Updated June 2019 to reflect the IGBC’s certified product list as of May 2019.
The mere mention of the word “bear canister” often elicits a groan. After all, you have to be a master Tetris player to first fit your food into one and then stuff it into your backpack. If backpacking is on your agenda; however, you’ll likely eventually have to use one. Doing so makes the world a better place by keeping wildlife wild. Animals that gain access to human food become a dangerous nuisance and are oftentimes killed. Keeping your food secure goes a long way to preserving the wildlife experience for generations to come and it keeps all kinds of critters out of your food!
Some argue you don’t necessarily need a canister to keep food secure and they’re right, food hanging and other methods can work, but sometimes they’re tricky to implement and not everyone knows how to do it correctly.
Even when not required, I take my bear canister with me when backpacking solo. Personally, I sleep a lot easier knowing my food is safely stowed and won’t be attracting attention in the middle of the night. It’s also been a nightmare of mine to wake up one morning and find that a little critter took off with my food! No way!!
Where bear canisters are required.
Here in Washington State, bear canisters are only required in specific locations of the North Cascades and the Olympics. Most backcountry permit offices will loan you one for a suggested $3/canister donation or a credit card deposit. You shouldn’t count on their availability though as they can frequently run out on busy summer weekends.
Backpacking in California or the Rockies? You’ll find bear canisters are mandatory nearly everywhere and Rangers do actively check for them.
Pros and cons of the most popular bear canisters.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee maintains a list of certified bear-resistant products and though there are several options on the list, the most commonly used backpacking canisters are the BearVault series, the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache (simply called the Garcia), and the Bearikade. There is also the Ursack, a bear-resistant food bag that requires hanging. Though it’s on the certified product list, many areas requiring bear canisters call for hard-sided canisters, so an Ursack may or may not be “approved” for a specific area.
Pretty much the tried and true gold standard of bear canisters, the tapered shape of the Garcia canister makes it easy to slide into narrow packs. It has twist and release locks that are much easier to open than the BearVault and most of my friends who have a Garcia say that’s the exact reason they have one—it was simply easier to open. It weighs 2 lb 12 oz, about a pound more than the other canisters listed here and its narrow opening can make it tough to pack.
Pros: easy to slide into narrow packs, easy to open
Cons: heavy, narrow opening, not see-through
These are the lightest bear canisters on the market and their Weekender, 9” x 10.5”, similar in size to the smaller BearVault BV450, weighs only 1lb 12oz and provides 650 cu in of storage! They have large openings and easy twist locks but their price tag is well over $200, nearly double the other bear canisters. They’re also tough to find so you typically need to order directly from WildIdeas, their manufacturer. They do; however, offer custom fabrication, so if there’s a specific size bear canister you want, Bearikade will make it! They also make a ridiculously huge 900 cu in canister that can hold 12+ days of food!
Pros: extremely lightweight, offers custom fabrication
Cons: hard to find, expensive
Then comes the interesting Ursack made of bulletproof Spectra fabric. Packed efficiently, the regular sized Ursack can hold around 5 days of food for 1 person and its footprint is roughly 8” x 14” for 650 cu in of storage. The big win? It weighs only 7.8 ounces and it’s soft shape makes it easy to pack! It comes with a 6 ft. long piece of 2,500lb tensile-strength cord for hanging. Ursack recommends it be used in conjunction with an odor barrier bag or aluminum liner. The Ursack ran into testing problems years ago with the Grizzly Bear Committee but as of July 2014 it’s back on their approved list. The issue is that many agencies only accept hard-sided canisters, so using the Ursack in an area that requires bear canisters might not be “legal”.
Pros: lightweight, easy to pack
Cons: requires hanging and accessories, not necessarily legal everywhere
And finally… the BearVault BV450: my pick for best bear canister!
It wasn’t until I started planning my JMT hike that I decided to finally buy a canister and after a lot of online research and testing, I settled on the BearVault BV450. After nearly two years of use, I can confidently give it a TrailChick stamp of approval. My reasons really came down to two things: it’s small and it’s see-through!
