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Ursack Bear Bag: Long Term Gear Review

Ursack Bear Bag in a Tree

Ursack Bear Bag in a Tree, New Hampshire

I’ve owned an Ursack bear bag for 4 or 5 years now and I still use it on a regular basis. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re bear bags with made out of kevlar fabric, the same stuff that bullet proof vests are made out of. This lets you tie them to a tree or stationary object,  because the kevlar fabric is bear resistant.

Ursacks are drawstring bags that close at the top with a square knot. Before I put my food and toiletries in one, I stuff them into an odor-proof OPSACK, seal it up zip-lock style, stuff it carefully into the Ursack, and tie the top with a knot. Then I find a tree about 200 feet from my camp site, with a branch about head height, balance it on the branch, and tie it to the tree with another square knot. I have yet to ever find one that’s been disturbed at night.

Ursack in a tree

Ursack at Head Height in a Tree

I usually use my Ursack in autumn when there are fewer hours of daylight and I want to spend as much time as possible hiking, instead of setting up camp. Although I’m an expert at hanging a normal bear bag, it usually takes me at least 30 minutes to find a good tree and hang one. Sometimes it takes even longer, because I’m an idiot that day, and not having a hang a bear bag in the dark is a convenience that I’m willing to pay a few extra ounces for when there are fewer hours of daylight available.

Ursacks are now approved for use in a most national parks and wilderness areas that require campers to use a bear canister. This not an issue for me, since I backpack along the east coast of the US and not in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks or out west.

Bear Box on the Connecticut Appalachian Trail

Bear Box on the Connecticut Appalachian Trail

While Ursacks prevent black bears from reaching your food, there have been reports of smaller animals getting into them. I’ve never had a problem with this myself, and I suspect it’s because I usually tie my Ursack to a stout tree branch at head height, off the ground. But I’ve also hung an Ursack in plenty of shelters along the Appalachian Trail and The Long Trail and never had any issues with mice or other small mammals.

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  1. Yeah, good review.

    Uhhh, you know that picture is not the best for a bear bag….assuming this is just for the picture…

  2. Haven't used one (because I do go the ADK's Eastern High Peaks), but I know many folks who use a RatSack instead of the Ursack…since it's made of a metal mesh, even the little critters can't chew through it – not even the pine martins.

  3. I've never had a bear get my food with normal bear hangs, but on the PCT this summer I used the Ursack Minor, which is a 3 oz, less durable version of the Ursack. I don't know the exact fabric, but it's basically for use against rodents rather than bears. It was pretty awesome to just leave my food in the bag on the ground a little way away from my tent, and wake up in the morning to find mouse poop all over the bag but not a scratch otherwise. In one case, a bunch of us put our food bags in a bear box overnight, and the mice got into the box, chewed through everyone's food bag but mine. I thought it was pretty cool.

    Then, at the very end of the trip, I guess the fabric had been worn down over time because they did manage to get into it once. But then I sewed the hole up and all was well again.

    Not really a bear deterrent, but then again I never had a bear come at my food, either.

  4. What's wrong with the picture? I don't get it.

  5. Do you use the sleeve? And like you I've never had the bag disturbed – even in active bear areas. I figure that as the food goes down the bag takes up less room in the pack. It's the extra weight thing. Maybe the sleeve could double as a stove windscreen, but that would mean repacking the bag at least twice a day. I'm with you on the few extra ounces for extra time. Not to mention how many times I've hit myself in the head with a rock trying to hang a bag! LOL!!

  6. I used a home-made version on my 10-week AT section this year and never had a problem with mammals or the 100's of shelter mice we encountered (although they did eat through my hip belt when I forgot about some peanuts one night!). I use OPSACKSs inside as well.

    If you enjoy MYOG projects you can make a very similar sack from an exploded car airbag from a junk yard (usually a dollar or two). They vary in shape and I think RevLee's son (who was assigned junk yard duty) said Ford's were the best, but my memory is foggy. Cut them out of the car (bring extra blades) and use a seam ripper to open them up. The ones we used were essentially one large piece of Spectra cloth. I used a wood burning tool to "cut" the shape and seal the edges at the same time.

    I taught myself to sew on a machine before our trip, so making a square-bottom bag was easy. I had the chance to hang mine beside a commercial Ursack in camp one night and they were nearly identical. I did it more for the challenge than the savings, but was able to make 4 bags for about $5.

