It’s become both a trail ritual and a nightly comedy routine on backpacking trips these days: hanging your trail food from a tree branch in a stuff-sack to protect it, in theory, from the ravages of bears and varmints. We’ve all been through it. First you get a rock and tie your paracord around it, then you sling it in an oh-so-graceful arc upward toward a promising horizontal branch-at least 14 feet up and six feet out from the trunk is the general guideline for hanging food in bear country-only to have the rock fly back and hit you in the head, ricochet off the tree and fly into the bushes, swing around the wrong branch five times, wrap the rope around your legs, etcetera etcetera. After four or five tries in total embarrassment and frustration, you are ready to stash your food under a rock and leave it to fate.

More recently, as bears along popular trails have become more savvy and capable of capturing those hanging sacks, trail authorities in more and more areas have started requiring that food be secured in bear canisters – plastic, polycarbonate or carbon-fiber cylinders with lids that have various supposedly bear-proof locking mechanisms, which can be virtually human-proof on a frosty morning. Despite much indignant sputtering and protesting from many long-time backpackers who tell me, “I have always slept with my food in my tent on this trail, and have never been bothered!,” I actually support this policy. When you habituate bears and other beasts to the availability of easy food from messy or poorly secured camps, it’s always the bear that suffers from the fallout – how often do you read about a ‘problem bear’ that had to be removed, or worse, euthanized? The “problem” very likely had a human cause. And that’s not to mention the added risk of losing your food, having your equipment damaged and or having to abort a life-list trip.

Bear can options have expanded and improved from the days where the only ones available were the thick, heavy, oval black canisters that open with a coin (darn it, where’s that penny?). The Bear Vault BV500 (www.bearvault.com, about $65) has 700 cubic inches and 11.5 liters of internal capacity for a weight of 2 lbs 9 oz;  the wide opening makes it very easy to load and unload, and the clear side allows you to see what you’re looking for.  The high-tech carbon fiber Bearikade Weekender (www.wild-ideas.net, now up to $249) sports a 650 cubic inch nearly 10.7 liter capacity for a weight of only 1 lb 14 oz, and also has a nice wide opening;  their bigger Bearikade Expedition ($299) has 900 cubic inches or 14.7 liters capacity – they say 12 days worth – for a weight of 2 lbs 4 oz.  These compare with the old standard, the Garcia Backpackers’ Cache (www.backpackerscache.com, $63) with approx. 615 cubic inches or 10 liters capacity for a weight of 2 lbs 12 oz.  The newer versions can carry 10-50% more and weigh 30-50% less per unit of capacity. All are rated to carry at least 7 days of food for one person.

Still, as I contemplated upcoming trips on the John Muir Trail and in the Wind River Range with six days between resupplies, I admit to staring at my shiny new BV500 and seriously wondering if I could pack enough in there to fuel 70 miles and 6500+ feet of elevation gain. Through a very carefully thought out meal plan and packaging strategy I was ultimately successful doing so on both trips, with room to spare. The lessons are straightforward and easily replicated without a large bank account or a degree in physics, neither of which I have.

First, you need to choose foods with a high calorie density – that is, lots of calories per gram of food weight. Foods with higher calorie density deliver the calories you need in much less weight and often much less volume as well, and volume is a key to success in a bear can meal plan. The two most important indicators of a food’s calorie density are the percent of grams in fats, and what I call the ‘nutritive content,’ both of which are readily found on product labels. The ‘nutritive content’ is the grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein per serving on the label divided by the total grams per serving. If that ratio is less than 80 percent, you are carrying 20 percent of that food’s weight in water or non-energy-producing material such as fiber. Then, look for foods with 30 percent or more of the total serving grams in fat. These two guidelines will allow you to evaluate your options quickly in the food aisle of your favorite store. Examples of high calorie-density trail foods:

  • Flavored olive oil: 100% nutritive weight, 0% carbs, 100% fats, 0% protein, 9.0 calories/gram
  • Macadamia nuts: 88% nutritive weight, 5% carbs, 86% fats, 9% protein, 7.3 calories/gram
  • Almond butter: 97% nutritive weight, 23% carbs, 57% fats, 23% protein, 6.8 calories/gram
  • Peanut M&Ms: 99% nutritive weight, 49% carbs, 37% fats, 14% protein, 5.8 calories/gram
  • Fruit-nut trail mix: 96% nutritive weight, 48% carbs, 36% fats, 16% protein,  5.7 calories/gram
  • Powdered full-fat milk: 87% nutritive weight, 42% carbs, 31% fats, 27% protein, 4.8 calories/gram

Conversely, some backpacking ‘staples’ will surprise you with their poor calorie density. Some of these foods are in that category because of high fiber content, while others are there because of high water content, such as vacuum-packed tuna or cooked chicken breast. Examples of lower calorie-density trail foods:

  • Teriyaki beef jerky: 68% nutritive weight, 37% carbs, 5%fats, 58 protein, 2.9 calories/gram
  • Instant mashed potatoes: 75% nutritive weight, 79% carbs, 11% fats, 11% protein, 3.4 calories/gram
  • Dates: 71% nutritive weight, 96% carbs, no fats, 4% protein, 2.9 calories/gram
  • Vacuum-pack cooked chicken breast: 34% nutritive weight, no carbs, 10% fats, 90% protein, 1.6 cals/gram

The calorie density of some foods in the latter group can be increased by dehydrating or purchasing dried versions for the trail.

