If we want to go backpacking in bear territory, we have to think about food storage. Bears are amazing and smart and usually peaceful, but bad things happen when they develop a craving for freeze-dried chili mac ‘n cheese. They become less skittish around humans and start posing a threat to hikers, which sometimes leads to their euthanization. Bad all around!
Bear canisters and bear bags are the two most common ways to keep our food safe from bears and bears safe from our food. Both are used to store food overnight so bears can’t access it, and both are very effective when used correctly (important caveat). For most backpackers the choice comes down to local requirements, gear style, and likelihood of bear encounters.
I’ve used both a bear bag and a bear canister for many hundreds of miles of backpacking, with great success (so far, knock wood). In this post I’ll explain the reasons why you might choose one or the other, and how to use them both effectively.
Terminology note: I’m specifically using the term “bear bag” to mean “bear-resistant bag” like the Ursack Major, not a regular food bag hung in a tree. The latter is hard to get right and not on the same level as a bear canister or bear-resistant bag.
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Why Use Either?
If you’re looking into the relative merits of bear bags versus bear canisters, you’re probably interested in preventing bears from eating your food while camping in the backcountry. If you’re backpacking (or bikepacking) in a remote place, you’re going to be very hungry and sad if a bear runs off with your food on day three of a five-day food carry.
Protecting your food is a totally valid reason to use bear-resistant food storage, but it’s actually rather selfish in the grand scheme of things. Properly using a bear canister or bear bag protects other hikers in the future, and it protects the bears who live where we recreate.
When a bear develops a taste for hiker food, he’ll start visiting campsites looking for more. Over time he becomes bolder and less scared of humans, which can lead to dangerous encounters for future hikers. When this happens, local authorities often relocate or even euthanize (kill) the bear to protect hikers. Yup, that’s pretty unfair since the bear was there first, but it happens.
There’s also the issue of smaller critters like rodents, who are often the biggest threat to our food. Though bear-resistant storage is sometimes overkill as rodent protection, some versions do offer total peace of mind against the little critters.
A bear canister is a hard-sided container made from plastic or occasionally carbon fiber. The lid is designed so that humans can open it (most of the time…) but bears cannot. The lid locks with some clever bear-proof mechanism and the slippery cylindrical shape is hard for a bear to “carry,” so he can’t run off with the canister. The worst he can do is knock it around for awhile, but the hard sides of the canister will protect your food from being smushed.
Bear canisters are the “heavy-duty” side of bear-resistant food storage. You pay a bit extra in weight and bulk, and in return you get near-total peace of mind. They’re a good option for high-risk areas where a bear might play with your Ursack, folks who want the simplest food storage possible, and of course areas where they are legally required.
Reasons to Use a Bear Canister
Despite their weight and awkward size, there are some compelling reasons to use a bear canister versus a bear bag / Ursack:
Required in some national parks and forests: The most compelling reason to use a bear canister is when it’s legally required. If you want to backpack in Desolation Wilderness or thru hike the John Muir Trail, for example, you have no choice but to use a bear canister instead of a bear bag. Rangers do check, and if caught your hike will end early and with a large fine.
Best protection for your food and the bears: A bear bag like the Ursack Major is designed to prevent a bear from snacking on your food, but it won’t stop him from playing piñata with it for hours while you sleep. Your food will not be left in good shape if that happens, and there’s a chance some of your food will leak out and reward the bear for his efforts, thus creating a “problem bear” despite your best efforts.
Simplest and easiest food storage method: In theory you could combine an Ursack with a proper bear hang for excellent protection even in high-risk areas, but in practice a good bear hang is harder than we like to admit. A bear canister just sits on the ground, making it the easiest and most fool-proof way to protect your food (and the bears).
Best in treeless areas: A bear bag still needs to be tied to a strong tree or branch to prevent a bear from running off with it. A bear canister, on the other hand, just sits on the ground; it’s too rigid and slippery for a bear to grip. If you’re camping in truly treeless areas like the high alpine a bear can is your only legitimate option.
Slightly cheaper: The price of bear canisters varies widely, from around $84 for a simple Garcia Backpacker’s Cache up to $400+ for the biggest ultralight Bearikade. At the low end, the cheapest bear canisters cost about $16 less than the cheapest Ursack Major bear bag.
Comfy camp stool: While most folks wouldn’t consider carrying a bear canister just for this reason, it’s a nice bonus. If you were going to carry a camp chair anyway and decide to sit on your bear can instead, the extra weight of the bear can is offset by the chair you didn’t bring.
Drawbacks of Bear Canisters
Heavy: In an endeavor where every ounce matters, a bear canister is one of the worst things that can happen to your lightweight gear list. The BearVault BV 450 Jaunt, a relatively small and affordable canister, weighs 34 ounces. An Ursack Major bear bag, by contrast, weighs only 7.6 ounces. The lightest medium-size bear canister, the carbon fiber Bearikade Scout, weighs 6 oz less than the BearVault but costs over 3x more! In other words, light bear canisters are expensive and even the lightest are still heavy.
Bulky and awkward: A bear canister is often the biggest item in our pack, and it can’t be squished to better fit available space. It doesn’t get any smaller when it’s empty, though you can conserve space by packing your cook kit inside once there’s room. Especially if you want to backpack with a smaller frameless pack, figuring out how to carry a bear canister can be a puzzle.
Uncomfortable: The hard sides and edges of a bear canister can lead to bruises and chafing on your back, especially if using a lightweight frameless pack. It takes care to position the canister correctly and pad the edges with clothing, sleeping bag, etc.
