8 Best Bear Canisters for Backpacking

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.

Updated on January 1st, 2022

Using a bear canister to store your food is a must in bear country. A bear eating your food can quickly turn an enjoyable trip into a survival situation. Proper storage is also important for the safety of the bear. The saying "a fed bear is a dead bear" is true. If a bear becomes dependent on human food it will be put down. 

We tested the best bear canisters on the market today. See them below along with some important considerations. This post also guides you on when to use a bear canister and how to use a bear canister. Let's dive in.

hikers-sitting-on-bear-canister

Model Weight Volume IGBC Approved Price
BearVault BV500 Bear Canister
2 lb 9 oz 700 cu in (11.5 L) Yes $87.95
Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade
1 lb 15 oz 656 cu in (10.7 L) No $333
Garcia Backpacker Cache 812
2 lb 12 oz 600 cu in (9.8 L) Yes
Ursack Major Bear Sack S29
7.8 oz 650 cu in (10.7 L) Yes and No $89.95
Big Daddy Lighter 1
2 lb 10 oz 650 cu in (10.7 L) Yes $139.99
The Bare Box Contender
1 lb 10 oz 275 cu in (4.5 L) Yes $74.95
UDAP No-Fed-Bear Bear-Resistant Canister
2 lb 7 oz 455 cu in (7.5 L) Yes $89.99
Grubcan Bear-Resistant Container
2 lb 11 oz 574 cu in (9.4 L) Yes $126.95

The Best Bear Canisters

best bear canisters for backpacking

BearVault BV500 Bear Canister

Weight: 2 lb 9 oz 

Volume: 700 cu in (11.5 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $83.95

Why we like it: Great weight to storage ratio, easy-open lid, and competitive price point make the BearVault an excellent option.

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. It has a wide opening so you can add and remove food easily. The transparent polycarbonate material lets you see what's inside the canister without opening it. After you are done cooking, its barrel shape makes it the perfect portable chair. Considering its large carrying capacity, it is very light as well. Unfortunately, the BearVault has famously been breached and is banned in some areas, like the Adirondacks.

See on BearVault

best bear canisters for backpacking

Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade

Weight: 1 lb 15 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: NO

Price: $333

Why we like it: The lightest canister on our list. The option to build a custom size is perfect for those with specific needs.

By far the lightest canister on the list, the Bearikade Weekender undercuts the popular BearVault by nearly a whole pound and has about the same capacity. It's sleek and straightforward cylindrical design is made out of carbon fiber, which is why it is so light and still bearproof. It has a twist-lock lid that requires a coin or hard edge to unlock. The Bearikade's biggest drawback is its price tag. This thing costs a small fortune compared to other bear canisters. They also are only available directly from the manufacturer WildIdeas. One side benefit of a direct buy, you can have them custom-built to a specific size if needed.

See on Wild Ideas

best bear canisters for backpacking

Garcia Backpacker Cache 812

Weight: 2 lb 12 oz 

Volume: 600 cu in (9.8 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $65.00

Why we like it: Bombproof option for those wanting the most rugged bear can out there.

Designed like a mini bomb shelter, the Garcia Backpacker Cache is probably a bit more durable and more secure than most other canisters on our list. This bombproof design has its drawbacks. The canister is slightly smaller than the other canisters on our list and is on the heavy side. It has a tapered shape that makes it easy to slide into small packs. Because it narrows at the top, the mouth of the Garcia is a bit smaller than competing canisters. Our favorite feature of the Garcia Backpacker Cache is its twist and lock lid that you unlock with a coin and push open with a small button.

See on Amazon

best bear canisters for backpacking

Ursack Major Bear Sack S29

Weight: 7.8 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: YES AND NO

Price: $89.95

Why we like it: Lightweight and packable, it easily fits in your pack compared to hard-sided plastic models.

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 on REI

best bear canisters for backpacking

Big Daddy Lighter 1

Weight: 2 lb 10 oz 

Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $139.99

Why we like it: Good weight to volume ratio. A built-in aluminum cooking pan means you no need to pack a separate pan.

