Imagine that you’ve been prepping for weeks for a 15-day section hike through the majestic Appalachian Mountains. Your third day is a big 20-miler, and afterwards, you’re absolutely exhausted. As a result, your sleepy self doesn’t follow proper etiquette for food storage for backpacking. You wake up to find that:
- You lost ⅔ of your food to a bear overnight.
- The rations that remain weren’t properly sealed.
For the remaining 12 days, you’re left with a couple rodent-contaminated bags of ramen and some tortillas that a rat feasted on while you were sleeping. Your options are either to starve, get seriously sick, or get out — ASAP. Cue: panic.
With six years of backpacking trips under my belt, I have inevitably lost apples to birds and ramen to mice due to improper food storage. I have, however, learned by experience how to safely store food items while backpacking with active bears, as well as sneaky birds and rodents.
Below, I’ll discuss the basics of proper food storage for backpacking, plus some tips for planning and packing food.
Disclaimer: This is only a guide. Research local regulations regarding food storage before you go backpacking.
Why Food Storage Is Important
Proper food storage can make or break a backpacking trip. Storing your food in a way that makes it inaccessible to bears, rodents, and other wildlife ensures:
- You don’t lose any food to cute, furry thieves
- Your food is not contaminated by disease-transmitting animals.
Equally as important is that proper food storage protects wildlife and future hikers and backpackers. If wildlife becomes accustomed to human food, it is disruptive to their natural diet. Additionally, bears that become dependent on humans for food are often euthanized to prevent dangerous situations for future backpackers.
Food Storage Planning
Food planning might be the most stressful part of planning a backpacking trip. To help you determine how much food to bring, I’ve covered the basics below.
How Much Food Should You Bring?
The amount of food you bring backpacking depends on the length and intensity of your days. Most backpackers find that 2,500 to 4,500 calories (1.5–2.5 pounds) worth of food per person per day is sufficient. On days that you are covering more mileage or drastically increasing your elevation, you’ll want to eat more to ensure that your body has plenty of fuel.
I strongly recommend making at least a rough outline for your daily meals and snacks. As an avid snacker, my meals would look something like this for a day of moderate intensity (i.e., 10–15 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation increase).
I mention eating fresh produce only on Day 1 or 2 of your trip for a couple of reasons. It tends to be heavy because of its water content, so eating it early will lighten your load. It also could spoil if it sits in warm temperatures for too long. Fresh produce does, however, taste extra good in the middle of a forest, so I always bring an apple and carrots or something similar.
Prepackaged food items like ramen, instant mashed potatoes, and oatmeal packets can almost always be repackaged into resealable, reusable containers. This helps reduce bulk and trash on the trail.
Types Of Food Storage Containers
You’re taking off for your 40-mile trek in a few days. Should you bring a bear bag? A bear canister? An odor-proof (OP) sack and some sealable baggies? I’ll discuss the different methods of food storage below to help you choose the most effective option for your backpacking trip.
Canisters are the most reliable containers to protect your food from bears and other wild animals, especially in areas where they’re known to be active.
Usually made of polycarbonate or carbon fiber, bear canisters are hard-sided containers that fit into most backpacking backpacks. They may have screw-off lids or lids that require a small device like a coin to open.
- Highly effective
- Double as camp chair
- No hanging required
- Meets all backcountry food storage requirements
- Bulkier than bear bags
- Can be pricey
Bear bags are sturdy, soft-sided containers that are great for areas where canisters are not required. I strongly recommend using OP sacks inside your bear bag to deter wild animals even further. You can purchase aluminum liners separately to prevent your bag from getting crushed.
Although they are designed to be bear and rodent-proof, you should still hang your bear bag unless you’re in an extremely low-risk area.
- Lightweight & malleable
- Usually effective against bears and rodents
- Doesn’t meet food storage regulations in many areas, including some national parks
- Food can get crushed without aluminum liner
- Easy to carry — even for bears
Tips For Hanging Food Bags
- Find a sturdy tree branch. Some campsites have designated bear poles and/or cables to hang from as well.
- Tie a fist-sized rock to the end of at least 50 feet of rope or paracord.
- Throw the rock over the tree branch. Once it’s over, untie it, and attach your food bag.
- Hoist the bag at least 10-15 feet in the air and at least four feet from the tree trunk.
- Secure the loose end of your rope to a tree trunk.
- Alternatively, the PCT method of hanging food doesn’t require tying the loose end to a tree. Tying off the loose end makes a taut rope that a bear can swipe at and break. The PCT method leaves a loose rope hanging down and can increase accessibility to scented items like toiletries.
Metal Food Lockers
Metal food lockers are nonmobile, bear-proof containers that have a secure latch, similar to residential bear boxes. They are sometimes found at designated backcountry campsites.
