An Expert Guide to Bear Canisters

Published on 09/27/2023 · 12 min readBear canisters are an important piece of gear for keeping both yourself and wildlife safe while camping! Read on for all you need to know about bear canisters!
Hunter Reed, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Hunter Reed

Photo by B. Brown

A bear canister is a mandatory piece of gear in many national parks and backcountry areas. It's designed to protect food and scented items from bears and other wildlife. When buying a bear canister, consider its weight, capacity, durability, and certification.

Bears weren't a huge concern as an avid camper and hiker growing up in Utah. However, during my first few trips to Montana and Colorado, I started to understand the importance of bear canisters. Though it initially seemed like they were just a piece of safety gear, I soon realized that they are an incredibly integral part of the Leave No Trace principles! Unfortunately, having seen my fair share of evidence of campers and hikers who don’t properly follow these principles simply because they don’t know any better, I’ve become very passionate about helping spread the word on how we can take care of our favorite recreation spots and the local wildlife which lives there to ensure that both are around for a long time to come!

What Is a Bear Canister?

Photo by Kor Create

A bear canister is a specialized container used for storing food and other scented items in the backcountry to prevent bears and other wildlife from getting into them. It is typically made of hard, durable plastic and has a locking mechanism to prevent animals from accessing the contents inside. Bear canisters are required in many national parks and wilderness areas with a risk of bear encounters.

Keeping your food, toiletries, and food-related trash in a bear-proof container is the best way to prevent bears from getting any wild ideas about coming to your camp. Not only is it important for your safety, but as the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. If a bear gets comfortable going to human campsites in search of food, it will likely continue doing so, and the local rangers will have to relocate or kill the bear to avoid any danger to campers. So protect yourself and the local bears with the proper use of canisters!

How Do You Use a Bear Canister?

Photo by Jamilya Khalilulina

Proper use of a bear canister is important to ensure it does its job, so here are some general instructions and tips. To use a bear canister, place all your food, scented toiletries (soap, toothpaste, sunscreen), and anything that may attract bears into the canister. Next, close the lid tightly and lock it with the provided mechanism or a carabiner. Packing the canister tightly is important, leaving as little empty space as possible. Doing so will make it harder for bears to grip and manipulate the canister. Finally, find a safe spot to store the canister away from your campsite. This location should be at least 100 yards away from your sleeping and cooking areas. Then, store the canister on the ground in a shady and discreet spot, away from cliffs or areas where it can fall and be damaged. Always follow local regulations and guidelines when using a bear canister.

Bonus tips:

  • Store your bear canister in an open area, away from thick brush or other areas where bears can hide.
  • Harsh chemicals will destroy the plastic; keep DEET and other strong chemicals away, or double bag it carefully if stored inside the canister.
  • When not in use, store the bear canister away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and avoid leaving it in a vehicle for extended periods.

Below is a short video from the Leave No Trace foundation offering some visuals of how to use your canister!

What to Consider When Buying a Bear Canister

Before settling on a bear canister, take these four questions into account!

What Is the Capacity of the Bear Canister?

The capacity of the bear canister is essential to consider because it determines how much food and other scented items you can store. Choose a canister with enough capacity to hold all your supplies plus a little extra space.

How Much Does the Bear Canister Weigh?

Weight is another important consideration when choosing a bear canister. On your backcountry trip, you'll need to carry the canister, so a lighter-weight canister is usually preferable. However, if you use it primarily for car camping or shorter backpacking trips, finding something lightweight might not be as important.

Is the Bear Canister Certified?

Some national parks and backcountry areas have specific certification requirements for bear canisters. Here are the two most common certifications you’ll see when looking at bear canisters:

  1. Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) certification: This certification is recognized by many national parks in the United States and indicates that the canister has been tested and approved for use in grizzly bear habitat.
  2. Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) certification: This certification is recognized by many national forests in California and indicates that the canister has been tested and approved for use in black bear habitat.

