A hard-sided bear canister is used to protect your food from bears. When traveling in a bear country, proper storage of food is a must to protect both you and the bear. A bear eating your food can quickly turn an enjoyable trip into a survival situation.
This all-you-need-to-know guide dives into when to use a bear canister, the best bear canisters out there (according to our tests), how to choose a bear canister, how to use a bear canister, and common FAQs.
Table of Contents
BEST BEAR CANISTERS
The best bear canisters are:
- Best Overall Bear Canister: BEARVAULT BV500 CANISTER
- Best Budget Bear Canister: THE BARE BOXER CONTENDER
- Best Lightweight Bear Canister: WILD IDEAS THE WEEKENDER BEARIKADE
- Best Non-Traditional Bear Canister: URSACK MAJOR BEAR SACK
|Brand & Model||Weight||Volume||IGBC Approved||Price||Overall Score|
|1. BearVault BV500 Bear Canister||41 oz||700 cu in||Yes||$93||9/10|
|2. Ursack Major Bear Sack||7.6 oz||650 cu in||Yes and No||$100||9/10|
|3. The Bare Boxer Contender||25.6 oz||275 cu in||Yes||$80||8/10|
|4. Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade||31 oz||650 cu in||No||$333||8/10|
|5. Garcia Backpacker Cache 812||44 oz||614 cu in||Yes||$90||8/10|
|6. UDAP No-Fed-Bear Bear-Resistant Canister||38.4 oz||455 cu in||Yes||$92||7/10|
|7. Big Daddy Lighter 1||42 oz||650 cu in||Yes||$140||7/10|
|8. Grubcan Bear-Resistant Container||43 oz||574 cu in||Yes||$127||7/10|
✅ Great weight-to-volume ratio
✅ Easy-open lid
✅ Competitive price point
❌ Can be overkill on short trips
- Weight: 2 pounds 9 ounces
- Volume: 700 cubic inches (11.5 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $92.50
The low price balanced with exceptional volume capacity makes the BearVault BV500 our best overall bear canister. It's versatile, perfect for a weekend trip for a couple or a week-long solo trip. On short solo trips, we found these to be overkill. The screw-top lid has a wide mouth so you can add and remove food easily. We loved that the main body is made from transparent polycarbonate allowing us to see what we're grabbing at. The extra carrying capacity does make the BearVault bulkier than other models. Read our in-depth review on all the BearVault Models.
✅ Soft-sided design easier to pack
❌ Not approved in all National Parks
❌ Food can get crushed
- Weight: 7.6 ounces
- Volume: 650 cubic inches (10.7 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES AND NO
- Price: $99.95
This soft-sided sack is made from Spectra 'bulletproof' fabric. The material is a fraction of the weight compared to heavy plastic alternatives. You can also roll it up or use it as a sturdy stuff sack when not storing food. A downside with the Ursack is that your food will get smashed if a bear decides to chomp on it. It requires tying to a sturdy tree so a bear won't walk off with it so we found this tough to use in high alpine areas or deserts. Even though it has been approved by the IGBC, it has had issues getting approved by certain National Parks. Read in-depth review on the Ursack Major here.
BEST BUDGET BEAR CANISTER:
3. The Bare Boxer Contender
❌ Only holds 2-3 days of food
- Weight: 1 pound 10 ounces
- Volume: 275 cubic inches (4.5 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $79.90
At 26.3 ounces and 275 cubic inches, the Bare Boxer Contender is the smallest canister we tested. Because of the small size, it's technically the lightest too. It holds enough food for about 2 to 3 days and is our go to canister for weekend trips. We found that you could push this capacity to 4-5 days if you repackage and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
We also found that this small size fits nicely inside ultralight backpacks. The opening mechanism is similar to the Garcia bear canister, but it has three locks instead of two. The low price tag makes the Bare Boxer Contender the most affordable bear canister we tested.
BEST LIGHTWEIGHT BEAR CANISTER:
4. Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade
❌ Not IGBC approved
- Weight: 1 pound 15 ounces
- Volume: 650 cubic inches (10.7 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: NO
- Price: $333
By far the lightest canister on the list, the Bearikade Weekender undercuts the BearVault by nearly a whole pound with nearly the same capacity. We pushed the limits on this and actually managed to fit 8 days worth of food into this canister. Some hikers have managed to fit 9 days.
Its sleek and straightforward cylindrical design is made out of carbon fiber and unlocks with a twist-lock. We found that the Bearikade's biggest drawback is its price tag. This thing costs a small fortune compared to other bear canisters. Currently only available directly from Wild Ideas which also offers custom-built options.
The Other Noteworthy Models
✅ Smaller compared to similar models
❌ Less storage volume compared to similar models
- Weight: 2 pounds 12 ounces
- Volume: 614 cubic inches (10 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $89.95
Designed like a mini bomb shelter, the Garcia Backpacker Cache is more durable and more secure than most other canisters we tested. The drawbacks are that it's slightly smaller and heavier than comparable canisters on our list.
The tapered shape makes it easy to slide into small packs. Because it narrows at the top, the mouth of the Garcia is 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.
6. UDAP No-Fed-Bear Bear-Resistant Canister
✅ Compact size
❌ Heavy volume to weight ratio
❌ Small overall volume
- Weight: 2 pounds 7 ounces
- Volume: 455 cubic inches (7.5 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $91.96
We found this model to be a strong, dense, and compact canister. Perfect for 3-4 day trips or a weekend trip with a partner. It uses a twist-lock lid that requires a coin or hard edge to open. The compact size fits in packs much better than the competitors. The volume-to-weight ratio is the big drawback of the UDAP. At 39 ounces, it’s only slightly lighter than models that offer more volume for food.
