How to Use a Bear Canister
So should you be afraid of bears?
I don't know about "afraid" but you should respect bears. According to Backpacker Magazine, the chances of being killed by a bear in North America:
"averages to just under 3 fatalities a year, when millions of people go into the backcountry or live near bear habitat. 26 people get killed by dogs every year, and 90 people are killed every year by lightning."
Keeping People Safe from Bears and Bears Safe from People
Keep your food and yourself safe while camping by storing your food in a bear-resistant canister. Thanks to films like Grizzly Man, concerns about being mauled and eaten by a bear plague the dreams of many back country users. However, there is usually one reason that bears and humans meet - your food.
Though Yogi Bear offered great entertainment on sleepy Saturday mornings, there is nothing funny about feeding the bears - even if it is unintentional. Try to remember that we are visitors to their habitat and when we are careless with our food, bears like an easy meal. The worse thing for a bear, is to associate humans with food - often it ends with their displacement or even death.
The best way to keep your food and our woodland friends safe is to use a bear-resistant food container. Often called a bear canister, these small cylindrical and usually hard plastic vessels have been designed to withstand the massive force of a bear's claws and teeth. Quite simply, these canisters are safe and easy to use.
Also, just so you know - in some parks like the Adirondack High Peaks and Yosemite - the use of bear canisters is the law. Not only will you have a hungry hike if you lose your food, but you may be fined too. The lack of food and a fine for a few hundred dollars makes for a lousy backpacking trip.
If Bears Blogged
Yesterday, some smelly people with a green nylon house began living in the glade where I forage for blueberries every morning. I was crouched near the wood line but they thankfully didn't see me when they walked in. The two of them appear to be in their mating cycle. This is where I eat, super sigh....
I'm not sure how much longer they are staying, but last night they cooked the most fragrant meal and dumped what they didn't want in the bushes. After they "went to bed" I enjoyed the snack that they left for me.
They are still here, but I found something interesting. For some reason they keep their food in a sack and hoist it up in the tree. I wonder if this is an offering to their gods or a treat for the squirrels.
I'm investigating tonight. Seeing as how these people are picking all my blueberries, it may be a fair trade.
After their light extinguished, I crept into the campsite to check out the dangling bag of goodies in the tree. I stood up on my hind legs, but couldn't quite reach it. So, I began climbing the tree when I found a rope that wasn't there before.
I severed the rope with one bite, and the bag crashed down to the ground with a loud clang of metal pots. I heard screaming from the green nylon house, so I grabbed the bag of food and ran into the woods with the severed rope dragging behind me.
I dined well tonight on packaged fish, dried beef, and something called GORP.
I borrowed the people's food bag two days ago and my life has been hell ever since. The men with green shirts have been looking for me and beating through the bushes. They are carrying guns.
I must run!
Yesterday, I heard a loud bag, then looked to see a mini-arrow imbedded in my fur; I felt very sleepy.
When I woke up today, I was in a metal cage and felt myself moving faster than ever. The humans are taking me somewhere...
Doesn't Bear Bagging Work?
I have fond memories of helping to hoist the family's fifty-pound food pack twenty-feet into a tree to keep it safe from prowling bears on Canadian canoe trips. Luckily the branches held, or one of us would have been crushed.
I have more bear bagging memories of lashing rocks and logs to parachute cord and trying for a half-hour to get that perfect branch. As the rock finally sails over that delectable limb and starts to fall - of course it snags. Yanking on the end of the cord to jerk the weight free, the branch breaks, sending the rock hurtling back toward me.
"How did you get that bruise again? "
You see, bear bagging can be a dangerous activity.
Besides its danger, bear bagging is a time-consuming method for protecting your food. Not to mention, it is ineffective. Yes, even the highly-touted counterbalance method of bear bagging isn't as effective or easy as storing your smellables in the old Bear Vault.
Bears are quite ingenious, you see. They realize that when they scratch on trees near campsites, that for some reason brightly-colored sacks of food fall to the ground. Those claws easily slice through suspension ropes.
A Bear Tries to Break into a Bear Vault on the PCT
Layer dehydrated meals around the inside of the container for more storage space.
How To Use a Bear Canister
Using a bear canister is a little more than just sticking in a few days of food, screwing on the top and dropping it in the woods. First, there is an art to packing a bear keg.
Remember that all of your smellables go into this food container at night, including garbage and personal hygiene supplies. Before the digital camera age, bear experts warned campers to store film in hard to reach places too.
Because you are packing garbage in the container along with food, make sure to pack one-gallon freezer bags to separate everything and make GORP easier to find early in the morning.
Remember to unpack, wash and dry your canister after returning home. A friend of mine went backpacking up in the Adirondacks but neglected to unpack his container when he got home. After a few months of storage, his can was a large Petri dish of various mildew, molds and bacteria. Go ahead, wrinkle your nose and let the nausea set in.
Where to Stash a Bear Keg
Let's start simple, don't stash your bear container in your tent or even in your campsite. Much like a bear bag, these bruin-resistant barricades should be stored at least 100-feet away from your campsite.
- Never leave the canister near water. If Yogi knocks it in, they usually don't float.
- Never suspend the keg or tie anything to it. Even if they can't get into it, bears can still carry the container away.
- Stash the canister in a depression, wedge it under a log, or stick it between large stones.
If room is tight in the canister, you can carry the first day of food outside the canister in your pack.
Bear Canister Tips
- Place reflective tape on your canister so you can find it more easily in the dark.
- Skip buying the bear canister holders. Place the container inside your pack. Usually the heavy container will put your pack out of balance when carried on the outside. Most backpackers carry their container in the upper portion of their pack near their spine. Never store a bear-resistant container in a holder - it just gives something for the bear to carry it away.
