Whether you’re a veteran backpacker or planning your very first trip into the backcountry, you’ll need to learn about proper food storage to keep curious critters – or worse, predators – at bay.
Bears, in particular, are “opportunistic omnivores”, often tempted by the prospect of an easy meal. If you’re heading into bear-country, you’ll want to know how to keep your food – and yourself – safe.
What You'll Learn
- Why you need to keep bears out of your food
- Difference Between a Bear Bag and Bear Canister
- Bear Bags:
- How To Hang A Bear Bag
- Best Bear Bag: Reviews
- Bear Canisters
- Best Bear Canister: Reviews
Why you need to keep bears out of your food
Although bears generally prefer to avoid people, according to the National Park Service, those that regularly come in contact with human food/garbage are far more likely to develop aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous behavior.
Bears in the US that exhibit dangerous behavior toward or near humans will be euthanized. Whenever you are hiking in bear country you should be carrying bear spray and following proper food storage protocols.
Besides preventing an unnecessary death, proper food and garbage storage keeps them from returning to particular campsites in search of an easy meal, reducing the odds of a negative human-bear encounter.
Messy campsites with discarded food, unwashed plates and utensils can attract bears. With a sense of smell approximately 600 times better than our own – they’ll know if you’re taking a relaxed approach to your camp cleanliness and food storage.
Think of a sniffer dog at the airport. In New Zealand, instead of looking for drugs, they sniff for fresh food. Bears do the same – but they’re a bit big to train.
Two of the most common ways to properly store food is by using bags and/or canisters.
Whether you decide on a bag or canister, you’ll want to review the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) for a list of approved bear-resistant products. You can also visit a relevant National or State Park website to review their approved list of bear-resistant food storage.
Difference Between a Bear Bag and Bear Canister
Although bags are lighter, less bulky options for storing food, canisters offer more protection from wildlife. Bags are not generally constructed to be bear-proof, whereas canisters are.
When using a bag, whether a bear gets into your food depends on the method you use to hang it. A canister relies on the durability of the container itself.
It’s important to keep in mind that regulations in some areas require the use of a canister for food storage. If you’re unsure, research the websites mentioned above before planning your trip.
What to Pack in your Bear Bag/Canister
You’ll want to place anything that’s scented in the container. Bears have been known to enter a sleeping hiker’s tent for as little as a stick of gum. Items include (but are not limited to):
- Toiletries (whether open or not)
- Clothing you cooked in or spilled food on
- Any and all food
High-density kevlar or “bulletproof” storage sacks that are meant to prevent bears – or other animals – from getting into your food supply. Backpackers will also use the term “bear bag” to describe any sack they are hoisting into a tree, out of reach of varmints such as raccoons and other hikers.
- Doesn’t need to be bear-proof – the idea is to hang it in a way that keeps it out of reach.
- Lightweight and more comfortable to carry than a canister
- Hanging can be time-consuming and challenging. In some places, it won’t be workable.
- Some bears have learned how to get a bag out of a tree, climbing and chewing through ropes
How to choose a Bear Bag
Don’t worry if a bag isn’t labeled “bear-proof”. Often they are referred to as ‘hanging systems,’ – well, because you hang them out of reach.
Still, it needs to be sturdy and durable enough to be slung over a tree branch, repeatedly. A plastic bag from Publix won’t work.
You will also want to consider the weather in case you need a waterproof bag. Some backpackers opt to use dry-bags, which can be easily rolled up or hung upside-down to prevent water from getting in.
I’m not sure why anyone would not use a waterproof bag. Even if you’re not in bear country, I like to hang my food out of reach using a drybag.
Every ounce counts for an ultralighter, so if you do use a bag to reduce the weight of your pack, you’ll need to factor in the weight of the hanging system too.
Where to Hang your Bear Bag
Friendly reminder: bears have an impeccable sense of smell. And they can climb trees.
As a rule of thumb, you want to hang your food at least 200 feet from your camp.
Regardless of the hanging method used, you’ll need a sturdy branch, 15 feet or more above ground and 10 feet away from the tree.
We don’t want a nimble bear climbing the tree and doing a Goldilocks on your porridge. You’ll also need to hang it down-wind from your campsite, to keep the smell of delicious food from lingering around your tent.
How To Hang A Bear Bag
Hanging the bag is where things can get tricky. There are two main methods used:
The Traditional Method
The traditional method is the easiest and should be good enough to keep bears from running off with your food in areas where they are not too much of a problem.
In some areas, bears have learned to outsmart the traditional hanging method. It’s always best to consult a park ranger if you’re unsure.