The Lighter 1 Big Daddy resembles the BearVault with its tall, barrel shape and transparent polycarbonate material. It offers an excellent weight to volume ratio. The lid attaches via a pair of thumbscrews that are attached to the canister. Just make sure you don't lose them. The aluminum lid also doubles as a cooking pan, earning it extra points for innovation and cool design. Cool is not always functional, though. The cooking pan is not the best as a stand-alone pan, and the handle acts as a somewhat complicated internal support beam for the canister.

See on Lighter 1

best bear canisters for backpacking

The Bare Box Contender

Weight: 1 lb 10 oz

Volume: 275 cu in  (4.5 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $74.95

Why we like it: Small size fits in most ultralight packs. Perfect for 2-3 day trips.

At 26.3 ounces and 275 cubic inches, the Bare Boxer Contender is a small bear canister, one of the smallest canisters on the list. It holds enough food for about 2 to 3 days. Because of its small size, the Bare Boxer Contender fits nicely inside even smaller, ultralight backpacks. It uses a twist-lock lid that requires you to carry a knife or a coin to open. It's very similar to the Garcia brand of bear canisters, but it has three locks instead of the two on the Garcia canister. The third lock adds extra weight and a little bit more trouble opening the canister without a lot of additional benefits.

See on Bare Boxer

best bear canisters for backpacking

UDAP No-Fed-Bear Bear-Resistant Canister

Weight: 2 lb 7 oz 

Volume: 455 cu in (7.5 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $89.99

Why we like it: Smaller, compact option at a great price point for 3-4 day trips.

A strong, dense and compact canister that is great for smaller 3-4 day backpacking trips. It uses a twist-lock lid that requires a coin or a similar hard edge. The lid could have a better mechanism to actually lift away from the container like the Garcia 'thumb punch hole' that pops open the lid. The opening at the top is wide enough that you can fit your hand inside the canister to remove your food. Still, it is not as roomy as the BearVault. Like the BearVault, the No-Fed-Bear canister also serves as a portable chair when you are ready to eat..

See on Amazon
grubcan bear canister

Grubcan Bear-Resistant Container

Weight: 2 lb 11 oz  

Volume: 574 cu in (9.4 L)

IGBC Approved: YES

Price: $126.95

Why we like it: The unique shape is great for fitting in ultralight packs. The latching system doesn’t require tools to open.

A newcomer to the bear canister scene, the Grubcan boasts a unique tubular shape. At 6.5” in diameter and 23” long it’s designed to fit into smaller and skinnier backpacks. The lid is held on with gravity latches. These latches only open when in the vertical position and don't need a tool to open. The long shape can make it hard to reach items at the bottom. The weight-to-volume ratio is average. It is yet to be approved in all National Parks. Be sure to check the current regulations before you set out.

See on REI

Bear Canister Considerations

WEIGHT: KEEP IT UNDER 3 LBS

Bear canisters can get extremely bulky and heavy. But a heavy canister isn't necessarily more resistant than a lighter one. So keep it light as much as you can. As a rule of thumb, you want a canister that weighs 3 pounds at most. And be mindful, each little ounce adds up.

packing bear canister

PRICE: DIFFERENT OPTIONS FOR DIFFERENT BUDGETS

New - Price points for bear canisters vary based upon the size and style that you choose. You can purchase a new bear canister for just under a $100, but that might be a big expense, especially if you only need it for a single trip.

Used - You also can save some money by purchasing used. Many people buy a canister for a trip and then resell it when they are done. The canister likely will be in almost new condition and cost significantly less than a new one.

Rentals - If you are traveling to a location like Yosemite, you may be able to rent a bear canister from a local outfitter. This is a cost effective option if you only need a bear canister for a short trip.

bear canisters

APPROVAL: CONSIDER A CERTIFIED CANISTER

Not all bear canisters are strong enough to resist an actual bear break-in. The gold standard in testing is done by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. To be certified, a food-filled canister needs to last in a grizzly bear enclosure and sustain at least 60 minutes of bear contact without failing. A complete list of IGBC certified products can be found here.

