Cliffhanging: Bear Bagging Above the Treeline

On the Arctic 1000, we slept with our food. This gave me a little bit of trepidation, especially when our camp was usually surrounded by some combination of wolves, muskox, and grizzly bears.

I’m sure that’s what Andy will be doing as well during his traverse of the Brooks Range this year. Otherwise, sleeping with your food is generally considered to be a black market activity not to be shared on the Internet. Wilderness food storage considerations are receiving renewed interest in light of recent grizzly bear attacks at a campground that was less than eight miles from where the above photograph was taken. (The attacks appeared to be unrelated to food storage policies but have resulted in a dramatic increase in bear frenzy.)

Bear canisters are required in some areas but for most of us up here in the northern Rockies, we make do with trees, which are generally plentiful.

Above the treeline, folks consider all sorts of haberdashery in addition to bear canisters in the name of weight savings. Some of these strategies include:

  1. Stowing your food, and some heavy rocks in (or tying another stow sack filled with same to) a dry bag, attaching a retrieval cord, and tossing it into a lake. I’ve used this method with good success, but after observing a high altitude otter trying to thieve the contents on a trek a few years ago, I abandoned the idea because I couldn’t sleep well at night.
  2. My friend Peter Vacco, who’s the only guy I know who has walked the Continental Divide from Mexico to Point Hope, builts a little tripod with his trekking poles, hangs the food from it, and perches it a few dozen feet from his tent. It keeps short critters out, which is his goal, but offers no security against animals with legs longer than a few inches other than entertainment value when they start feasting. Peter never lost his food. Maybe a bigger tripod is the answer (collapsible 5 meter carbon poles?)
  3. Electric fences are all the rage with institutional groups and outfitters, but after watching a bear get zapped on the nose and then walk right through one to retrieve food, I’m not so sure. Plus, they’re extraordinarily heavy. Nine pounds is OK for a group, and less OK for me and a pal.
  4. Alan Dixon and I used Ursacks on a few trips in the Beartooths, including at our basecamp for an ice climb up Whitetail Peak. The problem there was less “bears” and more “goats”, which tend to eat everything in sight whether it looks or tastes like food – or not. Goats love Ursacks and they tore through one of mine one night using a combination of teeth, hooves, horns, and the persistent determination of a goat.

I’ve tried lots of other light methods, as well, including several layers of 12.5″ x 20″ O.P. Saks, which I might use if I were to sleep with my food…Three O.P.’s give me a bit of security on a longer walk, and when stashed inside a Blast Cuben Fiber stow bag, I don’t worry about rodents either, because they have a hard time chewing through the fibers.

However, I still sleep best when my food remains inaccessible to a bear (or goat), so I look for cliffs when I can.

The cliff should be at least 15 feet high, and ideally, vertical or overhanging. Your rope needs to have a little more beef than the thin cords used for hanging food in trees because it will suffer abrasion on sharp granite as you raise and lower the bag. My rope choice is AirCore Rope, which is tough enough.

Some more tips:

  • Scout the cliff from below so you know exactly where you want to hang. This is where a buddy (spotter) can really help.
  • If the rock is really sharp, or you have to use thin rope, set up a “top rope” with a carabiner or tiny pulley tossed weightless over the cliff with the main hang rope threaded through it, then hang your bag from below using the PCT Method as you normally would in a tree. This requires a 25+ foot tall cliff.

The only methods I can heartily recommend for food storage in the Northern Rockies are tree hanging and bear canisters. Any other methods may be a compromise in safety, land management agency policy, and personal comfort. Use your head, and don’t let a goat (or bear) get your food.



GoLite Shangri-La 6 & 8: Lightweight Crew Shelters That Meet Standards of Storm Protection, Simplicity, and Group Dynamics

We use GoLite Shangri-La 6’s and 8’s for our advanced (WT3) Wilderness Trekking School courses, and when I outfit Scout High Adventure Programs going into hostile environments.

There are three primary reasons.

  1. They are light enough. Between the shelters, poles, and a big set of robust stakes, shelter weight comes out to around a pound per person. On our Wilderness Trekking III courses (“Advanced Expedition Trekking”), nobody complains about the weight because all the participants are tough enough, and we have other challenges on those trips (bad weather, getting lost, staying warm, etc.) that are worth complaining about. On Scout High Adventure Treks, nobody complains about the shelter weight because the biggest, toughest kids usually carry the shelter and to complain about it would negate the servant leadership position they are trying to earn.
  2. They are tough enough. Having weathered high winds, heavy snows, and driving rain in all seasons and at all altitudes (in the CONUS, at least), none of us ever worry about whether or not the shelter is going to survive a storm. We used to pair these shelters with goofy weight-saving alternatives like titanium skewer stakes and carbon poles, or trekking poles for the support poles. But after breaking poles in storms and having stakes go flying, we ditched those things in favor of strong aluminum poles (we use the stock poles from GoLite), eight Easton Monster Pegs (8″) for the ridgelines, corners, and side mid-points, and 6″ aluminum V-stakes for the rest (4 additional sides, the doors, and the six side guylines. The result is that we no longer worry, and we can camp whereever we want, like Rough Lake (above).
  3. They are intimate enough. With a crew, relational intimacy is extremely important. Sure, you can separate everyone in different shelters, but when you do so, you lose opportunities for group communication, and for developing camaraderie. Group intimacy is probably the single most important thing that contributes to the success (which I define as the feeling of “Wow! What an amazing trek!”) of a group trek. A shelter big enough to house the whole group minimizes the formation of a cliques and coalitions, and is a lot more fun.

