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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Ask A Bear: Bags vs. Canisters?

Our resident bruin expert answers all your questions in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

by: BEAR


Q: I camp in the northeast and call New Jersey home. On a recent trip, we were hanging the bear bag while the ranger was visiting. Before we could take the long walk into the woods, he said that bear canisters are preferred for the area. My question is: why? I've never used a bear canister before, I know they are tough and can withstand every assault you can throw at it, but is there an anchor or something to use to attach them to trees? Or are you just gonna use my food container like a soccer ball and leave me hungry in the morning? Why are they better than a good bear bag hanging from a tree? —DS, via email

A: The short answer: Bears in the northeast are smarter than the average bear. The same could be said of Yosemite bears, and lots of other bear populations that come into lengthy contact with humans and get habituated. My capacity to adapt and learn new techniques to get at easy food is virtually unrivaled in the animal kingdom.

In many places, hanging bear bags just isn't adequate protection for your food (or for me). In some cases, northeast bears will climb the twine, and in some cases they even learn how to cut the rope that holds tension, thus dropping the bag to the ground. If the ranger recommends a canister, he probably knows local conditions and has dealt with campers and backpackers getting their caches raided by me.

As far as keeping your container safe, if you seal it properly and lodge it somewhere safe (wedged in some rocks, away from cliffs and slopes), I'm not likely to leave you hungry. I may bat it around and make a few tries, but the canister's width and slickness, plus my lack of opposable thumbs, means I won't get far.

One last thing: Make sure and check which canister your area rangers recommend. A super-crafty bear just north of you in Daks has even learned how to open screw-top BearVaults. I heard she's going to Harvard next year.

—BEAR

Got a question for the bear? Send it to askabear@backpacker.com.

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Nov 29, 2012

I work in Yosemite Wilderness, and thank you for mentioning your smart Yosemite Black Bear relatives here.

We don't recommend that our wilderness travelers lodge their bear cans in-between rocks, as that may allow one of you bears get a blow on the lid thus allowing a break-in. However, as you correctly point out, it should be placed in a flat open area so it won't be knocked over and roll over a cliff or down a creek or stream.

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Richard
Sep 28, 2012

Wow what a debate! Looks the best method would be to bring extra food and feed the bears to keep them away from yours. What is a bears favorite packers food?

shawn hill
Jul 06, 2012

Contrary to popular belief, bear canisters are NOT indestructible. I have friends that hike into the Adirondacks quite often and the last time they went they were informed that a bear canister was necessary for their trip. After acquiring an approved canister they hiked up into the camp for the first night. Stashed all their food in the canister. As they went to bed that night the were awoken to the sounds of a bear checking out their can. When they checked in the morning they found that the bear had destroyed the can. Not merely just figured out how to open it but destroyed it. He ripped it apart. I saw the pictures! That can looked like someone put the 2012 San Diego fireworks display inside of it. They may be tougher than a bear bag hung in a tree, but they are not the perfect solution that many claim they are.

ES
Jul 05, 2012

Contrary to your advice, wedging the canister in rocks is NOT recommended. It is like clamping it in a vice, making it easier for a bear to work on breaking it or prying it open.

ilgar
Jul 05, 2012

Bearikade is $225 for the small Weekender model. Not sure how much the week long model is, but I can imagine it is in the hundreds of dollars. It appears to be a quality product but that is a lot of money. The Backpacker's Cache Bear Proof Container is a good size for a weekend trip and won't break the bank at about $60, similar to BearVault.

FredT4
Jul 05, 2012

As John Naresky points out hanging bear bags is pointless. I think the new motto should be, "Hang a bag, kill a bear".

Tom
Jul 05, 2012

Just contacted and received preferences from Smokey Nat Park. Hanging or locking in the bear safes at camp sites are the only accepted methods. If they see a canister they will confiscate it and fine the owner.

William B.
Jul 05, 2012

Let's be honest, we can go back and fourth all day long about witch is better; bear bag or bear can. All I know is that you can't use a bag as a chair or table.

Mountain Man
Jun 21, 2012

Adirondack black bears learned long ago what the rope on a tree trunk means. They scrape their claws across it and down comes the bag. If the bag is tough to get to, the mother will send the cub up on the branch to knock it down.
Bear-proof canisters are the only way to go, especially in the High Peaks, with its huge population of humanized bears.

John Naresky
Tamarack Guide Service
www.naresky.com/guide

Ikan Mas
May 21, 2011

Get over it and use the canister! You will find in the end that it makes your life easier. Those who don't are just make thing harder for all of us. One other point is that a canister makes decide what you really do and don't need. Like we tell our scout troop, if it doesn't go in the canister, it isn't going. I can get 7 to 8 days worth of food in my canisters.

Ruby
May 20, 2011

I live in Yosemite most of the year and therefore come in contact with alot of very smart bears. I've even seen a bear pull a move we dubbed the kamakazi: climbing into a nearby tree and jumping out of it so as to tackle a bear bag mid-air and bring it to the ground. If you are anywhere where bears and humans have had contact before, those bears probably already know how to get into a bear bag. I say always use a canister, you can usually rent one for less than $10 at your local ranger station. P.S. don't store your canister anywhere near running water, if a bear bats it into the river you will never see it again.

