Are you planning a backcountry trip through bear country? As heavy and inconvenient as they are to carry, bear canisters are essential for safeguarding your food from bears and vice versa. But with so many different models on the market, finding the right bear canister for your needs is rarely straightforward. You have a laundry list of questions to consider!
Like, where are you required to carry a bear canister? How big should your bear canister be? And once you have a bear canister, what do you put inside? What’s the most efficient way to pack your bear canister?
This guide will cover all that and more, including our top bear canister picks. So, let’s dive in and prepare you for a safe and successful trip into bear country!
Do You Really Need a Bear Canister?
A bear canister is a container designed to store food and other scented items while camping in bear country. The canister’s tough exterior prevents bears from breaking in and accessing its contents.
In many national parks and wilderness areas, using a bear canister is required by law to protect both bears and humans. Bears have a keen sense of smell and can detect the faintest scent of food, toiletries, or other items stored in your backpack or tent.
If a bear gets its paws into human food, it can become habituated to human presence and may become aggressive, posing a danger to both humans and bears. Bear canisters reduce the likelihood of dangerous encounters between bears and humans.
Apart from bears, rodents and marmots are also adept at stealing food and scavenging for food scraps around campsites.
So, yes, bear canisters are necessary in bear country to protect the bears, other critters, and humans who visit these areas.
Do Bear Canisters Work?
Bear canisters only work if you use them as intended. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a cute toy for a bear to play with before they devour your food.
When hiking with a bear canister, keep the lid tightly closed and sealed after every use. Never leave the lid of your canister open while fetching water or using the bathroom; bears will wait for the right moment to sneak in and grab your things when you’re not looking. And before going to bed, put all snacks, toiletries, and other smelly items that might attract bears and critters into your canister or bear-proof locker.
Bear Bag vs. Bear Canister
Both bear canisters and bear bags are designed to protect food and scented items from bears and other wildlife while camping in the backcountry. Bear canisters are generally considered the more reliable option for protecting food and scented items from bears. Although, bear bags are lighter, more portable, usually cheaper than bear canisters, and easier to pack, especially if you’re working with limited space in your backpack.
However, the effectiveness of a bear bag depends on the skill and experience of the user in choosing the right tree and hanging the bag properly. When deciding between the two, consider the regulations of the area you’re visiting, the length of your trip, your experience with backcountry camping, and the size of your group and food supply.
Where Do You Need a Bear Canister?
You should take measures to protect your food in areas with large bear populations. Many state and national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas require backpackers to carry bear canisters year-round. Hard-sided canisters are now required throughout or in specific parts of:
- Adirondack High Peaks
- John Muir Trail
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks
- Sierra National Forest
- Yosemite National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado
- North Cascades National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Pisgah National Forest
This list is not exhaustive. Check if bear canisters are required for the area you plan to recreate before heading out.
What Size Bear Canister Do I Need?
A general rule of thumb is that one day’s worth of food for one person takes up about 100 cubic inches of space. The tricky thing is this number can vary a lot depending on your group size, calorie requirements, dietary restrictions, etc. Also, keep in mind that your first day’s food doesn’t need to be stored in a canister if you keep it with you at all times.
What Should You Put Into a Bear Canister?
Food, any scented items, and all trash belong in your bear canister. What do “scented items” include? Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- All food, including snacks, meals, and drinks
- Cooking supplies, such as a stove, fuel, and utensils
- Trash, such as food wrappers and leftover food scraps
- Toiletries including toothpaste, soap, and deodorant
- Medications, if applicable
- Pet food, if you’re camping with Fido
- Personal items including sunscreen, insect repellent, and lotions
How Should You Pack A Bear Canister?
Packing your bear canister can feel like real-life Tetris, but we have some clever tips for optimizing space and minimizing waste:
- Put food into smaller zip-lock bags after removing it from its original packaging.
