Critter-proof Your Food

June 17, 2009

More than 50,000 black bears roam the Northeast woods, snuffling opportunists that occasionally dine on unprotected backpacker food. But the biggest threat to your precious grub is much, much smaller. It scurries in the dark. It peers out, whiskers aquiver, from the cracks of nearly every backcountry shelter. It waits for you to slumber, then relentlessly probes your food defenses for weakness. Mice. Legions of them. Joining them are raccoon bandits, porcupine prowlers, and other food-swiping critters. How to keep your food safe? Can it, sack it, or hang it.

Can It  Bear-resistant food containers, or BRFCs, are the sledgehammers of food protection. Heavy-duty plastic barrels with locking lids, they are impervious to even the most Heiddetermined ursine. Their diameter is too large for a bear to get its crushing jaws around, their lid-locking mechanisms too tricky for a claw to pick. (And if a bear can’t crack it, rest assured—there’s no hope for even the mightiest of mice.) BRFCs are easy to use: simply load and lock—you’re done. Plus they make great seats around camp. The drawbacks? They’re bulky, heavy, and don’t shrink or get lighter as you consume your food supply. Most BRFCs hold between 600 and 700 cubic inches, enough room (with very careful packing) for food for two people for three days. Only a handful of manufacturers produce BRFCs, including Backpackers’ Cache (Model 812: 614 cubic inches, 2.7 pounds), Counter Assault (Bear Keg: 716 cubic inches, 3.6 pounds), BearVault (BV500: 700 cubic inches, 2.6 pounds). They each run about $80. On the other ends of the spectrum are weight-saving carbon-fiber versions from Wild Ideas (Expedition MKII: 900 cubic inches, 2.3 pounds, $275) and a pint-sized option from Bare Boxer (Contender: 275 cubic inches, 1.8 pounds, $40).

Sack It  Not ready for the can? Sack up instead. Consider the Ursack, a specialized stuff sack made of Spectra fiber. Used in military body armor, ultra-tough Spectra resists even the sharpest teeth and leaves mice and their critter cohorts gnashing in frustration.

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A bear might crush your food as it challenges the Ursack, but it won’t get inside. Ursacks are easy to use: Stuff your food in, pull the drawstring tight, and then secure the cord to a tree or other immobile object. The Ursack S29 tips the scales at about eight ounces and holds up to 650 cubic inches ($64.95). You can smush-proof your food by purchasing an Ursack aluminum liner (14 ounces, $20), though it nearly triples the weight of the total package. If bears aren’t on your radar, try a capacious Ratsack instead. Flexible metal bags that close with a wide nylon-and-Velcro strip, Ratsacks are constructed of tightly woven stainless steel mesh and readily withstand mouse and other rodent attacks (1200-2500 cubic inches, 6-11 ounces, $30-$40).

Hang It
The cheapest, lightest way to protect your food is to hang it out of reach and inaccessible to animals. In nearly every shelter in the Northeast, you’ll see the classic defense. A string is threaded through the center of a small tin can and tied to the shelter awning or ceiling, where it dangles like some strange form of art. Mice can shimmy down the line, but are unable to get around the can obstacle to reach the bag of food attached to the end of the line below. If you’re not staying in a shelter, hang your food from a tree or branch (see “Tips and Tricks” on the following page). One last word of critter advice: Porcupines are salt fiends. In search of their sodium fix, they have been known to chew sweaty ax handles, T-shirts, even the edges of shelter floors where hot hiker legs have deposited their sweaty goodness. If you suspect porcupines are in the area, don’t leave your salt-laden hiking boots or pack shoulder straps on the ground—you don’t want to get chewed out.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.