Bear Canister Guide

An all-you-need-to-know guide to using and choosing bear canisters.

December 03, 2022
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A bear canister is used to protect your food from bears. When traveling in a bear country, proper storage of food protects both you and the bear. Our guide will outline how to choose a bear canister, when to use a bear canister, and common FAQs related to bear canisters.


When to Use a Bear Canister

A bear canister is needed in areas of high bear activity. Below we’ll cover how to decide when to bring a bear canister on your trip.

Where am I required to use a bear canister?

A number of national parks across the United States have made the use of a bear canister mandatory. So even if bear bagging is your go-to method for protecting scented items, you'll have to compromise in certain locations. Here is a comprehensive list of national parks requiring the use of bears canisters:

National Park Information
Canyonlands Required for all overnight backcountry permit holders for Upper Salt and Salt-Horse backcountry zones in the Needles District. (more info)
Denali Required when camping overnight in Units 1-21 and 23-43. (more info)
Gates of the Arctic Required. (more info)
Grand Teton Required except where food storage boxes are provided. (more info)
Kings Canyon Required. (more info)
Lassen Volcanic Required in the entire backcountry from Apr 16 - Nov 30. (more info)
North Cascades Required at ten (10) backcountry camps and in five (5) cross-country zones from Jun 1 - Nov 15. (more info)
Olympic Required in some—but not all—areas of the park's wilderness backcountry. (more info)
Rocky Mountain Required in the entire backcountry below treeline from May 1 - Oct 31. (more info)
Sequoia Required in the Dusy Basin, Rae Lakes Loop, North Dome, Rock Creek and Pear and Emerald Lakes areas from May 1 through October 31. (more info)
Yosemite Required for overnight hikers. (more info)
hiker opening bear canister

Areas that don’t require bear canisters, but should:

Outside of National Parks, requirements for bear canisters often become less strict, but that doesn’t mean you should leave the bear canister at home. When planning a trip consider the following to prevent an unwanted bear encounter.

  • Do your research: Have other hikers in the area reported issues with bears and food?
  • High traffic areas: Bears in high traffic areas can be more accustomed to human food.
  • Follow guidelines: Guidelines and recommendations are not requirements but if a park service has taken the time to write them, follow them.

A few known areas of bear activity that don’t require a canister (but should) are Desolation Wilderness, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, and the Colorado Trail.

Where do bears live in the USA?

See the map below. Black bears (smaller, black, omnivores) and Grizzly bears (larger, brown, carnivores) are scattered across the country. In general, bears are located in the three main mountain ranges in the USA - the Appalachian Mountains (east), the Rocky Mountains (central), and the Sierra Nevadas (west).

hang bear canister sack

Bear Sack vs Canister

You have two ways to protect your food in the backcountry—store it in a canister or hang it. We've written about the latter in a separate post and won't be diving into it here.

grubcan bear resistant containerIt's worth mentioning that both methods have their pros and cons. Bear canisters are bulky and can definitely get heavy, while bear bags can be a big hassle to hang properly and can also be ineffective with particularly smart and nimble bears. Which you choose will be a matter of personal preference, unless canisters are specifically required.

opening a garcia backpacker cache

Opening a Garcia Backpacker Cache with a Spork

Ursacks, bear-resistant food bags, are a great option for those wanting protection but not the bulk of a canister. However, they are not as universally accepted as hard-sided canisters. A few notable National Parks like Yosemite, Olympic, and Kings Canyon do not allow Ursacks. Read up on specific park regulations before you set out. Ursack also keeps a handy map of where they are approved.

Estimated Black and Grizzly Bear population distribution in USA

How to Use a Bear Canister

What do I need to pack inside a bear canister?

Anything with a strong scent. Ask your self "would my dog want to sniff this?". If so, then lock it up. Specifically food, toiletries, dishes and trash. This includes:

  • Food (sealed or opened)
  • Trash
  • Toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Soap
  • Bug repellent
  • Lip balm
  • Deodorant
  • Medications
  • Feminine products

You can also look into getting scent proof bags and/ or a container with an air tight seal to help prevent the bear from picking up any particularly strong smells.

opened bear canister top

How to pack a bear canister?

