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Bear canisters: everything you need to know

Bear canisters are the top choice of backpackers, hunters, and park rangers when it comes to food storage in bear country. If there’s no metal food locker around, a bear canister is what you need. This guide will cover bear canisters from all angles; let’s get to it!

What are bear canisters?

Bear canister filled with backpacking food
BearVault BV stuffed with food on a recent backpacking trip I took.

A bear canisters is a big, hard-sided plastic jar that seals tight and can’t be opened by a curious bear, keeping your food and other items sage. Bear canisters are a huge part of bear safety, allowing backpackers to safely store food and scented items at night. They’re made of super-durable plastic and have lids that lock tight and can’t be twisted off.

Bear canisters are the best solution to the problem of overnight food storage while backpacking in bear country. Simply place your food and scented items in the canister, place it lid-down at least 100 feet away from your tent, and that’s it! Bears are very unlikely to smell your food, and if they do, they’ll be:

  • far away from your tent,
  • unable to get to your food,
  • and likely to move on after a moment of checking the smell out.

That’s exactly what you want from a food storage solution, and it’s why bear canisters are part of any backpacking trip pack list when the trip is in bear country.

Who Invented the Bear Canister?

Richard Garcia designed the first bear-proof container in 1982 after rangers in Yosemite National Park asked him to find a way to make bringing food into bear country safer. Since that time, bear canisters have become the norm and are available from a number of vendors.

Bear Canisters: pros and cons

Grizzly bear walking through the woods

The pros of using a bear canister

  • Bear canisters are safe: They were invented to solve a particular problem, and they do an incredible job at it. When bears get a taste of human food, their natural feeding habits change and they can become aggressive toward people when seeking out human food.
  • They’re effective: With proper use, hard-sided canisters work more often than any other method of storing food in bear country. Bears are familiar with the canisters, to the point that many don’t even bother messing with them because they know they can’t easily get in.
  • Bear canisters are simple: Just a hard plastic jar with a hard lid, nothing more. bear-proof canisters don’t require any sort of survival skills to use properly, unlike food hangs which take a lot more work to use safely.

The cons of using a bear canister

  • Bear canisters are heavy, often weighing more than 3 pounds
  • Bear canisters are bulky, and they take up a lot of room in your pack.
  • Bear canisters are often cramped, meaning it’s hard to fit more than a couple of days worth of food for one person inside them.
  • Bear canisters are expensive, although you can often rent one for free

Dig deeper: Advantages and disadvantages of Bear Canisters

Are bear canisters actually bear-proof?

Here’s the real question: the concept behind a bear canister is really easy to grasp, but how well do they work? Can you really just stuff your food in one, go to sleep, and guarantee you’ll be able to retrieve it in the morning?

No need to be poetic here: the answer is yes. Bear canisters, when used properly, are the best way to keep both yourself, your hiking partners, and the bears around you safe. Everybody wins!

Keep in mind, though, that there is a heavy emphasis on “when used properly” here. Research published by the International Journal of Wilderness states that users need to be nearly 100% compliant with best practices when using their canister use for it to be effective.

In that same study, it was found that 26% of bear encounters recorded in Yosemite National Park occurred with people who were using bear canisters, suggesting that simply having a canister doesn’t guarantee safety. On top of that, only 67% of survey respondents in that study reported being fully compliant with their bear canister use.

What does this mean for you? Put it this way: Bear canisters are great, but they require proper use and they don’t instantly solve all of your bear problems. That said, they aren’t that hard to use properly, and they’re better than anything else.

Where do I need a bear canister?

Photo of a sign warning hikers about bears

Any time you’re in bear country, you should probably have a bear canister. Of course, there are other options for food storage, but a bear canister is almost always better when backpacking. Many national parks, forests, and recreation areas require bear canisters, such as:

  • North Cascades National Park and Recreation Area
  • Olympic National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Desolation Wilderness (new as of 2022)

This list is accurate as of August 2023; I will regularly check for updated regulations. If you know of a park or wilderness area that has recently added this to its requirements, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!

How to choose a bear canister

Most of your decision making is going to come down to volume on this one. A Bear Vault BV450 can hold roughly two day’s worth of food and scented items for two people. Larger bear vaults, such as the BV500 that I used on a trip to North Cascades, can hold about 4 day’s worth of food for two people. Barely, but it can do it.

Bear canisters are measured by volume, displayed in liters. Generally, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got roughly 1.5 liters, per person, per day, of space in your bear canister. The BV500 has 11.2L of space, which gives you space for a week’s worth of food.

How many days of food can you fit in a bear canister?

CanisterVolume (Liters)Food (1 Person)Food (2 People)
BearVault BV4507.24-5 days1-2 days
BearVault BV50011.27 days3-4 days
Grubcan9.26 days3 days
Garcia Canister106-7 days3-4 days
Counter Assault
Bear Keg
11.77-8 days4 days

Does everyone in my group need a bear canister?

It’s usually easier for each person on the trip to have their own bear canister, but sharing a large one is fine too. You’ll just have to make sure you divvy up the weight of other items to make sure one person isn’t carrying way more than others.

On that trip I mentioned, my wife and I rented a single bear canister from the ranger station, which meant one of us hauled all the food and the other hauled the tent and backpacking stove to keep our pack weights balanced.

On a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park, with three people in my party, we got by with two bear canisters – one large and one small Garcia Bear Cache. It was tight, but we fit everything into those canisters, and they really kept us safe when a Grizzly wandered by our tent in the early morning.

