Turbo Bear Bag Hanging

Learn the tips and techniques to ensure that YOU, not bears, are eating your food at the end of the day.

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by Kevin Sawchuk | 2009-09-09 00:00:00-06

Introduction

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.

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging - 1
Hungry bears - protected from hunters in most of the Sierra - aren't afraid to invite themselves to dinner.

The Branch

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.

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging - 4
Two amazing hangs were possible from this open Ponderosa Pine.

The Rope

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.

The Weight

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.

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging - 5
Other bear bag hangs.

The Throw

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.

The Hang

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.

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging - 2
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!

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging - 3
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.

Summary

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.


Citation

"Turbo Bear Bag Hanging," by Kevin Sawchuk. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/turbo_bear_bag_hanging.html, 2009-09-09 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Turbo Bear Bag Hanging


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 00:00:30 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Turbo Bear Bag Hanging

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 06:13:57 MDT Print View

Video won't play for me. Says it's private.

Nate Powell
(powell1nj) - F

Locale: North Carolina
Nice! on 09/10/2009 06:32:48 MDT Print View

Really great article. Not just informative but well written and enjoyable to read. Good pictures as well. Looking forward to working on my 'cowboy' toss. Keep up the good work!

Tony Burnett
(tlbj6142) - F

Locale: OH--IO
Private video... on 09/10/2009 06:41:54 MDT Print View

I can't watch the attached you tube video as it claims to be "private".

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Private video... on 09/10/2009 06:55:42 MDT Print View

Same with me- no functional video.

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Video - ACK! on 09/10/2009 09:43:24 MDT Print View

My fault. It's fixed. Thanks guys!

jim bailey
(florigen) - F - M

Locale: South East
Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 11:48:19 MDT Print View

Great article Kevin,
Very well done and most helpful

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
Re: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 12:09:28 MDT Print View

Great article, but some diagrams would help. Hard to understand some things from the photos, and word descriptions are not clear in some cases.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Re: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 13:05:37 MDT Print View

What questions did you have Elliott? I'll do my best to answer.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Bear Bag Hanging VS Bear-Proof Canister on 09/10/2009 16:07:37 MDT Print View

Really well-written and comprehensive article; nice video, too! However, since I'm only a 5-foot-tall woman, I really think I'll work on lightening my pack weight as much as possible so I can use a bear canister. I think it would be much easier for me.

Daniel Benthal
(DBthal)

Locale: Mid-Coast Maine
Thanks! on 09/10/2009 17:24:59 MDT Print View

Like Elliot, I was a bit confused in parts of the text. However, the video was a great demonstration and cleared up any confusion I had.

A picture IS worth a 1000 words.

Thanks,

Dan

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Awesome on 09/10/2009 17:38:12 MDT Print View

Top knotch, and entertaining.


Bravo.

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 18:03:35 MDT Print View

How many times have I been in the woods, hanging bear bags with friends, when we've said "This is more entertaining than TV!" And now someone's gone and put the entertainment on "TV!" Good stuff.

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
RE: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/10/2009 18:44:04 MDT Print View

Watched the video at home and my questions were cleared up. Picked up a few new ideas, thanks.

Now where will my family hide when I attempt a "cowboy" rock throw?

Finally, I just bring a small mesh sack to hold the rock so I don't have to tie the rope to the rock. I've been in forests where rocks are scarce and mostly rounded, so the sack has been a lifesaver.

Edited by ewolin on 09/10/2009 18:44:43 MDT.

Lori Pontious
(lori999) - M

Locale: Central Valley
re: bear bagging on 09/10/2009 19:20:15 MDT Print View

Interesting, but if the author is still bear bagging in Yosemite or the JMT corridor, he is risking a fine and being escorted out of the wilderness by a ranger. Bear canisters on the SIBBG approved list are mandatory, even if you turbo hang.

A friend took an Ursack and was caught somewhere on Red Peak Pass. Long walk with a ranger.

Karl Keating
(KarlKeating) - MLife
But mind the regulations! on 09/10/2009 19:47:18 MDT Print View

This is a helpful article, but Kevin should have noted that in hanging his food in Tuolumne Meadows, he violated Park Service policy. In all of Yosemite, the use of bear canisters (or food storage lockers) is mandatory.

A map of Sierra areas that require bear canisters may be found at http://www.sierrawildbear.gov/foodstorage/map041609.pdf

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/11/2009 01:59:39 MDT Print View

I've never been able to hit the side of a barn when throwing anything. The jerky motions required for throwing also start up painful arthritis in my shoulders. I therefore cannot hang my food. It's also almost impossible to find appropriate trees near or above timberline where I prefer to backpack. I therefore use an Ursack with an OP Sack liner. The Ursack also keeps squirrels and birds out of my food, which a lightweight stuff sack does not. If legally required, I use a canister. In the Pacific Northwest, that's in Olympic National Park.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: re: bear bagging on 09/11/2009 11:21:56 MDT Print View

In reply to Lori's and Karl's concerns:

"Interesting, but if the author is still bear bagging in Yosemite or the JMT corridor, he is risking a fine and being escorted out of the wilderness by a ranger. Bear canisters on the SIBBG approved list are mandatory, even if you turbo hang.
and
This is a helpful article, but Kevin should have noted that in hanging his food in Tuolumne Meadows, he violated Park Service policy. In all of Yosemite, the use of bear canisters (or food storage lockers) is mandatory"

I filmed the video in Yosemite but am well aware of the regulations throughout the Sierra. I carry and use a bear canister where required--including canistering all of my food after filming the video. I don't believe I mentioned where the video was shot--specifically so as not to imply that I'd hang in an illegal area. If you recognized the area (Murphy Creek not Tuolumne Meadows) or if I did say something about Yosemite I'm sorry.

The important point is that there are clearly many areas where hanging is still an option: nearly everywhere outside of the Sierra, Sierra north of Yosemite including Tahoe region, much of SEKI--at least for 2009. If backpackers hang their food well it is very likely that bears won't get their food and rangers won't push for further restrictions on hanging food.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: RE: Turbo Bear Bag Hanging on 09/11/2009 11:32:34 MDT Print View

Elliott:

"Now where will my family hide when I attempt a "cowboy" rock throw?"

They should hide a looooooong way away and perpendicular to the rope spin.

I've also used a small sack where appropriate sized/shaped rocks aren't available. If you pad it with a small piece of insulite it's less likely to rupture.

Karl Keating
(KarlKeating) - MLife
Clarification on 09/11/2009 17:50:44 MDT Print View

Kevin:

Thanks for your elaboration, but you did write this near the begging of your article: "I typically split my hangs in high bear traffic areas such as Tuolumne Meadows."

In Tuolumne Meadows, bear bag hanging is prohibited and bear canisters are mandatory.

If you meant to say that you split your hangs in places that are like Tuolumne Meadows but are not themselves Tuolumne Meadows, then your phrasing was unclear.