How to Store Food in Bear Country

How to Store Food in Bear Country

Food storage is super important for your own safety, for the people who visit the area after you, and also for the safety of bears.

When I was 17, I was backpacking in Shenandoah National Park with a group of friends.  I woke up in the night to the rumbling sound of a bear breathing and sniffing my head through the too-thin wall of my tent. 

Suffice it to say, I just about had a heart attack.  Being young and inexperienced in the outdoors (and frankly being too scared out of my wits to do anything else), I stayed quiet and listened as the other bears in the group (3 bears total) climbed the tree right next to my tent where my food was hung up in a VERY lazy way.  Amazingly enough, the bears didn’t get into our food and moved on after about 15 eternally-long minutes.

I can tell you a million things I did wrong in this situation (lazy bear hang, hung next to camp, not making noise, the list goes on!) but I can absolutely tell you that I put way more emphasis on properly storing my food after that experience!

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A tree with bags and dishes hanging to demonstrate how to store food in bear country.
Food storage options in the backcountry include bear canisters and bear hangs.

As someone who has lived and worked in bear country for a good chunk of my life since that initial bear encounter, I’ve had my fair share of bear interactions.  The bears that are habituated to people and attracted by food are always the scariest.

Why Food Storage Matters

Bears are omnivorous, meaning they hunt, forage, and scavenge for food and basically will eat anything they can get their paws on.  From bugs to berries to dumpsters; bears can find food almost anywhere, aided in large part by their incredible sense of smell.

They are particularly active in the Spring when they are hungry and first emerge from hibernation and in the Fall, when they are packing on the calories as fast as possible before going back into hibernation.

A large Grizzly bear lays on the ground near some trees.
One of the biggest grizzlies in Yellowstone, guarding it’s food.

Black Bears vs. Grizzly Bears

Most people associate food storage rules with grizzly bears, which in the U.S. are only found in Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana.  These areas have especially stringent rules because grizzly bears are territorial and more aggressive than other bear species.

Black bears, however, get into just as much trouble, if not more, than grizzly bears.  According to Out there Colorado, in 2022 Colorado Fish, Wildlife and Parks euthanized 94 black bears because of dangerous and habitual interactions with humans, primarily from bears getting in trash and unsecured food.  

Black bears have an extensive range in the United states, with populations present in about 40 states and almost in every mountain range from the Northeast, to the Appalachian Mountains, Ozarks, Rockies, Cascades, and the Sierras to name a few.

Bears who get into an unkept camp, dumpster, or other food source are learning that areas where humans live and recreate are great places to find food.  In worst-case scenarios, they even teach their cubs to dumpster dive, break into cars or houses, and poke around campgrounds for unattended coolers.

When Bears Become Food-Conditioned

Food-conditioned bears become dangerous for people and often wildlife managers are forced to be pro-active and relocate or euthanize bears for public safety

In 2022, a habituated black bear attacked a family camping in Great Smokey Mountain National Park and was subsequently caught and euthanized.  In 2021 a grizzly bear attacked and killed a woman in Montana who was sleeping in her tent, in a small town, after repeatedly getting into local unsecured food sources.  The bear was caught and euthanized.

While bear attacks are RARE, they DO happen and it’s almost always with bears that have become habituated to people and food-conditioned.  Bears getting into trouble with food is, unfortunately, very common.  Proper food storage saves people, but also saves bears from habituation, relocation, and eventual euthanasia.

“A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear” is the motto to remember, so keep a clean camp and follow food storage rules in bear country!

What Qualifies as a Bear Attractant?

A camp stove with two pans on it, one with biscuits and one with bacon cooking.

Bears have an amazing sense of smell.  According to the NPS, a bear’s sense of smell is 7x stronger than a bloodhound’s and they can smell food from several miles away.

Anything with a scent should be properly stored when you are camping or living in bear country.  This includes:

  • Food (check your pockets for leftover fruit snacks and granola bars!)
  • Empty Ziplocs or wrappers that have been used to store food
  • Drinks or drink mixes
  • Dirty dishes
  • Dog food and dog dishes
  • Toiletries like deodorant, toothpaste, lotions
  • Scented wipes
  • Used feminine hygiene products

How to Store Food in Bear Country

Bears are extremely strong and very good at breaking into containers that are not bear-resistant.  I’ve seen cabins after a bear ripped the roof and siding off to get in and 55-gallon oil-drums used to store horse feed that had been peeled open like a tuna can. 