Be sure to check the park or area regulations of the location you’re planning to go to ensure the canister you choose is approved for use.

How Easy Is the Bear Canister to Use?

The ease of use is an essential factor when choosing a bear canister because you need to be able to access your food and other scented items while also ensuring that the canister remains secure and properly closed to keep bears and other wildlife out. Some bear canisters have a screw-top lid or a complicated locking mechanism, which can be difficult to operate with cold or wet hands, especially in low-light conditions.

A canister that is easy to open and close can save you time and hassle while also reducing the risk of accidental spillage or breakage. Some bear canisters come with an ergonomic design or a simple locking mechanism, making them easier to use than others. Choose an intuitive and straightforward canister, especially if you plan to use it frequently or in challenging conditions.

What Are the Different Types of Bear Canisters?

There are two main types of bear canisters: hard-sided and bear bags/soft-sided.

Hard-Sided Canisters

These are the most common and widely used type of bear canisters. They are typically made of durable plastic or metal and have a locking mechanism to keep bears from accessing the contents inside. Hard-sided canisters are generally heavier and bulkier than soft-sided canisters, but they provide the most protection against bears and other wildlife. Benefits:

  • Provide excellent protection against bears and other wildlife.
  • Typically made of durable materials that can withstand rough handling and extreme weather conditions.
  • Often approved by national parks and other wilderness areas for bear-resistant food storage.

Be Aware:

  • Can be heavy and bulky, making them difficult to pack and carry.
  • Can be difficult to open and close, especially for children or people with limited hand strength.

Bear Bags/Soft-Sided Canisters

These are not technically canisters but a popular alternative to traditional canisters. Bear bags are typically made of durable nylon or polyester-like fabric and are designed to hang from a tree branch or other elevated object. They are lightweight and easy to pack but require some knowledge of proper hanging techniques to be effective. Bear bags provide less protection against bears and other wildlife than canisters but can be a good option for ultralight backpackers or those looking to save space and weight in their pack. Benefits:

  • Lightweight and easy to pack, making them a popular choice for backpackers and hikers.
  • Can be used in areas where bear canisters are not required or allowed.

Be Aware:

  • Provide less protection against bears and other wildlife than hard-sided or soft-sided canisters.
  • May not meet the requirements of all parks or wilderness areas and may not be approved for use in areas with high bear activity.
  • Can be hard to hang properly in landscapes without many tree options.
  • Typically more expensive than classic canisters.

Features to Look for in a Bear Canister

Locking Mechanism

When using a bear canister, consider that you will be getting in and out of the canister several times a day. Some canisters are a bit harder to open than others, so choosing something that’s easy for you to use but still keeps bears out is important. There are several different locking mechanism options available in bear canisters. Here are the most common closures on hard-sided containers:

  1. Screw-top lid: This locking mechanism requires the user to twist the canister lid until it is tightly sealed. Some require you to push one section of the top in before twisting for extra security.
  2. Two or three-point latch: This locking mechanism uses a series of latches that engage with the canister body at three separate points to secure the lid. These closures require either a coin or a screwdriver to open and close.

Soft-sided/bear bag containers use a tie mechanism closure. Check out the video below on important knots to tie your bear bag.

Weight

Consider the weight of the bear canister when choosing one for your trip. Lighter canisters are easier to carry but may have less capacity or offer less protection.