  7. That is so cool! If there's one thing I'd like on an Ursack it would be a "more square" shape.

  8. Well, as far as the picture goes, it really should not be hung tight to the trunk. Rather, at least 4-5 feet out on a limb. The trunk is large enough on most trees that a bear can climb them (5-6" in diameter.) With an Ursak, it probably doesn't matter, especially with an OPsack. And, I have seen bears do tight rope walks across lines to get at stuff. (There is a picture of one posted at Eighth Lake in NY.) They just seem to know that limbs are unsafe.

    Ha ha, yeah, tossing rocks around at night is NOT a good idea… my sore head definitly agrees!

  9. I've used the Ursack a fair bit in the south, again not so much as against bears as the other critter's. Use the opsack to hide the scent of the food and then tie it from a convenient tree (or whatever). I've had a bit of trouble with the plastic opsacks coming open – not overstuffed – so I wonder what up with that. (actually I use two opsacks, one for food and one for utensils and the wrappers).

  10. I suspect that the odor-proof bag is doing more to avoid problems than the ursack. ;)

    My biggest tip: don't cook within 2 km/miles of your campsite.

  11. Never used the sleeve – my didn't come with one. But having the food crushed doesn't seem that onerous to me (I crush ramen before I cook it).

  12. Marco, the point of an ursack is that you don't have to tie it up in the air like a bear bag. Honestly, you could tie it to the bottom of the tree if you wanted. I just put it up there to keep other hikers from disturbing it. :-)

  13. Distancing your camp from your cooking and the Opsack are indeed probably the most effective things you can do. Of course, it may all be moot because bears can smell you 20 miles away. They know you're there. In fact all of the critters know you are there.

  14. I have been using Ursack bags since 2002 (we own a couple) with no issues. I do NOT hang mine, I tie it off to the base of a tree. That way there is no leverage for a bear (since as it pulls the tie strings become tighter with a figure 8 knot). No need to hang!!

    The only time I hang the bag is if I happen to be staying in an established backcountry site with a bear pole, then it is just easier to plop it up with the other bags.

  15. Nonsense, nothing upwind or crosswind is going to smell you and once your noisy work is done you never know what's going to come along. I recently had a curious deer come within 30 yards of my campsite and hang around for a couple of hours in the dark. Apparently it never scented me because they usually snort and bound off then.

  16. I believe it's a myth that bears can smell me from 20 miles away. I realize I stink sometimes, but unless I've been dead for a week, I don't smell that strongly and my plastic wrapped energy bars smell even less.

    If their sense of smell were so acute, they might not be so easy for humans to kill. Nor would Mama Bear ever be surprised when you turn a corner and bump into Baby Bear.

    I agree that bears have supreme olfaction, but they're just not as god-like as some have claimed.

    Still, cooking magnifies odors probably at least 100x, which is the biggest reason to avoid it near your camp.

  17. Yeah, I think the 20 mile thing came from studying polar bears and was across flat arctic sea ice and high winds in winter. I think 2 miles in eastern woodlands is better maximum range.

  18. I was at 13 Falls a few years ago, and the AMC Caretaker told us she'd had a bear reach into her wall tent and swipe her toothpaste, but that the most energetic food thief was a flying squirrel! I haven't used an Ursack, but I'm thinking about it…mostly for mice.

  19. DripDry did a great job on the home-made ursacks. The exploded airbags for late 90's Ford sedans seem to be the largest with the least number of vents to work around. Don't forget to use spectra cord for the closure or some varmint may chew through it instead.

    No problems in shelters this year when the mouse-proof hangers were all full. I could just hang the bag on a nail in the wall and not worry about it.

    One minor correction – the Ursacks are made out of Spectra cloth, not Kevlar(R). It is a different type of fiber, but with some similar properties and uses (sorry, as a DuPonter I just have to point that out). Both products are used in bullet resistant body armor. Can't call it bullet proof because there is always a bigger, more technical bullet out there that will penetrate it.

    • DripDry or RevLee, what kind of thread did you use to sew up the airbags? I imagine the seams could be the weak point? Or was the sewing just to create the square bottom and the rest was sealed with the wood-burner? Great project, thanks for the inspiration!

  20. Rev – I think we're both correct. The older Ursack, which is what I think I have, were made out of yellowish Kevlar. (Check the Ursack faq). The new ones are made out of Spectra.

