What can you do to ensure that bears don’t come roaming around your tent looking for food while you’re camping? Bearproof your campsite by using a bear-resistant container!
Protecting yourself and the bears by using a bear canister is not just a suggestion; some parks actually require these sealed safety devices. It is also a good idea to use one wherever you go. So let’s look at why a bear-resistant container is so essential.
What Is a Bear Canister (And Why Are They Important)?
A bear canister is a bear-resistant food container. It’s also called a bear can, bear safe, or bear vault. Why are bear-proof containers essential? Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell.
According to the National Park Service, “A black bear’s sense of smell can easily be measured in miles.” To keep bears away from your food, protecting you and your loved ones, you need a bear-proof container at your site.
By protecting yourself, you also save the bears. When bears are lured to campgrounds or campsites, they have a higher chance of interacting with humans. They can act aggressively if spooked, and sometimes they injure or kill humans. This usually requires the bear to be destroyed.
Bears can also rely on human food, leading them to develop unhealthy, unnatural habits. Instead of going after fish in a stream, they might patrol a nearby campground for food scraps.
How do we know all of this? Wildlife ecologists have been studying the grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since the late 1950s. This research has helped National Parks manage bear-human interactions and bring grizzly bears back from the brink of die-off in Yellowstone.
Where Are Bear Canisters Required?
National Parks with a high bear population require the use of bear canisters. Some will even provide them at individual sites. Yosemite National Park is one of those parks. Failure to properly store your food could lead to a severe fine.
Even if you’re not staying in a location that requires a bear-resistant container, it’s a good idea to use one wherever you’re camping. National Parks are notorious for requiring hard-sided canisters, but when camping at private campgrounds or boondocking on public land where people don’t enforce that requirement, it’s best to stick to a bear-proof canister.
What Do You Put Inside of a Bear Canister?
Although you may think you put only food in a bear canister, you need to store anything with a scent. Remember, a bear can smell something from miles away, and if it has an artificial or unique scent, it will come looking. Store things like lip balm, toothpaste, sunscreen, and deodorant inside a bear-proof container.
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Pro Tip: Wondering what’s so bad about bears eating your food? These are 5 Reasons to Not Feed the Wildlife While Camping.
Pros & Cons of Using a Bear Canister
The major benefit of using a bear canister is not luring bears into your path or campsite. Not only does this keep you safe, but gives you peace of mind while out in the wilderness. Secondly, it saves your food supply from getting eaten or stolen by bears, raccoons, or other wildlife that might be curious and opportunistic when you’re not looking.
Canisters also provide a few benefits over alternatives. Bear bagging and using an Ursack are common alternatives to bear-resistant containers. However, when there are no trees nearby, hanging a bag is challenging. Plus, animals have learned how to climb and get into these bags. Bear canisters provide better protection. Canisters are also typically easier to set up and retrieve than a bag in a tree.
However, they can be bulky and heavy, so some campers and hikers don’t love having to use them. Additionally, you may find that the space inside them limits what and how much food you can bring with you.
Bear Canister Alternatives
As mentioned above, there are a few alternatives to bear canisters. Although they don’t provide the protection that a bear-proof container does, they’re better than nothing. Besides bear bagging or using an Ursack, there are food lockers and bear poles to keep bears away from your campsite.
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Permanent Food Lockers
A permanent food locker is similar to a bear-resistant container. You can find these at campgrounds where the bear population is high. Yosemite National Park, for example, has food lockers available “in every campsite, most trailhead parking areas, and at lodging areas with tent cabins.”
By using a food locker, you don’t have to worry about carrying around a bulky bear canister. However, campers share food lockers. They’re also not convenient if you’re hiking a trail, need a snack, and store your food at the trailhead parking lot.
If a park doesn’t provide bear canisters or food lockers, sometimes it will offer bear poles. A bear pole has a Y-shaped top. This method is similar to bear bagging because you raise the food bag above the ground where bears can’t reach it.
Using a large pole with a hook, place your food bags in the Y fork. The advantage to using a bear pole is you don’t have to lug a heavy bear canister around. However, this method isn’t as effective at deterring bears as a bear-resistant container. Smells can still travel, and still lure a bear into your campsite. While it might not get to your food, it might still fail at the main goal of keeping bears away.
Another technique hikers use to keep bears away is with an Ursack. These bags are strong enough to withstand claws and teeth. They’re also easy to swing over a tree branch and lighter than a bear canister.
However, bears can still possibly break the rope and wander off with the food. At the very least, a bear can crush everything inside, making it useless in the morning. While an Ursack is easier to transport in a hiking backpack but isn’t accepted everywhere as a true bear canister.
Pro Tip: Wondering whether or not you’ll encounter bears in Yellowstone? We took a closer look to determine Are the Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone Endangered?
Renting vs. Buying Your Bear Canister
If you’re hiking or camping in high bear population areas often, your best bet is to buy a bear canister. You don’t have to fret if you show up at a campsite with no food locker. They’re around $60-80 and are well worth the investment.
If you’re only going to visit Yosemite National Park for one week during the year and don’t plan on hiking or camping anywhere else, it might be more cost-effective to rent a bear canister. A mere $5 gets you a bear-proof container for a week.
Do You Really Need a Bear Canister?
Yes, if you’re camping through bear country with food, you really should have that food in a bear canister. Not only could you put yourself in serious danger, you could pay up to $5,000 in fines if you choose not to at Yosemite National Park.
It’s worth the effort to lug it to your campsite. It’s also worth the $60-80 cost if you use it frequently. Bear canisters protect you and the bears. So make the right decision.
Hiking in bear country doesn’t necessarily require bearproof containers, but you should definitely consider where you’re going and what food you’re bringing with you. Remember, bears are opportunistic omnivores who’ll eat practically anything! Be smart and aware before venturing into bear habitat.
Do you own a bear-resistant container? Tell us what you use in the comments below!
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Sunday 4th of September 2022
I've logged over 1000 mi on dozens of backpacking outings in the Sierras in the last 40 years and always carry a bear can. That said, I question a fundamental premise of this article: "not luring bears into your campsite". BearVaults (as well as other brands) are not air-tight, so they do not block the smell of the food inside. Rather, they simply provide a physical barrier that keeps bears from getting at what's inside. Interestingly, in all of my outings I've never had a bear disturb the BearVaults.
Thursday 21st of April 2022
I have backpacked and climbed all of my life up till about 50. The anti bear canisters and lockers were not available back then or I would have used them. I got pretty good from trial and error about how to hang my food. I have successfully run them off many times. I lost part or half my food on two occasions. Once halfway on a two week trip that was a long hike out to a highway. I was very good at hanging two bags ballanced and a bear snapped a branch that was over 6 inches in diameter then took off with one bag as I dove on the other. The draw cord broke and off he went. This ruined my vacation. Personally I would not leave hanging your food to self invention. There are pamphlets available when you get your permit or at backpacking stores on how to hang your food better. Use a canister and sleep better. Oh and don't forget the raccoons are really good with their hands. Enjoy the wilderness!
Mortons on the Move
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Thanks for the insight! Yea those coons and chipmunks have been more of a problem for me than bears over the years.