Since they are so good at breaking into buildings and containers, it’s important to follow food storage rules.

Food should be stored indoors, in an IGBC certified bear-resistant container, or in a bear hang.  Different methods of storage may be appropriate for different areas.  For example, finding a good tree to do a bear-hang from in high alpine areas may be quite challenging.

How to Keep Bears Away From Campsite

First off, keep a clean campground.  Pick up any trash that may be around your camp site.  If you are in a campground, make sure you follow the trash and food waste disposal rules.  If you are camping in an undeveloped area, make sure you cook and store your food 100 feet away from your tent.

Bear Proof Coolers

A young boy sits on an orange cooler in front of a tent.
We love our Grizzly bear-resistant cooler for car camping!

All coolers are not created equal!  A bear-resistant cooler must be certified as such, and generally requires a padlock or locking mechanism to actually make it bear-proof (those little rubber pulls will NOT keep a bear out). 

These coolers tend to be more expensive than the average cooler but are also designed to hold up to a bear’s attention for at least an hour.  Yeti, RCTIC, Grizzly, and Canyon all make overbuilt, bear-resistant coolers.

You may want two coolers, one for cold/frozen food, and one for dry goods.

Pros: Bear-resistant coolers last for life and are extremely secure.  They offer convenient access to food in camp and also keep little critters like rodents out of your food.  Overbuilt coolers generally keep ice frozen for 5-7 days, which should last for most trips.  Bonus: Coolers make convenient benches and tables in camp!

Cons: They are expensive, and very heavy.  Bear-resistant coolers generally require two people to move once they are fully loaded with food.

Check out our picks for the Best Bear-Resistant Coolers for Camping.

Vehicle Storage of Food

A young boy climbs on a picnic table in front of a camper.

Storing your food in your vehicle is very convenient and is generally considered a safe way to store food.

There ARE some areas that discourage storing food in your vehicle, however.  Places like Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Rocky Mountain National Park have very habituated and tricky bears that have learned to break into vehicles to get into food.

 Make sure read all warning signs in your campground and if they discourage you from storing food in your car, you should probably follow the rules so your vehicle doesn’t get trashed. 

Pros:  Very easy to pack and unpack the vehicle for each meal.

Cons:  In popular areas with habituated bears, they might be good at breaking into cars.  While it’s a smaller risk, it’s still a possibility that could be costly.  Be sure to lock your car doors, roll up your windows, and close your sunroof.

Bear Locker for Food Storage

Many campgrounds are equipped with big metal storage lockers at each campsite.  These are very convenient and a great way to store food.

While sometimes the locking mechanism can be a little challenging, these are generally very safe and big enough that you can just slide your standard cooler and boxes of food inside.

Pros:  Bears are NOT cracking into these things!  Convenient and saves your vehicle.

Cons:  These are generally NOT rodent-proof.  You might get mice in your food, so recommend keeping your food in hard-sided containers (storage tubs, cans, etc).

How to Store Food When Backpacking

A woman with a backpack holds hands with a young boy as they walk along a trail in the mountains.

In wilderness or backcountry areas that require bear-proof storage, please be sure to read up on the local food storage orders, as they can vary slightly from location to location. Some locations require bear-proof canisters, while others are ok with hanging your food.

Bear-Proof Canisters

If you don’t want mess around with a bear hang, or if you’ll be in a location without adequate trees (think high-alpine terrain in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California), a bear-proof canister is the only way to go to keep your food protected.

Bear Vault

Bear Vault makes the gold standard for bear-proof canisters. They are certified by the IGBC, and are relatively light for a bear canister. 

The containers are clear, which is very handy when trying to root around to find that certain granola bar or oatmeal packet.  They also make a fantastic stool to sit on in camp.  And, of course, they are great for holding your favorite stickers.

Bear Vault Food Canister with food inside.

The BV500-Journey

The BV-500 is 3 gallons/11.5L and says it holds 7-days of food for 1 person.  Unless you are eating nothing but dehydrated meals and oatmeal, I’d realistically put that closer to 5-6 days because you also need to add your toothpaste, dog food, coffee mug, and anything else scented.  We had no problem fitting food for our family of 3 + dog on an overnight trip.

