Saturday 10 June 2017

Protecting food from bears in the High Sierra then and now.

Counter-balancing on the PCT in 1982
Looking through my images recently I came upon the one on the left, which reminded me that 35 years ago this month I was hanging my food every night on the Pacific Crest Trail in the High Sierra. This was because the black bears that live in the area had long ago discovered that the food hikers and climbers carried was really quite tasty and often easy to obtain so they took to raiding camps. This isn't good for the bears as if they become a potential threat to human safety they can be shot with a dart gun and relocated and if they come back again they can be killed. And the food isn't that good for them anyway.

Aside from concern for the bears campers don't want to lose their food, especially many days away from resupplies, so various methods have been developed to stop bears getting it. These soon became mandatory in much of the High Sierra.

Back in 1982 the only way to protect food was by hanging it high up in a tree. Just throwing a line over a branch, hauling up the food and then tying the line round the tree trunk no longer worked in the High Sierra as the bears had worked out
Black bear in the High Sierra, 2002
that if they found a cord and broke it a bag of food would appear. The only method that worked was the counter-balance one. This meant suspending two bags of food from a branch high enough above the ground and far enough from the tree trunk that a bear couldn't reach them. This was not easy and often meant a frustrating hour or more at the end of the day. Once up the food was out of reach until morning too. It was far too much hassle to lower it down if you fancied a late snack and then haul it up again.

Long after my PCT walk the first bear-resistant containers appeared. These are bulky plastic barrels too wide for a bear to get its jaws around and crack open. They're heavy and awkward to pack. You can only get a certain amount of food in them too (up to a week in my case). Hikers often curse them, especially those who have never had to hang food. I accept them as they do make camp life much easier. They're good for the bears too as they soon learn they can't get into them and lose their association of campers with food.

Cathedral Lake camp, 2002
I first used one of these containers on a 500 mile circular walk in the High Sierra twenty years after my PCT hike. I remember finding it hard to pack but such a pleasure to have in camp. No more food hanging! Access to my supplies whenever I wanted! And at the end of the walk I really discovered the advantages of it. (Regular readers of my writings may recognise this story from elsewhere). On the walk I had generally avoided popular camp sites - a good way to avoid bears in camp as they soon learn where these are - but on my last night I ended up at easily accessible and very popular Cathedral Lakes in Yosemite National Park where there were many other campers. As rain looked possible I slept under my tarp - most nights I'd been under the stars - with my bear-resistant container out in the open a dozen metres or so away. Early in the morning I was woken by a sound and looked out to see a bear walk past my canister. It didn't even look at it. A few minutes later I heard loud shouts and yells from nearby. I clambered up the knoll above my camp and watched a bear racing up the hillside with something dangling from its jaws and a cord trailing behind it. It was being pursued by two naked people shouting loudly. Eventually the bear disappeared with its booty and the campers were left to hike out with no breakfast.

Camp in the High Sierra, 2016, with bear-resistant container
I used a container again last year on my Yosemite to Death Valley walk and again I was glad not to
have to hang my food. I was also glad when I crossed Owens Valley into the desert Inyo Mountains and didn't need it any more. I'd rented it in Yosemite Valley - a good option if you don't need one regularly - and sent it back from Lone Pine.


  1. Having backpacked many times in the High Sierra Chrissie and I own two bear canisters. Once you get used to packing them in the centre of your pack, on top of your sleeping bag with clothes stuffed around them, they're fine. They also make great camp stools.

    1. I forgot the camp stools use! I have two bear canisters too - early Garcia Machine ones with straight sides. The last few trips I haven't taken them though as I didn't need a canister for the whole trip so renting one for just the period I needed it was easier than sending one home or carrying it when I didn't need it.