June 7, 2017
“How do you keep your food safe from bears?” The day hiker has an intensely interested look as she asks me that oft-heard question.
Well, there are many answers…
First of all, I’m more afraid of marauding mice, squirrels, and raccoons. Bears are not encountered very often, and problem bears are reported quickly. It’s the little guys one has to watch for daily! A mouse once chewed a hole in my backpack in broad daylight, with about eight people standing around talking! Rodents know no fear.
However, if a hungry bear does come along, it is tough to completely protect a food bag. Bears are as smart as humans, and much stronger. The only thing we have going for us is a superior knowledge of technology.
So… four ways to protect a food bag.
Some hikers carry a plastic canister designed to keep all wildlife out. This works very well, and can also double as a stool in camp. However, it is heavy and bulky. I’m sorry to say that Jay and I are too lazy to carry it often, and we have not carried it on this AT hike at all. (Yosemite requires the use of bear vaults, and we carry ours when we camp there.)
Bear Resistant Food Storage Locker
A bear locker is a heavy steel box with a door latch that is physically impossible for bear claws to manipulate. Provided by the US Forest Service, the box is usually cemented to the ground. This is the only sure way to protect one’s food. It is also rodent proof, which, in my eyes, elevates it to a wonder box. Unfortunately, only a few shelters on the AT have this storage container available. I use it whenever I camp near one.
A bear pole consists of a tall metal pole with y-shaped arms supporting hooks at the top, and a long metal rod with a hook on the end. One puts one’s food bag on the hooked rod, lifts the bag high in the air, and loops it over a hook at the top of the pole. This keeps it safe from bears. It also keeps it safe from mice, short hikers, and hikers who don’t have much upper body strength. It is a challenge to lift a fully loaded food bag with a long metal rod and have any control over it!
However, a ridge runner told us that a particularly athletic raccoon at Rock Springs Hut in the Shenandoah National Park had learned to jump and climb the bear pole, thus earning itself a hiker-sized feast each evening! She recommended using the bear locker provided at that hut.
Last night, we camped at Rock Springs Hut. I duly repeated the ridge runner’s advice and warning to the other five hikers there. One other hiker used the bear locker with us. Three hikers chose to sleep with their food. (This is NOT EVER recommended, but hikers do it nevertheless.) One hiker hung his food on the bear pole.
At 4:30 a.m., we all heard the clank of an animal messing with the bear pole. At 6:00 a.m., the hapless hiker saw his shredded food bag and the remains of his food on the ground around the pole. Rocky the Raccoon had struck again!
When I asked the hiker why he had used the bear pole, he said, “Well, it worked for the last four days at other shelters. I figured nothing could actually climb it!”
I guess some people learn from their own mistakes, and some learn from other people’s mistakes.
Tree Branch and Rope
This method is the most easily accessible to all kinds of wildlife, and yet it is the method we still use 85% of the hike. When camping away from shelters, or even at shelters which have no food storage method available, a rope and a high tree branch are the next best options.
I have to admit, I enjoy tossing a half-filled water bottle connected to a rope over a tree branch, then hoisting our food bags aloft. Sometimes it is a challenge to find an appropriate tree branch, and sometimes it is a challenge to get the rope exactly where one wants it. But challenges can add excitement to a day, and after 900 miles of hiking, I’m not too bad at this skill. (Jay is better at it!)
The general rule of thumb is to hang the food bag at least 15 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from the trunk of the tree. Bears can still get it, if they are determined. Ditto for athletic rodents and raccoons. But so far (knock on wood), our food has stayed safe.