Bear-Resistant Food Storage

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BV 500

Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2019 — About this time every year, next year’s thru hikers start the food storage debate.  Some are going to hang it.  Some are going to carry bear canisters.  Others argue for Ursacks.  A few brave Darwin Award candidates claim they’re going to use their food bags as pillows.

The fact is that most shelters on the AT don’t have bear cables, bear poles or bear boxes.  Of those without, many are surrounded by trees the limbs of which are so high that a NFL quarterback might have difficulty tossing a line.

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Fifty feet of rope.

The discussions tend to proceed along emotional rather than practical lines.  The contrarians definitely assert themselves.

The list of practical reasons to seriously consider how to protect your food is getting longer.  On the AT, only bear canister requirement is for a short distance on Blood Mountain. It can easily be avoided by camping at the Lance Creek campground.  It’s an easy hike on into Neels Gap the next day.

The bear canister requirement on Blood Mountain was created when bears learned to shake food bags off the bear cables at Woods Hole shelter.

The AT Conservancy is highly recommending bear canisters along the entire AT HERE  because the number of food-related human/bear encounters is growing.  Here’s what the AT Conservancy had to say about bear incidents 2018.

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Bears do what human’s teach them.

Sometimes what happened before you came along matters most.  This tent had no food.  The bear learned that some tents have food, so it opens them up to check.  Other bears routinely enter shelters to forage and take what they find.

Before we discuss canisters and Ursacks, the PCT bear hanging method is worth a mention.  Done properly, it is effective.  The problem is that too many people improperly hang their food and then blame the bear that took it.  PCT Bear Hanging Method is at this link.  You Tube:  Here.

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PCT Method.

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BV 500 and Ursack.

Now lets try and not to start a WWE match over canisters vs. the Ursack.  Each has practical considerations plus strengths and weaknesses such as size and weight.  Both should* be tied to trees so that bears can’t carry them off.

*Clarification:  One manufacturer does not recommend tying bear cans to trees.  The NPS is ambiguous.  The concern is that nothing should be done that would permit bears to get leverage that would improve their chances of opening the canister.  I’ve had a bear cart one away that I was unable to find.  Thus, you’ll find me with my bear can tied to a tree with a long rope well away from camp.

Ursacks must definitely be tied to a tree to be most effective.*

THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE COMPARISON OF ALL BRANDS OR MODELS.  IT’S PURPOSE IS TO HELP YOU THINK YOUR WAY THROUGH YOUR CHOICE OF BEAR PROTECTION FOR YOUR FOOD. Google is your friend.

Canisters:  Canisters are the most foolproof but can be difficult to fit into your pack.  I had to upsize to a 65 liter pack to practically fit a Bear Vault 500 and the way I like to pack my other gear – in waterproof stuff sacks rather than packing it loosely around the canister. My normal pack is 50 liters.

The BV 450 is smaller and an easier fit.  Since it will hold four days worth of food, we issue it to our ridgerunners who are normally on the trail for four nights and five days.  For many, it’s a best value.

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BV 500 and BV 450.

BV 500. 2 lbs. 9 oz.  7 days.  $79.95.                             BV 450. 2 lbs. 1 oz.  4 days.  $69.95.

Other canisters such as the Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe are longer, thinner, and a bit more practical, but also heavier.

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Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe.

Frontiersman. 3 lbs. 7 days.  $78.95

Bearikade carbon fiber canisters are several hundred dollars but cool as hell. Check them out.

Any of the canisters can be rented.  Lightly used canisters can also be found on gear for sale sites at discounted prices.

Ursacks:  Ursacks are a made of ultra strong Laminated UHMWP and Kevlar. UHMWP is Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.

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When combined with an aluminum sleeve, Ursacks are highly bear resistant.

 

Ursack AllMitey.  13 oz. 5 days. $134.95.

Ursack Major.  7.6 oz.  5 days. $84.95.

Ursack aluminum liner.  $39.95.

Ursack also recommends odor reducing bag liners.

Now for the dark side.  None of these methods is perfect.  I know, you’re shocked.  Bad hang and the bear gets your food.  They also have been known to break into containers or destroy food inside Ursacks.

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Bad news for a Bear Vault.

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The bear got a taste of Sriracha.

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Ursack contents, post chew.

What ever you do, check out the containers approved by the U.S. government’s  Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.  They are the only containers allowed where food protection is required out west, the John Muir Trail for example.  There are many more brands and models than those discussed here.    Certified Bear-resistant Products.

The Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and others really do care about your safety.  Their certification helps you sort through the marketing hype and the trolls’ bullshit.