The BV450 is 8.7” x 8.3″ and just over 2 pounds, which makes it about 4-5.5” shorter than most canisters and nearly a full pound lighter than the Garcia. Not as light as the Bearikade, but it’s more than half the price! The BearVault canisters have wide openings easy for loading and the see-through design is brilliant. Instead of dumping your canister all over the place or fishing around for what you want, you can see exactly where it is.
I’ve left my BearVault out in the pouring rain with no leaking. It’s size makes it relatively easy to slide into a pack and small knobs on the outside allow you a bit of traction for strapping it to the outside of a pack if so desired. It also doubles as a great camp chair or foot stool and you can even use the lid as a food tray or cutting board.
The only con I’ve found with the BearVault is that it can be difficult to open at times. Other canisters have simple twist and release locks that can be opened with a coin or screwdriver. The BearVault lid has two locking tabs that must be depressed to unscrew it and especially in cold weather, it can be a bear! Pardon the pun! I sometimes have to use my camp spork or a pen or some type of tool to help depress the tabs.
Don’t let it deter you from buying the container though, just practice a few times and be prepared to pack a tool to help. I wouldn’t recommend taking it out for an adventure until you’ve practiced opening it a few times or you may find your food isn’t only secure from bears, but from yourself as well!
Since I do a lot of solo backpacking, the size of the BV450 is perfect for carrying a 2-3 day smorgasbord. You can also pack enough for 2 people for 2 nights without playing too much Tetris.
If you’re willing to get a bit creative, you can definitely make the BV450 work for longer outings. I dehydrated most of my own food for my JMT adventure and brought along a lot of angel hair pasta, dehydrated pasta sauce, mashed potatoes, tuna packs, fruit and nuts, quinoa, and energy gels that were very packable. I managed to fit a full 7 days of food (breakfast, lunch, dinner AND snacks) into the canister, which I found really impressive! If you’re more likely to bring pre-packaged meals for a long trip, consider the regular sized BV500 that has an extra 4.3 L of carrying capacity.
Bear canister comparison chart.
|Canister||Garcia||BearVault BV500||BearVault BV450||Bearikade Weekender||Ursack|
|Volume (L)||10 L||11.5 L||7.2 L||10.7 L||10.7 L|
|Volume (cu in)||614 cu in||700 cu in||440 cu in||650 cu in||650 cu in|
|Material||ABS polymer||Polycarbonate||Polycarbonate||Carbon Fiber Composite||Spectra|
|Dimensions||12” x 8.8”||12.7” x 8.7”||8.7” x 8.3”||9” x 10.5″||8” x 14”|
|Weight||2lb 12oz||2lb 9oz||2lb 1oz||1lb 15oz||7.8 oz|
Final considerations when buying a canister.
Trip Length. Are you primarily doing 1-3 night weekend trips or are you out there for week-long adventures? More days means more food which means a larger canister.
Food Preferences. If you’re the type of person who enjoys the convenience of prepackaged meals like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry, they can be tough to pack efficiently and take up more space. If you dehydrate your own food you’ll be able to stuff a lot more into a small bear canister. I managed to fit 7 days of dehydrated food into my BV450 for the John Muir Trail!
Adventuring Solo? If you backpack with a significant other, friend, or spouse, you might consider splitting a larger one and of course, making them carry it!
Trip Location. Planning to backpack in the High Peaks region of the northeastern Adirondacks? A clever black bear named Yellow-Yellow has somehow learned how to open BearVaults and a result, they’re banned in this very specific region. If you’re headed here, a BearVault probably isn’t your best option. Rest assured though, it is Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approved and has held up against 1,000 pound grizzlies in the Yellowstone backcountry, so you can feel confident using it anywhere Yellow-Yellow doesn’t live 🙂
Disclaimer: I believe in doing good in the world and purchase my gear from companies who feel the same. I’m not paid to support any of the companies or products I review. Unless disclosed at the top of my review, this gear was purchased, tested, scuffed up, and loved by me!
Happy backpacking everyone! And help do your part to keep wildlife wild! 🙂