- Choose lightweight, energy-dense foods such as dried fruit, nut butters, jerky, pasta, etc. Check out this post for lightweight backpacking meal and snack ideas!
- Plan every meal carefully so that you have enough food for your trip without overpacking.
- Pack your first day’s meals and snacks outside your bear canister.
- Use air pockets along the edges of your bear canister to stash a few extra protein bars.
- Reevaluate your toiletries and ditch the deodorant and perfume – embrace the stink!
- Load your bear canister sideways to make your food more accessible instead of having a dozen layers of food to sort through.
How to Carry a Bear Canister in Your Backpack
Usually, it’s best to place the heaviest items nearest your back in your backpack, which includes your food, and, if you’re backpacking in bear country, your bear canister.
Most backpacks allow you to load your canister into your pack horizontally, but others don’t, especially ultralight, lower-volume models. If this is the case, you can pack your bear can vertically and stuff layers of clothing around it to keep it from moving around while you hike.
With a smaller backpack, you can also attach your canister to the top of your pack using an adjustable Y-strap or stow it under the brain of your pack. You potentially can also store it horizontally using straps on the outside bottom part of your bag where you often strap a tent or sleeping pad.
What Should You Look For in a Good Bear Canister?
There are a lot of factors to weigh when choosing a bear canister. Consider the following when selecting a bear canister:
- Size: Aim for a bear canister large enough to store your food and scented items. Consider the length of your trip, the number of people in your group, as well as the size of your food and supplies.
- Weight: Bear canisters are usually heavy, but lightweight models are also available. Look for bear canisters made of lightweight materials like polycarbonate or carbon fiber. Remember, although lighter, these canisters carry a steeper price tag.
- Durability: Bear canisters endure a lot of wear and tear in the backcountry. Look for bear canisters made of materials that can take a beating from a bear and withstand extreme conditions, like polymer and aluminum.
- Regulations: Some national parks and backcountry areas have specific certification requirements for bear canisters. The most common certification you’ll see when looking at bear canisters is the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) certification. Some bear canister models are not IGBC certified and are not permitted in areas with grizzly bear populations (i.e. Glacier National Park). While canisters that do meet IGBC standards may also not be allowed in certain areas because the local black bear population has figured out how to get into them (i.e. the High Peaks).
- Price: Bear canisters range in price from $80 to over $400. While choosing a high-quality, durable canister is essential, not everyone can afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a bear canister. If you can’t afford to shell out for one right now, local outfitters, national parks, and the forest service rent out bear canisters at a lower cost.
- Locking mechanism: All bear canisters have some type of locking mechanism to keep them secure. They’re designed to be easy enough for a human to open, but hard enough to keep bears out. Most bear canisters are sealed with a screw-top lid or a lid that requires a coin or sharp object to open. The uninitiated may find them difficult to unlock, so practice opening your canister before venturing outside.
Best Bear Canisters for Backpacking
Weight: 2.5 lbs.
Volume: 700 cubic in.
IGBC approved? Yes.
Locking Mechanism: Screw-top
What’s great about it: The BearVault BV500 ranks among the most popular bear canister models on the market. It offers exceptional volume capacity at a comparably low price point, making it an excellent choice for a variety of trips and a top pick for thru-hikers. The screw-top lid features a wide opening for easy food access, while the transparent polycarbonate body lets you see what’s inside. The sturdy frame also makes it an ideal camp stool!
What’s not so great: Some users have reported the BearVault’s screw-top lid is hard to open in cold temperatures. This model is also no longer effective against ADK black bears, who have figured out how to access and open these canisters. They are banned in the High Peaks region, so consider an alternative if you’re visiting this area. The BV500 doesn’t fit horizontally in most lower-volume and ultralight packs but does fit vertically. Its smooth plastic shell has the potential to slip and slide around when tucked under a backpack’s brain, so we recommend a backup method to secure the canister like a Y-strap.
Weight: 1.9 lbs.