✅ Built-in cooking pan
✅ Large volume
- Weight: 2 pounds 10 ounces
- Volume: 650 cubic inches (10.7 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $139.99
The Lighter 1 Big Daddy resembles the BearVault with its tall, barrel shape and transparent polycarbonate material. We don't like that the lid attaches with a pair of thumbscrews meaning if you lose the screws you’re in trouble. The aluminum lid also doubles as a cooking pan. A fun idea, but we didn't find this feature as functional as it should be. The higher cost and weight make it hard to choose the Big Daddy Lighter 1 over the competition.
✅ Fits in small packs
✅ Less awkward on your back
❌ Heavy weight-to-volume ratio
❌ Unique size takes getting used to
- Weight: 2 pounds 11 ounces
- Volume: 574 cubic inches (9.4 Liters)
- IGBC Approved: YES
- Price: $126.95
The Grubcan boasts a unique tubular shape. At 6.5” in diameter and 23” long it was designed to fit into smaller and skinnier backpacks. It’s also less awkward on your back when hiking. The lid is held on with gravity latches which don't need tools to open. The weight-to-volume ratio isn’t as good as most models we tested. We found that the long shape made it hard to reach items at the bottom. All of this along with the higher price makes it hard to choose this over other models.
Key Factors to Consider When Choosing
Every hiker who’s carried a bear canister knows they can be heavy and bulky. Weight has little to do with the effectiveness of the canister. Our recommendation is to buy the lightest bear canister you can afford, with 3lbs being the maximum weight we’d carry.
The lightest on our list: Ursack Major
The lightest hard-sided bear canister: The Bare Boxer Contender
For longer trips, the Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade offers more volume while still being a very light 31 ounces.
VOLUME: VOLUME-TO-WEIGHT & VOLUME-TO-PRICE
When choosing the size of bear canister you should get 100 cubic inches per day for food is a good rule of thumb. Be sure to factor in additional space for scented items and toiletries.
Volume-to-weight is an important consideration. Bear canisters can be bulky. Ideally, you’ll want to carry as much food as possible with the least amount of canister weight.
The model with the highest volume to weight ratio is: Ursack Major
The hard-sided bear canisters with the highest volume-to-weight ratio are:
The bear canisters with the highest volume to price are:
In general, you should be able to get a good bear canister for under $100. High-end options can be $300+. For those on a tighter budget, look into buying a used canister. If you only need a canister for a single trip many parks also offer rental options.
BearVault BV500 has the best balance of volume, weight, and price for hard-sided canister models while Ursack major is ultra lightweight.
Most affordable bear canisters:
The Bare Boxer Contender has small volume which means it’s only really good for weekend trips while the Garcia Backpacker Cache 812 has enough volume for longer trips.
High-end canister: Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade
The Wild Ideas Weekender Bearikade offers voluminous storage capacity at a low weight.
Bear canisters are going to be one of, if not the, biggest items in your pack. The size of your pack will be the limiting factor on a canister’s packability. If a canister’s longest dimension is 12 inches or less it should fit both vertically and horizontally in your pack. Larger than 12 inches will only fit vertically in most packs. If you’re an ultra-lighter with a sub-40-liter pack they may not fit at all.
The most packable bear canisters (in this order) are:
The Grubcan is the skinniest but also the tallest and may be too tall for smaller packs.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
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 prevent a hefty fine.
WHAT PACKS THESE MODELS FIT IN
These are the packs our testers could fit these bear canisters into. Any bear canister can fit vertically and horizontally into a pack with a capacity higher than 45L except for the GrubCan. Below 45L proved to be a struggle for the higher volume canisters.
|The Bare Boxer Contender||Vertical and Horizontal in all packs|
|UDAP No-Fed-Bear Bear-Resistant Canister||Vertical in all packs; Horizontal in packs 45L+|
|Grubcan Bear-Resistant Container||Vertical in packs 50L+|
|Ursack Major Bear Sack S29||Vertical in all packs|
|Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade||Vertical in all packs; Horizontal in packs 45L+|
|Garcia Backpacker Cache 812||Vertical in all backpacks; Horizontal in packs 48L+|
|BearVault BV500 Bear Canister||Vertical in all backpacks; Horizontal in packs 48L+|
|Big Daddy Lighter 1||Vertical in all packs|
HOW MUCH FOOD THEY FIT
We tested how much calorie-dense food these canisters could really hold dependent on whether they're an utralight food packer who pushes the canisters limit or a normal-to-heavy food packer and this is what we found.
|MODEL||Ultralight food packer||Normal to heavier food packer|
|The Bare Boxer Contender||4-5 days||3-4 days|
|Garcia Backpacker Cache 812||7-8 days||5-6 days|
|UDAP No-Fed-Bear||6-7 days||4-5 days|
|BearVault BV500 Bear Canister||8-9 days||6-7 days|
|Ursack Major Bear Sack S29||8-9 days||6-7 days|
|Grubcan Bear-Resistant Container||7-8 days||5-6 days|
|Big Daddy Lighter 1||8-9 days||6-7 days|
|Wild Ideas The Weekender Bearikade||8-9 days||6-7 days|
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 require 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.
Opening a Garcia Backpacker Cache with a Spork
OPAQUENESS 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.
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.
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’.
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 canisters come in flashy colors making it easier to find if a bear drags it into the woods.
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:
|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)|
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).
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.
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)
- Bug repellent
- Lip balm
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Small and large bear canisters.
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!
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.
📷 Some of the photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)