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Do You Need a Bear Canister for the White Mountains?

BV425 Bear Canister

If you camp or backpack in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, you need to store your food in:

  • a closed motor vehicle (locking is advised)
  • a campsite bear box at a pre-established tent site
  • by hanging your food in a bear bag hung 12 feet off the ground and 6 feet from the nearest vertical support (think tree)
  • a bear-resistant canister

Ursack bear bags are not approved for use in the White Mountain National Forest.

Official Text of the USFS White Mountain National Forest Food Storage Order (R9-22-19-19)

The following is prohibited forest-wide:
  1. Except while being prepared and consumed, all food, food containers and refuse shall be stored in a closed motor vehicle or suspended at least twelve (12) feet above the surface of the ground and not less than six (6) feet horizontally from any object. Bear boxes, bear canisters, or bear fences designed specifically for food and/or refuse storage are acceptable.
  2. All refuse containing food materials or containers shall be deposited in receptacles provided for that purpose as soon as possible after the waste is created or stored in the manner prescribed for food in #1 above.

Campsite Bear Boxes

Thirteen Falls Bear Boxes
Thirteen Falls Bear Boxes

Campsite bear boxes are available at many, but not all, pre-establishd backcountry tent sites and lean-tos in the White Mountain National Forest. These are big heavy steel boxes with bear-proof closures that everyone staying at the site can put their food in at night for free. While these boxes are bear-proof, they’re not rodent-proof, and you want to make sure that your food is stored in a rodent-proof bag, like a Ratsack (highly recommended) or a hard-sided bear canister.

Hanging Food is Difficult in the Whites

When backpacking in the Whites, you do have the option to hang your food 12 feet in the air and 6 feet out. Just be advised that this can be very difficult to achieve in the White Mountains and it could take you quite some time to accomplish (which sucks near dusk), if at all. The type and density of tree cover, dense spruce trees, can make it very difficult to find the right type of tree limb for such a hang and it’s common to have your rock sack get caught up in a tree before you can retrieve it. If you don’t want the hassle or to spend time trying to find a good hang, I’d recommend carrying a bear canister instead. Smaller bear canisters like the BV450, BV425, and the Bear Boxer fit inside most backpacks and are sufficiently sized for weekend backpacking trips.

Bear Canisters

Smaller volume bear canisters are now available that are ore convenient and packable for weekend backpacking trips.
Smaller volume bear canisters are now available that are ore convenient and packable for weekend backpacking trips.

Bear canisters are hard-sided containers that bears in the White Mountains cannot open. While high-capacity bear canisters can be awkwardly large and heavy, smaller-capacity models are much easier to pack, relatively lightweight, and they are a lot more convenient than hanging your food in a tree. I now carry a BV425 or a BV450 on my backpacking trips in the Whites.

Here’s a comparison of the different models approved for use in the White Mountains.

Make / ModelWeight in oz.Cubic InDays Food
Bare Boxer26.3 oz2753
BearVault BV42528 oz3053
BearVault BV45033 oz4404
BearVault BV47536 oz5656
BearVault BV50041 oz7007
Garcia Backpackers Cache43.5 oz6146
Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe48 oz7357
Wild Ideas Scout28 oz5005
Wild Ideas Weekender31 oz6506-7
Wild Ideas Blazer33 oz7507-8
Wild Ideas Expedition36 oz9009
Lighter1 Big Daddy43 oz6503
Lighter1 Lil Sami28 oz3003
UDAP No-Fed Bear38.4 oz4554-5
Counter Assault Bear Keg58 oz7167

If you carry a bear canister, prepare your food, eat, and store your bear-resistant food canister at least 100 yards downwind from your tent. Store your canister on the ground hidden in brush or behind rocks. Do not place the canister near a cliff or water source. Bears may knock the canister around or roll it down a hill. Cover your canister with brightly colored tape or stickers to make it easy to find the next morning. Whatever you do, don’t forget where you put it.

If you don’t want to buy a bear canister, the Forest Service in the White Mountains loans out bear canisters for free. Call the Main White Mountain Forest Service headquarters in Campton for details at (603) 536-6100.

Ursacks are Not Approved

Unfortunately, Ursacks are not approved (per the most recent forest order above), even though they are on the IGBC-approved list used by many other national forests and national parks. This came as a shock to me because I have used Ursacks in the White Mountain National Forest in the past and thought they were legal. But I’ve checked with the local US Forest Service multiple times and Ursack use is not legal.

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30 comments

  1. Planning to hike Adams soon, so spoke with the WMNF offices and confirmed that although they omitted the “while being transported” exception listed in the original CFR, you are still permitted to carry food in a backpack (using common sense such as keeping items in their original sealed packaging or using ziplock bags) when day hiking- that is, not storing food when staying/camping overnight or when your backpack is not in your possession.

  2. I usually have gone with the Ursack and used that as my container for the “hang” – so on the off chance I can’t find an ideal location for the hang at least its hung in something not easy to get into. Looks like I’ll need to shift over to a canister.

    • Hold onto that Ursack. Maybe they’ll come to their senses. It’s way better than a hang.

      • Absolutely better than a hang. But the trend is towards mandating bear canisters and not allowing hanging (much less Ursacks). An ursack certainly made life easier for me in many areas, but I am resigned to using it less and less.