Volume: 650 cubic in.
Material: Carbon fiber
IGBC approved? No.
Locking Mechanism: Twist-lock
What’s great about it: By far the lightest canister on this list, the Bearikade Weekender outperforms the BearVault by a half pound with nearly the same carrying capacity. If you’re crafty, you can cram a week’s worth of food into this canister. Its sleek and straightforward cylindrical design is made of carbon fiber and unlocks with a twist-lock. So while your friends struggle to pry open their screw-top canisters with cold fingers in the morning, you can easily open this one using a card or coin.
What’s not so great: The biggest drawback for the Weekender is the astronomical price tag. However, Wild Ideas, the manufacturer, offers a 45% rental discount for JMT, PCT and AT thru-hikers to help soften the financial blow. This bear canister is also not approved by the IGBC, so while you can’t lug this into grizzly country, it is approved for other locations, including Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Olympic, Lassen, parts of Canyonlands, and Shenandoah National Parks.
Bare Boxer Contender
Weight: 1.6 lbs.
Volume: 275 cubic in.
Material: Alloy Steel
IGBC approved? Yes.
Locking Mechanism: Twist-lock
What’s great about it: The Bare Boxer Contender is the smallest bear can on this list, but it’s also the lightest. It easily holds enough food for 2 or 3 days, perfect for a long weekend solo jaunt or overnighter with a partner. The Contender’s locking mechanism involves three rotating locks with a pin you have to push while turning the lock. Its compact design can easily fit inside ultralight packs.
What’s not so great: The Contender doesn’t lend itself to extended backcountry excursions. Bare Boxer only comes in one size, so upgrading to a larger capacity model is not an option if you’re planning a longer trip. Its opaque design can also be a turn-off for hikers looking to take stock of their food supply without rummaging through their canister.
Garcia Backpacker Cache 812
Weight: 2.75 lbs.
Volume: 614 cubic in.
Material: ABS Polymer
IGBC approved? Yes.
Locking Mechanism: Twist-lock
What’s not so great: The tapered design of the canister makes it easy for the Garcia to slide into most packs. This is another twist-and-lock canister that opens with a coin and a button; just make sure you have something to open it with! Users rave about the Garcia’s durability, citing its sturdy plastic material that hasn’t worn out after repeated drops. Like the BearVault, you can use it as a camp stool when cooking or relaxing. Additionally, this canister is approved for use in the ADKs.
What’s not so great: While it has more space to accommodate a week-long trip in the woods, it also brings a hefty weight penalty with it. Its bulky frame makes fitting this canister neatly sideways into ultralight packs a challenge, while its opaque color conceals its contents. Users have also complained that packing items can be a hassle owing to the canister’s tapered shape.
Weight: 2 lbs.
Volume: 455 cubic in.
Material: Polymer blend
IGBC approved? Yes.
Locking Mechanism: Twist-lock
What’s great about it: A heavy-duty and compact canister that gets the job done. You can easily fit 3 to 4 days of food in, possibly more if you’re crafty with your packing skills. Backpackers who dislike screw-top lids will appreciate its twist-lock style which requires a coin or sharp edge to open. Users who have experienced issues with the canister have reported outstanding customer service from UDAP, so you can rest assured knowing you’re covered in case of a problem.
What’s not so great: Simply put, it’s bulky, heavy, and lighter options are available. Some users have complained that packing the canister too close to the locking mechanism makes it harder to open. Like most of the opaque canisters on this list, it is probably best to mark it with reflective tape so you can find it at night. Most bear canisters don’t have waterproof seals, but some users have complained about water seeping inside the canister during stormy weather.
A little preparation goes a long way when it comes to camping safely in bear country. So before you set out on your next adventure, do your research and choose a bear canister that meets your needs. Respecting wildlife is a core principle of Leave No Trace, and one of the best ways to do this is by adhering to responsible camping habits to reduce conflicts with bears.
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).