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It’s the simple truth that bears love food. Berries, fish, human snacks, peanut butter residue crusted on the inside of an empty jug: Bears’ survival depends on consuming as many calories as they can get, and they can be wildly creative in that pursuit. That leaves backpackers—who also need to eat—in a bind. For years, hikers have fought over the best way to keep bears out of their business.
Hanging a sack of food by throwing an attached line over a tree limb was the most popular method for decades. But recently, the bear hang has drawn scrutiny from experts who point out its limitations. Scott Wilkinson, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s content development director, states that bears in many popular destinations have learned to overcome the challenge of food hung in trees.
“Bears are smarter than people give them credit for,” he says, “and they are more agile in climbing up a tree to get to food than people realize.” He notes that there are countless stories of bears reaching food hung above, even pulling down trees to reach food. And that suggests a simple course of action.
“To me the question of ‘Should we move away from bear hangs?’ is easy,” Wilkinson says. “ I would say absolutely, we are at the point where we can stop using them.”
Rachel Mazur, author of the book Speaking of Bears, agrees.
“Food storage evolved to using canisters because there were problems with previous methods,” she says. “For example, system flaws, user errors, or bears becoming more determined to figure things out.” One of the problems with a complicated system like a bear hang is that even if it can work perfectly, it requires everyone to use it correctly in order to avoid failures.
Wilkinson notes that even with perfect execution, there is no such thing as a bag that a bear can’t reach. Hungry bears can scoot out on branches and send their cubs out on limbs that they can’t reach themselves. Some have even learned to bite through the cord anchoring the bear hang, dropping the whole package to the ground. Worse still, once a mother bear learns how to beat a bear hang, she’ll pass it along to her cubs, too.
“You cannot prevent a bear from reaching food that is hung up, you can only make it difficult,” Wilkinson says.
Of course, hikers can’t hang food in a tree when there aren’t any trees around. Bear expert Dr. Tom Smith, a professor of wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University, points out that at the end of a long hike, the last thing an exhausted hiker wants to do is spend an hour searching for a suitable tree to hang their food – “and that’s after dinner, in the dark.” Even finding a tree right away, tired hikers are prone to human error.
In contrast, the simplicity of a bear canister—typically comprised of a two-part can-and-lid system— is easy for even worn-out or novice backpackers to manage. Conceived in the early 1980s, they were a novelty until gaining traction in recent decades. Commonplace now, many backcountry areas like those in Yosemite and the southern Sierra now mandate them due to their effectiveness, and the list of places that require them is growing. There’s little nuance to using a bear canister: For the most part, they just work.
“The preponderance of evidence we’ve seen while managing the PCT shows canisters to be more effective in protecting wildlife from getting into our food than hanging the food,” Wilkinson says. Additionally, most bear canisters undergo a rigorous process involving live bear testing through the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in order to earn an IGBC certification.
It’s worth acknowledging that bear canisters have their limitations, too. Dr. Smith notes that “[Bear canisters] are bulky, are a real pain near the end of a trip when they hold mostly nothing, and bears have been known to bat them off into oblivion as they grapple with them to open them, the owner never seeing them again.” He also notes that for longer trips, they may present a challenge given their limited volume. But while they’re not perfect, they’re a marked improvement over the best hanging systems, which are delaying tactics at best.
Besides the obvious security benefits of using a canister, Olympic National Park notes on its site that there are plenty of other advantages to carrying one: Backpackers can spend more time relaxing instead of trying to find the right trees to hang their food. The canisters also protect against rodents looking to chew into your food supply. They give hikers a bit more freedom in campsite selection, protect crushable food like cookies, and make a nice stool to sit on when they’re not in use.
It is important to note that once bears become accustomed to human food, the probability for adverse events increases. Since at least 1981, researchers have understood that human food is the basis for nearly all conflicts that occur between humans and black bears in native bear habitat—conflicts that bears as a species will ultimately lose.
“Food storage is an ethical issue,” Wilkinson says. “Bears have a diminishing habitat. Some people don’t realize that the concept is not protecting your food from the bears, it’s protecting the bears from your food.” Mazur elaborates on this, stating that the responsibility of the hiker is to protect not only the bears as a species, but also to protect their role in the ecosystem by making sure they seek out natural foods instead of getting hooked on human snacks and garbage.
Bear Canister Best Practices
Remember that any food storage method is only as effective as the user’s ability to operate it correctly. Here are a few tips for proper use of a bear canister:
- Purchase compact foods (e.g. freeze-dried or dehydrated foods)
- Prepare appropriately by choosing the correct canister size
- Ensure that all scented items are placed within the canister – not just food
- Repackage items as needed in order to reduce volume or to reduce odor (using odor-negating bags)
- Store canisters in an open area at least 100 feet away from your campsite. Avoid placing it near cliffs or water where it could be knocked away
- Avoid attaching anything to the bear canister, which may allow the bear to carry it away
- If you don’t own a bear canister, check to see if you can rent one from a national park visitor center, trail association, or outdoor gear shop