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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 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.

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.

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
Ursack Major Bear Bag (10L)7.6 oz6506-7
Ursack AllMitey Bear and Critter (10L)13 oz6506-7
Ursack Major XL (15L)8.8 oz9259
Ursack Major 2XL (30L)15.7 oz183018
Ursack AllMitey Grizzly Bear and Critter (20L)13.8 oz122112
Ursack AllMitey Kodiak Bear and Critter (20L)15.3 oz185018-19
Ursack AllMitey Bear and Critter (30L)15.3 oz185018-19

Use of an approved canister is mandatory in some national parks and wilderness areas, when bear-proof communal food boxes are not available.  Always check with the managing agency before arrival so you’re properly equipped.

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.

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. Hanging a bear bag is also best done in daylight. Doing it after dark is very difficult.
  2. Locate your bear bag 100-200 yards away from a shelter and note and note its location so you can find it again in the morning.
  3. A silnylon stuff sack makes a perfectly good bear bag, but I recommend that you line it with an odor and leak-proof proof ziploc bag called an O.P. Sack from Watchful Designs 
  4. 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.
  5. Winch your food up the tree branch and tie it off at a neighboring tree at a height above your head or using the PCT method.

There is no doubt that bear bags have their limitations, but ounce for ounce, bear bags provide reliable protection from animal predation when used properly and in the correct location.

Ursack Bear Bags

A Ursack is a bear bag made of spectra fabric which is tough enough to prevent most bears from clawing or chewing through to get 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 were approved by Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) in July 2014. However, be sure to check with local authorities before relying on it instead of a bear canister. Many park rangers have never seen a Ursack before and may not be aware that it’s a legal form of food protection.

I’ve used a Ursack as bear protection since 2007 and think it’s a great solution. If you just can’t get the hang of hanging a bear bag, try using a Ursack instead. It’s faster and provides reliable food protection from bears.

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  1. I used an Ursack for a number of years. However, on a trip through VT I had a bear get a hold of it and he chewed on it for about 45 minutes. He never breached the bag, but everything inside was ground together including drug, alcohol, food, and other items. I am not sure I will use one again.. They said there was metal liner, but I never had one or saw one. Your comments would be appreciated..

  2. I sometimes hang a bear bag and sometimes use an Ursack for black bears and other critters in mid-Appalachia. I don’t consider those bear-proof. I see them as ways to avoid drawing bears into your camp and make it difficult for them to get the food long enough for you to run over and chase them away. If you hike in an area with brown bears, or with black bears which have lost their fear of people, then you probably need a hard-sided canister and possibly bear spray. Local rangers or other authorities would probably be the best source of advice. None of my buddies uses a metal liner with an Ursack, since that would defeat the light weight and flexible shape advantages, but I’ll bet other SectionHiker readers have different opinions.

  3. CAPT GMAndres, USN (ret)

    On Phillip’s…and a few other long distance hiker’s recommendation, .I opted for Ursack for my AT Thru hike in 2018. Two weeks in, seriously injured (my fault…at 64, even though in excellent shape, I pushed myself too hard too soon trying to keep up with seasoned younger hikers…stupid me! Still…..). Anyway, reattempting this coming spring with fewer pounds in pack and fewer pounds on me….my Ursack will be with me as I appreciated the ease of recommended “side of tree hang”. I always hung it downwind of my tent between 3-500 feet away. As an aside, my Ursack unmolested at one site one night, when rodents mysteriously invaded a bear box (!?!?) and chewed through other hiker food bags!

  4. Phillip, bear canisters aren’t required where I live, and I’ve rented for trips out west. I’m looking to buy one for an 8-day trip to the Adirondacks, but I understand that Bear Vault and other clear or twist-type cans are banned. Do you have any specific recommendations for Adirondacks high peaks area approved bear cans for a trip of that length? Thanks.

  5. Why not educate hikers how to properly hang food. Of course there have to be trees. I’ve been hiking for 50 years including the AT twice. Never a problem with hanging food.

  6. My URSACK was totally breached by a bear last week in CA. Hazardous failure of a product, even when used exactly as instructed, if a bear finds one, be sure that it will claw it open and get all your food. Very dangerous product. The company that makes this product is irresponsible and doing a disservice to bears and people. Bears that get a taste of people food never go back to berries and have to be destroyed. Tell everyone you know to avoid this product.

  7. I thought the Green Mountain National Forest also required canisters as well, but the 2019 order allows the alternative of hanging food. The odd thing is that they make reference to a similar decree for the Whites, but I can’t find anything for it besides recommendations.

  8. Some folks don’t get how the Ursack protects bears and as a result your food. The idea is the Ursack won’t allow a bear to get to the food. Of course your food may be stomped and crushed. You are then out of luck.

    The bear learns Ursack not worth going after, thus protecting the next hikers food. The bear not rewarded with people food more likely to stay “wild” safe for the bear.

    I use a Ursack, hang it if I can, but that is not always possible.

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