Irrespective of the season or environment, I’ve carried these odour proof storage bags for more than 900 nights in the backcountry, including the entire 18 month, 14,300 mile, 12 Long Walks journey.
During all of these trips, I have never once had a problem with critters getting into my food.
Test environments have included extended periods in “bear country” (e.g. High Sierra, Montana, Pacific Northwest, Canadian Rockies) and perhaps the ultimate examination for any food bag; the mice-infested shelters of the Appalachian Trail!
Low Odour Strategy
First things first, OPSAK’s are not a panacea for keeping your food safe in the backcountry.
Instead, they form an important part of an overall “low odour strategy” that I practice whenever I’m out in the wilderness:
- I don’t normally cook during three season trips. When I do bring along a stove, I never cook in the same place that I camp. This is a practice that many experienced hikers are aware of, but seemingly relatively few practice on a regular basis.
- Whenever possible I avoid camping at popular campsites. Animals aren’t stupid. It doesn’t take them long to make the association between lots of careless hikers and a potentially easy meal.
- When camping at a popular site is unavoidable, I will use any bear lockers or bear poles that are available.
- When hiking in bear country, I avoid camping close to water sources and berry patches. Bit of a no-brainer that last point. That being said, I’ll never forget meeting a couple of section hikers up in Montana in 2012, that were camped right next to a big patch of thimbleberries. The fact that there was a load of bruin scat in the immediate vicinity didn’t seem to faze them. They explained that they had a bear vault and two cans of pepper spray. Savvy.
- The majority of my food has a relatively low odour profile (e.g. Meal bars, dehydrated beans, muesli, etc.). When I do carry smellier foods (e.g. cheese), I always take care to clean my hands before handling the OPSAK. This helps to minimize (though not completely eliminate) the transfer of odours to the outside of the bag.
FAQ’s about OPSAK’s
How durable are they?
Usually a 12″ x 20″ bag will last four to six weeks of daily use before the seal starts to fail. Tip: Don’t overstuff. That will put unnecessary stress on the seal and it will give out sooner than it otherwise would.
Where do you store it at night?
Inside my backpack, underneath my feet.
Is that all you use in Bear country? What about spray or canisters?
I only pack a canister if I’m legally obligated to do so. In regards to bear spray, the only time I’ve carried it was during a recent hike in Wyoming in September/October of this year.
How much food can you fit in the bags?
They come in different sizes, but the large 12″ x 20″ bags that I normally use can hold five to six days, or 10 lbs (4.4 kg) worth of standard backpacking food.
The Appalachian Trail shelters are infamous for critters getting into food bags. How did OPSAKs perform during your AT thru hike?
I hiked the AT between October 17 and December 28 in 2012. As a result of hiking out of season, I had the shelters largely to myself (i.e. I only had to share three the entire hike). I carried an alcohol stove but never cooked in the same place where I slept.
I estimate that I spent 40-45 nights inside the shelters during the hike. During that time I used food hanging cables three times. The rest of the hike I did what I always do; slept with my food underneath my feet. Despite seeing a load of mice and other critters, there was not a single problem.
I read on “Backpacking Light” that OPSAK’s aren’t much better than Ziplocs?
I’ve read the article, but based on my own experiences I would respectfully disagree. As I mentioned in the introduction, I’ve used OPSAK’s as part of my low odour strategy for years and never had a single critter problem. How many hundreds of times do you need to do something before it ceases to be lucky?
OPSAK’s are not a cure-all for your food storage needs in the backcountry. However, when used as part of an overall low odour strategy, I have found them to be an excellent addition to my backpacking kit, and will continue to use them for the foreseeable future.
When using OPSAK’s in the field I recommend the following:
- Appropriate campsite selection.
- Don’t cook where you camp.
- Clean hands before handling OPSAK.
- Don’t overstuff.
- Change bags before the seal begins showing signs of wear.