A bear-resistant bag is a soft-sided food storage container that you can think of almost like a squishable bear canister. It’s made from a tooth- and claw-resistant fabric like Kevlar or Spectra and cinched with a sturdy rope system that, when fastened properly (emphasis on properly) is very hard for bears to open.
A bear bag can be hung with a traditional bear hang method for extra protection, and this is often a good idea. But it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be fastened securely to a tree or branch so the bear can’t run off with it.
The most popular bear bag is the Ursack Major and its rodent-proof cousin the Ursack All-Mitey. (Note that Ursack also makes a rodent-only bag, the Ursack Minor, which is not bear-resistant. See Ursack Major vs Minor.)
Reasons to Use a Bear Bag
Lighter: Backpackers are understandably enthusiastic about keeping our pack weight down. At just 7.6 oz, an Ursack Major is a full 1.27 pounds lighter than the lightest bear can money can buy (Bearikade Scout). Outside of upgrading your “big 3” it’s hard to cut that much weight from a gear list with a single item.
Flexible shape: A bear bag is easier than a canister to pack and carry, even for the same capacity. Its squishable shape fits better in smaller packs and is less likely to jab your back through an ultralight frameless pack. A bear bag gets smaller as you eat through your food, while a canister is always the same size. If you’re bikepacking and dealing with a multitude of small and oddly-shaped bags, a bear bag is the only food storage method that will work.
Good balance of protection and weight for lower-risk areas: A bear canister is a big commitment, and many folks are understandably loathe to carry one in low-risk areas with small populations of timid black bears. A bear bag is light and convenient enough to be a good compromise. On a thru hike like the Colorado Trail, for example, a bear bag is perfect for adding an extra layer of protection to your bear hang in places with a history of encounters while not weighing you down too much on the rest of the trail.
Drawbacks of Bear Bags
Does not meet requirements in some areas: Despite having passed the IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) certification, the Ursack is still not on the approved containers list for a few areas including Yosemite. According to this interview with the CEO, there is no clear reason and these rules will hopefully be changed. In the meantime, if you want to backpack in those areas you’ll be forced to go with a hard-sided bear canister.
Not as reliably bear-resistant (maybe): This point is debatable, as the Ursack is certified by the IGBC and has passed all the tests. Anecdotally however there are reports of bears breaching Ursacks. Of course there are also reports of bears getting into canisters; it’s rare but it does happen. It’s possible that when properly cinched and secured, as in the certification tests, the Ursack is as reliable as a canister, but there is more room for mistakes in how the Ursack is fastened and tied.
You still need to tie it to a tree: The Ursack must be tied to a strong tree or branch in a specific way to make it fully bear-resistant. Though much easier than a full bear hang, this is still a camp chore you’ll need to complete, probably after dark when you’re tired. In high alpine areas without trees, it may be impossible.
You may need / want to hang it: The Ursack bear bag is certified as bear-resistant without being hung; you only need to tie it to a tree so the bear can’t run off with it. In high-risk areas with likely bear encounters, however, it’s probably best to combine the Ursack’s bear-resistant properties with a best-effort bear hang. Good bear hangs are hard to accomplish, especially in areas without suitable trees, and they’re a pain when you’re tired after a long day of hiking.
Your food can still be damaged: A bear bag is considered successful if a bear fails to get the food inside, but that doesn’t mean the food will still be edible for you. Based on reports of bears going after Ursacks, the end result isn’t pretty; one user on Reddit said their food was “mashed into a bear saliva goop.” Ursack does sell a rigid aluminum liner but it weighs more than the bag does, though the combination is still lighter than a bear canister.
May be less rodent-proof: You might expect any bear-resistant bag to also be rodent-resistant, but these two creatures have very different equipment. The Specta fabric of the Ursack Major, though often effective against rodents, is not guaranteed to resist their tiny teeth. You’ll have to upgrade to an Ursack AllMitey, which is 2 ounces heaver and considerably more expensive, to get both bear and rodent protection.
Bear-Aware Practices Still Essential
It’s important to remember that bear canisters and bear bags are NOT smell-proof, which means your food can still attract bears to your camp. Even using a smell-proof inner bag like the OPSAK isn’t a guarantee; bears have a very good sense of smell. In theory, if bears have tried and failed to get human food in the past they should not be attracted to the smell of your food. But if you get an unruly bear or one that hasn’t learned this lesson yet, he may visit to your campsite searching for your food even though it’s in a canister or bear bag.
Thus bear-aware camping practices are still essential when using a bear bag or canister in bear territory. Specifically:
- Store your bear canister or bag at least 200 feet away from your camp at night, ideally downwind.
- Put all food and scented items in your canister or bag at night. This includes wrappers, dirty dishes, and scented toiletries. I don’t actually know if bears are attracted to your coconut-scented sunscreen, but I’d rather you not find out.
- Don’t cook or eat in or near your tent.
- Keep a clean camp and use bear-aware cooking and dish washing practices.
- Don’t leave food unattended at camp or during the day.
In conclusion, the decision between a bear bag versus a bear canister depends on where you like to backpack, what your gear list looks like, and your personal tolerance for risk and fuss. Whichever one you choose, use it responsibly and you can sleep soundly at night knowing your food and the bears are safe from each other.
More Backpacking Resources
If you found this post helpful, you might also like these:
- Flying With Backpacking Gear: Tips for Avoiding Trouble at the Airport
- Thru Hiking the Arizona Trail: Essential Q&A
- How to Poop in the Woods: Guide for the Shy and Squeamish
Or visit the backpacking section for lots more.
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