Throw one end of your rope or nylon cord over the branch; tie the other end to your stuff sack. You can use a clove hitch knot to attach the rope to the bag.

Hoist the sack up so it’s at least 12 feet off the ground and six feet from the trunk of the tree. This should keep the bag out of reach of any curious bears. Tie the other end of the rope to the tree.

A variation of attaching the bag to the rope is the “Pacific Trail Crest” method, where you hook a carabiner to your stuff sack and hoist it up all the way to the branch. Use a clove hitch to tie a small stick to the rope, creating a toggle. Let the sack down until the toggle and carabiner meet.

If you can’t find a tree with the perfect overhanging branch, you can string your bear bag between two trees. First, tie your rope to a tree and throw one end over a branch. Secure your stuff sack in the middle of the slack end of the rope. Toss that end over the branch of another tree. Pull on that end until the sack is hoisted to the desired height and tie that end off to a tree.

Keep in mind, in some areas and parks, bear canisters, instead of bags, are required to use by law. These containers can be bulky and expensive, but they are tough for bears to open.

3 Comments

  1. Bear bags are increasingly being banned from many wildernesses. For instance, the San Gabriel, San Jacinto, and San Bernardino mountains in Southern California all ban bear bags and require bear canisters. The Teton mountains in Idaho/Wyoming/Montana also ban bear bags and require bear canisters.

  2. Great Smokies NP has bear vaults for food storage at most of their campgrounds. They require one to push hand into a covered slot and grasp and squeeze on a handle to open. The Park Ranger told me they have SEEN black bears reach in and do just that to open the “vault”. 🙂

  3. For the PCT method use a locking carabiner. Wind could cause the pull line to slip into the carabiner making it impossible to retrieve the bag without cutting or climbing.

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