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How to Protect Your Food from Bears

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.(What Should You Put in a Bear Bag?)

  1. The first thing I do when I reach camp is to hang my bear bag and my food. Hanging a bear bag is also best done in daylight. Doing it after dark is very difficult.
  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.

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.

Mfg.ModelWeight in oz.Cubic In.Liters
UrsackS29 AllWhite7.865010.7
Bare BoxerContender Model 10126.32754.5
Wild IdeasThe Scout275008.2
Lighter1Lil Sami283004.9
Wild IdeasThe Weekender3164010.5
Wild IdeasThe Expedition3690014.75
Backpacker's CacheGarcia Container43.561410
Lighter1Big Daddy4365010.7
Counter AssaultBear Keg5871611.7

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 its 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 good list of locations in California, Washington, and Alaska where bear canister use is mandatory.

Weighing anywhere from 2-4 pounds 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.

The Ursack

The Ursack is a bear bag made 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 now approved in many backcountry areas as a replacement for bear canisters. Be sure to check with local authorities before relying on it instead of a bear canister.

Ursack Bear Bag

I’ve used a 7.5 oz. Ursack as bear protection since 2007 and think it’s a great solution, particularly when you are concerned about rodent or small mammals stealing your food in trail shelters. If you just can’t get the hang of hanging a bear bag, or you keep getting hit by THE rock, try using an Ursack instead.

Written 2016. Updated 2018.

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  1. 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!

  2. 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).

  3. 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 :-)

  4. 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.

  5. 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!!!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. Nice summary of the available approaches and devices for protecting food. I wasn’t familiar with some of them. Just got an Ursack, but haven’t taken it out yet.

    Seems like a step is missing, though, from the hanging procedure. Step 6 should start with, “Find a rock with some heft but small enough that it won’t do too much damage when it hits you on the way down, put it in a small stuff sack, and tie it to the end of your hanging rope. Throw the rock at your target branch a few dozen times—and be prepared to duck and dodge its fall—until you finally manage to drape the rope over the branch, resting your arm as needed.”

    Also, i’m not sure that first thing to do when setting up camp is to hang food. Seems like you’d want to wait until after dinner, dessert, and toothbrushing.

    Years ago, on a hike in the Grand Canyon, we set our packs down against a rock, and walked twenty feet or so to the river to wash off some sweat and check the view. In the five minutes the packs were unattended, a squirrel had chewed through the pack fabric and had begun to compromise the gorp bag. Like it had X-ray vision to know where to chew into the pack. Every locale has its own set of varmints to watch out for.

  10. My standard bear bag is a light weight critter proof bag made by Ursack. It weighs 2 3/4 oz, and is capacious. I only use may Ursack grey version when in serious bear country. The bear vault 450 can take a large amount of food if properly packed and I never pack the first nights food since it will be gone before I hang or close the top. When the trash gets too big, I will hang it even if food is required to be in a canister but by then it is almost a certainty that there will be room in the canister

  11. I am a fan of using a bear canister, if it fits in your pack. They are easy to use and stow away for the night. If you need something in the middle of the night (Tums, etc.), it’s easy to get to (if you can find it in the dark). I have used it as a foot rest, a seat, a bucket for washing clothes, a bucket for hauling a fair amount of water from a more distant water source to camp for everyone to share, and a bucket of water for personal hygiene away from the camp and the water source. Also it protects your more delicate foods from getting crushed in the pack (Pop Tarts, crackers, etc.). I have an ultralight backpack (ZPacks Arc Haul), and the BV500 canister fits in just above my sleep system (tent or hammock) and I stuff everything else around the canister without any compression sacks or ditty bags in order to fill up all the nooks and crannies in my pack.

  12. I have a Ursack and have used Bear Canister.

    One thing you left off as an advantage of Canisters it makes a great seat. If you normally carry a stool/seat with you, you can leave that at home and subtract that weight from the canister out of. As far as convince the canister wins. Easy in and out for tooth brush etc. But that is a lot of weight.

    I will hang my Ursack if I can find the right tree. I know it’s redundant but so what. But have tied off Ursack to tree when near tree line.

    For bag hanging, I have a small sack that hold 50 feet of paracord and small carabiner. The sack can hold a rock, small stones or sand, depending on what I available. I use PCT hang if i can find the right set up.

  13. I put bright yellow paint on my Bearikade and have a bright yellow silk ribbon to tie on a branch so I know where to start looking for it and having a better chance of spotting it after they play bear soccer with it at 2AM. They have not been successful yet. PS: before my Bearikade, I lost more to rodents than bears.

  14. Great article. Re: the bag bag tie off, just curious why you picked the “above the head” tie off vs the PCT hang?

  15. Be careful of the OPSAK. I have used one for years and liked it until last year when a bear got ahold of it. The bear did not breach the bag but after chewing for about an hour he crushed everything in it. Had to abort the hike for lack of food. There is an aluminum liner for it and I highly recommend getting it.

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