Hanging A Bear Bag—The PCT Method

There are multiple techniques to hang a bear bag, but when I first learned the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) method, it’s been my favorite option. The PCT method is actually pretty simple to set up, but is very effective to deter animals trying to get at your food. The PCT method uses a single rope that is tossed over a high, sturdy branch and is then clipped to the bear bag with a mini carabiner. The standing end of the rope is clipped back through the carabiner and then the bear bag is hoisted all the way to the top of the branch. At this point, use a small stick (or even a spare stake) to use as a toggle. Tie a clove hitch with the rope around the toggle as high as you can reach up on the rope. When you slowly release the cord, the bear bag will stop at the mid point when the toggle connects with the carabiner.

The PCT method uses less cordage, which can help reduce weight and bulk in your backpack. I prefer using a slippery line that will glide more easily over the trees and prevent cutting into the bark. I highly recommend the Spectra kit from AntiGravityGear.com, which comes with a lightweight throw bag that doubles as a storage bag for the line. I use a lightweight cuben fiber or silnylon stuff sack as my food bag, which can then double as the bear bag. The cuben or sil fabric is waterproof, which helps to protect my gear when hanging in the rain overnight. All told, this kit can weigh as little as 2 oz (57 g) or less.

I first published a rough version of this illustration on HammockForums.net in April 2010, and I’ve updated it for a re-release on my website.

If you would like to use this illustration in a workshop or training event, please contact me for a high-resolution version.

Hanging A Bear Bag - PCT Method

Another key element to hanging a bear bag is location. You should hang the bag well away (200 ft/60 m) and downwind of your sleeping area. Your kitchen area should also be 200 ft (60 m) from your sleeping site. Everything that smells (e.g., food, garbage, hygiene items, food-soiled clothing, etc.) should be placed in the bear bag for safety. Clean stoves, pots, water bottles, and utensils can be safely left in the kitchen area. For more information on bear bagging and respecting wildlife, please visit the Leave No Trace Center.



  32 comments for “Hanging A Bear Bag—The PCT Method

  1. March 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Another great image, thanks!

  2. Bob Latini
    March 22, 2013 at 4:58 am

    I would like a high res version for use wiht my Scout troop.

  3. Bart
    March 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

    It was my understanding that in the California, Yosemite stretch of the PCT trail the bear cannisters are not optional?

    • Derek
      March 22, 2013 at 7:13 am

      Exactly. I should clarify that “PCT Method” doesn’t imply that this is what is used or required along the PCT. I believe the etymology of this phrase is that it was developed by folks along the PCT. You can use this method anywhere where bear bagging is allowed. For areas where bear bagging is not permitted be sure to follow local guidelines.

      • Lawrence
        October 9, 2013 at 9:47 am

        Just an FYI. My friend recently received a $75 ticket from rangers in the John Muir Wilderness for using the PCT method instead of the approved counter-balance method. Apparently the counter-balanced method is spelled out on the permit and even though many ranger may allow the PCT method, there are those that will go “by the book” and give out tickets for anything other than counter-balance.

        • Derek
          October 9, 2013 at 10:18 am

          I would be interested to know how the counter balance method has any bear-proof advantages over the PCT method. That said, it’s always a good idea to follow the rules. Usually, those rules are based on field evidence (e.g., the use of canisters in some parks/areas).

          • Steven
            March 13, 2014 at 10:35 pm

            I also would be interested to know how the counter balance method has any bear-proof advantages over the PCT method.Ditto on following rules too.

  4. March 22, 2013 at 7:49 am

    I’ve read reports that there are black bears along the Appalachian Trail which have already figured out how to steal food bags hung by every intricately devised hanging option. Bears will stand on each other’s backs. Bears will climb out on the limb and try to break the limb. If a bear wants your hung food bag, she’s gonna figure out a way to steal it. Some bears in the Adirondacks have learned how to open the BearVault. Bear Bagging keeps the “honest” bears from taking your food … along with many other ‘critters’ …. remember, a fed bear is a dead bear. Do your best but have a back up plan if you lose your food.

    • Derek
      March 22, 2013 at 9:31 am

      From what I’ve gleaned from trail journals and reports that I’ve read over the years is that there are a lot of “lazy” backpackers who don’t take bear bagging seriously, and as a result, we’re seeing an increase of human/animal encounters. It only takes a few times–perhaps only once–for a bear to “learn” where easy food is located. It is essential for anyone heading to the backcountry to take “respecting wildlife” seriously. I was recently contacted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for permission to use this illustration to address this very issue.