        For better or worse, lang mgmt agencies make policies that take in the least experienced. And bear canisters certainly have their issues (people not properly securing them, stories of bears coming by established campsites around breakfast/dinner time and scaring people off before securing canisters, habituated bears knowing how to get into specific brands, etc.), but they are easier to use overall, easier to mandate, and easier to regulate.

        I think more experienced people will use more effective techniques to avoid bear encounters. But the rules aren’t written for that user base, unfortunately.

        Again, I don’t disagree with you, but I think the trend is towards bear canisters required regardless of area or land mgnt agency (NPS, USFS, state, etc.)

        • I think you’re right. It will be interesting to see what happens on the AT as well as the Whites which are home to 270 miles of the AT. There’s very little enforcement up here in the National Forest outside of USFS $$ campsites. The transition will probably take time.

      • The ursack does seem better from a packing standpoint, being lighter than a canister; however, if a bear has chewed on and pawed an ursack, isn’t all the ramin and freeze-dried packets inside pounded and messy?

        • Yep. And bear slobber. But you need to keep in mind, these bear resistant canisters and sacks are not for your benefit alone. We want to keep the bears wild…You’re not going to starve do death if a bear gets into your food, but bears that habituate to human food are killed.

  3. Bear canisters are only bear resistance. On a trip to Sequoia where they are required, my son’s BV500 was breeched and mine was roughed up. The bear bit a hole and we think it was sticking it’s tongue inside because some of the food was slimy. Ha ha, my son wiped it off and we continued the trip. The manufacturer replaced the canister, which I thought was nice because they never claimed it was bear proof. They were interested in getting the damaged canister back, presumably so they could figure out how to make it stronger.

    • That’s interesting. The BV’s have failed many times in the ADK’s and are not allowed there. The bears are getting smarter.

  4. I think the estimated days for some of the canisters is very aggressive. I am gravitating towards carrying a canister always, as I have failed at a traditional hang many times, and would rather not spend 30 minutes of my evening trying to do it. I have the UDAP, and I could not fathom fitting 4-5 days of food in it. Maybe if I repackaged everything and was only carrying food that could fill all space like Idahoan potatoes or minute rice (no rigid foods like ramen or bars). Would love to see you review one of the Nunatak bears ears packs….I’ve had my eyes on that with a Bearikade as canister carry setup….if I can save up the $$$$, that is.

    • It’s really not aggressive but very middle of the road. That formula, 100 cubic inches per day is pretty reliable if you remove all the junk packaging and each compact food.

  5. Free loaner bear canisters are available from all white Mountain forest service ranger stations

  6. Monte J Masterson

    So which canister brand is the most bearproof (I mean bear “resistant”)?

  7. I have been using Ursacks bear bags for 3-4 years now and this is the first I heard they are not allowed. I would suggest that putting food in a smell proof bag for what ever system you use, I use Smelly Proof and Opsack. Best not to attract them at all.

    • The Forest Service does a remarkably piss-pore job of communicating rules and regulations in the White Mountains. They’ve elevated it to an art form.

      • But when you do a sporadic (at best) job of even enforcing those rules and regulations – why bother communicating what they are? :)

        • That’s true until you meet a ranger with a ticket book. But then again, what is more important, following the rules because they are rules or protecting the wildlife and forest even if it’s at a minor inconvenience? I know we’re in violent agreement, but enforcement has actually stepped up in recent years.

        • 100% violent agreement. Reasonable rules and better communication and enforcement of said rules.

          You’re out way more than I am (pesky job) so I’ll trust what you say on them stepping up enforcement. When I do see them it’s generally in the parking lots.

    • Check out Ryan Jordan’s reported testing of Opsacks which you can find at Backpacking Light’s website. Apparently they provided no obstacles to dogs locating food within lockers in a large locker room. And a bear’s sense of smell is much better than a dog’s if I’m remembering correctly.

      • I’m friends with Ryan, but the pseudo science on BPL has always irked me. Put simply, OPSacks suck because the top closure is so unreliable and degrades so quickly.

        • I totally agree on the OPSack closure–it’s absolutely awful! And you get to spend lots of money for something that might come apart the first time you use it!

          Nylofume bags are supposed to be very odor resistant. They’re large enough to line your pack, tough and reasonably priced, but don’t have the Ziploc type closure.

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Philip. I had always used an Ursack and was under the impression they were legal throughout the WMNF.

    With Ursacks now banned on the southern half of the AT (except when hung properly, which is difficult as you stated), that means that they are no longer legal on at least 2/3 of the AT.

    If it were up to me, I would ban hangs and allow Ursacks, but it’s not up to me.

  9. Cathy, saying Ursacks banned on southern AT is first Ive heard of it. NC requires bear cans in a few places. Don’t know of any required bear cans in TN or GA, though a few places are considering it. VA is outside of my reg hike zone. Could you please share the source of your information? I would like to know more.

  10. Barbara S Roberts

    Dog test got me thinking. I have a Labrador Retrieverr (and cats). My whole life is centered on securring food in the house. Doing a backyard test with different bear canisters might be scary! I use Ursacks and do poor hangs. I doubt if that method would hold up to canine jaws and paws. Yes the convo is about bears but bears aren’t the only thing out there,

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