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How to Use a Bear Canister

Dan has enjoyed camp coffee while sitting on some of the finest logs you'll ever find in a backcountry campsite.

Bear canisters

Bear canisters

Should You Be Afraid of Bears When Camping?

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 backcountry 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.

Most of my bear pictures are of them running away from me.  I took this picture in Tennessee along the Appalachian Trail.

Most of my bear pictures are of them running away from me. I took this picture in Tennessee along the Appalachian Trail.

If Bears Blogged

June 15

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.

June 16

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.

June 17

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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.

June 19

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!

June 21

Yesterday, I heard a loud bang, then looked to see a mini-arrow embedded 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...

It is hard to keep food out of reach from a bear.

It is hard to keep food out of reach from a bear.

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, for some reason brightly-colored sacks of food fall to the ground. Those claws can easily slice through suspension ropes.

Expert Tip

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.

Stop bears from rolling your canister around at night by wedging it under a log.

Stop bears from rolling your canister around at night by wedging it under a log.

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.

  1. Never leave the canister near water. If Yogi knocks it in, they usually don't float.
  2. Never suspend the keg or tie anything to it. Even if they can't get into it, bears can still carry the container away.
  3. Stash the canister in a depression, wedge it under a log, or stick it between large stones.
Notice the reflective tape on the Bare Boxer Contender - it helps retrieve it in low light.

Notice the reflective tape on the Bare Boxer Contender - it helps retrieve it in low light.

Expert Tip

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.

The Bear Vault Solo on an Adirondack backpacking trip.

The Bear Vault Solo on an Adirondack backpacking trip.

Yosemite National Park is a popular backpacking destination, just make sure you pack your food in an approved bear safe container.

Yosemite National Park is a popular backpacking destination, just make sure you pack your food in an approved bear safe container.

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
Bear vault latch

Bear vault latch

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.

  • BV450
  • 440 cu in (four days)
  • 2 lb 1 oz
  • 8.7" x 8.3"
  • BV500
  • 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.

Your knife works well to open up the Bare Boxer Contender.  I've also had success with a sharp stick point.

Your knife works well to open up the Bare Boxer Contender. I've also had success with a sharp stick point.

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

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.


Dennis Hoyman from Southwestern, Pennsylvania on March 23, 2015:

Outbound Dan

Great article for me to read but I don't go camping but I love your articles on the outdoors keep up the great work. Gardener Den

Eric on June 28, 2014:

Hey, anyone have a bare boxer contender they're looking to sell??

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on August 30, 2013:

Even the smallest critter can make a trip miserable. All in all, I've had more problems with rodents than bears over the years. Tiny little incisors can chew easily through your food bag, heck even your backpack, and munch through a good portion of your chow.

Thanks for reading Doug.

Doug on August 30, 2013:

I should have known better. Camping this week in the Appalachians of WV. I didn't have bear problems, but a fairly constant barrage of small critters trying to get into my pack. Had it hung directly on my hammock line. Didn't get a lick of sleep. Good food management can be the difference between an enjoyable outing and a miserable night.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on September 22, 2012:

At most parks that require canisters, you'll see the wall of kegs by the rental station. I'm surprised whenever I hear that they are sold out. I guess it is good to be prepared and have your own anyway.

Again, the great thing about bear canisters is that they should last forever - I expect mine to outlive me at least.

Thank you for reading and leaving a comment Jonwb!

Jonbwb from Saint Paul, Minnesota on September 21, 2012:

I went to Yosemite in 2011 and my friends and I rented a couple Bear canisters for $5 each. I had also purchased the Counter Assault bear Keg for the trip, not knowing it would have been easy to rent a canister. It is good to hear some other parks are adopting the rule to use them. This way I'll actually get to use it again!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on June 28, 2012:

The best kinds of dogs are the ones that think they are still puppies - even though, they usually don't realize how big they have gotten. :) Either a blues singer or a mob enforcer, I'm not sure.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on June 28, 2012:

Yeah, his name is Hash Brown Calhoun. Sounds like a blues singer - at least that's what I thought. He's a yellow lab and crazy. He's 5 and 1/2 and still thinks he's a puppy. He's outside roaming the woods right now...I have no idea where he is. Probably chasing another bear. :D

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on June 28, 2012:

Wait a minute, your dog's name is Hash Brown? That is awesome!