  21. If this is working for you in your area, great. But please don't use an Ursack out west. Despite any single person's experience, statistics show that neither "bear bagging" nor Ursack work out here. Don't think of the bear canister protecting your food, the canisters are really protecting the bears.


    PS. You state: " Ursacks are not approved for use in a few national parks and wilderness areas that require campers to use a bear canister." To be clear, at least out west, Ursacks are NOT approved in any form, in any National Park that requires use of bear canisters. It is not an approved alternative. If you are visiting our area, please respect and protect our wildlife.

  22. If that prior comment sounded harsh, apologies. You have a great website and except for this review I find it extremely interesting and helpful.

    • Apologies for the time warp….

      Here in 2012 The Ursack is being tested by an independent agency on behalf of Yosemite and other parks that now require a bear can. Statistically the biggest problem is with people not following best practices vs. the method they are using. Also, some grizzlies can now unscrew a bear canister defeating the intended protection.

      I’m in the East so there are bears around but I’m more concerned with little critters digging in. Last time I went backpacking was in the Pinchot trail and we hung the Ursack like you would a bear bag. Overkill? Probably. I think i’ll keep doing it mostly to avoid mushing my food if something gets curious. For what the Ursack weighs I think I’ll just keep hanging it and when my wife and I make it West maybe the Ursack will be approved.

      Here’s the link if you’d like to read the whoel article on Ursacks in national Parks: http://www.ursack.com/ursack-update.htm

  23. Tom – thanks for the reminder that we are protecting the bears, not just our food. Really good point. On your other point, I believe that we said the same thing, but appreciate your extra emphasis. Where bear canisters are required, Ursacks are not an approved alternative.

  24. Tom…

    Out West there is PLENTY of areas one can use an Ursack in legally. The only place I can think of in say Washington and Oregon where canisters are required is parts of Olympic NP. Considering that the NF's out West are vast and have few, if any, rules concerning it, Ursacks are a great tool to have.

  25. I love my Ursack and use it in the Sierras in areas where a bear canister is not required. I also use it with an OPsack. I have more problems with marmots and mice above timberline and love attaching the sack to a rock. It works fantastic to protect food from varmints. I have had tents, packs, and gear ruined from small bites, but never food compromised. :)

  26. W.R.T. out west and ursacks. One thanksgiving family gathering, I asked my sister-in-laws' sister and husband who happen to be rangers in the state lands just to the south of Yosemite about ursacks, and they just smiled (in other words no the sacks weren't OK). They're great where the bears aren't highly trained to go after hiker's food (east and southeast), OK where there is some ursine interest, and not very good where the bears are intent on finding hiker's food. (where they were you had to use the bear-proof boxes and you emptied your pack of everything and left it unzipped because the bears simply would rip everything apart that was closed). If you hunt around on the web you can find a picture of a bear shinnying out a wire to raid a bird feeder so I suspect that good bear discipline on the part of the hiking community is more important than any individual storage solution. I've discovered the joy of cooking on the trail and then walking a little further to camp because it helps get my daily mileage up without my having to be a super-athlete. (doesn't work with boy scouts though ;-( ).

  27. I was wondering, where could you find the ursack? Is it available in stores or do you have to order it online? I checked REI and EMS but they don't seem to have it.

  28. I believe these need to be ordered from:
    Amazon may carry them, so I have heard.

  29. Mice did manage to nibble a hole in my Ursack this summer at a GMC shelter.

  30. I love my Ursack!!I've never been out west for as camping/backpacking goes,but i like the PCT method for as hanging my food bag and hanging my pack.If,I was out west i'd check the Park and Management Area Rules and Regulations and go from there.

  31. I will never use an Ursack in the Sierra Nevada, because I would rather carry a canister and not allow for the chance for bears to get the food. There are folks in Sierra specific forums who have posted pictures of bears worrying and tearing open a properly used Ursack. The many people who do not take the issue seriously and do not take proper precautions are losing their food to bears, which in turn leads to bears who will work harder and longer to get the food. Which leaves the rest of us who would LOVE to use an Ursack fuming at folks who think stashing food under a pile of rocks is adequate!

    PCT thrus have the ability to store food in lockers that are placed along the JMT, one of the parts of the trail where bears are the most persistent. But the rest of us who go overnight in the Sierra should do our part to prevent further escalation of the bear problem and store food properly.