Second, give some thought to good calorie-density foods that you enjoy eating which are amenable to fitting in a bear can. Foods that are flat can be laid on the bottom of the can or wrapped around the outside, think tortillas, English muffins, peanut or almond butter packets. Foods that taste just as good squashed as in their original form are also ideal – dried fruits, fig newtons. Foods that come in small, indestructible or crumbly pieces or powders are ideal – instant oatmeal, bean flakes, M&Ms, freeze-dried meals, instant pudding mixes. Likewise be aware that the daily packing, unpacking and compression involved in a bear can will make crumbs out of foods like crackers, chips and cookies, unless you can make them more sturdy by vacuum-sealing them in small one-serving packs. Small packets of crackers or energy bars fit nicely in the nooks and crannies of a bear can.

Third, weigh everything, work out the ounces or grams in a reasonable daily serving of each food item, and use a checklist so that you pack no more and no less than what you need. Often the downfall of a bear can meal plan is food that you bring too much of and don’t finish, taking up room in your canister. Small food scales can be purchased very inexpensively and allow you to easily weigh out servings for the days you will be out. How much is a ‘reasonable daily serving’? Put some even unit of each food that you think you might want to bring for a day’s lunch, say, and look at it on your kitchen counter; a bagel, two ounces of cheese or a packet of peanut butter, a cup of gorp. Look at it realistically. Are you really likely to consume this in a typical trail lunch? Will it be enough to make you satisfied? Do the same thing with your breakfast, snack and dinner. Then weigh the ‘reasonable’ quantity of each food in a daily serving. If you aren’t sure, add a little extra and try out the amount on one of your conditioning backpack trips, then come home and adjust. Once you know the weight of a day’s reasonable serving of each particular food, make a checklist with the number of days of each food item for the length of the trip you’re taking. Use label info to estimate the number of calories you are packing per day on your checklist. You should be carrying 3500-4500 calories or more per day to adequately fuel an extended, strenuous backpack trip. If you’ve never backpacked before, be prepared to eat at least twice as much of any particular food item as you would eat at home or even on a dayhike.

Finally, seriously consider the packaging and get rid of as much of it as you can. I get rid of all boxes, most heavy plastic containers and those bulky aluminum packs holding freeze-dried meal items, and transfer the foods into individual daily servings in Ziploc bags – they take up much less room. Rehydrate your freeze-dried foods in the Ziploc or in a pot or bowl wrapped in a cozy or piece of foil. If you must bring the aluminum pack, puncture the top of the bag with a pin so that you can roll out any excess air. An exception would be any vacuum packed, perishable food item which will spoil more quickly once you break the seal – leave those in their original packaging without puncturing or don’t bring them at all. Use a sharpie to write the name of the food on the outside of the Ziploc bag – trust me, it will be tough to remember what each little bag in the can contains! You may choose to bring a multiple-day supply of a particular item, such as oatmeal or whole milk powder, in one larger Ziploc bag and measure it out for use each day or you could choose to package each day’s serving into its own snack-size Ziploc. I find that small packages often can be worked more readily into the nooks and crannies of the can, but it can work both ways. Bring an extra gallon-size Ziploc to carry the used Ziplocs and any other trash back out with you.

Practice makes perfect. Package up the food you want to bring using your checklist, and then load the can in different ways, fitting the items carefully like a jigsaw puzzle to leave a minimum of unused air space inside the can. Are there items that you just can’t seem to fit? Go back over your checklist. What foods take up the most space for the calories they contribute? Can you substitute less voluminous foods for the same calories? Think high calorie density. Challenge whether you may have more of certain foods than you are likely to eat.

This also applies to resupply boxes you are sending to pick up along the way and reload your bear can. Before you load the box, pack the items into your bear can to be sure they will fit.

Don’t forget that all of your fragrant toiletries – toothpaste, lotions, sunscreen – will also need to fit into your bear can at night.

With a bit of practice you will readily get over the intimidation that first accompanies staring into the vacant maw of an empty bear can. You may even find, as I did, that the simplicity of carrying food in a bear can, and thereby avoiding the agony of the daily food-hanging ordeal on high critter-density trails, makes it worth the extra two pounds of weight in your pack even when a bear can isn’t mandatory. One way or the other, secure your food and keep a clean camp. This is one of those ‘leave no trace’ essentials that ultimately pays off for you, for the animals and for future hikers. The method described above should get you a long way toward consistent success.  Happy trails!

 

 

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