Backpacking Bear Canisters: Price vs Weight vs Capacity

Ah, the bear canister. It’s the piece of gear we all love to hate. We carefully craft gear lists, agonize over spreadsheets, count ounces, and then… Then we have to stuff this bulky, heavy thing into our pack and ruin it all.

But in spite of their bulk and heft, bear canisters are important and very useful for backpackers. They keep our food safe from bears and bears safe from our food. They’re required for backpacking in some of America’s most popular national parks, which is one reason why I’ve carried a bear canister through much of California’s high Sierra.

Sooner or later, many backpackers find themselves needing to use a bear canister. When that time comes it’s important to buy the best bear canister for your needs, use it correctly, and pack it as efficiently as possible. This article will help with all that and more.

Find the best bear canister for your backpacking trip:

Learn how to use your bear canister:

Or scroll down to keep reading.

When you buy through affiliate links in this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks for your support! I always offer unbiased opinions based on real experience from the road and trail. Learn more.

Cute! Use a bear canister to save a bear. Photo: NPS / Kevyn Jalone

Bear Canister Basics

What is a bear canister and why do I need one?

A bear canister is a hard-sided cylinder used to hold food while backpacking in bear country. Its purpose may seem obvious – no one wants to be visited by a bear in the middle of the night – but there are actually several important reasons to carry a bear canister:

  1. Bear canisters protect bears from your food. Wait, did I get that the wrong way around? Nope. When a bear gets used to the reward of stealing food from hikers, it often becomes more aggressive and starts spending time in popular camping areas, leaving park rangers no choice but to relocate or even kill it.
  2. Bear canisters also protect your food from bears. If you’ve ever done a long backpacking trip on carefully rationed meals, you can imagine the hungry horror of a bear wandering off with all your food in the middle of the night.
  3. Though bear attacks are rare, canisters do also protect hikers from bears. If, instead of using a bear canister to protect your food, you decide to sleep with it in your tent, you risk attracting a bear into your campsite.
  4. Bear canisters are required in several US national parks, including those traversed by the popular John Muir Trail, in which case a bear canister protects you from being fined by park rangers.

It’s also worth noting that bears aren’t the only way to lose food on the trail. Rodents and marmots can be surprisingly stealthy and aggressive! A bear canister gives you peace of mind when dealing with critters of all kinds.

Marmot on rock
Bear canisters also protect your food from marmots, like this surprisingly aggressive one near Mount Whitney.

How do I know which bear canisters are approved for my hike?

First, check for food storage requirements of the area you’ll be hiking in. For example, California’s Sequoia National Park publishes a list of approved food storage techniques and containers.

These lists are loosely based on certifications from agencies that test the containers, but they may not always match exactly. For example, the soft-sided Ursack is not approved for use in Sequoia National Park but is approved by the IGBC (see below), while the hard-sided Bearikade containers are allowed in Sequoia but not approved by the IGBC. Use the list published by the area you’ll be hiking in, if there is one.

If you’re not hiking in an area that requires canisters but still want to know which bear canisters are approved, there are two certifications to look for:

  • The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG), which has since been disbanded, but you will still see their initials used when mentioning certifications
  • The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), which still actively certifies bear-resistant containers and publishes an up-to-date list.

For hikers in California and other areas without grizzlies, the SIBBG certification may be enough. But those who hike in grizzly country should look carefully at the IGBC list.

What size bear canister do I need?

Short answer: one day of food for one person takes roughly 100 cubic inches of space.

Longer answer: it depends. How many days of food fit in your bear canister will depend on what kind of food, how much you eat per day, and how it’s packed. Scroll down to the section on packing a bear canister for tips on how to pack more food into less space. Optimizing this is especially critical for thru-hikers trying to plan daily mileage on a remote trail like the JMT where resupply is infrequent.

Remember that multiple hikers can share a bear canister. Two people hiking together for three days can save weight by sharing a medium size bear can. Of course you’ll have to negotiate how to split up the rest of the gear fairly, since a bear canister is probably the heaviest thing either of you will be carrying.

There’s an art to packing a bear canister – more tips on this below!

Renting Versus Buying a Bear Canister

Some areas that require bear canisters also rent them to hikers. Check your specific park website for details and do the math. How much money would you save by renting versus buying?

Advantages of renting a bear canister:

  • Can be cheaper than buying if you won’t use it often
  • Avoid the hassle of choosing and buying your own

Advantages of buying a bear canister:

  • You can choose the kind you think is best
  • You can test pack before leaving on your trip, especially important if it will be a tight squeeze
  • Cheaper over the long term if you use it often

Bear canisters don’t wear out or become obsolete quickly. If you plan to hike in bear country at least once or twice per year, it’s almost certainly worthwhile to buy your own.