At 2.5 lbs, it’s not light, but the relative roominess makes it worth the extra ounces for families.

The BV475-Trek

The BV475 is 2.5 gallons/9.3L and says it holds 5-6 days of food for 1 person.  Again, I’d take a day or so off of that and say 4-days for one person.  I went backpacking with a group of friends and managed to fit 4 days of dehydrated food and dog food in here, along with my squishy bowl and toiletries at night, but it was a tight squeeze. 

At 2.25lbs, it’s a bit lighter than the BV500 and certainly easier to fit into a backpack.

Tips for using your Bear Vault

  • It is very difficult to open the lid with just your fingers.  Use something hard, like a caribiner or folded-up pocket knife to push in on the lid to unscrew it.  It will save you a lot of frustration!
  • Re-pack your food into Ziplocs, or fold down dehydrated meals to make them fit better.  Bear canisters are cylindrical to make it harder on bears, but you also have to pack your food more creatively and not leave any dead space to make it all fit!
  • It will fit in most backpacks if you load it just on top of your sleeping bag inside your pack.  You’ll have to pack your clothes and gear loose around it, to utilize space correctly in your backpack.  It can be a little tough to squeeze it if you also keep a water bladder inside your pack, so do the bulky stuff first.
  • Stickers will help you personalize and identify your bear vault if you have a group and everyone is using one!

Pros:  You don’t have to struggle with a bear hang when you are tired in camp at night.  It also makes a convenient seat in camp.  Sized to fit in most backpacks and with a little practice, it’s easy to pack.  Very secure and worry-free, even keeping rodents and bugs out of your food.  Absolutely bomb-proof.

Cons:  Heavy, as it does add 2+ extra pounds to your pack.  Takes some practice to pack it tightly and requires you to re-pack some foods to take up less space. 

Two bear vaults and UR sack wait to be hoisted up into a tree
The Ursack Major XL, Bear Vault BV500 and BV475

Ursack

Ursack is a soft-sided bear-resistant bag that is IGBC certified and light weight.  These bags are made of a Kevlar-like, puncture and rip-proof material.  They have some big advantages over a bear canister, but also more than a few drawbacks, so consider the kind of trips you would use it on. 

Ursack Major XL

While they have several sizes, I have used the Ursack Major XL for several years.  It holds about 15L of food, which they claim holds 7 days of food for 1 person.  In my experience, I would use it for 3-4 days of food for 2 people, so that 7 days of food holds up pretty well. 

At only 8.8 oz, it weighs only 20% of a bear canister, so if you are going ultralight, it’s the easy choice.  Still, check your map, because these soft-sided containers are not allowed in all areas (like Yellowstone). 

Being a soft-sided container, it allows for a little bit easier packing, but is more difficult to close at the top, for sure, and it is vulnerable to small mice and chewing rodents.  While certified for a bear to not get through, any real encounter would certainly leave your food crushed and possibly inedible inside the bag.

Ursack AllMitey Grizzly

The AllMitey versions of the Ursack solves the problem of small critters gnawing through your food bag, and is pucture proof for bears in addition to mice, squirrels, and other small rodents.

At 20 Liters of capacity, it weighs only 13.8 oz, so retains the lightweight nature of the Major series bags. 

Tips for using your Ursack:

  • Knot the rope at the top and then loop a few surgeon’s knots around the top of the bag to help keep your bag secure.  This means you cannot fill the bag to the top or it will not close properly.  If you don’t get your bag closed well, it will still be susceptible for rodents.
  • Ursack recommends tying your bag to a tree (far from camp, of course), or covering it with rocks if there are no trees available, since it would be easy for a bear, coyote, or even a determined raccoon to pick up and saunter away with it.  I hang it in a tree when I can, to help keep rodents out, which does negate the point of the Ursack a bit.
  • Ursack recommends using with an OPSak odor barrier bag.  One is a plastic odor-proof barrier (think giant, heavy-duty Ziploc) that will help reduce scents.  These are stiff and annoying to use and I generally hate having to stuff everything in an extra bag.  I do not use the OPSak and I’ve never had a problem though.
  • If you are backpacking in Grizzly country, Ursack recommends using their aluminum liner to provide additional protection and keep your food from getting mauled so badly in the bag.  Again, this is kind of a pain and negates the advantage of using the lightweight Ursack in the first place.

