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Ask A Bear: Bags vs. Canisters?

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