CA backpacker
May 12, 2011

TomL, you are ignorant of how many Ursacks have been destroyed in California. Talk to a few Inyo NF and Sierra NF rangers about that before you pretend they are as effective as canisters. There is a reason they were never approved.

scott
Apr 30, 2011

what about your pack? it smells like food and whatever else was put in it, so what are you folks doing to keep a bear, or other critters from chewing on it?

camp7chris
Mar 29, 2011

I grew up in New Jersey and have been backpacking for over 30 years; I have camped in the Catskills, Adirondacks, Pennsylvania and New Jersey without a single incident of a bear making off with my food. After years of being more concerned with mice, squirrels, and the long list of other less threatening creatures finding a way to get at my food I switch to a canister. The change has forced me make a few adjustment in how I pack, however, even taking into account the added weight I’m pleased with my decision. As for Kschimt’s comment, “why we are all forced to use bear canisters in the first place because urbanites generally are more savvy with electronic gear but not in the use of bear bags” This “urbanite” from New Jersey knows how to and always has properly use a bear bag. I currently live in upstate New York; however, I believe utilizing a more secure method of protecting your food supply would be referred to as common sense by a simple “electronic savvy urbanite”.

Erin
Mar 28, 2011

My first backpacking trip I did the bagging thing - yeah, with black bears and moisture starved alpine trees in the Rockies. You need two trees to suspend the bag...oh, and within reasonable distance of one another. It was a pain in my you-know-what.
I got a canister and it was a drag in how much space it takes up and the weight, but it was nice not to have to locate proper hanging branches.
As for the extra space as I eat the food - I start stuffing other things in the canister - med kit, rain pants, etc.
I do want to invest in the Bearicade because it is so much lighter.

reader
Feb 26, 2011

Personally, I like the idea of a cannister because of those DAMN ANTS!

GrayBeard
Feb 25, 2011

This has been an interesting debate for about as long as there has been canisters. Bears are not even near the top of my list of grub grabbing so-and-sos; that title goes to tree rats, a.k.a. squirrels. You can’t believe what a crow or bucket load of mice can do to a bag either. I learned my lesson (several times) and now the Bearikade is always in the pack. The thing makes a great seat or stove platform to boot. I’ve listened to the arguments and tried them all at one time or another. Except for a steel grub can like in some National Parks a canister is the only way to go. But, don’t stop debating cause I certainly won’t stop listening.

TomL
Feb 25, 2011

Ursacks are allowed in most of CA. Canisters are absolutely required in only Yosemite and a few areas of SEKI. Tests with real bears have shown them to be just as effective as hard sided canisters when properly used. They are lighter, cheaper and compress down as you use up your food. In Yosemite a lot of what bears get is food that hikers can't get into their canister at the beginning of their trip. This keeps bears habituated. When I hike there, I use a Bearikade, with an Ursack for the overflow; in my view an effective compromise.

Dennis Kruse
Feb 06, 2011

I've been using a bear cannister for over 7 years in Yosemite and Mt Whitney area and although it does add weight, as mentioned earlier, it can be used as a stool and a dinner table. You don't have to find a tree with a branch high enough to put the rope over [the counter-balance approach], you don't have to worry about getting the rope stuck in the tree!

Ikan Mas
Feb 04, 2011

How many busted out bear bags have I seen blowing in the wind along the of California's wilderness? More than I can count. Get a clue and buy a canister. Those who don't just make it worse for the rest of us.

Weed is good !
Feb 03, 2011

Everytime I read the follow up comments I get a good laugh. " i'm an old timer this, I'm Jim Bridger that ". Look dude, it's this simple. If Injuns had gortex and goose down the 75 lbs Buffalo robes would have been dithed quickly. Probaby traded away to some guy like you.

TBuck
Feb 03, 2011

I would have to disagree with the lodging of the canister between rocks and trees. I've actually heard that this has helped bears open them because they now have a way of getting leverage on the canister. Most likely, any bear that comes across a canister isn't going to play soccer for long. Just don't set it near a cliff!

TBuck
Feb 03, 2011

I would have to disagree with the lodging of the canister between rocks and trees. I've actually heard that this has helped bears open them because they now have a way of getting leverage on the canister. Most likely, any bear that comes across a canister isn't going to play soccer for long. Just don't set it near a cliff!

