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How to Protect Your Food from Bears

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.

Bear Bags

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Bear Canisters

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:

  1. Backpacker’s Cache, weighing 2.7 lbs. and capable of holding up to 6 days of food.
  2. The BearVault Solo or Full Size canisters, weighing 2.1 lbs and 2.9 lbs, and offering 4 and 7 day of food capacity.
  3.  Counter Assault Bear Keg, weighing 3 lbs and 10 oz. with a capacity of 700 cu.
  4. 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

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.

Ursack Bear Bag

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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27 comments

  1. Mmm, REALLY glad we don't have bears in Australia (othe than Koals Bears that are not bears BUT marsupials!!)

    Our main problem in the southern States are possums – they can undo a zip on your pack and get into your food.

    On Hinchinbrook Island on the Thorsborne Trail there is a native rat that will chew through your pack to get at anything.

    Have to hang them off the ground in a very tricky manner

  2. Frank,

    Now that is very timely intel. I just got an invitation from a friend in melbourne to walk the southern coast track in Tasmania. I was wondering whether there were bears there or not. Sounds like my kevlar Ursack may be the ultralight solution!

  3. Good information on the various bear-protection methods. Since moving to the western US, I have fallen in love with the Ursack. Bear-bagging is definitely lighter to carry, but the last two years, I have spent much time (about 70% of my backpacking time) in alpine/sub-alpine areas, where the highest branch is about 6 feet off the ground. There are, thankfully, fewer bears at that altitude, and especially, very few human-educated raiding bears. I see bear sign occasionally, but have never had an encounter at that altitude. But the ursack has saved me from many smaller raiding animals, and I see little choice but to trust it against bears as well.

    Love your site, btw. It's the first place I check for any questions I have!

  4. The ursack is a great solution if you don't need a canister or don't want to hang a bag. I have a review somewhere on the site. Mine's a few years old. Most people in the east have a hard time believing that they work because they've never seen them before.

  5. Aloha! I'd like to ask a stupid question. Is the bear fence for real? How does it work? Is it effective? I actually came to this site when I that photo showed up in a Google image search, but I don't see a description here (I guess the bear fence is to protect hikers, not their food, so I guess that makes sense).

    Here in Hawaii we don't have wild bears, but we have wild boars, which is only slightly less scary when they attack campers at night.

  6. Overall I have little fear of black bears, though I have a healthy respect for them. Grizzlies I do fear along with that respect. Most of the black bears are shockingly small here in Washington and fear us humans more than we do them (I have one photo and it is blurry of all the bears I have seen!).

    Having said that a clean camp and avoiding camp areas that have have had slobby humans are the most important things I can do to keep bears away.

    I vary what I use – most of the time we use our 2 Ursacks in black bear country. I only use our canister when I am in the Olympic NP since they changed the rules in recent years. Pretty much everywhere else in Wa has no rules (the NF is hands off "please keep your food away from animals" type suggestions).

    I don't bear bag as I have no throwing skills and am pretty short. To me it is a waste of my time when with the Ursack I can tie it off to a tree base and go to bed a minute later!

    As well…I use our Ursacks for more than bears. Birds, raccoons, marmots, rats, squirrels, chipmunks….mice and other fun critters are often considerably worse than bears. At Rainier NP for example they have bear poles to hang bags – I still use an Ursack to keep the birds from ripping my bag apart!

  7. I just bought a backpackers cache because it's required for camping in the Adirondacks and I'll be spending time there this summer. It's hard to believe that it can really hold 6 days of food, but I guess we'll see.

    I am about to go on a long hike through NJ and I am a little wary of the bear activity along that section of the AT. I'll probably stick to shelters with bear boxes, since Yogi is waking up about now from winter hibernation.

  8. Packing a bear canister is a bit like playing Tetris really ;-)

  9. I think I understand. I'm a tetris virgin, would you believe?

  10. Lol…roll everything tightly, no air in bags. Everything crushed. You spend hours fitting everything and then re-fitting it, just to get those extra meals in.

    PS: One reason we often carry 2 Ursacks is we use one for food, one for garbage. We use the oldest one for garbage (line the Ursack with gallon freezer bags).

  11. That's a good idea (2 ursacks). I crush everything at this stage anyway – ramen, choclate, etc. much easier to deal with.

