A guide to hanging a bear bag using the PCT method, complete with a review of the 7 best ultralight bear bags for thru-hiking.
Bear bagging is an essential skill for backpackers, even for those who are not traveling in bear country. The technique suspends your food bag in the air, protecting your precious stash not only from curious bears but also from pesky rodents and other similar food-foraging critters.
There is more to bear bagging than just tieing your food bag to a tree. Bears are smart and can figure out how to slash a rope or climb a tree to get to your food. You have to choose the right bag to store your food and hang it just right to keep it out of the reach of bears.
The PCT method is the most popular way to throw a bear bag because it is relatively easy to do and is effective at preventing a bear from getting your food. Because you have to pull the rope to get your food down, a bear can gnaw at the rope on the ground all that he wants and the food will stay hanging. To get at your food, the bear would have to climb the tree and cut the rope from the branch, not from the bottom.
The key to the PCT method is doing it correctly. If you hang the bag too low or forget to use a locking carabiner, you may find yourself without food for the rest of your trip. You'll need a few a pieces of gear - see our list below - and some practice at home to learn how to store your food on the trail safely. Don't neglect to practice - it's much more convenient to make mistakes at home and learn from them when it doesn't count than to learn them the hard way on the trail.
What You’ll Need
BEFORE YOU START: PickING a tree
Where to hang your bear bag is often the most challenging part of the PCT method. Not all campsites are created equal and finding the right spot to hang your bear bag can be challenging, especially in the rain or the dark. Try to pick your tree before dusk if you can help it.
For the PCT Method, you only need one tree thankfully. Play it safe and choose a tree that is at least 200 feet away from your campground to avoid any unfortunate encounters with a curious bear. You’ll want to hang your bear bag on a tree branch that is 15 to 20 feet above the ground and at least six feet long. It also should be fairly leveled and strong enough to support the weight of your bear bag.
Step 1: Toss the rope over a sturdy branch and attach the bag
There’s no magic as to how to accurately throw the bag. Overhand or overhand, pick what’s most comfortable for you and get it over the branch without it getting stuck in the tree. It's harder than it sounds. If at all possible, place your throw so the bag lands about 6 feet away from the tree trunk because bears can climb and will try to knock down your bag.
Once you have your tree selected, you should fill your throw bag with a few rocks so that it’s easy to toss over the tree branch. Next, tie one end of the rope to the carabiner, clip the carabiner onto the throw bag and prepare to toss it over the branch.
Step 2: Pull the bear bag up
The rope should now be hanging on both sides of the branch. Unclip the throw bag from the carabiner and replace it with the filled bear bag. Pass the other end of the rope through the carabiner, make sure to lock the carabiner and pull the bear bag as high as you can.
Don't forget the lock on the carabiner. It is critical - it prevents the rope from accidentally getting jammed in the carabiner, which stops you from being able to bring the bag back down. If your rope accidentally gets tangled in the carabiner, you either have to climb onto the branch to cut down your food or just leave it behind.
Step 3: Tie the twig to the other side of the rope
Now that your bag is suspended on the branch, you need to attach a twig to the rope and use it as a jam stick. Firmly hold the rope that is suspending the bear bag, so it doesn't slip. Tie a clove hitch securely around the small twig on the side of the rope you just pulled on. Place it as high on the rope as you can. Ask for help from a taller person if you are on the short side.
Step 4: Slowly release the rope to suspend the bag
Finally, you want to release the rope slowly until the twig gets jammed in the carabiner. If you tied it high enough, the twig should stop the bear bag about 12 feet from the ground. If the bag is hanging too close to the ground, pull the rope back down and re-tie the stick up higher.
FINAL NOTE: Bringing Your Food Down
If you want to grab something from the bear bag, pull the rope and remove the twig. You’ll then be able to lower the bag back down to the ground.
The best bear bags are often same as a good stuff sack - they are made of a lightweight but durable material, cinch to shut, and have an attachment point for hanging. Here is a rundown of the features you should consider when adding a bear bag to your backcountry kit
1. WEIGHT: Bear bags are relatively simple, so they don't weigh very much. Even the most sophisticated bags with a buckle strap and roll-top closure weigh less than 8 ounces.
2. attachment points: A good bear bag will have a string, a clip or a loop to which you can attach a carabiner. If there is no attachment point, you can use a knot like a lark's head to close your bag and secure for the hang.
3. Size: The size of your bear bag depends on the items you need to store in the container and how much food you are carrying. Most bear bags are in the 10 to the 20L range and will carry between 5 to 10 days worth of food for a single person.
4. Materials: Products explicitly marketed as a bear bag are constructed with bear-proof materials like kevlar. They are rugged and tear-resistant making them ideal for protecting your food from a bear. They also are water-resistant but may need some seam-sealing to prevent leaks. These bear bags also are more expensive than your standard stuff sack.
Not everyone wants to carry around a bear bag, so many hikers prefer to use a basic stuff sack for hanging their food. These sacks are usually made from Dyneema (formerly 'Cuben Fiber') or ripstop nylon. They are waterproof, and lightweight but not durable enough to withstand a hungry bear. You have to hang them properly if you want to protect your food from wildlife.
5. Color: Research shows that bears can see colors just like people, but they are not drawn to a specific color. Consequently, it doesn't matter what color you use for your bag. Consider this though - a bright color may be easier to see from a distance and may catch the eye of a curious bear. Once he or she spots your food bag, it may be game over for your food stash.
