Thursday, February 24, 2011

Camping: Hang Your Food or Lose Your Lunch

Hanging food is one of the greatest annoyances while camping in the backcountry of the Adirondacks. It requires finding a suitable tree, locating an adequate rock, tying a rope onto the rock and making multiple throws attempting to hang the rope on a specific branch in a precise location. At any stage in the process a number of things can wrong requiring starting the whole process all over again.

Unfortunately, not hanging one’s food can easily result in losing all your meals and ruining an entire trip.

Hanging food is necessary in the Adirondacks to keep it out of the clutches of ravenous wildlife. The high-calorie treats carried by the typical backcountry explorer represents a smorgasbord of delights to most wild animals that have to struggle to obtain a comparable amount of calories in the wild.

Some of the animals eager to make a meal of your meals in the Adirondacks include but are not limited to mice, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, and bears. Most of these animals pose little danger but they can do serious damage to your equipment if it happens to stand between them and the precious delights they covet.

Although hanging food protects your provisions from many of these creatures the primary reason for going to great lengths to hang your food up in the tree canopy is to prevent black bears from gaining access to it. Unfortunately, not only do bears appear to relish human food but they are often intelligent enough to figure out how to effectively obtain it.

Finding a suitable limb for hanging one’s food bag can be a challenge, especially after a long day of slogging through the backcountry or hiking many miles by trail. It is essential to give yourself enough time by stopping early in the afternoon so as not to be hanging by headlamp.

With all the tree limbs available in the Adirondacks it can still be difficult to find a suitable branch in which to hang your food. The branch needs to be large enough to support your food bag but not sturdy enough that a bear can climb out onto it. In addition, the branch needs to roughly parallel to the ground so the rope does not slip toward the trunk as you pull the food up into the canopy. Typically hardwood trees are better for hanging food as their branches are thicker and they grow further out from the tree trunk.

Avoid hanging your food over your shelter though unless you are prepared to be woken in the middle of the night when a bear uses the shelter as a trampoline.

All methods for hanging a food bag require placing a rope over a tree branch using a rock. A rock is preferable to a piece of wood or a small stuff sack of dirt as these can be easily snagged up in the tree canopy. If the rope does get snagged on a branch take great care when tugging on it as you may find the rock slamming you in the head or somewhere much worse.

Finding a rock can range from trivial to exceedingly frustrating depending on the immediate vicinity where your campsite is located. Often the shores of water bodies and along streams are the best places to locate rocks although these are often smooth and round making trying a rope around them more challenging.

Since many Adirondack ponds have an indistinct shore and streams are not always available nearby I usually begin to search for tip-up mounds well before where I plan to make camp for the night. Often rocks are ripe for the picking in these tip-up mounds where a tree has been blown over. The more recent the tip-up the better as less leaf litter will have accumulated underneath making the rocks easier to locate.

Once a rock (or two just in case) and an adequate branch have been located it is time to actually hang the food bag. There are at least four different methods for hanging food bags. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages with some methods requiring more specialized equipment and training than others.

Typically, the food bag should be at least ten feet off the ground and four feet from the nearest tree trunk regardless of the method used to hang it. Using a dark colored rope is preferable since it is harder for bears to locate. To avoid having difficulty finding the rope yourself during the twilight hours following your dinner tie a small piece of florescent colored flagging on the rope until you are ready to hang your food for the night.

The traditional method for hanging a food bag requires simply throwing a rope over a single branch and hanging the food bag on one end and tying the other end off on another object, usually another tree. The rope should be tied off as high up on the object as possible. This method is simple but has the disadvantage of only being able to foil the most inexperienced bruin.

A similar method is to throw both ends of the rope over two different suitable branches with the food bag tied to the middle of the length of rope. Then pull both ends of the rope until the food bag is hanging equidistant from each of the branches. This method is a little more difficult requiring two suitable branches an acceptable distant from each other and then hanging the rope on each of them. The advantage is this method is more affective in thwarting a bear’s attempt.

The counter balance is one of the most affective methods to preventing even an experienced bear from getting your food but it requires two food bags. Your food must be separated into the two different bags each having approximately the same weight. The first bag is hung as in the traditional method but the second bag is then tied as high as possible along the opposite end of the rope. The remaining rope can then be placed in the second bag. The second bag can then be released so the two bags act as a counter balance to each other. A stick may be required to raise the second bag and to retrieve the bags. This method is one of the most difficult and can be harder to use as your food weight dwindles near the end of your trip.

The PCT method requires a single rope, a key chain carabineer and a twig. Once the rope is hug over the branch, the carabineer is attached to one end and the drawstring of the food bag is clipped into the carabineer. The food bag is pulled up all the way to the tree branch and the twig tied onto the rope as high as possible (using a two-loop clove hitch). The rope can then be released and the twig will catch on the carabineer and the food sack will hang from the branch. The rope can then be left to hang freely from the branch.

For most of my backcountry camping experience I have used the traditional method of hanging my food. I have never lost my food to a bear and only twice has my food been harassed by wildlife with only one of these in the Adirondacks. This single Adirondack incident involved a red squirrel in the High Peaks Wilderness.

Occasionally I use two branches with the food bag hanging in the middle but usually only when I have an abundance of time to kill at the campsite and there is ample evidence of bears in the vicinity. I have never actually tried the counter balance method but I imagine it would take an exceptional amount of patience something I typically have in short supply at the end of a long day of bushwhacking. I have never used the PCT method either but I look forward to doing so this summer.

The traditional method is typically adequate for anyone bushwhacking far from the trail system. Typically while bushwhacking one does not stay in the same campsite for more than a single night so animals have not become acclimated to presence of humans in the area. The infrequency of human activity greatly reduces the likelihood of any animal encounters.

And if you find hanging food to be too much of a chore then you can always carry a plastic bear-proof food canister. These are required in the eastern part of the High Peaks Wilderness now. I find the extra one to three pounds to be too much to carry except where essential or required.

Properly hanging your food in the tree canopy is essential for a safe, pleasurable and nutritious trip in the backcountry of the Adirondacks.

Photo: Bear claw marks.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

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