In may sound like a cliche, but a fed bear is a dead bear.  Let’s do what we can to keep our bears safe, ok?

Sisu.

 

 

 

To bear or not to bear a Bear Canister

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The Appalachian Trail in Georgia, March 2016 –The bear canister debate can get intense.  A lot of people like to troll this subject. My intent is not to rip the scab off that wound or relitigate the question here.  I’m only reporting observations I made last month as the hiking season started in Georgia.

The fact is, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, that human interaction with bears is increasing on the southern 500 miles of the AT and the ATC is recommending that hikers use bear canisters from Springer Mountain to Damascus, VA.

Last year I had the occasion to be a ridgerunner in Georgia during late February and March. This year fortune granted me the opportunity to hike the state again with a friend as she launched her thru hike. Comparing bear canister use between these two years is interesting.

The conversation on the trail about protecting food from bears also changed some over the course of the past year.  This is what I heard and observed.

As a ridgerunner I was issued a Bear Vault BV 500 (there are other brands) because my duties required camping within the bear canister-required zone in the Blood Mountain area.

I hate to say it but most hikers who showed up at Woods Hole shelter were ignoring this U.S. Forest Service requirement. They were unaware that the local bears had learned to shake food bags off the cable there.

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In total, during my time in Georgia last year, I saw a very small number of bear canisters over the five week period I was on the trail.  This one was at the shelter on Springer Mountain.

After conversations with hundreds of hikers over the past couple of years, my guess is the majority of thru hikers don’t take bears all that seriously thinking that what ever happens, it won’t happen to them.  Moreover, most hikers don’t understand bear behavior well enough to recognize the many different ways bears might be attracted and habituated to human food.

With the number of hikers rapidly increasing, especially the large numbers starting in the south, this is unhelpful – mostly to the bears.

So, last year the ATC initiated a Leave No Trace-inspired effort to promote the use of bear canisters.  Remember what the rangers say:  A fed bear becomes a dead bear.  Progress?

I arrived on Springer March 8 and spent the night talking to hikers and waiting for my friend to toe the starting line the next day.  The first thing I noticed was three bear canisters.  As we hiked north, I noted about a dozen or more or so.  These were carried by older hikers – certainly they were over 30.  They’d heard about and taken the ATC’s advice seriously.

Bears are always a topic at the beginning of a thru hike.  For most, the question more about whether bears are a legitimate threat to them, not whether their habits can be a threat to bears.

A lot of hikers said they had considered food protection but had decided that the canisters were too heavy (mine weighs 2 lbs. 9 oz.), or that they would occupy too much space in their packs to make hauling one worthwhile. At around $80 retail, they are expensive too.  Several implied they would rent them if that were an option.

Beyond canisters, people were debating whether or not the Ursack – made out of Kevlar, the material that bulletproofs bulletproof vests – was a better bet.

Ursacks are lined with a thick plastic bag that functions much like a Zip Lock.  This helps protect the contents from moisture and reduces the aroma signature.  Depending on size, their costs range from $55 – $90, so they’re not cheap either.

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The white bag is an Ursack.  It must be tied to a tree to be effective.  My Bear Vault is in the far background.

Ursack’s are approved in certain areas but not in others, including the AT.  It seems that even though bears can’t chew through them, they can still crunch up the contents and get a small taste – and that does not solve the problem.  There’s some argument about how varmint proof they are, though their website says tests show they stand up.  No doubt supporters would offer supportive arguments.

The attraction of Ursacks lies both in reduced weight and the amount of space they take up inside a pack.  Being pliable, unless you’re using their aluminum shield, they are much easier to pack around.  In other words, you can jam more stuff in your pack.

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Bear canisters are designed to be left on the ground, yet some people still use the bear cables, poles or boxes when they are available.

The Bear Vaults have grooves in the sides designed to aid strapping to the outside of a pack.  This doesn’t work so well with most internal frame packs. They easily strap on top of some Granite Gear packs.  I saw one in Georgia and liked it.  Unfortunately I was too dim witted to get a photo.

Although we’re not going to see the masses rush to embrace bear canisters or Ursacks in the near future, it appears the conversation about not habituating bears to human food is growing and more positive. That direction, in my view, ultimately helps serve the coexistence of both magnificent bears and intrepid people. I’m cautiously optimistic over time.

Full disclosure.  I bought a Bear Vault BV 500 this year and hiked with it in Georgia.  I also have a sow with cubs resident and often seen on the AT section I maintain in Shenandoah National Park.  I frequently hang my hammock and camp over night on my section when there’s a lot of work to be done. In that context alone, using a bear canister makes sense for me and my momma bear.  Sisu

Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.