If you’re interested in renting a bear canister but can’t do so through the land management agency where you’ll be hiking, here are a few other bear canister rental programs:

Used bear canisters can be bought or sold for a discount on eBay, GearTrade, REI, etc., reducing the cost or allowing you to recoup some of it later. Bearikades in particular, though expensive up-front, are easy to sell for close to their full value.

Complete Bear Canister Comparison Table

Let’s start with the full list, but don’t worry! This may seem like a lot of options, but when you look closely, most people will find that it’s easy to narrow down to just a couple options based mostly on a specific bear canister size range. In the sections below I’ll explain how to narrow your bear canister options based on your needs.

Here’s a table listing the most widely approved hard-sided bear canisters in 2023, sorted from smallest to largest. I’ve included calculations of volume per unit weight and cost per unit volume to help us compare these bear canisters in the next section.

This table scrolls horizontally on small screens.

NameVolume (cu. in.)Weight (oz.)PriceDimensions height x diameter (in.)Volume to Weight (higher = better)Cost to Volume (lower = better)
Bare Boxer27527$758 x 7.410.2$0.27
Lighter1 Lil Sami30030 (including 8oz pot/lid)$1299 x 710.0$0.43
BearVault BV425 Sprint30528$776 x 8.710.9$0.25
BearVault BV450 Jaunt44034$848.7 x 8.312.9$0.19
UDAP No-Fed-Bear45539$8910 x 811.7$0.20
Bearikade Scout (Wild Ideas)50028$3268 x 917.9$0.65
Garcia Backapcker’s Cache61444$8112 x 8.814.0$0.13
Bearikade Weekender (Wild Ideas)65031$35910.5 x 921.0$0.55
Lighter 1 Big Daddy65043 (including 8oz pot/lid)$13913 x 915.1$0.21
BearVault BV500 Journey70041$9512.7 x 8.717.1$0.14
Bear Keg Counter Assault71656$8014 x 912.8$0.11
Bearikade Blazer (Wild Ideas)75033$38412 x 922.7$0.51
Bearikade Expedition (Wild Ideas)90036$42414.5 x 925.0$0.47

Cost to Volume and Volume to Weight

The table above includes two calculated values that are helpful when comparing bear canisters:

Cost to Volume: This measures how much capacity we’re getting for our money. All else being equal, a lower cost-to-volume ratio is better.

Volume to Weight: This measures how much capacity we’re getting for the amount of weight we have to carry. Bear Canisters made from lighter materials have a higher / better volume-to-weight ratio.

Since lighter gear is generally more expensive, you can expect these to be at odds. The fancy Bearikade models, for example, have a high volume-to-weight (good) but also a high cost-to-volume (generally bad unless you have money to burn).

Since most people shop for a bear canister based on size, let’s break the list down into three categories of small, medium, and large.

Small Bear Canisters

These canisters are designed for short and/or ultralight food carries of 1 to 3 days (maybe 4 days if your ultralight food menu is really dialed in). They work well for short solo hikes or an overnight with a partner.

  • Pros of a small bear canister: reduce weight and bulk, save money
  • Cons of a small bear canister: not as versatile
NameVolume (cu. in.)Weight (oz.)PriceDimensions height x diameter (in.)Volume to Weight (higher = better)Cost to Volume (lower = better)
Bare Boxer27527$758 x 7.410.2$0.27
Lighter1 Lil Sami30030 (including 8oz pot/lid)$1299 x 710.0$0.43
BearVault BV425 Sprint30528$776 x 8.710.9$0.25

To help you choose between these small bear canisters, here are their distinguishing points.

Best Small Bear Canister:
BearVault BV425 Sprint

The BV425 Sprint is the smallest canister in the popular and well-tested BearVault lineup, and it narrowly beats the other small canisters in cost-to-volume and volume-to-weight ratios. Unlike the other two it’s wider than it is tall, which may be an advantage or drawback depending on your pack and how you load it.

Smallest Bear Canister:
Bare Boxer

If you want the smallest bear canister on the market, perhaps for overnighters, you can’t do better than the Bare Boxer. At 275 cubic inches it will fit easily in any pack and has a decent cost-to-volume ratio. It’s also the cheapest small canister, by a hair. One potential downside its its opaque material, which makes it hard to see what’s inside.