  12. After a couple days, I removed Tetris from my computer because I got afflicted with tetritis. I'd walk into a room and think, "I can turn that picture sideways and drop it behind the chair."

    Would storing food and trash in an OpSak inside an Ursack keep inquisitive critters out back? I know… my question sounds like another Tetris game.

  13. Good choice on the canister – especially if you are going to use it in the Adirondacks. The bears in the 'dacks have figured out how to open the Bear Vault canisters. There was a great story in the New York Times last summer about how the rangers have watched them open the Bear Vault brand canisters like they were opening a coconut. The rangers suggest you use the Backpackers Cache – that is what they rent at the High Peaks Information Center at the Loj.

    Of course the story came out after I already bought and used the Bear Vault. Oh well. One nice feature of the canister is you can sit on it like a stump.

  14. By the way, we never did see a bear while in the Adirondacks.

  15. The only downside to all the scent barrier bags is you have to keep your hands from scenting up the outside of the bag every time you open and close. I haven't used a liner bag in a good 6 or more years.

    The only reason I use freezer bags is to keep rain water out of my food – and to separate garbage from food :-)

  16. I saw that notice about the bearVault too. Too bad, because I'd like to be able to see inside. But the the Backpacker's Cache wasn't that expensive. I'm sure it will probably last forever.

    David – using an OPsack in an Ursack is what people do. Ursack used to ship with a bag in it – I imagine they still do. I used one like this just a few days ago.

  17. oh well. I bet you're right Sarah.

  18. I'm with Sarah Kirkconnell. Bear bagging takes valuable time. On a long distance hike , one can spend accumulate hours of the hike bear bagging. I too opted for an Ursack for this years 2-week section of NJ & NY on the AT.

  19. omg, i can't stop laughing at your remark about getting hit with the rock while trying to hang a bear bag!

    I am new to your website and I am planning my first backpacking trip for mid-june on the AT in NJ/NY…your website is a fantastic resource – thanks!!!

  20. You're not the first person to tell me that. :-)

  21. you mean about your site, or the rock?

    kidding…

    cheers!

  22. THE Rock. If you get a chance read about my trip report about the 100 mile wilderness (AT). Nailed myself with a rock then, early in the trip. Drew blood.

  23. Wild Ideas product is terrific. Very light. I have just bought a second for the next Adirondack adventure. Sil-nylon stuff-sack makes it easy to secure in the boat. In my pack, it IS the frame. I load it above the sleeping bag for easy access and lumbar comfort. Fits especially well as core in REI Flash 65. I have lost more food to rodents than to bears; this protects from both. I had to highlight the first one with bright yellow tape, because a bear played “soccer” with it one night. The black cylinder was a bit hard to find the next morning. One bear in New Jersey left a claw mark on it. So much easier on those late night arrivals. I’m more willing to head out on a Friday night after work and set up in the dark for an early morning start because this is so simple to deploy.

  24. Huh. Am I going overboard? I use a Ursasack with an OP Sack liner and hang it like a bear bag….and I’m up in Vermont. Hanging the bag didn’t seem to be an issue for me.

  25. My partner and I have used 2 backpacker cache’s on 2 week canoe trips where black bears are around, and we feel the security of them is worth their weight. But we carry one light cloth bag for non-essentials like tea bags, one emergency still original packaged freeze-dried dinner, etc. – we use a OPSak inside the cloth bag. That we hang for the first few days until everything fits in the canisters, knowing that if an animal did get into the bag we’d still be fine.
    We have sometimes hid one backpacker’s cache off a portage trail for a week if we are going to pass by that spot mid-trip. Never any problem. The canisters we always line with food grade plastic bags and twist ties – same as the original one that came with the canister. We repack freeze dried commercial dinners to make them more compact.

  26. I hate carrying the bulky bear canisters and ursacks. I’ve never had problems with bears in bear country, at least not with food storage. I find the mice and chipmunks to be more of a hassle when it comes to keeping my food safe. I use a Grubpack. It’s one of those animal proof mesh bags made of steel wire. When properly hung out of the reach of the bears, it keeps all the other small animals and birds out. It’s much lighter and easier to pack and so far it has been a successful strategy for me.

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