- Fastest and most straightforward method of hanging your sack
- Bears that are familiar with humans have learned to chew or pull on the rope until the bag falls from the tree.
- It can be hard to find the perfect tree.
- Find a tree that has a sturdy branch that is 15 feet above ground and reaches approximately 6 feet from the trunk of the tree. The branch will need to be strong enough to hold the bag, but not thick enough to support the weight of a bear (approximately 1-4 inches in diameter)
- Tie your bag on one end of a rope and throw the other end over the branch
- Pull on the end of the rope and pull the sack upward. You’ll want the bag to be as high as possible.
- Tie the rope to the tree trunk
- To retrieve it, slowly untie the rope and allow it to drop to the ground
Or, as this black bear sow and her cubs demonstrates, wait for the bear to retrieve it!
The PCT method
Named after the Pacific Coast Trail, a 2,650-mile thru-hike with notoriously intelligent bears, the PCT method is considered by thru-hikers to be the best method for hanging.
- Less rope or cordage needed, which reduces pack weight
- Considered to the most bear-proof method
- Items that you want to access quickly can be stored in smaller sacks and attached separately
- This method doesn’t work well with heavier bags
- In some areas, large overhanging branches are not easy to find
- It’s more challenging to master than the traditional method
- Throw your rope over a branch that is approx. 20 feet high and reaches approximately 6 feet from the trunk of the tree. The tree branch will need to be strong, but not thick enough to support the weight of Yogi in a tree
- Attach a carabiner to one end of the rope (A) and attach your bag
- Put the other end of the rope (B) through the carabiner and hoist the bag as high as it will go
- While the bag is in the air, reach up and tie a stick onto the rope using a clove hitch
- Slowly release the rope – The stick will move up, and the bag will shift down, the carabiner will prevent the bag from going any further
- To retrieve your stash, pull the dangling rope, remove the stick and you can lower the bag
Best Bear Bag: Reviews
At a Glance:
- Weighs less than 3 ounces
- Waterproof roll-top closure keeps contents dry and secure
- Folds down to just a few inches, so it can be easily packed or attached to a pack
- Once it’s filled, there is no way to adjust the tightness for added security
- Fabric doesn’t withstand harsher climates
- If overfilled, the bag may tear.
It’s waterproof, so if you need to hang your food in the rain, it will keep everything nice and dry.
The Sak Gear Litesak 2.0 also has several different size options to choose from – 5, 10 and 20 liter.
Made out of durable silicon-coated nylon, it’s durable, but not bear-proof or bear-resistant. If you’re not going to hang it from a tree, this isn’t the bag for you.
If you do plan on hanging it, the rip-stop fabric will keep it from getting snagged on tree branches.
We appreciate that Sak Gear offers a full refund if the bag doesn’t work out.
At a Glance:
- Multiple sizes to choose from for different trip lengths
- Available in bright, distinguishable colors
- Easy to hoist up into a tree
- If you don’t secure the top correctly, things inside will get wet
- The rectangular shape can make it a challenge to pack
This dry-bag is not bear-proof or bear-resistant, so you’ll need to hang it well out of reach!
We like that this bag comes in a variety of bright colors. Bright colors are helpful when you’re with a large group of backpackers and want to differentiate yours from others. There may be days when you arrive at camp late and need to see your bag at night.
This dry sack comes in a variety of sizes from 3L to 30L. Weighing in at a little over 2 oz (for the 12 L sack), this would be a contender if you’re trying to keep your pack as light as possible.
At a Glance:
- Made from bullet-proof fabric
- One of the only bear bags that is considered ‘bear-proof.’
- Comes with a high-quality cordage for hanging
- Can be carried into some areas that were previously restricted to bear canisters – (passed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee test.)
- Aluminum liner, for added security, (has to be purchased separately)
- Much heavier than dry bag alternatives
I appreciate the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee stamp of approval on this product, making it a real alternative to hiking with a canister. In some areas, canisters are still required, so depending on where you’re going, you’ll need to check.
The Ursack Major has a capacity of 10.65 liters, which gives you plenty of space for food. Here’s a video showing just how much you can fit:
Another great feature is the ability to add (or remove) an odor barrier or an aluminum liner, adding to its durability.
If you want the flexibility of a bag, but the security of a canister, this one lands somewhere in the middle.
If you’re looking to limit the weight of your pack, keep in mind that the Ursack Major weighs approx. 7.6 ounces, which is lighter than most canisters but still much heavier than dry-bag options.
A bear canister is a hard-sided container designed to store all your delicious food and keep it from attracting unwanted attention from Yogi and his friends.