If you intend to use metal food lockers for your trip, be thorough in your research. You’ll want to make sure that there is a locker at every site you might visit.
- Usually provide ample space for food and toiletries
- You don’t have to carry your own animal-proof container
- Not always available
- Often located close to sleeping location
- May contain debris from previous backpackers
Food Storage At A Campsite
Here, I’ll cover how you should store your food both at night and during the day once you arrive at camp.
During The Day
It’s easy to assume that because you can easily see your food, it’s safe from curious critters. This is not the case. If you are not actively eating, your food should be kept in an animal-resistant container. This may seem tedious or unnecessary, but I have returned from two-minute bathroom trips to discover that I am not the only one enjoying my snacks.
If you are relaxing at camp, keeping your food in its sealed container(s) is adequate. If you are leaving camp, however, you need to either hang your bear bag, put all your food in a metal locker, or seal your bear canister.
During The night
All of your food, trash, and scented items (i.e. toothpaste, deodorant, chapstick, etc.) should be secured at night. This includes any clothes that have food spilled on them.
If you are using a hanging method, ensure your bear bag is closed correctly. Then, hang it according to the instructions above.
For those using a bear canister, ensure that it is closed correctly. Then, carry it 100 yards downwind from your tent, and stash it on the ground in a discreet area, like between bushes or rocks.
If there is a metal food locker at your site, place all of your smellable items into OP sacks. Place these in the locker, and ensure that it is latched correctly.
Packing And Organizing Food For A Backpacking Trip
There’s no “one size fits all” method to packing food, but I’ll discuss a couple of different methods and why they work.
First, label any repackaged foods. This may include cooking instructions and caloric density, to ensure you’re meeting your calorie needs. Knowing how much food fuel you have left can also help you keep track of inventory for the remainder of your trip.
The “By Meal” Method
This method usually works well for shorter trips, no more than three or four days long. This involves packing all the items for specific meals together.
Depending on your inclination toward organization, this might mean packing the items for an individual meal together. (i.e., All the items for a Thanksgiving Dinner are packed together, but separate from other dinners).
Otherwise, you can pack all of your dinners together, all of your lunches together, and all of your breakfast items together. Pack the heaviest items at the bottom and the lighter ones near the top to prevent your pack from becoming top-heavy.
I recommend keeping snacks handy. When I am actively hiking, I always have some in the hip pockets of my backpack — I call these my “hip snacks.” I also almost always have some in the pockets of my trousers, and these are my “pocket snacks.” When your snacks aren’t in your pockets, keep them at the top of your food bag or canister for accessibility.
While you’re actively hiking, don’t worry about sealing your bear bag or canister in your backpack. This will make lunch and snacks more accessible, so you won’t struggle to open containers after exhausting yourself on the trail.
The “Moldability” Method
This method is better for longer trips where you’ve got more food to stow. It maximizes the utilization of available space in your food bag or canister.
This method involves putting the larger shapeable items — powders, grains, tortillas, trail mixes — at the bottom to exhaust all of the available space. On top of that, you’ll place your bulkier items, like ramen, protein bars, and chocolate. While you’re loading the bulky items in, fill the holes with smaller moldable items — oil packets, seasonings, dehydrated veggies, and soup packets.
This method naturally places the heavier items at the bottom and the lighter ones on top, preventing your pack from becoming top-heavy.
Safe Food Handling And Storage
Proper food handling and storage is crucial for preventing contamination and spoiling.
When you’re in the backcountry, it’s unlikely that you’ll come upon many facilities with running water. I recommend keeping a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your toiletries bag. Use it after a bathroom trip and before cooking to minimize the chance of contaminating your food
Unless you intend to eat it at the trailhead before you start your trip, don’t bring fresh meat. It spoils quickly, and the chances for cross-contamination and illness are very high. With the exception of produce (that you should eat early on), most of your food should have a reasonably long shelf life. Dehydrating foods that may typically spoil — think: hummus, veggies, and sauces — is a great way to prevent spoilage.
Any packages that you open should be resealed completely. Like I mentioned above, repackaging packaged foods into sealable containers is a great way to ensure that you can reseal any opened food.
When it comes to leftovers — especially those that have been cooked or wetted — I recommend consuming them the same day. If you are camping in an area with freezing or near-freezing nights, your excess food may stay good until the next day. To mitigate any risk of contamination, however, I recommend consuming leftovers before the end of the day they were made. Food scraps should be packed out.
Important: The National Park Service recommends cooking 100 yards away from your tent. Others say 100–200 feet is adequate, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Cooking near your tent can produce odors (especially if you spill) that may attract animals during the night.
Proper food storage while backpacking is essential for a worry-free backpacking adventure. Remember to keep your food inaccessible to bears, rodents, and birds any time of day or night. Organize it in your bear bag or canister in a way that works for you, and ensure the best hygiene possible before touching it.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.