  5. JT
    March 22, 2013 at 7:56 am

    I’ve been using the PCT Method for a couple years and often get asked about the line hanging loose under the toggle. I let it hang, but some question whether a bear can tamper the with line and jar the bag and toggle loose. I saw one person tie the loose end off to a tree, which I think defeats the purpose. Your thoughts…?

    Great article and illustration!

    • Derek
      March 22, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Thanks John. I think much depends on the type of rope/line you use to hang the bag. My preference is to use the Spectra cord. It’s very strong and difficult to chew through, with a breaking strength of 725 lb (329 kg). This type of line is much more difficult to bite and grasp, especially for animals without much dexterity (I’ll be honest that the Spectra line can be a little hard to grasp for human fingers).

      If you use the PCT method AND you tie the loose, hanging end to a tree, it won’t defeat the PCT method, so long as the bag is hanging on the toggle. If the bear pulls or is able to somehow slice through the rope tied to an adjacent tree, the bag will still hang there.

      The only way to defeat this method would be for a bear to climb the branch and cut through the rope at the top. With the thin, strong Spectra line, that is made more difficult. Bears are known to “give up” when their attempts are thwarted.

  6. Marc
    March 22, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Its been our experience in Yosemite that bears will climb out on the limb and either break it or chew the rope. The best way is to string a cable between two trees and hang counter-weighted bags over the cable. The bite of the line should be coiled and set on top of the second bag while at ground level with a loop that hangs just below it. Push the lower bag up with a stick until the two bags are even. To get the food down hook the stick in the loop that is below the bag and pull them down.

    • Derek
      March 22, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Yosemite has special regulations about securing food and items with odor. The PCT method–or any bear bagging method for that matter–is not permitted in the park because the bears have learned how to get past these methods for the most part. Only approved canisters are allowed in the park.

      The counter-balance method is effective, as you say, in places that have a man-made structure with wire cables. But in that example, the PCT method would be equally effective since the bear cannot get through the wire cable and metal poles. If they were able to somehow grasp the dangling line, the best they could do is pull the bag up, which doesn’t get them the food. Personally, I’m not a fan of the counter-balance method because it is a little trickier to master.

  7. Eric SoCal
    March 22, 2013 at 11:03 am

    ANotehr point to note is that the branch should not be any larger than 1″ diameter at the point that the rope goes over. Years ago, I hung my food per all the notes, except that the branch was maybe 3″ where the rope went over. In the middle of the night, I awoke to a bear pushing through the small branches at the trunk to get to “my” branch. As the bear walked out along the limb, I was thinking “too bad, the food is still about 7′ below you”. To my surprise, the bear sat on the branch next to the rope, reached down to hook the rope with a paw and had my food in her lap, faster than you just read this sentence. With much yelling and banging of pots, I scared the bear further up the tree, after losing only three food items and a torn stuff bag. I picked up the rest of my food, now on the ground, and moved my camp almost a mile away in the darkness. Going back to watch the bear come out of the tree, she had taken her cub up the tree with her to teach the process, in case I had used a smaller branch that would not have taken her adult weight.

    Just something to keep in mind…

  8. March 23, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Great art and enjoyable read – will keep it handy. Thanks for posting Derek. And the tale from Eric SoCal – wow, lol!


  9. Oliver Nissen
    April 14, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Brilliant illustration and well explained. I just thought I should suggest the additional warning about snaggy branches (mossy / dead bark covered) – the PCT method seems particularly prone to spectra lines sawing they way into the branch and getting tenaciously stuck!

    • Derek
      April 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      Thanks Oliver! I’ve never had problems using spectra cord sawing through or getting stuck, but I know that can happen with other types of line I’ve used. Spectra is very light and slippery and doesn’t saw into the wood like other line, which is why I recommend it.

  10. June 11, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for the tips on how to hang a bear bag. This is a very useful method and is important to stay safe while you are camping. You don’t want bears to be able to get to your food because that puts you in danger.

  11. Peter Ross
    October 23, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Great illustrations, I would love high resolution versions of both the “Hanging a Bear Bag – The “PCT” Method, and the “Bear”-muda Triangle, for use at our Sea Scout group.

    • Derek
      October 23, 2014 at 8:29 am

      Thanks Peter. I sent the files to your email.

  12. Geoffrey Price
    November 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Hi Derek,
    I am a scout master originally from Aus, no Bears but plenty of snakes and spiders now in the US learning about Bears. I would very much appreciate a hi res copy of the PCT method to share with my troop. YIS Geoff

    • Derek
      November 18, 2014 at 5:25 pm

      On its way!

  13. Walter Kivett
    March 15, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Hi Derek, Can you email me a high resolution image of the PCT method. I’m teaching an LNT Trainer course in April. Also any updates on the counter-weight method or other methods. I have an Ursack that I use but have not had it challenged yet…

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