Pros:  Lightweight and holds a LOT, this bag can also be stuffed smaller as you eat down your food, which is a big advantage over a standard bear canister.  If you are going on a long trip, you’ll be thankful for an Ursack.

Cons:  If a bear muches on your bag, your food will be ruined.  These also are not the best with small rodents and require you to tie off to something.  Not approved for use in all areas.

Bear Hangs

Bags hang from a rope over a branch to deter bears.

A bear hang is the classic way to store your food in the backcountry.  The standard requirement is for the bottom of your bag to be 10’ above the ground and at least 4’ out from the tree trunk and 100 yards away from your tent.

Some bears have learned to jump onto bear hangs, which is one reason some areas require a bear canister.  Also, making a good bear-hang is a real art and takes practice, which a lot of backcountry users don’t have patience for and end up with poor bear hangs that don’t hit the minimum requirements.

Stuff sacks and dishes are attached to a carabiner waiting to be lifted up.
Stuff Sacks getting ready to be hauled up for the night.

You will need:

Food Storage Bag

You can use an Ursack for extra protection, or you can use a dry bag or stuff sacks to store your food in a bear hang.  Any container is fine, as long as it will keep your food dry and secure.  If I’m not using my Ursack, I like the Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Bags.

Rope

While standard P-Cord (aka Nylon Paracord) is readily available and lightweight, it makes a terrible rope for a bear hang because it stretches like crazy.  You’ll want to use a heavy-duty braided nylon or polypropylene rope (3/8” is usually enough) that you can find at your local hardware store or lightweight climbing rope. 

More rope is always better, but for most hangs, I use a minimum 75-foot rope.  You may need multiple ropes, depending on the style of hang you are doing.

Resist the urge to tie knots in your rope that are not easy to remove.  Overhand knots are generally not your friend when you do a bear hang, as getting those knots OUT of your rope is a real challenge!  Slipknots with a half-hitch over the top for security is usually plenty.

Carabiners

Having 1-2 load-bearing carabiners to make a smoother hoist for your food bag, as well as provide an easy attachment point and weight to keep your rope from slipping when the rope is not attached to your food bags.

You don’t need anything fancy, but I like the strength and easy-clipping use of the Black Diamond LiteWire Carabiner.     

Weight

Finally, you’ll want either a partially full water bottle or a palm-sized rock to get your rope over a branch.  It is obviously dangerous throwing rocks around a campsite, so please be aware of your surroundings and have an eye on your kids before you start your bear hang.  Branches can fall and rocks will swing wildly at times, so be cautious.

A red rope is tied around a rock,

Pre-Set Poles

This is the easy-button for bear hangs, as it only requires a single rope and are most commonly found in National Parks. There are even some places that give you a hook pole to lift your bag up and hang it on the pole, no rope required!

Smokey Mountain National Park has poles with a built-in pulley system, so all you have to do is hook up and go! 

Glacier National Park has free-standing pole frames at their backcountry campsites that you can toss your rope over and not have to hunt for a tree.

Just tie a rock off to the end of your rope, or hook the carabiner to your water bottle and throw it over the pole.  Then just unhook the water bottle and leave the carabiner attached to the rope as a weight to keep some tension on the line.

A woman wearing a green jacket is holding a Nalgene attached to a rope preparing to throw it up into a tree,
Winding up for a good toss.

When you are ready to hoist your food for the night, just pull on the loose end and tie your rope off to a nearby log or anchor.

Single Tree Hang

This one requires some Goldilocks-style sleuthing, looking for that branch that is juuuuust right, but it the easiest style of hang.  In areas with large hardwood trees, this is an easier feat.  In areas with abundant lodgepole pines you’ll have a hard time with this style of bear hang.

You need to make sure that the bottom of your stuff sack or dry bag is at least 10 feet up, so your tree branch generally needs to be at least 13-15 feet up.

Again, tie a rock or weight off to the end of your rope, get a good wind-up and let ‘er rip.  If you don’t succeed, just take a deep breath and try a few more times to get that rope over the branch. 

