How to Store Food When Camping and Backpacking
Bringing the correct gear when camping and hiking is very important, especially when storing food. While out in the wilderness, people often worry about bears getting a hold of any food they brought in, however, bears are not the only animals that want some of your delicious grub. There are a lot of hungry critters out there that may cause problems like raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and everything in between.
Storing food appropriately is important to protect you and your food, but also to protect the animals. Critters coming close to camp could hurt themselves on any equipment you have brought with you. It is also possible for them to become dependent on human food to supplement their diet if they run into too many friendly backpackers, leaving them in aggressive and desperate situation when no one comes around to feed them.
What to Store
Storing any food you have brought (including in plastic wrappers and bags) when camping is important. Many animals you will encounter in the wild have a much better sense of smell than you and I, so there is not much you can do to hide food from them, no matter how deeply you put it in your backpack. It is also important to store any trash that may have contained food. You really do not want to leave any trace of something delicious behind for someone to find!
You should not just be storing food though, it is also important to store anything that smells, such as toothpaste or sunscreen. While humans know these things aren’t edible, animals just know that it smells like dinner. Make sure to store anything aromatic safely away.
How to Store
The first thing to do is to ensure that there are not any local regulations that need to be followed. Many parks require bear canisters to be used to store food when camping. If you are unsure, talk to a DNR officer or the camp office to see if they know more. Often, even if there are no official regulations, they will have suggestions and best practices that work well for the area you will be in. No matter what method you choose, make sure the spot your food is stored is at least 100 feet away from camp.
There are 3 main methods to appropriately storing food while camping or backpacking.
- Metal lockers
- Bear canisters or Bear Bags
- Hanging food off of a tree or pole
Sometimes, when entering a campground or designated backcountry, you will be provided with large bear-proof metal boxes where you can store any food, aromatic items, and toiletries. Also, these boxes can sometimes be shared among many groups, so on a busy weekend, there is not always a guarantee there will be room for all of your stuff. Make sure to bring a backup plan in case you run out of room (as long as local regulations allow it).
These hard-shell plastic cylinders are one of the most popular methods to store food when camping. They have a hard lid that humans can screw off but is near impossible for bears to get open. A lot of them require either a coin or a screwdriver to unlock. One of the big downsides of bear canisters is they can be kind of bulky, however, a lot have been designed to fit into standard camping backpacks. They also come in a wide range of sizes to fit the group size you are camping with!
If you are backpacking where bear canisters are required, make sure you have one. If a ranger catches you without the appropriate equipment, you can be issued a rather large fine! There are a few parks that will offer bear canisters on loan, but on big weekends, they run out often. Make sure to have a backup plan ready to go.
Pro Tip: Put reflective tape on your canister. At night, if you hear something happening nearby, you can easily spot the canister with a flashlight.
Sometimes, a bear canister is not required by the park or local regulations, but there still may be some bear activity in the area. This leaves you with a bear bag, which is a good alternative to store your food while camping! Made from high-density polyethylene, bears cannot tear this tough bag open.
Because of the nature of the bag, a bear could smash whatever you are storing inside. It is possible to get aluminum liners separately to help prevent this. The bag is also not waterproof or odor proof. So any rain could damage the contents, as well as any fragrant items could still attract critters. There are available odor proof bags sold separately (that are also waterproof).
There are less heavy duty bags designed to deter smaller critters and rodents. I would suggest just going for the bear bag. It will be able to deter more animals and if you ever decide to hike into bear country, you know your items will be safe.
Pro Tip: Bags can be left on the ground like canisters, but it is still smart to either tie it to something (like a tree) or string it up below with the following method!
The hanging food method is just that. It is a way to string food up, out of the reach of any animals on the ground. There are two main methods to stringing up food: utilizing bear poles and suspending food from tree limbs.
Some camp areas and parks you will visit may have bear poles. These are typically preferable to tree limbs because they are significantly easier to use. They normally look like metal flag poles with several hooks sprouting out at the top. Next to the bear pole, you will find a lifting hook to help you lift up your bear bag or entire backpack up onto the hooks at the top. These are much quicker to use than lifting stringing it up on a tree or making your own contraption.
The other option you have is to manually hang your food over a strong tree limb. To do this:
- Tie a 50-100 ft rope to a weight. This can be a rock, stick, or anything with a good weight to it.
- Using the weight side of the rope, toss the rope over the tree branch.
- Once the rope is over the branch, untie your weight, and tie up your backpack or food bag.
- Hoist up bag 15ft in the air, being at least 4 feet from the trunk of the tree.
- Tie the free end of the rope to the trunk of the tree to secure it.
This could take several tried to get right and could be a highly frustrating process. Remember that it is important to get right! You do not want any midnight visitors getting ahold of your food.
Bonus Pro Tips
So now that you know what to store in your canister or bag and how to store it, here are some best practices for types of things you may be storing.
Food that needs to keep cool
You may want to bring meat, cheese, eggs, milk, or something else that may require refrigeration on your trip. This is delicious and fun but requires some forethought.
- Make sure to put anything you want to store into a pre-chilled cooler.
- Instead of using ice cubes to chill your cooler, freeze water in reusable water bottles. This will typically last longer than ice cubes, as well as gives you more water to drink once it is no longer needed.
- Freeze any food you want to bring ahead of time as well, it can always be thawed later.
- Always bring a thermometer to measure how cool it is in the cooler. You do not want to eat food that may be spoiled. It will be dangerous and uncomfortable for you later.
Cook food and wash dishes away from camp. When cleaning, use unscented, biodegradable soap. Any odors you create may attract more animals. Even the dishwater can smell like a snack to them. When getting rid of dishwater, try and find a rocky area to dump it off in. If that is not possible where you are, go even farther away from camp and dump it there.
Bring Sanitizing Wipes
It may not be very easy to use lots of water for washing hands. Sanitizing wipes are a nice alternative that are very light and easy to carry. In a pinch, they can even be a shower-in-a-can (although I do not suggest that). They are very versatile in the food preparation and cleanup and always have a spot in my pack.