Although hanging your food from a tree is the usual method of storing food in the bush, canisters have become one of the safest storage methods for wilderness camping.
- Easy to use – no faffing about hanging bags in trees
- Can double as a camping stool
- More bear-resistant than other storage options
- Heavier and bulkier than a bag.
- More cumbersome to store and carry
Why Bear Canisters Are Necessary
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, bears have the best sense of smell of any land mammal and can pick up a scent from over a mile away.
Sturdy canisters keep food and other scented items from luring a bear into your campsite, particularly in areas where they have learned how to access food in hanging storage.
How to choose the right canister
To find the best canister for your trip:
- Where are you going? There are several stories about backpackers showing up to collect their hiking permit, only to find it’s compulsory to carry a canister. If you’re hiking in an area that is notorious for bear activity, you’ll want to check in advance to make sure you have an approved container.
- How much food will you need? As a general rule, a day’s worth of food can fit into 100-cubic inches. If you plan on hiking four days without resupply, I recommend that you use one that holds a minimum of 400-cubic inches
- What do you need to store in it? Some backpackers opt for carrying a couple of canisters rather than one large one, to save on bulk. It’s up to you – there are various sizes to choose from
- How heavy is your pack? Depending on the distance you plan on hiking, the weight of your pack can have a significant impact on how enjoyable the trip is.
How to use a canister
Not all canisters are the same Some have a specialized lid which makes it difficult to open without the help of a nail or quarter.
You’ll often hear backpackers joke that their canisters are people-proof. They should be kept sealed and locked when they are not in use.
Where to store the canister
In camp, you’ll want to keep it out of sight, preferably on the ground in a discrete location. All food should be stored 200 feet downwind from your camp.
Bears have been known to push or throw containers to try and break them open, so keep it away from moving water or steep cliffs.
If you opt for an opaque, smooth canister, I suggest you add a bright piece of tape to the exterior so it’s easier to locate.
Best Bear Canister: Reviews
At a Glance:
- Opaque exterior prevents animals from seeing the contents of the canister
- Meets regulation requirements of the National Park Service
- Makes a good stool!
- Heavier than some
- Can be a pain to fit into your pack due to its dimensions and size
The dark exterior is handy in areas where bears have learned to look for and open canisters, such as Yosemite National Park. So, if you are backpacking or camping in areas notorious for smart bears, this might be a good choice.
If you’re a backpacker or day hiker looking to minimize pack weight, this probably isn’t the best option. At 2 lbs. 12 oz., it’s heavier than other canisters on the market.
You can purchase a separate carrying case to attach the container to the exterior of your pack to save space.
At a Glance:
- Various sizes to choose from and a larger capacity for extended trip
- Lightweight design
- Exterior ridges make it easier to handle
- Transparent exterior allows bears – and other hikers – to see contents inside
- Challenging to open in cold weather
- In areas with a higher bear population, some have learned how to open these
Beware, though, the transparent exterior make the contents easy for others to see, too!
The BearVault500 is approved for use in most State and National Parks, but may not be ideal if you’re traveling to areas where bears are known to seek out and open containers.
Weighing in at 2 lbs, 9 oz, the BV500 has good storage capacity vs. weight.
If you want to keep your pack as light as possible but don’t want to sacrifice volume, this is a great option.
If you’re looking for a bear canister that you can strap to the exterior of your pack, the BearVault BV500 has built-in straps, so no additional carry case is needed.
It’s wide, 6.875-inch, opening makes for a pretty comfortable camp stool, too!
At a Glance:
- Tough, bear-resistant polymer plastic in a garish yellow
- Approved for use in most US National Parks
- Large capacity holds around 4 days of food
- Opaque plastic prevents others seeing your food!
- 3.5lbs is pretty hefty
- Lid can be a bit fiddly
- Need a separate carrying case as there is no way of securing it (smooth surface)
Durable and robust, the Counter Assault Bear Resistant Food Keg won’t be breaking any time soon – and once you’ve got the lid fastened, your food will be safe from curious squirrels, rascally raccoons and Yogi Bear.
It’s annoying that it doesn’t come with a carry case or any means of attaching it to the outside of your pack. You can purchase the carry-case separately, of course.
The last thing you want to worry about, as you crawl into your tent at night, is whether or not a 300-lb predator is going to make off with your breakfast.
Equally, in keeping with our Leave No Trace ethos, when we go into the backcountry, it’s important to remember that we are visitors – the wildlife lives here. We all need to do our bit to keep bears wild and minimize our impact on their environment.
Bear-resistant canisters and hanging techniques are the best methods of food storage in bear country. Using the right food storage option for your next trip will not only keep you safe but will also keep our bears wild.