Other considerations when choosing a bear canister

One of the most crucial things to do when choosing a bear canister is making sure your canister has the approval of the right organizations. There are two certifications to know, IGBC and SIBBG:

  • SIBBG: Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. No longer operating, this group required a bear canister to last a full hour against a black bear. This certification is accepted or required at many national parks, national forests, and recreation areas.
  • IGBC: Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. This group is still certifying new canisters, and is the standard certification for most areas in the US. This certification requires that a canister withstand a full hour against a grizzly bear. You can check out their current list of approved bear-proof products here.

National parks and forests will often cite one of those certifications in their food storage requirements. When planning your next backpacking trip, research the area you’re headed to and make sure your bear canister will meet the requirements.

How to use a bear canister

  • Far away: Place your bear canister at least 100 feet away from your campsite. Sometimes, you’ll see people recommend 200 feet, and that’s the distance I go with personally.
  • Lid down: Placing your canister lid-down makes it less likely a bear will start gnawing at the lid, which damages a bit easier than the canister itself.
  • In a safe spot: canisters are best placed somewhere they won’t roll away from. Bears will paw and swipe at canisters, and you don’t want to wake up and find that all your food has been swatted down a ridge.
  • Everything goes in: Any items you bring that have a scent belong in the canister at night. That’s not limited to food – your toiletries go in there, too. Deoderant, perfume, toothpaste, hair spray, all of that goes in the bear canister, because all of it can attract the attention of a curious bear. It is though that bears can smell better than any animal on earth, so it’s important to take this one very seriously.
  • Consider doubling down: scent-proof bags like these from LOKSAK are a good idea if you’re in grizzly territory. Put your food in the bag, put the bag inside a bear canister, and you’re pretty much guaranteeing

Can I get a bear canister for free?

Oh yeah! Many ranger stations have bear canisters available to rent, usually for free or at least very cheap. The Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, for example is the place to rent bear canisters for use on backpacking in the North Cascades area.

Bear canisters vs bear hangs

Photo of food hung in bags to keep bears away
An example of a bear hang: food hung in bags and suspended out of reach.

Bear hangs were the standard food storage option for backpacking until canisters became commonplace about 30 years ago. The concept behind a bear hang is pretty simple: use a rope to hang all your food in a nylon bag from a tree branch, high enough that a bear can’t get to it easily.

Bear hangs are pretty effective, but they leave a lot less room for error. If a hang isn’t done correctly, a backpacker can easily lose all of their food to a bear. It’s really hard to find the perfect tree to hang food from; it’s even harder to do it properly. This means that the effectiveness if a bear hang is often left up to chance.

On top of that, it’s really difficult to stop a determined bear, because they’re excellent climbers and they are pretty darn smart. This article from Andrew Skurka is a great resource if you want to learn more about what makes bear hangs ineffective.

Bear canisters vs food lockers

In many areas, campsites will include metal food lockers about the size of a deep freezer. THese lockers are nearly impossible for a bear to get into, and they remove the need to have a canister. If you’re using a campsite that has one of these lockers, you get easy access and peace of mind.

The only downside of metal food lockers is that they aren’t everywhere. Often, these lockers are only found at campgrounds you can drive up to, because they’re very heavy and impractical to install deep in the backcountry.

Why it’s bad for bears to eat human food

Sign describing bear safety at North Cascades National Park
This was posted at a drive-up campground I visited last year in the North Cascades region.

Obviously, you don’t want to lose all of your own food to a bear, nor do you want to have a standoff with one. But, using a bear canister isn’t just about the health and safety of backpackers, it’s about the bears themselves.

Human food is tasty, full of additives, and easier to obtain than some of the things in a bear’s natural diet. This means that a bear’s first taste of human food almost always leads them to seek out more. Over time, this can lead to the bear becoming bolder, more aggressive, and more determined to get a meal full of backpacking food.

A fed bear is a dead bear

Bears that pose an ongoing danger to humans sometimes have to be killed. It should never have to happen, and it’s never the bear’s fault. Instead, it’s the backpackers who take improper care of their food who bear the blame. Once a bear gets accustomed to human food and begins to seek it out, their days are often numbered.

That’s where we get the phrase, “A fed bear is a dead bear“.

In 2021, more than 100 bears were euthanized in the state of Colorado. The reason for these euthanizations is usually because the bear is considered a danger to public safety. It’s really sad to read about and write about, so we won’t get too much deeper.

The point is this: using a bear canister isn’t all about you. It’s also about making sure that we give bears the environment they need to live long, natural lives. Bear canisters help us accomplish this by keeping human food away from their stomachs.

Backpacking stories: How a bear in my camp helped me conquer my fears

Frequently Asked Questions about Bear Canisters

Can bears smell food in a canister?

Bear canisters don’t stop scents from leaking out, they just make it nearly impossible for a bear to get to their contents. Bears can smell what’s in your canister, which is why it’s important to store your canister far from where you’re sleeping.

Can bears smell freeze dried food?

Yep! Freeze-dried and sealed packages aren’t quite as easy to smell, but because a bear’s nose is more than 100 times better than a human’s, they are still going to smell it.

Can you keep a bear canister in your tent?

Only if you like the thought of being woken up by a bear at 5 AM. Bear canisters don’t stop smells, which means they do not belong in your tent.

Do you need a bear canister on the Appalachian trail?

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends all thru hikers use a bear canister. Bears live in many areas that the AT crosses, so you’re going to need one pretty much the entire time.

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