Anyway no problem, I love hearing bear stories.

I'm chuckling thinking of someone taking their daily stroll with a baseball bat. People do that here in Buffalo - but you kind of need it.

She could benefit from walking with an Irish shillelagh. I've shaken my trekking poles at the occasional bear, but most of them are pretty timid.

Thanks for the story!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on June 28, 2012:

Haha, sorry I just had to come back and share another bear story, this time down South. I was sitting drinking tea on my porch early one morning and all of a sudden I heard screaming and then "Git! Git! Git!" A few moments later I got a text from my neighbor saying that she had spotted a bear. I texted back and said it was probably the little black bear sitting at the end of our road the other day...rather cute. She didn't like it one bit. After that, she began walking up and down our road (for exercise) with a baseball bat in her hands. I'd never seen anything like it. Now, she's graduated to walking sticks, but I still have to dog Hash Brown just barks and the little bear walks away. Not that he's harmless - I have a healthy respect for the little bear, but I admit it's a little amusing watching the neighbors who recently moved from Las Vegas....I'm a twit, I know. ;)

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on June 28, 2012:

You know I had to throw in an ultralight backpack in there somewhere!

Great story, and one that plays out far too often in camping trips. A chewed up hydration bladder in the desert would make for a rather thirsty trip...

As they are pushed from their habitats and their behaviors change, I think you are likely to see more bears in the South. I tend to see more down there, then I do up here.

Thanks for the read and the tweet!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on June 28, 2012:

I was waiting for the part where you could fit that into an ultralight backpack, haha. This is imperative information for a lot of hikers to know. I once was camping down in Big Bend and we had just made dinner - a strong-smelling garlic and taboule dinner. A small bear came to the campsite before the group of us was finished. It didn't come that close, but went and fetched a girl's backpack and took her water supply along with it before puncturing it and leaving her with a compromised water supply in the desert mountains. It made for an interesting trip. We all watched quietly as it unfolded, but let the bear wander off without provoking it in any way - thank goodness for everyone involved. The bear canister is a great idea and one that I hadn't heard of - mostly because we don't have many bears down here in the South and when I've camped out west, I've used the bear boxes provided by the different campground parks. This will be really great for my next backpacking trip, though. Voted up and tweeted.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 31, 2012:

You can't beat the contender for convenience - small and lightweight. It is a soloists dream for multiday backpacking.

Thanks for commenting Maebus00!

Maebus00 on May 31, 2012:

I have the contender and I love it for use anywhere. I have brought it with me around here on over nights just because it is convenient.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 27, 2012:

HA HA HA! I hope he brings the car back too. Bears are terrible drivers.

There are times that I still bear bag, but usually I opt for the canister. It is so easy just to throw your food in the can, then lob it into the bushes for the night.

Best of all - no rocks to the head.

Thanks for the comment bankscottage!

Mark Shulkosky from Pennsylvania on May 27, 2012:

We have a lot of bears around (and sometimes in) the town that I live in. I was walking on an old rail bed one warm afternoon and had a rather benign interaction with one coming up from a wooded stream bed. He growled when he heard me and came up to take a look. He saw me, I saw him. He took off toward the car, I went the other way. Go figure. I hope he brings the car back some day.

Seriously, I don't sleep under the stars much, but if I did I would have been old school with the bear bag in the tree. I didn't realize how wrong this is. Thanks for the up to date info and great suggestions.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 26, 2012:

I'm working on another project now about protecting your food from all manner of critters while camping. Though I've never had a problem with bears, Pine Martens have plagued me and my food bag for quite some time.

I'm glad you liked my mix of styles. Thanks for reading and for sharing Sheasbutterfly!

Cholee Clay from Wisconsin on May 26, 2012:

I've never gone camping where I would be around bears, but we have used the bear bag method for raccoons and other animals. Not very effective.

Great hub, with useful information. I like your mix of funny and serious, very well written. Voted up and shared.

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