TBuck
Feb 03, 2011

I would have to disagree with the lodging of the canister between rocks and trees. I've actually heard that this has helped bears open them because they now have a way of getting leverage on the canister. Most likely, any bear that comes across a canister isn't going to play soccer for long. Just don't set it near a cliff!

steve
Feb 03, 2011

Very presumptuous of the person that is going to categorize all of us from NJ as "urbanites". That is something as a local joke here, funny of how its all the NYers that move here and give us that title. With yellow yellow prowling the daks I would never trust my food to a bag instead of a keg

Bill
Feb 03, 2011

The two containeers I use on the JMT you will not see in the outdoor gear stores. My primary container is the Bearikade by Wildideas. Designed by a areospace engineer, this guy use to build stealth fighters and usese the same materials in this container. Made of carbon fiber and aircraft grade aluminum it is a whole pound lighter than the Garcia and holds more. It cost more but worth it. I Also use on occasion the Ursack to extend my food supply on longer treks when a resuply just isn't going to happen. It is not allowed in certain areas, like Yosemite. If used correctly it seems okay. Uber light and compreses as the food is used up.
Some people on the trail still do not canister their food. Trail gossip a few years ago was that there had been several bear encounters of ultra-lighters around the Thousand Island Lakes area. The bears sniffed out the non secure food in the packs and started to associate all backpackers as a food source. Success at confronting a hiker with non secure food led some bears confront hikers on the trail even with bear containers. Conditioned response. So even if you use a container and scent bag someone elses carelessness can have an effect on you.

Kschmidt
Feb 03, 2011

I loved hearing a person from New Jersey ask a question about bear bags vs caisters as the local joke is thats why we are all forced to use bear canisters in the first place because urbanites generally are more savvy with electronic gear but not in the use of bear bags which led to alot of bear/food encounters. I have always used a bear bag camping ( 30 plus years in the Adirondacks)in all different circumstances and have never had a problem because I took the time to properly hang my bear bag.

Kschmidt
Feb 03, 2011

I loved hearing a person from New Jersey ask a question about bear bags vs caisters as the local joke is thats why we are all forced to use bear canisters in the first place because urbanites generally are more savvy with electronic gear but not in the use of bear bags which led to alot of bear/food encounters. I have always used a bear bag camping ( 30 plus years in the Adirondacks)in all different circumstances and have never had a problem because I took the time to properly hang my bear bag.

Wheels
Feb 03, 2011

I have the black canister and glued lash points so that I can stap it to the top of my pack. Is this a problem or does it make it easier for the bear to carry and does it make it not "legal" in some areas? On the plus side it frees up room in the pack. I can even use it with my Osprey 36 liter which isn't big enough to fit it.

Mark L
Feb 03, 2011

The last time I saw a tree without branches on the lower 10 ft but had branches that I could throw a rope over but wasn't too close to another tree...you get the idea. Above timberline I sometimes have a couple pieces of rock protection or make some out of sticks or pebbles and hang my back part way up or over the edge of a small cliff or large boulder.

Mark L
Feb 03, 2011

The last time I saw a tree without branches on the lower 10 ft but had branches that I could throw a rope over but wasn't too close to another tree...you get the idea. Above timberline I sometimes have a couple pieces of rock protection or make some out of sticks or pebbles and hang my back part way up or over the edge of a small cliff or large boulder.

Steven
Feb 03, 2011

"Yes you have to pay attention to were and how you hang it, but if done right it’s just as effective." Stringing a line 30 feet up between two trees 20 feet apart is not sufficient in California. Rangers in california have seen people hang bear bags perfectly many times and each time the bears get the food. California bears just ignor canisters. URSACK are also not recommmended in California.

Eric Nelson
Feb 03, 2011

In the end nothing is foolproof, but I really like the ease of the PCT bag method for areas where canisters are not required. The only thing I really don't like about canisters is weight and volume. My Bear Vault 500 is too big for my lightweight Osprey pack so I have to use my 7lb Osprey pack. Bummer. It does make a nice stool, though.

William
Feb 03, 2011

When we hiked the Teton Crest Trail we each carried that big black bear canister. It was heavy and took up a lot of room. This year we are taking a URSACK with our food divided into some odor proof bags.

larry
Feb 03, 2011

I have been a canister for years and love everything about it except the 2 lds it adds to my back. It does make a for a great camp stool. And stowing at nite is a snap. Put teh food in, seal the plastic bag inside and the coined locked top and lay it in the bushes. Simple. 6 days od food for a long solo is just right for me.

scotty g
Feb 03, 2011

Lost bear bag to a smart bruin above Nevada falls. Counter balance method works with me in the Alps. Lost Coast trail requires cannisters and can be rented at local ranger station. Cannisters double as a stool too.

numa
Feb 03, 2011

One nice thing about the mountain national parks in Canada: they have smooth metal poles with metal cables for hanging food. The bears absolutely cannot get at your food bag, and neither can the squirrels that are often more of a problem. Unfortunately, nothing seems to stop the jays and ravens.

Rob
Feb 03, 2011

Yes you have to pay attention to were and how you hang it, but if done right it’s just as effective. When I go backpacking I always use the PCT method because the bears are getting smarter. With this approach even if they cut your rope your bag won’t fall into their reach. Like most things I find that the more experienced you think you are the more risk you tend to take, leading to problems for other people to rescue you. I try not to think of myself as experienced and try to look at every trip from a beginner’s point of view, doing it safe and the right way. This doesn’t take the fun out of it either.

karl hafner
Feb 03, 2011

I have seen squirrels put holes in bearproof
canisters, so nothing is foolproof. Once the
squirrel has put that hole in there the bears
can get your food.

Paul
Feb 02, 2011

I'd add that hanging food often has a high level of user error. In other words, people get tired, or misjudge distances and the food is too close to the ground or a tree. Canisters pretty fool-proof - and super easy to use.

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