The view looking out over the Sierra Nevada from near Sonora Pass.

How We Did It in the Good Old Days

When I first started looking at gear for this past summer’s hiking trip in Colorado, one of the items that immediately jumped out at me were bear canisters – – – something that hadn’t existed when I had last gone backpacking in the early 1990s. Back then we would store our food in “bear bags” which were simply stuff sacks. The rule was to find a tree that had a sturdy branch at least 12 feet above the ground. We would next take our cinched-up food bags and tie a cord to them. We’d look for a tennis ball-sized rock and tie it to the other end of the cord.

The trick was to throw the rock up and over the branch, at a spot at least 6 feet out from the trunk. And then you could hoist the food bag up toward the branch and high enough off the ground. And while that might sound easy, the process was not that simple. First off, you had to locate a tree that had a sturdy branch high enough off the ground. Of course the higher the elevation, the smaller the trees became, and so sometimes it took well over a half hour to find the right tree. 

BearVault Adventure Ambassadors Barry and Dick backpacking in New Hampshire with a BV500

Then you had to make sure that the branch you were aiming for extended far enough out from the trunk, lest a bear simply climb up and reach out to grab the bag. And of course, finding the right sized and shaped rock could be a challenge. Too small, and it was a challenge to tie the cord to the rock. Too large and heavy, and it became hard (and dangerous!) to try to throw the rock up and over. Sometimes, if you weren’t careful, the rock would bounce off the branch and ricochet back toward your skull!

One year my group was doing an 8-day backpack in the high county of Yosemite. We were about 4 days into the hike and I remember I had brought along a one-pound bag of M&Ms which I was saving for the second half of the trip. We got to our campsite late in the afternoon, and with the October sun quickly setting, it was a bit of a rush to find the right tree to hang our food before it got dark. We were tired, hungry, and rushing against the encroaching darkness to get the food bags set up, and so we probably didn’t pick the ideal tree. 

After we finished dinner and brushed our teeth, we hoisted our bags up and got into our sleeping bags for the night. I had barely fallen asleep when I heard one of my hiking partners yelling “Get away bear! Get away bear!” I turned on my headlight, and there were two bear cubs that had climbed up and out onto the branch, torn open all our food bags, and gotten into the bulk of our supplies. We were finally able to get the cubs to run off, but by then the damage was done: not only had the bears devoured our oatmeal and cheese, but ALL my M&Ms were completely gone! Lesson learned: from then on, I always started eating my chocolate treats beginning the very first night of a trip. No more waiting! 

A trail cutting through an alpine meadow in Yosemite national park

I was absolutely delighted to learn about bear canisters and how they simplified everything: No more spending precious time each afternoon looking for the perfect bear tree. No more searching for the perfect rock to use. And no more worrying about bears getting into my stash of M&Ms! Plus the canisters made for great stools as we ate our dinners in the evening. While it’s easy to reminisce about certain aspects of the “good old days” of hiking (fewer cars at the trailheads; easier to score backcountry permits), I’m more than happy to be backpacking in the 21st century with my BearVault canister!

Author Profile

A man sits on a stool in front of a tent with his bear proof container

Barry Auskern

My name is Barry Auskern. Years ago, in a former life, I guided trips for the Audubon Expedition Institute. I’ve trekked from the wind-swept coast of Labrador, to the hot sands of Death Valley National Park. And then I became an attorney. Before this past summer, it had been years since I’d put a backpack on. Now I’m gearing up for my biggest trip yet!

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