Bear bagging is a technique used by backpackers around the world so you can sleep easy knowing your breakfast will be there in the morning.
But what does it mean to bear bag?
Bear bagging is the art of hanging your food properly out of reach of bears. And the key word is “properly,” since bears climb trees.
While I was setting up our tent on our second night of hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I watched a young fellow hanging his bear bag for the first time. He had thrown his rope over a broken limb that only stretched out about 18″ from the trunk of the tree. Once the bag was added, the rope slid into the notch of the limb and trunk, making it completely worthless. A bear could easily scramble up the tree and grab the bag.
I walked over and asked if he would mind a little advice. Which he took. He completed his thru-hike, and I never heard that he lost any food to the bears.
Others we met along the trail hadn’t been so lucky. Another fellow had lost all his food, except for a couple of protein bars, to a bear. “It ate all the good stuff, but didn’t touch the Powerbars!” he said. He was lucky that several of us sharing the camp all chipped in enough food to get him to the next resupply.
Bear Bagging in Florida
I’m telling this story because bear bagging is smart in some places, and mandatory in others along the Florida Trail. Since 2009, it’s been REQUIRED that you bear bag or carry a bear canister in the Apalachicola, Osceola, and Ocala National Forests. And it seems the message hasn’t gotten out there clearly enough, since the U.S. Forest Service closed the Florida Trail in Juniper Prairie Wilderness this past month in response to a bear raiding tents at Hidden Pond.
The trail has been opened again, but that doesn’t mean hungry bears – who learn to raid garbage cans and developed camping areas where food is left out – aren’t a problem. If you’re hiking the Florida Trail and you’re hiking alone, losing your food to a bear may mean going hungry for a few days. You are very unlikely to run across another hiker, especially with spare food!
Bears are smarter than you might think. While hiking in New Mexico at Philmont, I was advised not to use white cord. The bears along the trail had learned that at the end of a white rope there was always food. We swapped our rope for a green one, and avoided sharing our food.
So in case you’re a backpacker who doesn’t know how to keep your food secure from bears, here’s how.
Bear bagging is pretty easy, in theory. Find a tree with a good limb, throw the rope over the limb, and pull up your food bag. At least that’s how they told me to do it in the early ’70s, when I first tried it.
Finding the right tree with the right limb could require a little searching. You want a tree substantial enough that the bear can’t push it over, or that will break as it climbs up it. The limb needs to be long enough that you can hang the rope far enough from the tree trunk that it can’t be reached. The bag needs to hang low enough that it can’t be reached from the limb, and high enough from the ground that the bear can’t use it as a piñata.
Sounds easy, right. But how are you going to get your rope up and over that limb, way up there?
Unless you were a big baseball or softball hero, it will probably take a few attempts. Find the right size stick (or, in other states, a rock) and tie one end of your rope to it, and over the tree it goes. Go ahead and sit back with the knowledge that you’ve mastered yet another outdoor skill.
A bit of fine print: finding the correct size rock or stick is crucial. These are different for everyone. If it’s too small or too light, it will never make it over the limb pulling your rope. And if it does but isn’t heavy enough, you may not be able to pull your rope within reach. If it’s too big or too heavy, how are you going to throw it that high? Most people I met preferred using a piece of wood. It’s easy to tie a knot around it that will hold. I prefer a baseball sized rock. Being an old Eagle Scout, I combine a timber hitch and clove hitch around the rock. But keep in mind that a poorly thrown rock could make for an injury. It’s all about finesse.
Bear Bagging Basics
Let’s go over the short course again:
1. Find a tree with a good limb.
2. Find a good rock or stick.
3. Attach rope.
4. Throw rope over tree limb (multiple tries are okay).
5. Attach your food bag, pull it up in the air out of reach from all directions.
6. Tie the loose end of the rope to another tree.
What goes in your food bag? Not just your food, but also your trash and anything with a scent, like toothpaste and toothbrushes. So you can’t hang the bag until you’re done with your meal and evening preparations. You can, however, have the rope set up and waiting for you to hang the bag later.
On our AT hike, we quickly discovered that it was crucial to use a dry bag as your bear bag. Otherwise, your food and trash gets soaked in the rain. Within our first week on the AT, we switched from food bags we’d bought at Walmart to lightweight Sea to Summit dry sacks, and we’ve been using them ever since (purchase here on Amazon.com).
Another important thing for those new to bear bagging. DO NOT set up your tent under the bear bag! Yes, we saw this more than once along the AT. In fact, someone set up their tent right under our bear bag on Wayah Bald. The temptation to drop the bag on them in the morning was almost overwhelming.
Some people swear by the “PCT Method,” popularized on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ve watched friends do it, and it’s tricky. But the bears are bigger and meaner out on the West Coast. Here’s a how-to graphic PDF on the PCT method from the Georgia AT Club website.
Finally, if this all seems too complicated, use a bear canister instead. These are a heavy can with screw-top lid that the bear can’t open, but you can, using a coin. Now the bear may pick it up and bat it around – we met someone whose bear canister went sailing off the cliffs of Blood Mountain – but the bear won’t be able to get into your food. It’s doubtful that Florida bears have a clue that a bear canister has food in it, as the canister masks the aroma.
When you purchase a bear canister, make sure it fits in your backpack, or vice-versa! We have a BearVault (purchase here on Amazon.com) gifted to us by a friend that used it on the John Muir Trail, where canisters are required. We’ve used it a few times. Interestingly, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is now recommending use of bear canisters instead of bear bagging along the AT, because yes, some bears along the trail have learned to associate ropes in trees with food.
Where should I bear bag in Florida?
In Florida, you MUST bear bag or use a bear canister in our National Forests. Given the bear population along the Wekiva River basin, it’s smart to protect your food from bears in Seminole State Forest, Wekiwa Springs State Park, and Black Bear Wilderness. We’ve seen bears in all three places, as well as the campground at Kelly Park / Rock Springs Run.
Bears roam Eglin Air Force Base and Nokuse Plantation, and have been reported by backpackers crossing St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Bears are also present in Big Cypress National Preserve. When in doubt, protect your food by bear bagging. Even if there are no bears around, it also keeps your food safe from smaller thieves like raccoons and mice.