There are basically 3 ways to protect your food from bears and other animals in the backcountry: bear bags, bear canisters, and Ursacks. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, so let’s review each.
On the east coast of the US, we have black bears, and hanging your food is usually sufficient to keep them from getting at it. However, technique is important, and here are some best practice tips that you might find helpful.
- The first thing I do when I reach camp is to hang my bear bag and my food. This keeps it out of the way and safe when I’m setting up camp and filtering water at a nearby water supply. Hanging a bear bag is also best done in daylight. Doing it after dark is very difficult and can be quite hazardous.
- I locate my bear bag about 100-200 yards away from my shelter and note the compass bearing to it from my tent so I can find it again in the morning.
- I avoid hanging my bear bag with other people’s bags or on communal cables. There are some stupid, drunk people out there and you don’t want to suffer from their mistakes.
- A silnylon stuff sack makes a perfectly good bear bag, but I recommend that you line it with an odor proof ziploc bag called an O.P. Sack from Watchful Designs. These liners are 10,000 times more odor proof than a regular ziploc bag and reduce a bears ability to smell your food. A bear’s sense of small is 30 times better than a human’s so this is an important consideration.
- Pick a tree branch about 20 or so feet off the ground that is too thin for a bear to climb out onto without breaking and make sure the branch is unreachable from neighboring trees.
- Winch your food up the tree branch and tie it off at a neighboring tree at a height above your head. You can also secure your bag using the PCT method. I don’t so this today, but I’m thinking about switching to it, even though I’ve never had a bear issue with my existing hanging method.
There is no doubt that bear bags have their limitations, particularly when it comes to preventing mouse and other small mammal damage in shelters, but ounce for ounce, bear bags provide reliable protection from animal predation when used properly and in the correct location.
A bear canister is a rigid, usually plastic barrel, that puts an impenetrable barrier between your food and the bear, or other critters like mice and raccoons. Whenever, I think of bear canisters, I think of that old TV ad for Samsonite luggage where a gorilla throws a Samsonite bag around it’s cage to prove how tough they are.
Bear canisters are required in many locations in the states west of the Mississippi and very remote locations such as the high peaks region of the Adirondacks in New York State. Before you go camping in these locations check with the local authorities about their local bear canister requirements and approved products. Bear canisters must be tested and certified by the National Park Service in these areas and the failure to bring one with you can lead to a fine if you are caught. REI has a a good list of locations in California, Washington, and Alaska where bear canister use is mandatory.
Weighing anywhere from 2-4 lbs empty, bear canisters add significant weight and volume requirements to your packing system and you’ll need to make sure that you have the proper attachment points or backpack volume to bring one of these along.
At last count there are 4 manufacturers whose bear canisters are approved for use in parks requiring bear canisters:
- Backpacker’s Cache, weighing 2.7 lbs. and capable of holding up to 6 days of food.
- The BearVault Solo or Full Size canisters, weighing 2.1 lbs and 2.9 lbs, and offering 4 and 7 day of food capacity.
- Counter Assault Bear Keg, weighing 3 lbs and 10 oz. with a capacity of 700 cu.
- The Bearikade Weekender and Expedition canisters from Wild-Ideas.net, weighing 1 lb 15 oz and 2 lbs 1 oz, and offering 6 and 9 days of food carrying capacity. These are very lightweight, but also very expensive.
The Ursack is a bear bag made out of kevlar fabric which is tough enough to prevent most bears and smaller animals from getting out your food. Unlike a bear bag, it does not have to be hung from a tree, but it’s useful to tie it down so that a bear doesn’t drag it away. Ursacks are not approved in many backcountry areas as a replacement for bear canisters, although they have proponents who believe they should be. Be sure to check with local authorities before relying on it instead of a bear canister.
In 2007, I used an 7.5 oz. Ursack as bear protection on many east coast backpacking trips and personally think it’s a great solution, particularly when you are concerned about rodent or small mammals stealing your food in trail shelters. I’ve since gravitated to a simple ultralight bear bag, mostly due to weight considerations. However, if you just can’t get the hang of hanging a bear bag, or you keep getting hit by THE rock, you might try using an Ursack instead.
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