2004/08/20

The Galoot Bear-Bagging Method

Wow. Two posts in one day. Lucky you.



Things you should know about bears:

There are a few VERY WRONG ways to bear bag that I've seen. A lot of hikers think that hanging their food five feet off the ground is a good way to keep it away from the bears. This works fine if it's stuffed teddy bears they're worried about, but for real bears it's just a waste of everyone's time. One swat and they've got the food.

I've seen a lot of pristine, beautiful sites marred by dozens of yellow plastic ropes hanging from the tree branches. The hikers who leave these must have tossed their rope over and then secured it permanently to the branch with a slipknot. The only way to get their food back is to cut the rope and leave the excess behind. I have a pet name for people who do this. "Idiots."

One way a lot of folks do it is to toss their rope over a high branch, tie one end to their food bag, then haul it back up. Once it's high enough they secure the loose end to the tree or a nearby stump. The major problem with this idea is that, even if you do everything right and pick the right branch at the right height and distance from the trunk, with no nearby platforms for desperate leapers to get to your food, the bear will just chew through the rope at the bottom. They really are that smart.

A far better way is what they call the "counter-balancing method." The idea is to divide your food into two bags of equal weight, raise one bag as high as possible, then raise your other bag up out of reach using a stick. (Don't forget to leave a loop of rope or something so you can snag your food in the morning.) This is actually pretty safe, but it has some problems. First, if your bags aren't relatively close to the same weight, they will eventually slide back down within the bear's reach. Second, the maximum height you can get your bag is limited by how long a stick you can find to raise it up there. Third, you've got to carry two bags which, for someone trying to shave ounces from their pack, adds weight. Fourth, and most important, it's a royal pain in the ass to get to your food if you forgot something. You've got to re-balance everything all over again after retrieving your dinner. And if it's difficult, people won't do it.

Another problem with both of these methods is that good branches for bear bagging are relatively scarce. That means you're probably using the same branch as the last 1000 hikers, and 1000 more will use it after you've gone. All that raising and lowering of food with ropes scars the branch. You're pulling a 20-pound bag up by pulling down with 20 pounds of force. That's 40 pounds of pressure sawing away through the branch. If you care about having as little impact on your surroundings as possible, you should care about hurting that tree. If you DON'T care about no-trace camping, then maybe you'll care that a scarred branch will drip sap all over your food bag, leaving it sticky and making a mess inside your pack in the morning, or that your rope could cut partway through the branch and bind there, leaving you stuck for food.

So, the goal is to raise your food high, not anchor your rope where a critter can chew through it, not saw through the branch with the rope, and to MAKE IT EASY to raise and lower your bag fifty times if necessary so you actually don't mind bear-bagging.

All you need is your rope and two carabiners. The little ones they sell at dollar stores for 50 cents will be more than strong enough. If you don't have carabiners, a couple of key rings will do in a pinch. 50 feet of rope should be plenty, but if you have more then you have more options.



Now here's how to do it. Tie one end of your rope to a rock and chuck it over your favorite branch. Twenty feet up is good, higher if you like. Watch the rope slip off the rock and get tangled in the lower branches while your rock goes sailing into your neighbor's campsite.

Oops. Skip that idea.

Handy tip: If you store your rope in a small bag, feeding it in by the fistful, it won't get tangled. Pull on the free end and all is good. I use a lightweight plastic mesh bag that nuts come in at Christmas. It weighs a fraction of an ounce.

Start over.
  1. Take your rope from the rope bag. Slip your rock inside the bag and tie your rope to the bag. Chuck it over a suitable branch.
  2. Lower the rock to the ground and untie it. Tie a small loop in the end of the rope and clip your carabiner through it.
  3. About a foot above the carabiner, tie a pencil-sized stick to the rope. Attach it at one end of the stick, then at the other end, so the stick runs in the direction of the rope. When you're done, what you'll have is basically a rope with a rigid part in the middle.
  4. Clip the free end of your rope through the carabiner and start raising it up toward the branch. You should be pulling down one rope and pulling up a long loop of free rope. Hang on to the loose end. You don't want to lose it.
  5. Keep pulling until your stick reaches the top. Now, gently, work your rope so that the stick is on one side of the branch and your carabiner is on the other side. Because you'll be putting weight on that carabiner, it will want to come down. The rigid stick will prevent this.
  6. Now, what you should have is the end of the rope in one hand, leading up to the carabiner then back down to your feet, then back up to the stick, over the branch, and ending at the carabiner up there. Are you there yet? Good. Next step.
  7. By your feet you've got a loop of rope. Clip your second carabiner to it. Clip your food bag to this carabiner. SLIP THE FREE END OF THE ROPE THROUGH THE SAME CARABINER.
  8. Pull on the free end to raise your bag all the way up to the branch.
  9. Reach up as high as you can and tie a quick slipknot. Slip a little pencil sized stick through the loop and tighten.
  10. Let the bag come back down. The stick you just placed will catch in the lower carabiner and prevent the bag from coming down further.
  11. Now look up. There's your food, dangling far out of reach of the bears.




It takes ten minutes to explain. It only takes about three minutes to do (one if you're a good rock thrower). The only other reliable method, counter-balancing, takes longer and is a bigger pain to deal with, meaning it's easier to choose not to bag than it is to do the right thing.

Your food is now too far above the ground for a bear to reach it and too far below the branch for a raccoon to jump for it. The rope's free end isn't anchored anywhere, it's just dangling there below your bag, so chewing through it won't drop your food to the ground. Your rope has "sawed" at the carabiner rather than through the branch. Instead of requiring 20 pounds of effort to haul up a 20-pound bag of food the old way (putting a 40 pound strain on the branch), due to the magical mathematics of leverage and pulleys you are using only 10-pounds of effort, meaning you can choose an even slimmer branch, giving you more choices.

Tarnation! You forgot your granola bars up there! Pull the rope down, pull the stick out, then gently lower the bag to the ground. Dig out your snack and haul it back up there. Total granola-retrieval time: 30 seconds, and it's actually kind of fun. Total time with the counter-balance method: 5-10 minutes, and it's a pain in the cushions.

This method really IS easy. Give it a shot. If even one other hiker gives it a try and decides it's not a big job after all to properly hang their food, then it was worth writing about.

A fed bear is a dead bear.
Comments:
Am so pleased that you and Jaq had such a nice time.

I miss seeing the stars at night here (since there are so darn many city lights around...plus the marine layer always rolls in and blocks any view of stars that might peek through anyway). Back at home, I would walk out and just sit in the yard with the animals and kids and we'd gaze up toward the sky at night.

One of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen was in the Bahamas many, many years ago. We were on a little island named Bimini (that's one of the places Hemingway liked to go, so I wanted to go there, too). I've never in my life seen the stars as bright as they shown there.

You two are brave. I have an unnatural (or natural) fear of bears. I admire them in the wild but no longer have the courage to go places where I know they will be.
 
I just leave my food in a cooler in the car. Way easier. ;)
 
Yeah, I know it's been 3 years since this was posted, but it works! Thanks for posting it.

Oh, and Taz? Kinda hard to carry the cooler 10 miles into the woods...
 
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