Best If You Need a Pan:
Lighter1 Lil Sami

The Lighter1 canisters, including the smallest Lil Sami model, are an interesting option for hikers who aren’t already married to a particular cook setup. If you subtract out the 8oz weight of the lid, which doubles as a cooking pan, the Lil Sami wins in volume-to-weight. This comes at a cost of around $55 more though, which is more than most backpacking pots.

Medium Bear Canisters

Medium size bear canisters are the most versatile and popular, especially for thru hikes like the PCT or JMT. Canisters in this size range can carry between 4-7 days of food for one person, maybe more if packed carefully, or food for two people on a weekend trip.

  • Pros of a medium bear canister: versatile enough for longer food carries or sharing with a partner, more options to choose from
  • Cons of a medium bear canister: extra weight and bulk on short trips
NameVolume (cu. in.)Weight (oz.)PriceDimensions height x diameter (in.)Volume to Weight (higher = better)Cost to Volume (lower = better)
BearVault BV450 Jaunt44034$848.7 x 8.312.9$0.19
UDAP No-Fed-Bear45539$8910 x 811.7$0.20
Bearikade Scout (Wild Ideas)50028$3268 x 917.9$0.65
Garcia Backapcker’s Cache61444$8112 x 8.814.0$0.13
Bearikade Weekender (Wild Ideas)65031$35910.5 x 921.0$0.55
Lighter 1 Big Daddy65043 (including 8oz pot/lid)$13913 x 915.1$0.21
BearVault BV500 Journey70041$9512.7 x 8.717.1$0.14
Bear Keg Counter Assault71656$8014 x 912.8$0.11

There are a lot of options in this category, so let’s look closely at which ones stand out.

Lightest Medium Canister:
Bearikade Scout

The Bearikade Scout is the lightest medium bear canister available thanks to its carbon fiber construction. Its relatively feather-weight 28 ounces comes at a hefty price of over $326 and the highest cost-to-volume ratio of any canister in this list. For a bit more space and even better volume-to-weight ratio see the Bearikade Weekender.

Best All-Around Bear Canister:
BearVault BV500 Journey

The BV500 Journey is a very popular choice for its roomy size, see-through walls, and good value. It’s the best volume-to-weight ratio after the super-pricey Bearikades, and it places just after the Bear Keg and the Garcia (both opaque) in cost-to-volume while getting higher marks for usability from many hikers. If you need less space, consider the similar BV450 Jaunt.

Best If You Need a Pan:
Lighter1 Big Daddy

As with its smaller cousin the Lil Sami, the Big Daddy only really makes sense if you’re willing to incorporate its pan lid into your cook system (and thus subtract its weight from that of the canister). If you are you’ll get a volume-to-weight ratio (with pan subtracted) that rivals the Bearikade Scout for a much lower price.

Large Bear Canisters

Canisters in this category can hold between 9 to 12 person-days of food. Use them for a remote solo expedition, sharing a bear can with a partner, or feeding a family or group of three for a long weekiend.

High-end carbon-fiber canister maker Bearikade is the only company in this range, so the prices are high, but the volume to weight ratio is very good. Choose based on the size you need.

NameVolume (cu. in.)Weight (oz.)PriceDimensions height x diameter (in.)Volume to Weight (higher = better)Cost to Volume (lower = better)
Bearikade Blazer (Wild Ideas)75033$38412 x 922.7$0.51
Bearikade Expedition (Wild Ideas)90036$42414.5 x 925.0$0.47

Tip: Sharing A Bear Can on the JMT

Looking for a bear canister for the John Muir Trail? If you’re hiking in a pair and considering a Bearikade, here’s a tip. My husband and I shared a Bearikade Expedition for the first half of our 18 day JMT hike. He carried the bear can, I carried basically everything else. Then we shipped a second one (the Weekender size) to Muir Trail Ranch and each carried one from there for the last 8 days with no resupply.

Bearikade Expedition on the John Muir Trail

Bear Canister Alternatives

Soft-Sided Bear Bags

If you’re on this page it’s likely because you plan to hike in an area that requires one of the hard-sided bear canisters listed above. However, if you’re just looking for a general food storage solution and don’t mind the extra fuss of hanging your food at night, a soft-sided bear bag can reduce weight and bulk in your pack.

Bear bags are made of strong materials, like Spectra or Kevlar, that are supposedly impossible for a bear to chew or claw through. They’re intended to be hung, or at least tied to a tree, to prevent a bear from walking off with them.

Though soft-sided bags are lighter and easier to pack, and they may technically prevent a bear from eating your food, there are some drawbacks:

  • Bears can carry away a sack, unlike a smooth hard-sided can.
  • If a bear plays with your soft-sided bag, your food will likely end up crushed and contaminated with bear drool.
  • Safer if hung, which requires time, skill, and trees.