Boy Scout Patrol in a GoLite Shangri-La 8 during their 50-Miler across the Beartooth Plateau, July 2010. PANASONIC TS-1.



The problem with the GoLite Shangri-La 6/8 is that by the time most of us had the opportunity to really get to know the shelter, and its capabilities, GoLite discontinued it.

This is what happens when companies release products before their time and aren’t able to allow a product to mature in the marketplace because of the cash flow and economies of scale constraints caused by low sales volumes. Therma-Rest pads didn’t exactly revolutionize backcountry travel upon their introduction (their cost and reliability prevented mass market adoption for a few years), but thank goodness they stuck with it.

I think the GoLite Shangri-La 6 and 8 are the best institutional crew shelters made by anybody. Ever.

Now, we’re stuck with splitting crews into two or three big pyramids, which discombobulates group dynamics, results in decreased storm resistance (single pole pyramids are abysmal in heavy winter snows due to their high surface area:structure ratio) and forces us into carrying and having to keep track of, and care for, more gear. Simplicity has its virtues.

There are undoubtedly still a few tucked away in bargain basements, so grab them while you can – they’re gems.

Gear, Scouting

Give a Boy a Map

Harry Potter couldn’t cross the Beartooth Range, or be a thru-hiker, because of character attributes that are not compatible with long distance wilderness travel. You see, Harry Potter suffers from arrogance (he’d think he knew where he was when he really wasn’t), impatience (he wouldn’t evaluate all of his route options), and anger management (he’d get really ticked off when he discovered he was lost).

Plus, spells and stuff don’t really work in the wilderness.

This is why you should teach a boy to read a map – because spells are inherently unreliable – and careful map reading breeds the humility, patience, and perseverance that allows you to travel a long way across unknown terrain.

What wilderness are you traveling, and what map are you reading to navigate it?



Back from the Beartooths: A 50-Mile Traverse With Scouts


Self Portrait at Green Lake


I am back from a traverse of the Beartooth Plateau with BSA Troop 676 of Bozeman, and am getting caught up, so can’t provide much more than teasers right now. The good stuff (photos and gear list) will appear when this blog is relaunched with a new design later this month, or in early August.

Here are some highlights from the trek:


  • Three adults and six Scouts completed the entire traverse. The average age of the Scouts was 13.5 years old. Four members of our crew were either 12 or 13 years old. The Scouts carried a total of 149 pounds of personal gear, food, and patrol gear amongst the six of them.
  • We completed a route of about 50 miles that traversed the entire plateau from the Beartooth Highway (Highway 212) to Aero Lakes. We spent about 1/3 of our time off trail on snow, talus, and tundra. The longest hike any of these Scouts had completed before was 18 miles, and two nights.
  • The Scouts slept in a GoLite Shangri-La 8 (no inner tent), cooked over fire using two 4-L pots (with a few meals over Esbit when wood was not available), and treated water with Aqua Mira in two 4-L collapsible water bags.
  • Everyone wore running shoes. No one got a blister. I sprained my shoulder and everyone got a small cut or two. One cut got infected and the Scout had to go to the ER a day after coming home for IV antibiotic treatment. Spooky.
  • We encountered rain, hail, wind, sun, snow, talus, scree, river crossings, and mosquitoes – with no small amount of each!
  • Scouts carried three ULA Circuit Packs, one GoLite Jam pack, one frameless Lowe Alpine rucksack, and one Bozeman-vintage Dana pack with a light load in it (this one was carried by our 17 year old).
  • We caught, and ate, trout.
  • We bagged a remote peak.
  • The Scouts did their own navigation. We followed.
  • We ended our trek by hiking Highway 212 right into the Beartooth Cafe in Cooke City during the middle of the Beartooth Motorcycle Rally, when $5 Million worth of Harley Davidson’s congregate in Cooke City. We stuck out like sore thumbs, walking downtown with our packs on. It was fun.

So — more soon. Here are a few teasers.

Ambling on Tundra

Chase, 12, walks up the Sierra Creek valley en route to Castle Lake on a day hike from Green Lake.



Dusk at Rough Lake Camp




Twelve Year Old on Talus Above Lower Aero Lake


The Scout Patrol Method and Leadership

Patrol Leader’s Council Meeting, Glacier National Park


The Patrol Method, and Leadership Development, are the two Methods of Scouting that are sometimes the hardest to implement because parents’ instincts are to foster an environment where these methods are hijacked.

This is one of the big reasons why Scouting has evolved into a retraining organization rather than an organization that reinforces what’s already going on in the home: there’s a lot that has to be undone in order to even reach a foundation from which the Patrol Method and Leadership Development can be implemented.

When an 11- or 12-year old is given the chance to lead a group of peers, and when that group of peers has both responsibility and accountability, they can do great things as kids and become the right types of leaders as adults: leaders that serve, not bark.

Both responsibility and accountability have to be real, however, not contrived – and this is the primary difference between how responsibility and accountability is implemented in the contemporary American Home vs. the Traditional Baden-Powell-esque Scout Patrol.

That’s why today, I’m handing the boys a new map, and asking them which trailhead they’d like us to drive them to tomorrow, and which trails they’d like us to follow them on, and which camps they’d like us to pitch our shelters near.


Great Bear Wilderness Trip Planning, Glacier National Park