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Losing your food to wildlife can quickly ruin an otherwise-perfect camping trip, and if that wildlife takes the form of a hungry bear, this kind of thievery can also be frightening and dangerous. Accordingly, all campers must prepare themselves to camp alongside bears and protect their food from these furry beasts.
There are a number of ways to keep your food safe from bears and other critters, but specially designed containers – bear canisters – have quickly become the most popular way of doing so. We’ll explain the bear canister basics below, as well as some of the most effective alternatives.
What Is a Bear Canister?
Simply put, a bear canister is a durable container designed to keep food safe from bears and other wildlife. Bear canisters come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but most are capable of holding about 2 to 4 pounds of food (they generally provide 5 to 15 liters of space).
Bear canisters are typically made from highly durable materials, such as polycarbonate or ABS plastic, although some are made from metal or carbon fibers. There are a few soft-sided bear-proof containers on the market, but while they’ll prevent the bear from eating the food contained within, they won’t protect the food, which will usually be rendered unusable thanks to the bear’s attempts to open it.
Bear canisters are usually designed to be large enough that a bear cannot carry them easily in their jaws, but smaller versions may allow bears to carry them away. Large bear canisters are also harder for bears to open, so it is usually wise to use the largest size bear canister possible.
While the container itself is obviously an important component of a bear canister, the lid is perhaps the most important part. A well-designed bear canister lid will allow campers to quickly and easily access the food inside, yet prevent the bear from doing the same. They usually accomplish this by incorporating various types of locking mechanisms into the lid.
For example, some bear canister lids require you to use a coin or screwdriver to twist a screw lock. Lacking the dexterity to use tools, bears are unable to open such lids. Others use lids that require you to complete a series of complicated steps to open the lid; because bears are unlikely to intuitively understand the necessary steps, they are unable to open the lid.
Many bear canisters also incorporate rubber or silicone gaskets to prevent odors from attracting bears in the first place. Yet while these gaskets are helpful, and it is always a good idea to avoid attracting wildlife in the first place, it can be difficult to avoid contaminating the outside of the canister with the food residues left on your hands.
Are Bear Canisters Always Effective?
Unfortunately, bears are smart creatures, who will eventually figure out to get into anything short of Fort Knox. Over time, they’ve shown the ability to access suspended food bags and get into some of the most robust food lockers in existence.
This essentially sets up an arms race between bears and campers. Campers devise new ways to protect and store their food until the bears figure out how to beat the new technology. This forces campers to figure out better ways to protect their food, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
This will likely remain the case until a perfect solution is devised, or bears stop visiting campsites in search of food.
Fortunately, most bear canisters are still effective, and they represent the best way to store your food in places without metal storage lockers. However, a few bears have successfully cracked open bear canisters, thus demonstrating that these containers are far from perfect.
Why Are Bear Canisters Important?
In a best-case scenario, you’ll practice good food handling procedures and prevent odors from contaminating the outside of the canister, while the container’s gaskets will prevent food odors from leaking out into your campsite. This will hopefully prevent bears from even visiting your campsite at all.
However, in a more realistic scenario, the local bears (and raccoons, squirrels, rats and mice) will most likely smell what you’re cooking and come investigate under the cover of darkness. However, upon finding the source of the tantalizing scents, the bear will be unable to get to your food. This will generally cause them to give up and look elsewhere for an easier meal.
But aside from the obvious benefit bear-proof food containers provide to campers, they also help bears too.
Bears that learn to associate campsites with easy meals are often labeled as nuisance bears by local wildlife agencies and park staff. There are a variety of ways these authorities respond to nuisance bears, but few would be considered good solutions from the bear’s point of view.
However, if enough campers begin to use bear canisters and prevent bears from accessing their food, bears will stop associating humans with easy meals. This will not only reduce the number of stolen picnic baskets, it will help reduce the number of bear-related accidents and altercations and the frequency with which bears must be euthanized or relocated.
Mandated Use of Bear Canisters
Several of the parks and wilderness areas with significant bear populations mandate the use of bear canisters while camping on their grounds. Some of these include:
- Olympic National Park
- North Cascades National Park
- Portions of the Adirondack Mountains
- Inyo National Forest
- Denali National Park
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
This list should not be considered exhaustive, and you should always contact the authorities who oversee the park you wish to visit before your trip begins. Some locations even require you to use a particular brand or style of bear canister, so make your phone calls before going shopping.
Bear Canister Selection and Usage Tips
Bear canisters are rather effective and easy to use, but you can make them even more effective and convenient by embracing the following tips:
- Select a clear bear canister, but use it in conjunction with a stuff sack. You’ll surely find it convenient to be able to see inside your canister, but you don’t want bears to be able to see the food inside. But by using a clear canister and covering it with an opaque stuff sack, you get the best of both worlds.
- Select a brightly-colored stuff sack to make it easy to see your canister from a distance. This will not only make it easier to find your food before your morning coffee, it will also make it easier to find it, should a bear toss it into the woods.
- Wipe your bear canister down with a non-scented wet wipe or alcohol pad after each use. This will help prevent food odors from contaminating the canister and drawing the attention of bears.
- Practice using your bear canister before heading out on your first trip with it. Bear canisters sometimes have very tricky latch mechanisms, and you’ll want to be certain you can quickly and easily manipulate the lock before relying on it to hold your food.
Bear Canister Alternatives
Bear canisters are certainly effective, but they aren’t the only way to protect your food from hungry critters. After all, campers have been devising ways to protect their food from marauding bears for decades, while bear canisters are fairly new products.
A few of the most commonly employed and effective bear canister alternatives include the following:
Hanging Food in a Tree
Campers, outdoorsmen and pioneers have used trees to bear-proof their food for decades, if not longer. And, while this technique is reasonably effective if properly executed, it is quite difficult to properly suspend your food from an overhanging tree branch.
Essentially, a camper will tie two stuff sacks of food to each end of a length of rope. One of the stuff sacks is then thrown up and over the branch, while the other is raised via a long stick so that both bags hang at about the same height.
To ensure that the bags remain out of the reach of bears, they need to be at least 12 to 15 feet above the ground and 5 to 10 feet out from the trunk of the tree.
Using Bear Wires
Bear wires are pre-installed metal cables, which are usually situated between two trees or poles. They are usually placed near campsites, along with a long stick which will facilitate their use.
Bear wires work on the same principle as hanging food from a tree does – it places the food beyond a bear’s reach. However, unlike trees which rarely offer the ideal place for hanging food, bear wires are set up to provide exactly that. Understand that bear wires are not exactly easy to use, but they do make it easier to keep your food safe from bears than a tree branch does.
By far, the most secure way to store food is in a permanent storage locker. These devices are usually robustly built metal structures with a large door that provides access to campers. The door will feature some type of latch mechanism that is difficult for bears to manipulate – they are essentially super-sized bear canisters.
Some places require campers to use the provided storage lockers, while others merely encourage their use. Food lockers may be a bit inconvenient, as you’ll have to share the capacity with other camping parties, and they are rarely found close to campsites, which means you’ll have to hike to and from the locker when you want to eat.
Because bears are large, potentially dangerous animals, you’ll want to limit their visits to your campsite. This will help you stay safe and it will help prevent no-win encounters. Failing that, you certainly want to ensure your food stays safe, should a four-legged visitor appear, so it is wise to use bear canisters whenever you hit the trail.
Have you used bear canisters before? We’d love to hear about your experiences – especially if you’ve had one tested by an actual bear. Did you find it easy enough to access the food inside, once the container was locked?
Let us know all about it in the comments below.