If you’re considering a soft-sided bear bag as a bear canister alternative, here are the models approved by the IGBC as of early 2023:

NameVolume (cu. in.)Weight (oz.)PriceDimensions height x diameter (in.)Volume / WeightCost / Volume
Ursack Major6507.6$10014 x 885.5$0.15
Ursack AllMitey6509.5$15519 x 868.4$0.24
Ursack Major XL9158.8$11018.5 x 8104.0$0.12

If using a soft-sided bag, it’s recommended to also use a smell-proof bag inside to avoid catching a bear’s attention in the first place.

I use an Ursack Major when backpacking in areas that don’t require a canister. I find it a good compromise between protection and weight. In areas without bears it gives me lightweight worry-free rodent protection (for the most part – technically the Ursack Minor is a better choice there). In areas with bears I either tie it very securely to a tree or hang it, which brings me to…

Hanging Your Food

Hanging is the “traditional” method of protecting food from bears and bears from food. While it sounds simple – hang your food out of reach – I can assure you it’s not as easy as it seems.

First of all, finding a tree that’s tall and strong enough to hang from can be hard, or downright impossible above treeline. Meeting the recommended bear hang metrics – 12 feet off the ground, 6 feet down from the branch, and 6-10 feet out from the trunk – takes a decent throwing arm! When you’ve been hiking all day and you’re tired and it’s getting dark out… It can be oh-so-temping to settle for a less than perfect bear hang. We call these a “bear piñata.”

If you’re going to rely on hanging your food in bear country, definitely practice at home first. The process can be tricky and require many tries, and ideally a helpful partner. When done properly it can be fairly (not perfectly) effective, but it’s very rarely done properly.

If I haven’t talked you out of it yet, here are the two most common methods of bear hanging:

And now, back to bear canisters.

Good luck finding a tree up here in the high Sierra. Better to have a bear canister.

How to Use A Bear Canister

Now that you’re the proud owner of a shiny new bear bin, what exactly are you supposed to do with it? In short:

  1. Store the right things in the bear canister
  2. Choose your kitchen location wisely
  3. Choose a smart place to leave the bear canister overnight
  4. Carry your bear canister comfortably in your pack
  5. Pack your bear canister as efficiently as possible

What goes in a bear canister?

Short answer: anything that smells (and bears have a very good sense of smell). In practice, this means:

  • Food, any and all of it.
  • Trash, especially food wrappers (check your pockets for those granola bar wrappers!)
  • Scented toiletries (toothpaste, deodorant, etc)

If you have extra space, it’s nice to store other items like your stove or dishes in the canister as well. Don’t add items like clothing that can soak up food smell.

Bear canisters are mainly intended to protect your food overnight. It’s ok to have your day’s snacks and meals outside of it while hiking, but be careful to not leave your pack unattended during the day in this case.

Where should I set up my camp kitchen?

When hiking in bear country it’s important to set up your “kitchen” and “dining room” at least 100 yards downwind from where you’ll sleep. The process of eating or cooking leaves scraps or even just scent that a bear’s sensitive nose can easily pick up. If a bear comes to investigate during the night, you’d rather it not trip over your tent in the process.

Some people even like to stop for dinner somewhere along the trail and then keep hiking to camp, especially in grizzly territory. This works especially well for ultralight hikers putting in long days, but is a good bear avoidance strategy for anyone.

Where do I leave the bear canister at night?

Here’s the key thing to remember when deciding where to leave your bear canister at night: a bear canister is designed to prevent a bear from actually eating your food. A bear may still smell your food, find your food, and try to get your food. With this in mind, place your bear canister:

  • At least 100 yards away from where you’ll sleep, preferably downwind if you can figure out which way that is.
  • Away from any steep hills, river banks, or dropoffs where it could roll and fall if a bear decides to play with it.

Consider marking your bear canister with bright or reflective tape, so you can find it more easily if it ends up somewhere unexpected (or if you need to get into it during the night).

Definitely do NOT:

  • Keep your bear can in or near your tent.
  • Attach rope or anything else to your bear can that could allow a bear to carry it away.
  • Hang your bear can (hanging is not very effective and not necessary with a can, plus see above about attaching rope)

Is a bear canister smell-proof?

Nope! Some are designed to be smell resistant, but you should assume that a bear can still smell your food and knows exactly where it is. The purpose of a bear canister is not to make food invisible to bears, but to teach them not to bother going after that yummy smell, because they can’t get the food out of the canister.

If hiking in grizzly territory (where the chance of an aggressive encounter is higher), consider using smell-proof bags inside your bear canister for extra safety.

