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.
Bears are known to have one of the best senses of smell on the planet - 7X 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.
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.
You need to protect your food from this potentially hungry neighbor.
It's 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".
A bear canister is 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'.
|LIGHTER 1 - BIG DADDY||2 lb 10 oz||650 cu in (10.7 L)||Yes||$99.95|
|THE BARE BOXER CONTENDER||1 lb 10 oz||275 cu in (4.5 L)||Yes|
|UDAP NO-FED-BEAR||2 lb 7 oz||455 cu in (7.5 L)||Yes||$64.99|
|WILD IDEAS BEARIKADE THE WEEKENDER||1 lb 15 oz||656 cu in (10.7 L)||No||$309|
|URSACK S29||7.8 oz||650 cu in (10.7 L)||Yes and No||$89.95|
|BEARVAULT 500||2 lb 9 oz||700 cu in (11.5 L)||Yes||$79.95|
|GARCIA BACKPACKER CACHE 812||2 lb 12 oz||600 cu in (9.8 L)||Yes|
In a hurry? Skip straight the reviews.
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)|
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).
Bear bag or 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.
Estimated Black and Grizzly Bear population distribution in USA
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.
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.
APPROVAL: CONSIDER A CERTIFIED CANISTER
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.
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.
Small and large bear canisters.
Weight: 2 lb 10 oz
Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)
IGBC Approved: YES
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.
Weight: 1 lb 10 oz
Volume: 275 cu in (4.5 L)
IGBC Approved: YES
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 Bare Boxer
Weight: 2 lb 7 oz
Volume: 455 cu in (7.5 L)
IGBC Approved: YES
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..
Weight: 1 lb 15 oz
Volume: 656 cu in (10.7 L)
IGBC Approved: NO
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.
Weight: 7.8 oz
Volume: 650 cu in (10.7 L)
IGBC Approved: YES AND NO
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.
Weight: 2 lb 9 oz
Volume: 700 cu in (11.5 L)
IGBC Approved: YES
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.
Available at REI
Weight: 2 lb 12 oz
Volume: 600 cu in (9.8 L)
IGBC Approved: YES
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.
Available at REI
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:
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 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.
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.
Read Next: How to Use Bear Spray | 5 Best Bear Sprays
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 to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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