- Though you can rent these bear-resistant kegs, if you are an avid backpacker it is more cost effective to buy your own. These products last forever, so your $60 investment will last a lifetime. If you aren't in the mood to make a long-term investment, many outfitters and parks rent canisters.
- Label your container with your name and contact information. In a large campsite, you wouldn't want for someone (who is not a bear) to accidentally grab your food.
- Always mark a bear keg's location with your GPS. Come morning, things may look different after a comfy night in the woods.
- Depending on the model, a bear canister can be used as a stool or as a table.
"The purpose of the regulation is to protect people from black bears in the Eastern High Peaks Zone (EHPZ) of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It also will ensure that individual bears do not become dependent on people for food, thereby jeopardizing human safety and potentially requiring the killing of those bears."
Bear Canister Rules in the Adirondacks
As an Adirondack hiker, I started carrying a bear canister a few years ago because of regulations in the High Peaks Region. Before the regulation was in place, there were nearly 400 negative bear encounters in the High Peaks per year. After 2005, when the regulation was enacted, that number fell below 100.
The regulation states:
"NYSDEC Regulation Requires The Use of Bear Resistant Canisters by Overnight Users in The Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Between April 1 And November 30. NYSDEC encourages campers to use bear resistant canisters throughout the Adirondack and Catskill backcountry."
Regulations further state that the canister must be of a commercially made non-pliable design. Therefore, bulletproof sacks like the Ursack or homemade versions are not allowed.
As a cautionary note to Adirondack backpackers, there is only one bear in North America (so far) that can open up Bear Vaults. Her name is Yellow-Yellow and she lives in the Adirondack High Peaks near Marcy Dam . She has defeated these containers where Rocky Mountain grizzlies could not. Using her black bear ingenuity, she bites off both of the side depression tabs before turning off the container's top.
Bear Vault, the makers of the affected container, explain this improbable task:
"Surprisingly, the bear(s) pressed in the first snap with its incisor, rotated the lid and then pressed in the 2nd snap with its incisor and opened the lid."
In an honest move, this company does not recommend carrying their product in the Marcy Dam, Johns Brook Valley, or Lake Colden areas.
Learn more about Yellow-Yellow in Adirondack Explorer.
Bear Canister Regulations in Yosemite National Park
With scores of bear bags trashed in the night and thousands of vehicles suffering bear-inflicted damage from hungry bruins searching for food, Yosemite National Park requires bear-resistant containers.
In the campgrounds, food lockers are provided to keep smellables; however, in the backcountry it is a federal regulation to keep all food in an approved bear canister.
""Food" includes all food and drinks, regardless of packaging, along with trash, toiletries, and other scented items. These items must be stored in either an allowed bear-resistant food canister or food locker. Hanging food is illegal throughout Yosemite."
Yosemite provides the following list of approved food containers:
- Backpackers' Cache (812) - Garcia
- BearVault (110b, 200, 250, 300, 350, 400, 450, and 500)
- Bare Boxer Contender (101) or Champ (202)
- Bearikade Weekender or Expedition MKII (1766 and higher)
- Counter Assault Bear Keg
- Purple Mountain Engineering Tahoe
If you didn't bring your own canister, the staff in Yosemite will be glad to rent you one when you get there. Just ask at any staffed wilderness permit station.
Other Parks with Bear Food Storage Laws
Besides the Adirondacks and Yosemite National Park, there are other places that require the use of bear-resistant containers.
Because of the effectiveness of bear canisters, this is an ever expanding list. You should always check the regulations of any wilderness area you are backpacking in to see is their bear protection strategy includes canisters.
For example, in 2012 the Forest Service enacted a regulation requiring the use of bear canisters on the Appalachian Trail between Jarad and Neel Gap in Georgia. This regulation, the first of its kind on the A.T., is effective from March 1st through June 1st.
Here are a few other places that have some sort of regulation for carrying bear-proof food containers.
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Denali National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
The Bear Vault Solo
I've been using the Bear Vault 350 Solo for years without incident. At times, I've found a few scratches on the hard polycarbonate shell, but I usually find it in the same place I left it.
Bear Vault currently makes two different size food-protection vaults.
- 440 cu in (four days)
- 2 lb 1 oz
- 8.7" x 8.3"
- 700 cu in (seven days)
- 2 lb 9 oz
- 8.7" x 12.7"
Bear Vaults have the following features:
- Approved by SIBBG (Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group)
- Approved by IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee)
- Transparent housing allows you to see what is inside.
- No tools needed to access food.
- Rain proof lid!
- Nubs on housing, allow strapping of the container to any pack without the use of an additional case.
If you are doing most of your backpacking in the Adirondacks, you may want to rethink the Bear Vault seeing as how the only bear that can open one lives in the High Peaks. See the section above on Adirondack regulations for more information.
Bare Boxer Contender
I saw this cool little canister at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley and I knew I had to have one. Finally, here was an approved container that I could fit into an ultralight backpack.
Specifications for the Bare Boxer Contender:
- Weight 1.6 pounds
- Diameter: 7.4"
- Height: 8"
- Capacity: 275 cu. in.
- MSRP: $50
- Secured with three bear-proof latches.
- Most compact and lightest bear canister on the market.
- Generally large enough to fit 3-days of food for one hiker.
- Smooth, small, and slips into a pack easily.
- IGBC and SIBBG tested and approved.
I've been using the Bear Vault Solo for a few years now, but I found it was too large to carry for a quick weekend backpacking trip. The minuscule Bare Boxer canister is the perfect size for keeping the bears at bay during such a trip.
Unlike other models, this is a tooled entry - the tip of my Esee Izula works well to manipulate the bear-proof locks. The Contender is not as water resistant as other brands however, so make sure you package everything in plastic bags before locking it up for the night.
This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human
Do you carry a bear-resistant food container?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.