The Complete Guide to Bear Bags: Everything You Need for Safe and Effective Food Storage in Bear Country

Master bear bagging with this in-depth guide covering types of bear bags, essential gear, and step-by-step instructions for hanging a bear bag using various methods to protect your food in bear country.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Brown bear in a tree showing how well they climb and that bear bags must be hung right to work
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For many looking to start their thru-hiking trips have never heard of bear bags let alone done a bear bag hang.

While there are many videos on YouTube most really avoid showing the process and thought behind it and are more just throwing randomly and calling it good.

The thing about bear bags is they have to be hung right and you have a few methods that may work in different situations you could find yourself in on the trail, you need to be versed in them though, and practiced enough to use them successfully.

Key Bear Bag Hanging Methods:

  • PCT Bear Hang
  • Counterbalance Bear Hang
  • Two Tree Bear Hang

Today I want to go over a bunch of bear bag how-to’s and help you find the easiest way to hang a bear bag in bear country.

This will make sure that you keep yourself safe from the bears along with keeping the bears safe from you too.

Let’s dive into what a bear bag is and why it is a good thing to have on you while hiking, after this we will talk about kit options and what methods exist to hang bear bags.

What is a Bear Bag?

At the core, bear bags will be the bag itself and a cord hanging kit. It is typically a simple-to-carry bag along with cordage that allows for quick setup and defense of food from black bears and other animals who may want an easy meal.

This lightweight bear bag allows you to easily package all your food items along with trash and get them away from you and your campsite.

The typical bear bag setup will be a ways away from your campsite and additionally away from where you eat your meals, this is over 200′ from the campsite for safety.

So what then goes into making a bear bag and how can I get myself set up with my own bear bag for hiking?

How To Build a Bear Bag

While anyone could buy materials and sew them together the options of a complete bear bag kit from Zpacks or the new ECOPAK or ultra material bear bag kits from Hilltop Packs are equally qualified to do the work and after sourcing the items to make your own the purchase is a good deal.

What Are the Parts of a Bear Bag Kit?

A bear bag kit comes down to a simple list of parts:

  • Bear bag
  • A Dog Bone Toggle for ease or another toggle device (carabiner, stick, etc)
  • Throw Rope – Cordage to tie off the bear bag
  • Cordage Bag to throw once filled with weight

The bear bag is the container that will hold all your food, there are many different shapes and sizes but for a thru-hiker, the key is keeping it light. You want something that is water-resistant as well so you want something made from Dyneema or other similar waterproof materials.

The cordage is what you use to tie off the bear bag and can be anything from Zpacks bear bag cord which is lightweight and easy to use and not stretchable, so paracord is out.

The main thing is having enough length to throw the line over the trees.

The cordage bag is to hold all the bear bag cord once you have gathered it up, this way you are not losing any of your bear bag material and can quickly reuse it when needed.

How to Hang a Bear Bag

There are many methods to bear bag hangs, and each has its own set of pros and cons that you should consider before using.

The three main bear bag hanging methods are the PCT bear hang, the counterbalance bear hang, and the two-tree bear hang.

The PCT Method For Bear Hanging

The PCT bear hang is the most common method used, its name even coming from the Pacific Crest Trail initials, so you know it must be an easy and straightforward method to perform on backpacking trips.

The PCT bear hang is straightforward, once you have gathered all your bear bag belongings in the bear bag, you throw the cord over the tree branch.

You then use a toggle with a clove hitch or another device to keep the cord from coming back through the bear bag hole.

To do this style hang you use a bear bag with a drawstring and cinch the top shut. Next, you take your bear bag cordage and make a loop.

You throw this over the tree limb, and once on the other side, you pull the bear bag up using the bear bag cord until it is about 6-8′ off the ground.

Now take the end of the bear bag cordage and put it through the loop you made, pull this tight, and you have now made a toggle.

This bear bag toggle will help keep the bag from coming back down through the bag hole.

The words seem simple but may be easy to get confused, I added a video that will give you a good view of this process!

PCT Bear Bag Video

Counterbalance Method For Bear Hanging

The counterbalance bear hang is another straightforward bear hang method that only requires a tree and some bear bag cordage.

To start, you will need to make a bear bag toggle as described in the PCT bear hang section and attach the first food bag.

Then you pull this one bag all the way up to the branch and pull the rope tight, grabbing as high as you can you tie another quick loop and carabiner to hold the second bag.

Then all you should need to do is release to have the original bag and pull the new bag up and into position to be safely out of reach.

This position will be hopefully at least 12′ off the ground, 6′ from the branch, and 6′ from the tree. This method is perfect for when you have more people and fewer options for a good hang.

This hopefully made sense, if not I found this video to make far easier sense of this!

Counterbalance Bear Hang Video

Two-Tree Method Of Bear Hanging

The trick is to make a “branch” where one doesn’t exist by using your cordage as a branch.

You want to find two sturdy trees at least 10’/3m apart preferably with branches/knobs at 10’/3m feet from the ground and features strong enough to securely tie your rope.

Then you tie one end of the rope around your rock sack or throw rock itself to add weight to your throw. Tossing the weighted rope over the sturdy knobs at least 10’/3m up on two trees.

Now you secure the ends of the rope to the sturdy branches or knobs of each tree. You then will secure your food bag to the middle of the rope.

Reel in and tie down the other side to lift the food bag(s). When correctly performed it ensures the necessary food hang is 5’/1.5m away from tree trunks.

Two Tree Bear Hang Video

Comparing Bear Bags and Bear Canisters

This will be a conversation forever but in the end, a bear bag costs a decent chunk less, is lighter weight, and can be moved and adapted as necessary.

The only time a bear canister makes more sense is if you are in an area with high bear activity and possibly if you are solo hiking.

The benefit to a bear canister is that it is a fully functional seat when you take breaks and it is rodent protective also in most cases.

Bear Bags vs Ursacks

These two are similar but very different as well. An Ursack is a bear-proof sack that you put all your food in, it is made of Kevlar typically and has a drawstring closure.

The bear bag, on the other hand, is a food container that you put your food into and then hang from a tree making it impossible for the bear to reach.

The Ursack may be lighter but the bear bag can be hung in different ways to keep animals out.

The Appalachian Trail’s Shift to Recommending Bear Canisters

Recently with issues due to bear encounters, the ATC has been requesting thru-hikers make the change from bear bags to bear canisters. I speak more about their wide benefits and issues here if you are interested in learning more details.

This is a change that will help protect both the bear population as well as the hikers who are coming through.

Canisters are much harder for bears to get into and will help keep them away from campsites and human food sources.

While a hard-sided canister may be an extra bit of extra weight to carry, it is worth it to know your food and trash are safe from bears.

Final Thoughts on Bear Bags and Hanging Methods

There are many different methods to protect your food from bears and other animals on the trail, a bear bag is just the most common due to its ease of carrying the biggest issue is finding perfect trees.

One thing I can say is that hanging a bear bag sounds pretty easy, but it does take some serious practice to do correctly and effectively.

When you are in bear country, you want to make sure that your bear bag is hung correctly so that the bears can’t get to your food.

I hope this guide has given you a better understanding of bear bags and how to hang them. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.

Happy bear bagging!

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