Yes, I Sleep with My Food in the Backcountry

Here's how to assess when it's safe to do so

Sunset in an Arctic area of the Yukon. My food was stored in the clear Opsak at the front of the shelter. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)
Sleeping with food

Last year I discussed my five recommended food-storage techniques, including when to employ each one. Many readers were skeptical about the last of these options—sleeping with it. Here I’ll go into more detail about when and why it may be appropriate and what my results have been.

First, a disclaimer: sleeping with your food—possible bait for wild animals—intuitively seems riskier than storing it farther away from camp. There are ways to mitigate this risk, but if you decide to sleep with your food, the consequences are on you.

Sleeping with Food

If I’m sleeping in an enclosed shelter, I keep my food inside it. If I’m cowboy-camping, I sleep on it or immediately next to it. Often I use my food bag as a knee rest, to relieve pressure on my back. It can make a decent pillow, too.

Food should not be left on the ground nearby. From the perspective of an opportunistic food thief, unattended food is open for the taking. Wildlife looks for easy calories, and only the most brazen and desperate bears and rodents would try to take food that’s obviously in my possession.

When the conditions are right, I always sleep with my food. It’s the lightest, simplest, cheapest, and least time-consuming storage method. In other words, it’s the most convenient.

Sleeping with food
A cowboy camp on slickrock in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Utah. My food bag is the clear bag near the top of this photo, left of my sleeping bag and bivy. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

When and Where

Three conditions must be met before I decide to sleep with my food:

  1. The land agency must not require a specific storage method.
  2. The risk of a bear entering my camp is acceptably low (ideally zero).
  3. The risk of rodents in camp is also low (ideally zero).

If the land agency requires a specific method, then I adhere to the regulation.

If I’m not comfortable with the bear risk, I use permanent infrastructure (like bear boxes, bear poles, or hanging cables), a hard-sided canister like the BV500, or a soft-sided bear-resistant sack like the Ursack Major.

If I think that rodents may occupy my camps, I’ll plan to hang my food out of their reach, using a rodent hang (which will not be out of reach for a bear, because the food will be only a few feet off the ground) or a soft-sided rodent-resistant sack like the Ursack Minor.

Sleeping with food
In areas where canisters are not required and where I’m not concerned about bears, I will sleep on or next to my food. This Wind River Range campsite was several miles off-trail at the tree line, and it showed no signs of previous use. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

Assessing Risk

How do I determine the risk of bears or rodents? I rely on personal experience and research. What have I observed before? What am I being told by area guidebooks, online forums, trip reports, rangers, and the local news?

I would consider an area to have low bear risk if:

  • Few or no bears live in the area
  • Little or no sign of bears has been seen (e.g., prints, scat, root digging)
  • I’m camping far from their seasonal food sources (e.g., berry patches)
  • There are no recent reports (and, ideally, no reports at all) of bears stealing food from backpackers or campers

Assessing the risk of rodents is more straightforward and also less consequential. At high- and moderate-use campsites, I expect to have rodent problems. At low-use campsites, it’s rare but possible. At virgin campsites, I don’t recall ever having a rodent issue.

Sleeping with food
The softest bed of moss on which I’ve ever slept, along Alaska’s Lost Coast (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

Personal Results

I haven’t kept count, but I’ve probably slept with my food for more nights than all the other overnight storage methods combined. This includes many thru- and section hikes of long-distance trails, a loop around Alaska and the Yukon, and weeks on the Wind River High Route in Wyoming and the Pfiffner Traverse in Colorado.

I’ve had a few bears enter my camp, each time in California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (where hard-sided bear canisters are generally required—and always required for commercial groups). I’ve had far more problems with rodents, especially at high-use campsites on popular trails like the Appalachian Trail and in national parks.

Over the past 15 years, the risks, regulations, available methods, and my thinking have evolved, and they will continue to do so in the future. If I repeated those trips, I’d do things differently in some cases. For example, if I were to do the AT again, I would give serious thought to a rodent-resistant bag rather than just carrying my food in a nylon stuffsack. I stopped hanging my food years ago, but I would take back all of the hangs I ever did. And if I did my Alaska trip again, I would have a bear sack for more of it or at least in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, where this is now the regulation.

Filed To: BearsSleepAlaskaCampingYukonWildlifeFood and DrinkEvergreen
Lead Photo: Andrew Skurka

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