A Nalgene is attached to a red rope and is hanging from a branch.
Leave your carabiner or water bottle on the loose line so it stays put until you are ready to haul up your bags for the night.

Once your rope is set, tie a carabiner off to the end of your rope line.  When you are ready to pack up at the end of the night, simply clip your stuff sack or dry bag onto the carabiner and hoist it up. 

You can either tie your rope off to the same tree, or a neighboring tree, depending on the area.  Again, I recommend using a quick-release knots so it doesn’t take you forever to untie the rope when you are bleary-eyed and looking for your coffee in the morning.

Two women are hoisting a bear bag up into a tree.
Make sure you are at least 10 feet up and 4 feet out from your tree.

Two-Tree Hang

While two-tree hangs take a little more practice, they are by far the most frequently-used style of bear hang.  They are also the best option for lodgepole pines or other short-branched trees.  There are several methods to do this style of bear hang, but as long as it gets your bags at least 10’ up and 4’ out – there isn’t a “wrong” way to do it.

Bear bags are hung between two trees and women below are onlooking.
A two-tree hang.

Using a two-tree hang, you’ll need at least 2 lengths of rope.  I recommend one 100’ rope and one 75’ rope.

Using the same throw-method as the other hangs, get your rope over a sturdy branch at least 14’ up.  Tie one end of your rope off to this first tree.

Reach up on the loose end of your rope and throw an overhand loop knot on your line and attach a carabiner.  Then run your second rope through that carabiner and let the ends dangle for now. 

Next, attach another weight to the loose end of your first line and toss it over a high branch of the neighboring tree.  Make sure your tree is at least 15 feet away from the original tree, so your bags will be at least 4’ out. 

Once you get the first rope over the second tree branch, tie it off with as much tension as you can to prevent sag.

Use your second rope to run your food sacks up and down on the attached carabiner, which should now be at least 4’ out and a bit higher than 10’ up in the air.  Tie off your second rope to another nearby tree or log.

A set-up for a two tree hang with a rope and carabiner.
A textbook two-tree hang, ready to haul up!

Chandelier Hang

This is the most complex kind of bear hang and isn’t used nearly as often as a two-tree hang.  It involves multiple ropes and can support heavier loads if you are on a longer trip, or you have a backcountry basecamp. 

Most chandelier hangs require relatively stout rope with little stretch to support heavier loads.  They also generally require higher tree branches than a regular hang, as they will use more rope and have more slack.

Again, there isn’t a “wrong” way to do a chandelier bear hang if it gets your bags up high enough off the ground.  Examples would include:

  • 3 or more single tree hangs that all connect to a central carabiner that you can run your hang up and down on.
  • Lash a wooden frame together or create a pole out of thicker tree branches and use 3-4 single tree hangs to pull it up into the air at the correct height.  Then run your hang up and down on the wooden frame.

Pros:  The most versatile and time-tested option.  No limit on the amount of space and you can hang as many bags as you want.  Keeps most rodents out as well as bears.

Cons:  This only works if there’s trees!  Takes a lot of work and practice to get good at bear hangs.  Getting the rope over a tree branch can be a safety hazard, so be careful. 

How to Keep Food Away Form Bears

Food storage safety in bear country is SO important.  It’s important for both the bears and for the people recreating in the area.  

The best method for food storage is truly the method that fits your situation.  If you are following local regulations and keeping your food secure, it’s the right method!  Just remember that all options are not allowed and some areas with heavy visitor use and heavy bear activity will have more stringent requirements.

Bear Vaults and Ursacks are worry-free and simple, bear-proof coolers are great for car camping, and the standard bear hang can be great with the right technique!

“A fed bear is a dead bear,” so we need to be responsible with our food when we are playing outside in areas where bears live.

Related Articles:

Food Storage Safety in Bear Country

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  • Ginny has spent her career focused on getting people outside; working with the Park Service, Forest Service, Student Conservation Association and Keystone Science School, as well as spending a decade in the outdoor retail industry. She practices what she preaches, so can usually be found outside: downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, riding her dual-sport motorcycle, running, and SUPing in the summer. She has lived in Washington, Colorado, and currently lives in Montana with her husband, 2-year old son, and awesome trail dog.

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