The Five W's of Food Storage While Canoe Camping in the Backcountry

By Uncle Dan

Anna carrying the food barrel out of the forest on a sunny morning.

Recently, we received several questions about how we pack and store our food when canoe camping in the backcountry.  These questions have inspired us to write this post aimed at addressing the five W’s of food containment and storage in the backcountry.

1) Why should I be concerned about how I store my food in the backcountry?

There are two primary reasons why you should carefully store your food when you are in the backcountry.  First, anywhere you go, there will likely be various animals sniffing around, searching for opportunities to dispossess you of your food stores and to line their bellies with your jam, peanut butter and chocolate.  Second, some animals – bears in particular – might not be satisfied with consuming your jam and chocolate, and might decide to complete their feast by having you or one of your group members for dessert (actually a very unlikely event, but certainly worth mentioning).   

2) Who (or what animals) should I be worried about?

When discussing issues of food storage in the Canadian backcountry, the first animal that comes to mind for most people is the bear. Leaving exposed food in your campsite can attract bears and this can become a problem especially in places that are frequented by less than careful campers. Bears (like other animals) quickly learn where they can easily access human food and so they often look for food at specific campsites where they have found food before.  That being said, in all of my years camping in Canada, I have never seen a bear in our campsite nor have I seen any evidence of a bear trying to get at our food supply.

A rather cute chipmunk eating our breakfast!  Photo by Anna

While bears readily come to mind when discussing food storage, in most cases, food theft is far more likely to be perpetrated by much smaller, less scary and more common animals such as raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks and birds.  If you leave your food exposed or improperly stored, particularly at night, chances are that one of these little critters will help themselves to your food supply.  Sometimes I think that when squirrels and raccoons see (or hear) campers pull into a campsite they believe that animal Starbucks has come to town (again)!  I remember one time, as we pulled into a (highly frequented) campsite, we could see the beady little eyes of raccoons peering down from the surrounding trees, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on our food.  In my time camping, I have experienced a number of situations in which raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and birds have accessed our food – even in broad daylight while we were at the campsite!  These are the real thieves you ought to be worried about!

3) What food container should I use?

The answer to this question depends on where you are backcountry camping.  In some areas, such as the Bowron Lakes in northern British Columbia, each official campsite has a strong steel food box with an animal-proof latch.  In areas such as this, food should be kept in these steel bear-proof food caches at all times (unless you are eating).  This system is in place to prevent bears from learning that they can obtain food from campsites, which in turn discourages them from visiting campsites often.

In areas where steel bear-proof food caches are not provided, it’s up to you to bring the appropriate container.  I have seen many different containers being used for food storage during backcountry trips: plastic coolers, regular backpacks, and even Rubbermaid containers stored in backpacks.  While these containers are easy to come by, all of them are problematic when it comes to animals stealing food.  These containers are typically not scent proof, allowing animals to readily find them.  In addition, they are not very strong.  I have seen a group of squirrels easily chew through plastic Rubbermaid containers to get at the food inside.  It seems that squirrels in particular get their kicks from gnawing at Rubbermaid containers; its almost as if for them it’s a sport! Raccoons are also surprisingly dexterous and can open all sorts of containers or chew through cloth packs.  As such, we strongly recommend you try a different option.

A ring placed through the latch prevents even the most cunning of animals from opening the food barrel.

Our top choice in terms of food storage on canoe camping trips is the food barrel.   The barrel featured in the photo at the beginning of this post is made by Recreational Barrel Works, but other companies, such as Eureka, make them also.  The barrels typically come in two different sizes: 60L and 30L.  These barrels are optimal for food storage because they are pretty much scent proof, which means that animals will not be attracted to it by the scent of the food inside the barrel.  To optimally take advantage of this feature, it is advisable to avoid preparing or cooking strongly scented food on or around the barrel, as the scent will then be present on the outside of the barrel, thus undermining the scent-proof feature.  The barrels are also waterproof (which is useful in a downpour or if you tip your canoe).  The construction of the barrels also seems to deter animals from getting in to them.  To prevent those creative and skillful raccoons from opening the barrel, you can place a ring through the latch (see above photo)– with the ring in place, even the most prodigious of raccoons will not be able to open the barrel.  It is important to keep in mind that these barrels are not fully bear-proof, however, and a highly motivated and heavy bear sow could crack it open if she so desired.  This is why it is important to not only consider what you put your food in, but also were you place it. Which brings us to the next question. . . 

Our food barrels placed far away from our campsite.

4) Where should I place my food containers?

Choosing the right food container is only a part of the story.  A central component of proper food storage in the backcountry is choosing the right location to place your container.  Unless a bear-proof steel food cache is provided at the campsite, our main recommendation is to store your food well away from your campsite.  Some people recommend taking the food container(s) 200 meters from camp.  While it might be tempting to leave your sealed food barrel in your campsite overnight, this is decidedly a bad idea.  Although the barrel might be scent proof, and although you might have been careful to avoid cooking food near or on the barrel, placing the barrel in your campsite overnight might still be a problem, particularly in places where large animals are used to frequenting campsites to find food.  A bear might think the barrel is just another cooler (with which it might have had good success in the past) and give it a go. The outcome might be less than optimal for you and your food stores.  When you are in the backcountry, watching a large bear enthusiastically dancing on your food barrel right beside your tent at five in the morning might not be as humorous as it sounds right now. No matter what container you use, always store your food away from your campsite. 

Having taken your food container well away from your campsite, the next issue to consider is how to place the food container.  One view is that your food container ought to be suspended on a rope between two trees, high above the ground.  When I was younger, we would often spend hours finding the right two trees and trying to get our ropes high enough above the ground.  We tried various ways of attaching the ropes and numerous ways of pulling the food pack high up into the air.  The assumption was that bears would not be able to get the food packs if they were properly suspended.  You might be surprised to find out that suspending your food will not prevent sufficiently tenacious bears from getting your pack down.  Take a look at this video if you are not convinced. 

And, to witness how quickly a bear can scramble up a tree, take a look at this eye-opening video (not for young viewers as it contains a swear word, however if ever there was a situation that calls for an expletive, this would be it).  In addition, I have also personally witnessed suspended packs being torn open by several industrious squirrels.  So, hanging your food packs, though often recommended, is a tedious and somewhat ineffective solution.  Since we have begun using food barrels, we now just place them under some trees far away from our campsite.  And, I’m happy to report we have had no robberies thus far. 

5) When should I place my food in a safe place?

Finally, we come to the question of “when” to store your food.  We typically keep the lids on our barrels (sealed) when we are not directly using them.  This prevents little critters like chipmunks from helping themselves to our food when we are not looking.  Trust me, it only takes a moment of inattention and those little guys are in the barrels feasting away.  If you are planning to be away from the campsite for a longer period, it’s probably best to place your food containers away from the campsite.  In the evening, we typically take our barrels into the forest before it gets dark.  Going to place your barrels into the forest while it is still light ensures that you don’t get lost and that you don’t get discouraged by darkness from taking the barrels the full proper distance from the campsite.  If you are at a campsite that has steel bear-proof food cache containers, you should keep your food in them at all times except for when you are eating. 

As a final point, we suggest that you always do your research regarding the recommended food storage procedures in the area in which you plan to camp.