Across large swathes of the United States, the backcountry is also bear country. Backpackers and hikers who frequent such well-renowned campsite-rich national parks as Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park, Denali National Park, Yosemite National Park, or the Adirondack Mountains know well enough that in bear country, the lengths required to bear-proof a rucksack or a campsite are extensive and occasionally tiresome. Many national parks have bear-resistant food lockers or equipment to hang bear bags from a tree branch.
Disillusioned hikers and backpackers who have seen this tree branch-bear bag method fail have begun to doubt the efficacy of that erstwhile standard-bearer of bear-proof food storage. That’s where bear canisters (or “bear cans”) come in; for hikers and backpackers in-the-know, campsite bear-proof food storage has more and more often been accomplished by stowing toiletries like sunscreen, toothpaste, and deodorant, any human food, and other scented items that attract the great grizzly critters inside bear canisters.
If you’re questioning the need for such equipment at your campsite, or if you’re an ultralight backpacker concerned about the added weight and volume of a bear canister, rest assured that a bear canister is not only a wise addition to your rucksack but is in fact required at campsites from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Adirondack Mountain Range in upper New York State. The National Park Service has made every effort to find out all they can about the black bear population in Yosemite National Park and to prevent their black bears from eating human food. For good reason: black bears and grizzlies who taste human food risk damaging their own health and their natural hunting and foraging instincts are altered from the first bite.
It’s also extremely dangerous for hikers and backpackers to feed bears because black bears and grizzlies tend to come back to the same places year after year if they’ve found food there in the past. Black bears and grizzlies like anything calorie-rich so that they can prepare themselves for long stretches of hibernation. Aggression is a common trait in black bears that have tasted human food and black bears especially will stop at nothing to get at any scented item they can suss out.
Luckily, outdoor equipment manufacturers like REI, BearVault, and Ursack have been developing a better bear canister and trying to make the lightest bear bag for campsite food storage for a long time. Read on to find out why your next campsite needs to be bear-proof and why it’s crucial for all hikers and backpackers to know how to use a bear canister.
Why do black bears and grizzlies like human food so much?
Bears are incredibly intelligent (especially Adirondack grizzlies) and have what is perhaps the strongest sense of smell of any animal on earth. While it’s very difficult to measure the strength of a sense of smell, scientists estimate that black bears and grizzlies can catch a scent anywhere from 1 mile to 40 miles away. We humans get away with having just 400 odorant receptors, much fewer than a mouse, while the black bear has one of the largest and most effective snouts in the animal kingdom and is able to smell approximately 2,100 times better than humans can. Since black bears go into hibernation for up to 7.5 months and females often give birth during that time, they are hardwired to wolf down as much food as possible so they can store enough energy as fat for the long sleep.
Bearing in mind that grizzlies and black bears don’t just like fresh food but also find garbage and remnants of human food to be fantastically high-calorie compared to the ease of finding and ingesting it, hikers and backpackers should be extra careful with their food storage at campsites in bear country. Though they may be smart, black bears aren’t automatically able to discern between hikers’ Clif Bars and their deodorant, sunscreen, and toothpaste, so toiletries like toothpaste, sunscreen, and deodorant should also be stowed in a backpacker’s cache of some kind. Any scented item must be stored in a bear canister, bear bag, or a bear-resistant food locker a safe distance away from the campsite. Black bears love the easy calories in our human food, but in general, they learn to get discouraged at the sight of bear canisters and will pass by a campsite if they see one used for food storage.
Different varieties of bear canisters
To accommodate all the different sorts of backpackers and hikers and the wide spectrum of campsites and hiking trails we strike out for and traverse, bear canister manufacturers like REI have developed many different styles of bear canisters with their own utilities to match the specific tastes and requirements of hikers and backpackers headed for backcountry bear country campsites. All bear canisters are designed to be bear-proof, which means there is nothing for a bear paw to grab and the bear canister itself is too large on all sides to be picked up in a bear’s mouth or paw.
The outside is either a clear, plastic material that enables hikers and backpackers to view the contents without opening the bear canister or an opaque but brightly colored material that makes it easier to find a bear canister hidden in a backpacker’s cache a good distance away from a campsite.
Bear canisters usually have one of three types of locks to prevent bears from opening the lid. One of them is a broad turnable lock that is turned with a key, coin, washer, or fingernail. Another is very similar but locks with proper screws which can also be opened with a key, coin, washer, or fingernail. The third has tabs on the outer rim of the lid and the body of the bear canister that collide, preventing opening by bears but still fairly easy for humans to open. Hikers and backpackers would do well to carry a washer or some other kind of key attached to their rucksack to avoid losing the key somewhere in the backcountry and be locked out of their human food as effectively as the bears.
Portability and packability of bear canisters
Ultralight backpackers have likely been wary of bear canisters due to their often-times large volume and the fact that they are not the lightest piece of backpacking equipment around. In addition to their vital utility in keeping humans safe from bears and bears safe from human food and human food safe from bears, bear canisters can also be fairly easily packed away in a rucksack. Fit them in the center of the rucksack as you would a sleeping bag, or roll the bear canister up in the center of the sleeping bag if possible. While most bear canisters are built to hold 4 to 5 days of food for one hiker or backpacker, there are smaller versions for ultralight backpackers that hole one day or two days of food for the lightest bear-proof food storage possible on shorter day-hikes in bear country.
