Ryan Jordan

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.