Even if a product passes the IGBC’s test it may not be allowed in every park. Check each park's list of approved canisters to know what will keep your food safe AND to prevent getting a hefty fine.

SIZE (VOLUME): HOW MANY DAYS OF FOOD DO YOU NEED?

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.

opening a garcia backpacker cacheOpening a Garcia Backpacker Cache with a Spork


OPENING MECHANISM:
 TWIST AND LOCK OR SCREW LID

There are only a few different types of opening systems on a bear canister. First and foremost, opening the canister should be simple. You don’t want to be fussing with a stubborn lid while trying to unlock your food. Some canisters—like the BearVault—use a threaded cover that you unscrew to open, while others—like the Garcia—use a twist and lock mechanism. This twist and lock requires a coin or a similar-shaped object. Some people prefer the twist and lock as you can sometimes jam up a screw-style cover if you misthread it. I personally avoid any canisters that require a coin or additional key to unlock. 

bear canister with food insideCC BY 2.0 Daveynin

ACCESSIBILITY: COLOR AND MOUTH OPENING

Being able to access your food easily is key. Look for a nice wide opening so you easily add and remove food from the canister and prevent the 'black hole effect' (can't find anything). Having a canister that is not opaque is another bonus as you can see from the outside how much food you have and where different pieces of food are located. 

opening grubcan

OPAQUENESS

Lighter polycarbonate canisters are often clear and more flexible than rigid opaque models made with ABS polymers. Many of the clear models also have ridges versus the smooth-sided opaque designs. Because of this, bears have been able to breach models like the Bear Vault on rare occasions.

Clear canisters allow a bear to see the food inside. Since bears generally find food by smell and not sight and it's up for debate on how much this plays into a canister's effectiveness.

big daddy lighter 1

VERSATILITY: SOME CANISTERS ARE BUILT TO HAVE MORE THAN ONE FUNCTION 

A bear canister can be used for more than just protecting your food. It also doubles as a seat for when you are cooking and eating at camp. Some canisters, like the Lil Sami from Lighter1, incorporate a cooking pan into the canister lid. Take out the food and you can use the canister for even more odd jobs. You can use a canister for water storage, which is helpful when you need to carry a lot of water at once. In a pinch, a canister also can serve as a washing machine to clean your clothes ‘hobo style’.

hiker-storing-bear-canister-at-camp

DESIGN FEATURES: FOR ATTACHING, STORING AND FINDING YOUR CANISTER

Most bear canisters are basic, but some go beyond the basic cylinder design, making them easier to carry or attach to a tree. Look for a dimpled exterior if you plan to attach it to the outside of your packs. This textured surface will ensure the canister stays nice and snug on your back. Other canisters include a hook so you can easily hoist it into a tree. Even though a canister already is a deterrent, using a bear hang doubly protects your food. Lastly, some bear kegs come in flashy colors that make it easier to find it if a bear happens to drag it into the woods.

two different sizes of the same ultralight bear canisterSmall and large bear canisters.


When to Use a Bear Canister

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.

grubcan bear resistant container

Where do bears live in the USA?

See 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 USA - the Appalachian Mountains (east), the Rocky Mountains (central), and the Sierra Nevadas (west).

hang bear canister sack

Bear sack vs bear 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.

It'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.

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 do I pack and carry 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

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.

illustration-displaying-how-to-store-a-bear-canister

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. 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.

opening bear canister

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.

bear canister lock


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.

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.


📷 Some of the photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)

Justin Sprecher photo

About Justin Sprecher

By Justin Sprecher (aka "Semisweet"): Semisweet is a Wisconsin-based thru-hiker, adventurer and digital storyteller. You can find him exploring the upper midwest on foot, in a canoe and on a bike.

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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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