6. Other features: Waterproofing is an often overlooked feature in a bear bag. Try to choose a waterproof, or at least a water-resistant, bag as you don't want your food getting soggy while it is hanging midair during a rainstorm. You could always use a trash compactor bag or a similar liner to prevent moisture from getting into your food, but each additional item adds more weight to your pack. Another worthwhile feature found in some bear bags is odor-proofing. These odor-proof bags seal in the smell so the bear cannot get a whiff of your food.
Bear bags or bear canisters - which one should I use?
Bear bags are more popular than bear canisters because they are lighter and easier to carry than a canister. A bear bag can stuff into any nook or cranny of your pack and weighs next to nothing. A bear canister, on the other hand, is heavy and its rigid shape takes up a good portion of your backpack.
Why carry a canister instead of a bag? Bear canisters are bulky because they are designed to withstand the gnawing, clawing and brute force of a bear. If you want to protect your food from a bear, then get a bear canister. Bear canisters are easier to use - they just can be placed away from a campsite and don't need to be hung from a tree. Lastly, some locations that have a high population of bears require hikers to carry a canister.
Do I need to bear bag?
Yes and no. Some places (some National Parks, for example) require you to use some sort of bear resistant storage - bear bag, bear canister, bear box, etc. However, some places don't require you to use anything. If you are in bear country, proper storage is highly recommended though.
What goes in a bear bag?
Bear bagging uses a bear bag, a durable stuff sack that is used to store your food and other items safely. You should ensure all your food, including the snack yous stash in your backpack pockets in the bag. Scented items like deodorant or toothpaste, also attract bears and should be put in a bear bag along with your food.
They are a variety of bags on the market that you can use as a bear bag. Depending on your needs, you can choose between a rugged sack made with bullet-proof kevlar or a lightweight nylon stuff sack that weighs only a few ounces
The Sea to Summit Ultra Sil dry sack is a versatile dry sack with sizes ranging from a single liter up to a big 35 liters. It is extremely light yet durable enough thanks to its 30D nylon construction. These waterproof bags have c a roll-top closure with a buckle that helps keep the food smells in and the water out. When you are not using it for food, the Ultra Sil dry sack is ideal for storing extra clothes, a small sleeping, and more. Another bonus feature is the bag's cylindrical shape which allows it to stand upright without assistance,
Urscack makes true bear bags constructed from Spectra (https://www.spectra-fiber.com/spectra-benefits/), a fabric used in bulletproof vests. It is fifteen times stronger than steel, so it’s plenty strong enough to resist a bear. The Major bear bag has a cinch top closure with a 6-foot long cord. It is certified as a bear-resistant product by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), so you may be able to use in lieu if a bear canister in some areas. The Ursack major is designed for bears, but if you need rodent protection, too, Ursack also sells the $135 AllMitey which protects your food from bear, raccoons, mice and their sharp-toothed cousins.
Zpacks bear bagging kit has everything you need to secure your food. Everything in the package is carefully chosen by Zpacks to make throwing a line and hoisting your food as simple as possible. The bundle includes a 14L Dyneema roll top food bag with a hang loop, 50-feet of Zpacks 2mm slick cord, a rock sack and a mini-carabiner which doesn't lock but is stiff to open.
With taped seams, the Dyneema bag is completely waterproof as well as durable. It also is rodent resistant - mice can chew on the sack, but it will take them a long time to gnaw a hole through the Dyneema fabric. The 2mm slick cord also is handy as it's material is designed to glide over branches and is easier to handle than thinner cordage.
Similar to ZPacks, cottage manufacturer Mountain Laurel Designs also sells an all-in-one kit for your bear bagging needs. MLD's package includes the company's large-sized Dyneema roll-top dry bag, a Dyneema rock sack, 50-feet of SuperGlide line, a mini carabiner and an Opsack for odor protection. The entire kit weighs a mere 4.1 ounces empty.
If you already have a dry bag, you can purchase just the $25 Bear Bag Eco Line Kit, which contains only the rock sack, the SuperGlide line, and a carabiner.
The eVac Dry Sack from Sea to Summit is unlike any other compression sack on the market. The roll-top bag utilizes a 70D lightweight nylon fabric on the top for strength and the unique eVent waterproof fabric on the base.
Though waterproof, eVent is air permeable allowing to expel as much air as possible out of the sack for compact storage. This fabric enables you to minimize the size of your food bag making it easier to hang and stuff in your pack. When you are not using it for food, it works well for clothing or as a pack liner.
Granite Gear’s Air Zippsack is a simple sil-nylon compression sack with a rectangular shape and a full-length zipper that makes it easy to access your food. The storage bag has a haul loop for hanging and is water-resistant, so you may need to add a compactor bag or similar layer in a heavy rainstorm.
Though not a bear-resistant bag, the Opsack is an odor-free bag often used inside a bear bag to cut down on odors. It also is used alone by backpackers in areas where there is a low risk of bear or rodent activity. Instead of using PCT methods, Opsack users hang the bag off a branch or even sleep with it in their tent.
It's a durable bag that you can pour boiling water into one minute and then toss it into the freezer for storing food the next. To keep odors in and moisture out, the Opsack uses a double hermetic zipper that works like a store-bought Ziploc bag. It's easy to seal, but it can fail after repeated usage. Not only odor proof, but the Opsack bag also is water-, air-, sand-, snow-, dust- and humidity-proof. It reduces the chance that a bear or rodent can smell your food or toiletries and keeps everything safe and dry while doing it.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.