    I cannot count the lame bear bag hangs ten feet off the ground that we've run across. And there have been break ins at trailhead parking in areas where this has not previously been a problem – there'll be more expensive bear lockers at trailheads in the near future. This is in areas where bears ARE hunted, so that has nothing to do with it – it's an increased opportunity for bears to run across poorly stored food that's leading to more habituated bears, and more regulations, and more bear canister rules. Being careless because "there are no bear issues here" is going to CAUSE the problem.

  32. Read "The Ghost Park" in the April 2011 Men's Journal. The bear's food sources are drying up and there are increased attacks on campers because the bears are starving (the "culprits" are often nearly 100 pounds underweight). Most importantly, do they have a "magic bubble" around them guaranteeing no bears will ever be in their vicinity? Whether they can smell food 20 miles away, or 200 feet away is irrelevant…if a bear is wandering near your campsite, they can smell you. If it weren't for the fact that the bears are the ones to suffer for human stupidity, I would be content with the "survival of the fittest" rule, and let the bears take care of weeding out the people who have no studies and no basis whatsoever for their opinions except that just because they have gotten away with using inappropriate bear containers in the past means there is no problem. They are just plain ignorant.

    If you want to read about the numerous studies where Ursacks have failed the "bear tests" – paid for by taxpayers because Ursack keeps demanding to be allowed to sell their "not bearproof" products for use in federal parks, look up the Ursack, Inc. v. Sierra Interagency Black bear Group decision that came out May 9, 2011 at http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/20

    • Wish I’d read the whole way through first. :) I only read the Ursack side of the story. This link is 404, but I imagine from the sound of it that there is more to the story than Ursack would lead us to believe. I suppose that’s no big surprise, is it?

      I’m still going to use an Ursack here in PA. Out west I think the debate will rage one. I’m upgrading to an internal frame after stubbornly holding onto my external forever (as they seem to last forever) and I’m having a heck of a time getting everything inside it despite its 75 liters. At 6’5″ all my gear is just a little bit bigger and packing solo I can’t imagine trying to get a bear can in there on top of everything else. With the external the pad and tent were lashed to the outside so I had room for days and days. Even with lashtabs it’s not quite the same tying things on. But I digress…

      I’m not repping Ursacks (or anything else), but I’ve used one and I like it. It’s light and I’m happy to use it again. I’ll let the parks decide what’s safest as I’m in no position to judge. If you like the can, keep using it!

      And thanks to everyone who said it’s also about keeping bears safe. As I read recently, a fed bear is a dead bear. If they learn to come get our food it’s likely a Ranger will have to put it down. I don’t think that’s what any of us want.

  33. My only issue with all of that, Stoney, is the bear attacks are happening in the front country – where the pickings are the easiest. I have witnessed what happens when a young starving (and male) bear does approach humans – and it was at a campground/trailhead. A bear eats a lot better there than simply attacking a human randomly on the trail.
    Ursacks don't block the smell of food. Even canisters which are "animal resistant" don't. Meaning that canisters don't even fit in with your beliefs above.

    • Sarah, you obviously did not read the link or story. It was about FEMALE bears just emerging with their cubs in the back country – not the male bears finding the easiest pickings at camping areas. If you want to buy and use a “bear proof” Ursack that has been proven to be not bear proof from a company that chooses to spend a ton of money, including in court, fighting the regulators, the government, and the Sierra Interagency Black bear Group, rather than making its product safer for its customers (in my opinion, they are unconcerned with their customers of their customers’ safety), then go ahead. At least you will have had the chance to inform yourself, unlike other customers who believe, and rely on, Ursack’s promises.

  34. Interesting. Here’s the full link to the ursack case in case anyone wanted to read it: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/05/09/09-17152.pdf

    That’s troubling info. Up till now I’ve been really happy with my ursack. I have the new white bag, and my hiking partner has the old green version. We haven’t had any bears go after mine, but we had a bear tug on his for almost an hour one night before we woke up enough to figure out what the banging was.

    I shouted and the bear ran off. There were four solid footprints on the ground and a nice slobbery bite mark on the bag, but the bear didn’t get any food. The food inside was slightly malled and slobbery, but not bad at all. There was only one bar that was at all questionable. I think we got off easy there though – I ran into someone on the AT who’d had his olive oil explode over all his food. He wasn’t such a fan anymore.

    I’ve been carrying my sack anywhere that doesn’t explicitly require a hard sided bear canister ’cause it’s so much lighter and easier than a bear canister or trying the throw a stupid %& rock. This info’s pretty disheartening though.

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