When planning for thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), one item new for me, besides the significant bureaucracy, is the emphasis placed on protecting your food from the bears. When hiking on the Colorado Trail, Appalachian Trail or canoe camping in Canada, I’ve made it a habit to reasonably attempt to bear-bag my food at night. Basically using a rope to suspend the food bag from a branch on a tree; ideally ten feet in the air and six feet from the trunk. The branch should be strong enough to support the food, but not a bear cub’s attempt to get at the bag. As I don’t carry a scale to measure either the strength of the branch or the weight of the cub in question, that last part is just a guesstimate.
This system has worked for me for years, though I’ve never actually seen a bear foiled by my expertise. Regardless, if nothing else it’s a good way to keep the mice out of the food. Apparently, the bears on the JMT are in another class. For much of the trail, anywhere in Yosemite and large sections of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, bear resistant canisters are required to be used. Even where canisters are not required, regular bear bagging apparently doesn’t get it. Park literature states that any method besides counterbalancing probably won’t work. Of course it also states that bears have learned to defeat counterbalancing as well. What’s counterbalancing you ask? Here’s some info from the park service, but in a nutshell, here’s the process.
Find that same branch as before (strong enough to hold the food, but not a bear) only it has to be 20 feet high and ten feet from the trunk. Split the food in half and counterbalance the bags at least 12 feet off the ground. Leave only a small loop of rope hanging out of one bag that you can hook with a stick to retrieve the bags. If the loop becomes untied, wait until a bear comes along that has learned to defeat the process. Maybe he’ll leave a little food for you. Clean up the bear’s mess. Hike out hungry.
So, the question becomes; do I use a canister big enough to hold all the food/other stuff I might ever need or use a smaller (lighter) canister to be legal and just roll the dice with my bear bagging skills in other areas?
Based on a tentative schedule of walking 13 – 19 miles per day, I can get to the “halfway” resupply point at Muir Trail Ranch carrying no more than four days’ worth of food at any one time. The second half gets complicated. The first night out of the Ranch I’ll be packing seven days’ worth of food. Canisters are not required in that area though. By the time I camp in an area where canisters are again required, I’ll only have 4 days of food (and three days of garbage) to fit in the container.
So, what size canister do I need to hold 4 days’ worth of food? Well, according to the folks that make the Bear Vault, their Model BV-450 (The Solo) which holds 440 cubic inches is just the ticket for holding that much food. It weighs in at an ounce under 2 pounds, and costs around $65.
Well, based on based on the rations I took on the Colorado Trail, I went ahead and tested the claim. Four dinners and breakfasts fit fine, along with small tubes of toothpaste and sunblock. The lunches could also be made to fit as long as the crackers were crushed into bags of crumbs. A couple days of trail mix were pretty much left on the outside looking in. And on a side note; this amount of food resulted in me losing around a pound per day of hiking until I started carrying additional calories.
It’s starting to look like I may have to step up to bigger container. The Bear Vault 500 holds 700 cubic inches, but it also weighs 41 ounces. An extra 2 ½ pounds on your back doesn’t seem like much until you’re carrying it 200+ miles through mountains. There are other options including the Bearikade which comes in various sizes including 650 cubic inches. The great thing about the Bearikade is that this larger size actually weighs a couple ounces less than the smallest Bear Vault. The not so great thing is that it costs over $260, which seems a bit high for a can. Stay tuned for a decision.
Some may ask, “Hey Jim, with all the aggravation between bear canisters, permits and other regulations, is hiking the JMT worth the trouble?” I’ll know for sure once I’m done, but these photos from Backpacker.com give me a pretty good idea of what the answer will be.