It bears remembering that while bear canisters are designed to be bear-proof and without any handles a bear could use to carry the whole bear canister away, a bear canister that’s inside a rucksack is readily carried away by a black bear who might decide to take the whole rucksack away even if it can’t reach the scented items or human food that attracted its attention to the rucksack in the first place. For this reason, it’s not wise to keep a bear canister inside your rucksack unless you are moving on the trail. If you cross a bear’s path on the trail, make sure not to leave your pack on your back, but rather toss it off and move slowly away from both the rucksack and the bear.
The ultralight option: how to use a bear bag
If the bear canister is simply too heavy or you plan to strike out with a day pack only, a bear bag is the lightest way to carry bear-proof food protection with you to the campsite. You will lose some durability in terms of food protection, so any food you carry in your rucksack could possibly be broken up into crumbs by the time you reach your chosen bear country campsite. But once you have reached the campsite you can use a bear-proof food bag the same way you would use a normal food bag. Use a rope to hang it off a tree branch or else carry a bear pole along with you that’s been designed for just that purpose.
If you do choose a bear bag and tree branch method, remember that black bears and grizzlies have wisened up to that system in some places and they will cut the line with their teeth or paw to get the food bag. Some hikers and backpackers have taken to hanging their bear bags from a tree branch and tying some fishing line to it, which is fine for humans but not easily visible or manipulated by bears. The exterior of the food bag is bear-resistant so they can’t scratch or bite through it, but they will still steal it if they pick up on the scented items within.
Should I use a bear canister or a bear bag?
It all depends on your personal preference and the kind of backpacking you’re undertaking. For the lightest method, the bear bag and tree branch method is the best option. If you can possibly bear the additional weight and have the storage space, a bear canister is more durable, more bear-proof, and holds more days of food than a bear bag. It’s less hassle and much faster once you reach your chosen bear country campsite since you won’t have to fuss around with a rope or fishing line and likely bungle up your first seven attempts to hang your food bags from a tree branch. Once you reach the campsite, a bear canister is ready to go. Just select the right placement for your backpacker’s cache a safe distance away from the campsite and you’re finished with food storage.
The backpacker’s cache: where do I put my bear canister?
Since black bears are probably already picking up on your scent and all the yummy scented items and human food in places like Yosemite National Park, you can bet they might come rummaging looking for the source of the human food scent. That’s why it’s really important to pick a good spot for a backpacker’s cache – somewhere to stow your bear canister when it’s not in use that’s far enough away from your tent and campsite so a bear rambling by will head for the bear canister and not you or your fellow hikers or backpackers.
It is imperative that all human food and scented items – that means toiletries like deodorant and even sunscreen and toothpaste – be stashed inside the bear canister and kept only at the backpacker’s cache. All refuse and uneaten food should be put into a bear-proof trash receptacle or hung off a tree branch. Black bears can get really sick and even die from eating human food waste and the plastic wrappers that came with the food items.
When you set up your backpacker’s cache for food storage, consider hiding it in the hollow of a tree or some similar natural location which will fit the bear canister but not allow a black bear’s paw to get in to remove the jar. Black bears can’t get into a bear canister but that won’t stop them from trying. Make sure your backpacker’s cache is well away from you campsite and also well away from cliffs, ledges, rivers, and lakes, because a black bear may well swat it or accidentally toss it into an inconvenient location that’s inaccessible to you as it’s trying to get at all your human food and scented items.
If you’re using a smaller food container, make sure it isn’t going to be subject to the gluttonous desires of other backcountry critters like raccoons, who can easily squirrel their way into a tree hollow or other narrow place and may also try to open the bear canister or inadvertently knock it into a river or off a cliff in the process.
Alternative uses for a bear canister
Should you need a little bit more convincing to add a bear canister to your backpacking gear (and state law isn’t quite persuasive enough), there are a few other ways you can use your bear canister if you eat all the human food and use the toiletries and other scented items that were once contained within it. Hikers and backpackers using their bear canister as a makeshift stool is a common sight all along the PCT and in the Adirondack Mountains, those most-famous of bear country campsite locations.
The bear canister can also be used to transport water from a river, lake, or other water source back to the campsite to be treated all at once instead of making repeat back-and-forth trips that can waste all the energy you could have used exploring the backcountry. Overall a bear canister is a super versatile addition to any campsite and it’s perhaps the only real viable option for bear-proof food storage in the backcountry of bear country where the food lockers are few and far between.
Bear containers are easy to use and come in enough varieties to suit just about any backcountry backpacking trip you might want to take. Enough human food and toiletries for multi-day excursions will fit inside and there are other uses to put a bear canister to around the campsite. In addition to being required by most of the most famous national park campsites in bear country, a bear canister can save hikers and backpackers tons of time and frustration trying to hang their food bag from a tree branch.
Bear container manufacturers have several different types of bear-proof food storage solutions on the market, including bear bags, which are definitely the lightest method to keep food safe from small critters and black bears alike. Ultralight campers will appreciate the ease of storage and transportation of a bear bag, although a bear bag is not quite as handy or versatile as a bear canister. As long as you know how to safely and effectively hide your human food, toiletries, and other scented items from black bears and grizzlies, you should be able to put a bear canister to good use and ensure your campsite remains undisturbed, all hikers and backpackers remain safe, and your provisions stay out of the hands of hungry black bears.
Check out more information on grizzlies and black bears from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) before you head out into the backcountry. You won’t go hungry or risk injury from a black bear on your next trip through bear country now that you know how to use a bear canister.
Bonus tip: Watch this short video for some bear canister basics!