Bear Food Storage
Credit: Kevin Callan

I love hanging around with Cliff Jacobson at the spring outdoor shows.

He’s a legend in the outdoor industry; a writer who is full of knowledge and insight. He’s also opinionated, which makes for a fantastic evening of debating on outdoor skills and gear, especially over a glass of whisky. The one topic we seem to totally disagree on every time we get together is whether one should hang one’s bear bag in a tree. Cliff says no. I say yes. (Cliff’s reasoning is explained on this article.)

Below, I’ve laid out my thoughts on food storage against nuisance bears. Before reading it, however, check out the video I shot of Cliff and I debating in a hotel room during the Quiet Water Symposium in Lansing, Michigan a few weeks ago. It’s hilarious—but also full of interesting bits of knowledge from Cliff, a well travelled wilderness guide who’s one of the most respected outdoor writers in North America.

Bear Bagging

I travel a lot in the Near North—places like Algonquin and Temagami. These areas have lots of big trees, and a few nuisance black bears sneaking into campsites looking for something to eat. Storing your food from bears becomes a crucial element of keeping yourself safe. I routinely load all my food, and anything else with strong odours (toothpaste, sunscreen, hand lotion, soap), in a separate pack. Then, I string it up either between two trees or over an outstretched limb.

Make sure to set your bear rope early in the evening so it’s easy to pull-up the food bag before bed. There’s nothing worse than looking for a proper tree to hang your food in when it’s pitch dark. Also, make sure to choose a tree well away from camp, at least 30 metres into the forest, and not on a well-used trail. A bear, especially in popular parks, will quickly get to know each campsite’s food cache if it’s easy to locate.

Mark the Spot

It helps to tie a piece of florescent flagging tape onto the bear rope. It’s not all that easy to re-locate your bear rope in the back bush, especially later in the evening.

Pulley System

For the first few days of a trip, the food bag may be a little too heavy to lift. Try bringing two sections of rope, one with a small metal pulley (found at any hardware store) tied to one end. Throw the pulley rope over the branch, with the other rope passed through the pulley. Then tie the end of the pulley rope to a tree and hoist up the heavy pack with the other rope.

Bear Barrels

Some canoeists have opted to use barrels for keeping their food safe. They’re a great system for keeping everything dry and relatively odour-free and they can come in handy when travelling in the Far North where there are no tall trees to hang your food from. But in no way should they be considered “bear barrels. In the last few years, there have been numerous reports about campers who have placed their food barrel right beside their tent and woken up to a bear smashing it to pieces. Remember, if a bear can break into an automobile with one swing of the paw, then a thin plastic barrel is no match for it.

Do I Always Hang My Food?

Cliff Jacobson’s points are quite valid. I think the reason why we differ so much about food storage is that we travel in very different forest regions. Cliff is acclimatized to the Far North, a place where the trees are smaller and the nuisance bear issues are less of a problem. When I go to places further north, like Woodland Caribou or Wabakimi Provincial Parks, I don’t hang my food. The spruce trees are stunted and short and the black bears rarely see humans. In those areas, I take my food barrel way back in the woods, far away from camp. Telling the general audience to do the same—campers who spend most of their time in places like Algonquin or Temagami—is counterproductive. Most people will carry their food far away from camp. But some consider two or three steps into the back woods to be “away from camp.” That’s just asking for trouble. That’s why I emphasize hanging your food. Humbly speaking, I think they’re better off to do so.

Let the Debate Begin!

So, what’s your take on all this? Whose points are more valid? Or, are they both valid? Let us know.