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This question is prompted by the replies to Questions about specifics of black bear encounter with mother and yearling cub. That question was about an encounter over 30 years ago, before the era of portable bear canisters, or at least before they were routinely used. And it was a 14 day trip, and there is no way we could have carried enough canisters for a 14 day trip. Maybe some of you supermen could have! So...the current question.

From my point of view, this question is theoretical, because we aren't going on any more 14 day backpacking trips without assistance from a packer. But I am curious.

How can food be properly stored against black bears on a long (say 14 day) backpacking trip at least partly in black bear country? Assume no campsites with established bear boxes beyond the first and last days. Assume no brown bears.

Can you really carry enough bear canisters? If so, tell me how! Do you rely on trees (bear-bagging)? Or what?

In the Sierra, with black bears, we have dug into snow banks to store food where there were no good bear-bagging trees available. This has never failed, and in several cases we know there were bears around (pawprints, neighboring campsite being ripped off, notorious bear traffic.)

  • I carried two bear canisters on my 14-day trip in the Canadian Rockies, knowing that the first 3-4 days I'd be on campsites with bear poles. – gerrit Oct 16 '15 at 9:20
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An online poll showed that almost everyone on a backpacking trip eats about 15-20 kcal (63-84 kJ) per day per pound of body weight: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=35516 . So let's take 17.5 cal/day/lb (161 kJ/kg) as a typical value. This is in line with my actual experience from trips where I made a spreadsheet of all my food.

Energy densities of foods vary a lot, but a pretty conservative figure is about 2.5 kcal (10.5 kJ) per milliliter. You can easily go higher than that. You can even get much higher than that, but only by depending heavily on fats, which isn't realistic. But let's use that figure as a conservative estimate.

My body weight is 140 lb (63½ kg). Crunching the numbers for a 14-day trip, I find that I would need 34,000 kcal (142 MJ), which would be 840 cubic inches (13.8 litre) of food. There are certainly bear canisters that big, e.g., the Bearikade Expedition, which is 900 in³ (14.7 litre).

As a practical matter, I would look for alternatives to shlepping that much food through the mountains. Maybe there is an opportunity to resupply, perhaps by making a side trip. Another possibility is to put some food in a hard-sided bear canister and some in something more lightweight, such as an Ursack.

In terms of weight, I usually eat 1.1-1.4 lb (0.5–0.6 kg) of food per day, and in an online discussion with a professional guide, he told me that a group of clients would almost always average exactly 1.4 lb (0.6 kg) per person per day. For a two-week trip, that comes out to about 20 lb (9 kg) of food, which is a lot, but not insane.

Most people vastly overestimate how much food they need to bring. Another common phenomenon is that people practice a heavyweight style of backpacking, which makes them reduce the number of miles they do per day. This makes their trip take a long time, causing them to carry more food. More food is more weight, which slows them down some more, etc. A different approach would be to reduce your base weight and plan on doing more miles per day. But this gets down to a matter of style and preference. Some people enjoy doing 20-22 miles/day (32–35 km), but others prefer to do other activities and not try to make so many miles. It's a question of what you're going to enjoy.

  • Ursacks aren't legally adequate in the sierras, at least as of when I was last there. However, from a purely practical standpoint hanging an ursack in a tree is a good way to minimize risk for carrying extra food. I would certainly want a bear can to keep as much of my food in as possible of course. But as you said, a resupply is the best method if there's any way to work that into a trip. Reduces the weight you need to carry which is nice too. – nhinkle Oct 16 '15 at 0:49
  • @nhinkle: Ursacks aren't legally adequate in the sierras, at least as of when I was last there. There is a patchwork quilt of regulations. Some areas require hard-sided bear canisters and some don't. In any case, I assume the OP isn't asking about the Sierra, because there really isn't anywhere I know of in the Sierra where you can hike 14 days without the possibility of resupply. E.g., the southern half of the JMT has no easy resupply, but it doesn't take 14 days to hike it unless your pace is really slow. – Ben Crowell Oct 16 '15 at 18:30
  • There are plenty of places in the eastern sierras where you can hike for 14 days without an easy resupply if you aren't through-hiking. The number of possible routes is endless. I've done several 12-14 day trips in the Inyo area where we had to either have somebody hike in with a resupply and meet us on a pass, or add a full extra day to hike out to a trailhead and back in. – nhinkle Oct 29 '15 at 1:56
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Realistically, if you can manage to carry the food, then you can manage the canisters also. They have been proven to decrease bear encounters and are actually now required in parts of Sierra National Forests, as well as in parts of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Inyo National Forests and in all of Yosemite National Park [see map]. This means you have to carry them whether or not you think they may be impractical.

The only other options are to hang a proper food cache or lock your food in a bear proof locker. Burying your food is not a recommended caching technique. I think you may have just gotten lucky with your previous experiences.

One thing you could try if there aren't any trees or bear poles around, is to hang your cache over a cliff or a tall rock. I've done this on several occasions while camping above the tree line.

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In 2013 I did an long trip (12 days) in the Rockies (near Banff/Lake Louise National Parks). We were entirely back country, except for the very first camp site. In this area brown bears are the biggest worry, so we used a bear hang. Arguably this can also work against black bears (at least in areas where the buggers haven't become so clever that they figure out how to get to your bear hang).

On the amount/weight of food: I think Ben Cromwells answer is on the very light end of the spectrum. Unless you do absolutely professional (and expensive) food planning/preparation, and forgo some diversity/tastiness I'd rather calculate around 900g per person per day. The volume will also be a lot bigger than the theoretical values, I'd say 1-2 liters per person per day.

So for a 14 day trip (including reserves!) you'll end up with 16kg of food (+toiletries etc which you must also store bear-safe).

For our bear hang we used big roll-top dry bags normally used for water sports. We also used an improvised pulley system to get the bear hang (40ish kg for 3 people) 4-5m up into the air. Getting to that height means your suspending rope must be anchored some 7 meters above ground (to account for the length of the bag, elasticity of the rope, ...).

Yes, doing this every night is quite a task. Picking a decent camping spot and setting up the bear hang takes an hour at least.

On the other hand the rope/carabiner/dry bag equipment is not too heavy, and is easily stored in your backpacks.

  • Did you maintain your weight on this trip? We always lost about 5 pounds each on our 14 day trips, which is about 1,200 calories per day per person. We could not have carried as much as you did. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 28 '15 at 13:06
  • Regretfully no, I lost about 4-5kg. This is an issue I have not yet been able to resolve, even with daily rations of 3000 kcal an more. I guess I'd need upwards of 4000 kcal to sustain my weight, and that would mean another 4kg of food to carry :P – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 28 '15 at 13:52
  • Unless I can come up with some incredibly nourishing, and light-weight food, 12ish days seems to be my limit for independent non-resupply treks. I'm a tall dude (6'5, 190lbs) so I'll survive losing a bit of weight, but any longer and things will start to get unhealthy... :) – fgysin reinstate Monica Oct 28 '15 at 13:54

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