There’s no getting around it: If you camp in bear country long enough, you’ll eventually hear the footsteps and guttural breaths of a hungry bear outside your tent in the middle of the night. In Yosemite Park alone, rangers report that there are approximately 100 bear-camper incidents each year.
Sure, a very small number of these encounters end in injury or worse, but the vast majority are scary, but ultimately inconsequential; a bear comes and takes/ruins your food supply (and your toothpaste for some reason…) and leaves without imposing any further. By and large, bears are peaceful creatures, who wish you no harm.
However, even these encounters can cost the bear its life.
Like most other wild animals, bears work hard to find food. They are guaranteed nothing, and treat virtually every edible item they encounter with the reverence most humans reserve for juicy steaks or boxes full of chocolates. So, when a bear discovers that human food is a delicious, high-calorie and relatively easy option, they tend to start showing up at campsites more often. And despite their typically non-confrontational demeanor, violent confrontations do occasionally occur.
Given this, many backcountry regions enact zero-tolerance policies for problematic bears. I’ll let you figure out what a “zero-tolerance” policy implies in this case.
The point of all this being, it is vitally important that campers embrace bear-safe strategies and techniques to keep encounters to a minimum. In fact, it is also important to ensure that bears are not rewarded by raiding campsites.
One effective way to do so is by using a bear canister when enjoying the Great Outdoors alongside these amazing creatures.
What Are Bear Canisters?
Bear canisters are smooth-sided, barrel-shaped containers designed to keep your food safe from the prying jaws and powerful claws of a determined bear. Most feature some type of screw-on lid, and many also feature screws or other latching mechanisms that must be removed before the lid can be removed. Because bear canisters are usually smooth, bears often have trouble getting a good grip on them, and many appear to be impossible for bears to open.
Generally speaking, bear canisters are pretty affordable (although there are several-hundred-dollar models available for those who prefer premium products) and they are rarely difficult to use. The only downside to their use is the additional weight they represent.
Important Considerations When Choosing a Bear Canister
Fortunately, the bear-canister market is not plagued with poorly constructed or inelegantly designed products. But that doesn’t mean that some products are better than others, or better suited for your situation. Some of the most important things to consider include:
As with everything else in your pack, you’ll want to be mindful of your bear canister’s weight. While most canisters only weigh 2 to 4 pounds, you’d be amazed at how much a couple of extra pounds will make your pack feel heavier. Nevertheless, you don’t want to simply choose the lightest container possible, otherwise you may find that it is insufficiently secure, thereby allowing the local bears save you even more weight – by eating all of your food.
It doesn’t really matter if your bear canister is gray or dark green or black. That’s simply a matter of personal preference, and you should probably keep that at the bottom of your priority list. However, transparent canisters offer actual tangible value over opaque canisters of any color. The ability to see into the container while you are looking around for a snack makes things much easier, and there isn’t really any downside to transparent containers.
Some bear canisters rely solely on the smooth shape of the lid to keep bears out, but most of the best models also feature some type of latching mechanism or screw that requires either the use of a tool (such as a coin or screwdriver) or opposable thumbs (such as twisting latches) to access the contents of the container. These types of mechanisms may slightly inflate the price, but they won’t add much weight, so there is little reason to avoid them.
Bear canisters aren’t exactly high-tech tools, and it is usually pretty easy to figure out how to use them. However, backpackers and manufacturers have developed a number of tips for getting the most out of your canister.
As much as is possible, embrace the following suggestions the next time you head out into bear country:
- Be sure to place your canister away from rivers, lakes or ledges. It won’t matter how impenetrable your container is if a bear flings it into the river. Bears will often “sit down” and work on a canister for some time, but once frustrated, they may knock it into some type of inaccessible or unknown location, leaving your without any food at all.
- Don’t forget to put toiletries and other items that have a strong scent in your canister along with your food. Many of these items may not be exactly edible, but bears associate these odors with humans (and therefore their food).
- Keep any food-related trash in the canister, as wrappers and other things will also attract bears. It is usually a good idea to bring a large plastic bag with you for these types of items – this will keep the trash from contacting your food.
- Place your canister in the main compartment of your backpack, and try to keep it near your back, just under your shoulders. This will prevent it from swinging back and forth while you hike and it is the best place to keep heavy items in your pack (though most canisters only weigh 2 to 4 pounds, the food you keep in it is often one of the heaviest things you’ll bring).
- Attach a glow light, reflective sticker or some other high-visibility item to your bear canister. This will ensure that you can find your food more easily in the dark, when those late-night cravings kick in.
- Keep your sticky, smelly fingers off the outside of the canister and canister bag. Even if you use the best possible food-handling and storing protocols, you’ll be hard pressed to keep a bear’s sensitive nose from finding your food. However, that doesn’t mean you want to make it easy for them – always wash your hands before sealing up your canister and storing it.
- For safety’s sake, store your bear canister at least 100 feet from your campsite. That way, if a bear does sniff out your cache and attempt to break into it, you’ll still keep a good distance between you. If nothing else, space helps reduce the chances of a dangerous encounter – for both you and the bear.
Approved Canisters and Required Use
The use of bear canisters is mandated by local, state or even federal laws in several popular camping locations throughout the country. Additionally, most of these places require campers to use canisters that have been approved by various agencies or organizations.
These regulations and requirements often vary from one specific location to the next, and they can change at any time. Accordingly, it is wise to contact the relevant authorities before planning any trips – particularly if you know that bears are common in your chosen location.
Nevertheless, the following areas typically require the use of bear canisters:
- 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
It is always wise to have a back-up plan, in case your bear canister breaks or a bear knocks it off a ledge in the middle of the night. While none of these options are as helpful as using a bear canister, they may be helpful in a pinch.
Hanging Food in a Tree
In the old days, this was the only way campers could reliably protect their food from bears. The idea is to hang your food from a tree branch to keep it out of the reach of bears. Typically, food was suspended at least 12 feet off the ground and 5 feet out from the trunk of a tree. However, over time, bears began to learn how to access such foods, and hanging your food in such a way is no longer effective in some areas. Additionally, it is often tricky to get your food into such a position.
Many parks that have large bear populations provide sturdy metal storage containers for the caching of food and other odorous items. When available, these receptacles provide a very secure way of storing your food, but they are rather expensive and difficult to install, so they aren’t available in many campsites. Additionally, they are obviously not portable, so they limit your choice of campsites to some degree.
Bear wires are high-strength rope or metal strands affixed about 10 to 20 feet above the ground, usually between two trees or poles. They essentially serve as a convenient place to hang counterbalanced bags. There is normally a long pole kept in the vicinity, which is used to help get the bags attached to the wire. Bear wires are typically quite secure, although they are only useful when they are set up close to your chosen camping spot.