Materials

The materials used in the bear canister can affect its durability, weight, and effectiveness. Bear canisters are made out of four primary materials:

  1. Plastic: Plastic canisters are the most common type of bear canister on the market due to their affordability and durability. They are typically made from hard, impact-resistant plastic that can withstand rough handling and impacts. However, they are relatively heavy compared to other materials, which can be a drawback for backpackers who need to carry them long distances.
  2. Carbon fiber: Canisters made from carbon fiber are known for their strength-to-weight ratio, making them extremely lightweight and easy to carry. They are also highly durable and resistant to impacts and scratches. On the downside, carbon fiber canisters tend to be more expensive than plastic canisters and may not be as widely available.
  3. Aluminum: Aluminum canisters are also highly durable and can withstand impacts and scratches. They are typically lighter than plastic canisters but heavier than carbon fiber canisters. One drawback of aluminum canisters is that they can be noisy to carry, especially if they come into contact with other metal objects.
  4. Spectra: Spectra is a high-strength, abrasion-resistant fabric. It is bulletproof, making it able to withstand the force of a bear's jaws and claws. The main cons of this material are it isn’t as smell-proof as the other types of material and is typically more expensive.

The choice of material you end up going with will depend on your needs and personal preferences. Backpackers who prioritize weight savings may opt for a carbon fiber canister, while those who want affordability and durability may prefer a plastic canister. Aluminum canisters may be a good choice for those who need a balance between weight savings and durability.

How Do I Decide Which Bear Canister Is Right for Me?

Bear canisters double as a great chair for backpacking! Photo by Kelly VanDellen

Knowing which canister is correct for you can still be hard with all these considerations! Below are some examples of three types of campers who would need to purchase a bear canister. Along with some info about the type of camping they do, I’ve included some features they should look for in a bear canister and the best bear canisters for them!

Sally: The New Camper

Sally is a beginner camper who is just starting out. She plans to go on easy hikes and stay at established campsites. Sally needs a bear canister that can fit enough food for a few days but won't weigh her down too much.

Features Sally should look for:

  • Lightweight
  • Easy to use
  • Affordable

Suggestions for Sally:

  • Counter Assault Bear Keg: This bear canister is lightweight and affordable, making it a top pick for beginners like Sally.
  • Ursack Major XL Bear Bag: This bear bag is another good option for beginners because it is lightweight and easy to use, but it also offers more flexibility regarding how much food it can hold.

Jack: The Experienced Hiker

Jack is an experienced hiker who often goes on multi-day backpacking trips in remote areas around his home in the North Cascades of Washington—prime bear country! Jack needs a bear canister that can withstand the elements and the wear and tear of long hikes.

Features Jack should look for:

  • Durable
  • Easy to use
  • Can hold several days' worth of food at a time

Suggestions for Jack:

  • BearVault BV500 Bear-Resistant Food Canister: This bear canister is made from a tough polycarbonate material and has a secure, twist-lock lid to keep bears out.
  • Frontiersman Bear Canister: This bear canister is made from heavy-duty polymer and has a triple-hinge locking system for added security.

Lisa: The Ultralight Backpacker

Lisa is an ultralight backpacker focused on minimizing her gear's weight. She needs a bear canister that is lightweight, compact, and can fit into her backpack without taking up too much space. Lisa needs a bear canister that is both lightweight and strong.

Features Lisa should look for:

  • Lightweight
  • Compact

Suggestions for Lisa:

  • Bearikade Weekender: This bear canister is one of the lightest on the market and can hold up to five days worth of food. It also comes in a larger option, the Bearikade Expedition, for if she is going on longer trips.
  • Lighter1 Big Daddy Bear Canister: This bear canister is made from carbon fiber, making it extremely lightweight, and it has a compact design that can fit into small backpacks. The lid also doubles as a cooking pan, which minimizes the gear she needs to carry for cooking.

Final Thoughts

Don't let this be your camp! Use a bear canister! Photo by MPH Photos

Bear canisters are essential for outdoor enthusiasts who want to stay safe while enjoying nature. Whether you are a seasoned backpacker or getting ready for your first night in a tent, having the right bear canister can make a big difference in protecting yourself and the wildlife. We hope this article has helped you understand the importance of bear canisters and given you some tips for selecting the right one! If you have any further questions or concerns about bear canisters, other safety gear, or anything camping or hiking related, please don't hesitate to reach out to a Camping and Hiking Expert here on Curated. Stay safe out there, and happy adventuring!

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