There’s no way around it. A bear canister is cumbersome to pack and carry. You usually pack your food according to how you will use it. Put today’s meals on top and layer your food until the last day is at the bottom. If you have extra room, then fill the empty space with socks or other clothing. Once you fill the canister, you then face the challenge of figuring out how to carry it in your pack.

packing bear canister

Some people prefer to carry the canister inside their pack at the bottom. If your pack is small enough, you can turn it sideways to save space. You then can stuff clothes and other items around it. Just make sure the canister does not sit uncomfortably against your back. Other hikers prefer to attach the canister to the outside, either on top or on the back of the pack. You can use straps to attach the canister to your pack or purchase a carrying pouch that has attachment straps and handles.

carrying bear canisters

Gear that helps you carry your bear canister:

One piece of gear specially designed for carrying your bear canister is the Nunatek Bears Ears 50 liter, 28.76-ounce backpack. The curved notch in the bottom of the pack is designed to hold most bear canisters. It also allows easy access to the bear canister and avoids the awkwardness of packing the canister inside your backpack.

The notch can fit an Ursack, or other bulky gear, on trips when a hard-sided bear canister isn’t needed.


Where to put a bear canister at night/camp?

Typically, you should place it at least 200 feet away from your tent. Be sure not to set it near any steep cliffs or flowing rivers. If discovered by a bear, it will probably get kicked around a bit. Many hikers attach a bright piece of tape to it for easy finding in deep woods.

I often keep a few metal items on top of my container to act as a mini alarm system to scare any potential bears or wildlife.


How to open a bear canister?

There are two main methods to opening a bear canister. The first is to use a hard edge like a coin, spork, or knife blade. This tool will open the twist and lock mechanism. This style of opening is used on models like the Garcia and UDAP. Make sure you pack at least two ways to open this style of canister in case you lose your primary tool.

The second method is to open a threaded canister with a pinch and unscrew motion. This is similar to opening a child-safe container and requires no extra tools. This style of opening is used by models like the Bearvault. Keep the threads clean and free of debris to avoid misthreading the lid.

opening bear canister

Controversy Surrounding Break-Ins

In rare cases, bears have been able to break into bear canisters. Many of these break-ins are due to user error but some are due to a smarter than the average bear.

In Yosemite National Park, bears have learned that rolling food canisters off of cliffs will cause them to break open. And then there was “Yellow-Yellow” a famous bear from the Adirondacks who was able to unscrew BearVault lids.

two different sizes of the same ultralight bear canister

Small and large bear canisters.

Reddit user DeputySean has compiled photos and reports of bear canister and Ursack failures. All the reports of canister break-ins were with polycarbonate screw lid style canisters.

big daddy lighter 1

How to Choose a Bear Canister

The most important considerations when choosing a bear canister are weight, volume, packability, and price.

Weight: Find the lowest weight you can afford (3 pounds maximum).

Volume: Get a canister that can fit all your food for the duration of your trip PLUS other scented items. 100cu per day of food is the rule of thumb.

Packability: Ensure the canister can fit in your pack or can be attached to your packs.

Price: You can get a good canister for under $100 with the more premium models being $300+. You can also buy a used canister or rent one if you're on a tight budget.

Which Bear Canister is Best?

The best overall best canister is the BearVault BV500 Bear Canisterits low price balanced with its exceptional volume capacity makes it the best overall bear canister on our list.

Get more buying advice on our Best Bear Canisters post.

big daddy lighter 1


Is a bear canister worth it?

A bear canister is worth it when traveling in high-traffic areas and areas where bears are accustomed to human food. Bear canisters protect you and the bear allowing you peace of mind to relax at camp. IF bear canisters are required they are worth it to your wallet too. A fine will be more than the cost of buying a bear canister!

bear canister lock

Can bears smell food in a bear canister?

Yes, bears can smell food in a bear canister. When using a bear canister it is important to follow the “Bear-muda Triangle” guidelines. Bear canisters work by not providing a reward (i.e. food) to a bear. A bear may investigate your canister but should become disinterested when they are unable to get the food inside.

CC BY 2.0 Daveynin

Justin Sprecher photo

About Justin Sprecher

Justin is a thru-hiker and writer with a passion for wild backcountry. He's thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail, LASHed the Great Divide Trail and Arizona Trail, and clocked up 1,000s of miles on long-distance trails around the world.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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