6 Best Ultralight Bear Canisters | How to Backpack in Bear Country 101 - Greenbelly Meals

6 Best Bear Canisters | How to Backpack in Bear Country 101

The best ultralight bear canisters and a complete guide to backpacking in Grizzly and Black Bear territories. Tested and written by Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

best bear canisters and bear resistant containers


The Problem.

Bears are known to have one of the best senses of smell on the planet - 7 X stronger than a bloodhound. Some grizzly bears have been documented tracking animal carcasses from 20 miles away. In short, your chili mac 'n cheese doesn't stand a chance. You need to protect your food from this potentially hungry neighbor.

The Solutions.

1) Bear bag. Basically hang your food out of reach. This can be a big hassle to hang properly and can also be ineffective with particularly smart and nimble bears.

2) Bear canister. Let's dig into the canister option more...


best bear canisters and bear resistant containers


What is a bear canister?

A thick container, usually plastic, used as a physical barrier to protect your food and scented items from bears and other wildlife. Sometimes also referred to as a 'bear bin' or 'bear barrel' or 'bear resistant food container'.

Why are they important?

The last thing you want is to hike several days into the wilderness... and then have all of your food eaten by a bear. A fun backpacking trip could turn into a survival situation very quickly.

They are also extremely important for the safety of the bear. Once a bear accesses a human food supply, the bear can grow dependent. And, as the saying goes, "a fed bear is a dead bear".

Are they required?

They are highly recommended anywhere bears are present (see distribution map below).

For overnight backpacking or camping, they are required in several parks so be sure to double check with your specific park. See list of approved bear canisters below.

What should I pack inside?

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.

You can also look in to 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.

Where should I store a bear canister at 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 - a bear can (and probably will) kick it around a bit. Many hikers attach a bright piece of tape to it for easy finding.

I recommend keeping a few metal items on top of your container to act as a mini alarm system to scare any potential bears or wildlife.

What characteristics should I look for in a bear canister?

1.  Adequate Volume. A rough rule of thumb is that a day's worth of food can fit into 100 cubic inches. Therefore, for a 6 day backpacking trip, aim for at least 600 cubic inches (about 10 liters) of storage space. Be sure to account for additional scented items if need be.

2.  Big Opening. Keep the mouth big and wide to prevent the 'black hole effect' (can't find anything). I also prefer a transparent canister (poly carbonate material) to make snagging a food item a little easier.

3.  Lightweight. Nothing over 3 lbs. These things can get extremely bulky and heavy. Just be mindful each little ounce adds up.

4.  (Relatively) Easy to Open. Sure, you don't want it to be so easy that a bear can open it. However, you also don't want it to be a huge pain to access your food. I personally avoid any canisters that require a coin or additional key to unlock.

5.  *Certified for Approval*. Not all bear canisters on the market are strong enough to resist an actual bear break-in. Check the National Park Service's list of approved canisters to know what will keep your food safe AND to prevent getting a hefty fine. You can also check with the IGBC's certified list which is considered to be the gold standard for approving all bear resistant products.

black bear grizzly bear population and distribution united states


best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 2 lb 9 oz 

Volume: 700 cu in (11.5 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Info: I'd say this is the best bear canister on the market. The top easily opens up like a big mason jar. For extra security, there are two impressed safety clicks on the lid. Really like the transparent poly carbonate material for content visibility. Considering it's large carrying capacity, it is very light as well. Note the Bear Vault has famously been breached.

See Bear Vault for $79.95.

best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 2 lb 12 oz 

Volume: 600 cu in (9.8 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Info: Like a little bomb shelter. Probably a bit more durable and more secure than the Bear Vault. Slightly smaller capacity and heavier though. The top requires a coin or hard edge to unscrew.

See Garcia for $69.95.

best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 1 lb 15 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: NO

Info: By far the lightest canister on the list by nearly a whole pound. Sleek and simple cylindrical design and made out of carbon fiber. Requires a coin or hard edge to unlock. This thing costs a small fortune compared to other bear canisters, probably not worth it in my opinion.

See Bearikade for $288.00.

best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 2 lb 10 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Info: Good weight to volume ratio and I like the transparent poly carbonate material. 2 points for innovation and a cool design. The aluminum lid doubles as a cooking pan. The cooking pan is not the best as a stand alone pan though. The handle also acts as a somewhat complicated internal support beam.

See Lighter1 for $99.95.

best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 2 lb 7 oz 

Volume: 455 cu in (7.5 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Info: A strong, dense and compact canister that is great for smaller 3-4 day backpacking trips. The lid could have a better mechanism to actually lift away from the container (like the Garcia 'thumb punch hole').

See UDAP for $69.99.

best bear canisters for backpacking


Weight: 7.8 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: YES and NO

Info: Not a canister at all. A rather unique product that is made out of Spectra 'bulletproof' fabric. The material is great because it is so light - a fraction as heavy as it's plastic counterparts. You can also fold it up or use it as a sturdy stuff sack. The problem is that your food will get smashed to hell if a bear decides to chomp on it. It also requires tying to a sturdy tree so a bear won't walk off with it. Even though it has been approved by the IGBC, it has had a lot of issues getting approved by certain National Parks.

See Ursack for $84.98.

chris cage greenbelly

By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.

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