How do I open and close my bear canister?

This depends on the model. They’re all different, but since they’re all designed to be hard for bears to open there is the possibility that they can be hard for hikers too.

For some designs a coin, credit card, or other thin edge is required or at least helpful. Make sure you bring an extra of whatever is needed, just in case!

Other Bear Canister Tips

  • Before putting the canister in its overnight location, check ALL clothing and pack pockets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered an extra wrapper or granola bar after closing up the canister and had to go back in the dark to add it.
  • This may sound obvious, but always close your bear canister when you’re done taking food out. When bear canisters do fail to keep food safe, it’s usually because of human error.
  • The best thing about bear canisters (aside from not endangering bears or yourself) is having a sturdy camp chair during mealtime.
  • Some bear canisters can also be used as a foam roller for working out those aches and pains on the trail.
Bear canisters make excellent camp furniture.

How to Carry A Bear Canister

Adding a bear canister to your gear list can disrupt the packing strategy of even the most experienced backpacker. Where is the best place to pack this bulky, heavy, inflexible object?

Here are some tips on how and where to carry your bear canister:

  • The best place for a bear canister in your pack is relatively low and close to your back, which keeps weight distributed as comfortably as possible.
  • Try packing your canister either at the very bottom of your back, or just on top of your sleeping bag (which is at the very bottom).
  • Consider carrying your bear can horizontally (lid facing to one side) instead of upright, if it will fit.
  • If using a frameless pack, you may need to pad between the canister and your back with something soft like a sleeping pad or clothing.
  • For a better fit, remove sleeping bag and clothing from stuff sacks and stuff them free-form around the sides of your bear canister.
  • It’s an advanced move, but some hikers manage to carry their bear canister on the top of their packs, saving more space inside. Just remember, don’t attach any ropes to the bear can itself, or a bear could carry it away during the night.

How to Pack A Bear Canister

If you’re not already a precise planner when it comes to backcountry meals, hiking with a bear canister will make you into one.

As a general rule of thumb, one day of food for one person takes up around 100 cubic inches of bear canister space. But there is a lot you can do to stretch your bear canister capacity as far as possible.

Plan Your Food Carefully

  • Plan out your full menu precisely, down to exactly how many calories you will eat per day. Most backpackers should shoot for 3000-4000 calories per day depending on your size and daily mileage.
  • Choose dense foods that are high in fat, because they pack a lot of calories into a small amount of space. Nut butter, salami, hard cheeses, trail mix, and high calorie meal replacement bars are all good places to start.
  • Choose food that is NOT high in water content, since water is heavy, contains no calories and is usually easy to add on the trail. This means buying or making your own dehydrated or freeze dried meals, having just-add-water breakfasts like oatmeal and powdered milk, and cooking with dehydrated fast-cooking grains like couscous or ramen.
  • Choose foods that pack down into small spaces without much air in between. For example, couscous or angel hair spaghetti will pack pack down to a smaller space than the same amount of calories of shell or macaroni pasta (unless you crush them into smaller pieces, which is definitely an option).
Carefully packing resupply food into bear canisters at Muir Trail Ranch on the JMT. It was a tight squeeze!

Pack Your Food Efficiently

  • Remove any nonessential packaging.
  • If sealed packages contain some air, poke a tiny pin-prick hole and squeeze the air out.
  • Consider crushing dried foods – pasta, dehydrated chili, ramen – into smaller pieces that pack down with less air between them.
  • Layer your canister by day, not by food type, so you don’t have to unpack the entire thing to make a full meal. (As tempting as it may be, don’t put that round pack of tortillas at the very bottom.)
  • Make good use of space around the edges of the canister. This is a great place to wedge a few extra protein bars even after the canister seems full.
  • If low on space, pack your first day’s snacks and meals outside the canister (but don’t leave your pack unattended!).
  • Leave room for your toiletries and other scented items.

You’ll also get occasional emails packed full of backpacking resources and inspiration.
I think you’ll like them! But don’t worry, you can unsubscribe any time.

More Backpacking Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.

Hiking resources in your inbox?

There’s more where this came from! Sign up here for occasional emails full of inspiration and information about backpacking and hiking.

Pin For Later

Pictures of bear canister and bears with text: 2020 Bear Canister Buyer's Guide
Picture of open bear canister with text: how to pack a bear canister

2 thoughts on “Backpacking Bear Canisters: Price vs Weight vs Capacity”

  1. I just discovered your blog, I love it! I’ve always wanted to do a big hike and your blog gets me thinking about it again.


Leave a Comment

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00