Bear Bags

Updated: Nov 11

Campsite near Flat Laurel Creek in the Pisgah National Forest

Late June 2019, approximately 2am

The cracking of a large branch woke me. At least I think that’s what stirred me awake. Then I heard another one. I laid still trying to focus on where exactly the noise was coming from. Soon enough I had no doubt. Something heavy dropped to the ground. Our bear bags were being shred open.

Our bags were ripped open in the early morning hours

I’ve learned many things in 2019. Here are four of them.

  1. There are many hikers/campers who have no idea how to properly hang a bear bag

  2. The black bear indigenous to the North Carolina mountains is much more intelligent than people realize

  3. The myths about black bears far outnumber the reality.

  4. At the beginning of 2019 I was one of the people who underestimated the intelligence of black bears

The method I used for hanging bear bags, for the longest time, was not too difficult.

  1. Find a tall branch at least 16 feet above the ground.

  2. Throw something heavy (hopefully attached to the end of your rope) over said branch.

  3. If using a carabiner tied to the end of the rope, clip your bear bag to the carabiner and hoist it such that the bag is 10 feet off the ground, 6 feet below the branch, and 6 feet away from the tree trunk.

  4. Finally, tie off your rope around the trunk of the tree.

This is the method taught to me years ago.

The problem with this method is the 4th step. Black bears have the same visual acuity as humans. Black bears are smart. Black bears have sharp claws. A Black bear can walk up to the tree, use one of those razor claws, snip the line tied to the tree trunk, and watch a bonanza of food drop from the sky.

I now use the PCT method

I follow all of the above steps, except for number 4.

In place of the 4th step I now do the following.

  • I run the slack rope through my carabiner (which is attached to my bear bag).

  • I pull the bear bag all the way up, with the now taught rope running through the carabiner, until the bear bag reaches the branch where I slung my rope.

  • I already had a stick ready.

  • Reaching above my head, I tie this stick to the rope. It takes a little practice.

  • I then slowly let the line out, allowing the bear bag to drop from the branch. Once the stick impacts the carabiner, the bear bag will cease to come down further.

  • The bear bag is now approximately 6 feet below the branch. Hopefully it is about 10 feet above the ground and 6 feet away from any tree trunks.

Black bears can still see the rope. And they can definitely smell the bear bag. But as smart as black bears are, they do not possess opposable thumbs. The bear bag is now relatively safe from predators.

In the morning I will simply pull on the rope, which again brings the bear bag up against the branch, but also brings the stick back to my hands. I remove the stick such that the rope can now freely move all the way through the carabiner as I lower the bear bag to my waiting grasp. I can now return to my tent to make my coffee. Read my article Coffee in my Sleeping Bag.

Note: For my bear bag setup, I use three primary items. A waterproof sack with a hook that can connect to a carabiner, a few carabiners, and paracord rope. I carry 50 feet of orange paracord. It is lightweight and tough.

The beginning of this article probably gave the impression my bear bag was taken by bears. Not quite. It was raccoons. They got to it because I was lazy. Our bear bags were not 6 feet below the tree branch, nor were they 6 feet from the tree trunk.

I’m pretty sure it was raccoons because my small glass bottle of hot sauce was opened. Not broken. The cap was twisted off.

As I heard the commotion from inside my tent I briefly considered running out and trying to scare off what I thought was bears. Maybe next time I will. Maybe not.

Now that I know, or believe, it was raccoons, I’m happy I did not go and try to scare them off. Imagine if I had done this just at the point one of the raccoons was drinking my hot sauce. This is where I think about a possible scene from a John Candy movie, The Great Outdoors. I come upon the raccoons, and the one who is now pissed off from the hot sauce locks eyes with me. He has decided not to run away. Instead, he has decided it’s time to slice the jugular of the person who placed that damn hot sauce in there!

So yeah. I decided to let the raccoons have their meal. I realize I thought it was bears at the time. I’m projecting backwards.

Many portions of Pisgah National Forest now require bear canisters. I’ve been considering acquiring one as I don’t want to be fined for not obeying these directives.

The hiking and camping community has to do a better job of keeping our food away from these amazing creatures. If a black bear gets a taste of and starts to want human food then two things will happen.

  1. It will become a danger to hikers within its territory.

  2. As a result of the black bear now being willing to approach humans, it will likely have to be put down by a Forest Ranger.

This is why people should NEVER willingly feed black bears. This is also why we have to be vigilant in keeping our food away from them.

The morning when I thought bears had gotten to my bear bag I was not angry about losing my food. I was sad and disappointed in myself. I thought I had just signed the death warrant for a black bear.

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