The Case for Bear Canisters on the Appalachian Trail

Incidents of bears obtaining food from AT campsites are increasing. Several campsites in the mid-Atlantic have been closed, and a bear that frequently visited an AT campsite was euthanized in  2019.  Now, land managers are considering more specific measures (including mandatory canister use) to protect the trail’s natural resources—and hikers. The ATC continues to  “strongly recommend” that overnight visitors on the AT use approved bear canisters. Here are some thoughts on why it makes sense to use a bear canister on the trail.

The Natural Resources of the Trail Are Worth Protecting

The Appalachian Trail provides generally unfiltered access to the woods, fields, and waters of the Appalachian Mountains. It is in the “backyard” of most of the East Coast’s major population centers. It has no main entrance, little to no frontcountry amenities, no rangers in “Smokey Bear” hats, no road network, no gift shops, no scheduled natural or cultural history talks, and minimal fees for visitors.

It is also considered one of the most diverse protected natural landscapes in the country: traversing 11 degrees of latitude and includes a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, old growth forests, mountain balds, large and small wetlands, pristine watersheds, and alpine zones—in addition to the “usual” East Coast woodlands and fields. It’s also visited by 4 million or so humans every year.

Conservation and trail-protection efforts over the past half century or so have resulted in not only a premier backcountry hiking experience, but also in a return of wildlife. Population increases of beaver, wild turkey, and bobcat to the Appalachians are notable—particularly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Also notable is the increase in black bears. All of these point to healthy ecosystems that support a wide variety of wildlife.

The trail and its surrounding natural resources are inextricably intertwined and together comprise the primary resource we value as visitors. Simply a footpath without a natural landscape negates the entirety of what the trail is. Who would hike the trail if it ran behind shopping centers and we camped at KOA campgrounds?

Bears and Other Wildlife Are Part of That Resource

Since we place a high value on the AT’s natural resources, we want to protect them and keep them as much as possible in their natural state. Alterations to the trail’s natural resources should be limited and carefully considered. If bears are a part of that resource, and we are committed to protecting it, then we need to extend as much protection to bears as we do to viewsheds, clean water, and other wildlife.

Bears, in their natural state, are omnivorous foragers. They travel widely across their ranges, looking for a variety of food from multiple sources. When they find a productive food source—say a carcass, skunk cabbage, berries, or nuts—they stick around to consume as much as possible. They are good at remembering the location. They are likely to return for more.

When bears and other animals consume human food, it’s detrimental to their natural state, and can put hikers at risk as well.

When hikers’ food becomes part of the food resources for wildlife, particularly when it appears at the same location multiple times (a fresh crop, as it were), it alters the bear’s natural feeding habits. It habituates bears to human presence, and the food we bring. The same food bonanza affects other animals like mice, raccoons, and squirrels. The difference is that a bear’s size and physical strength means it can take food from pretty much anywhere it wants, and doesn’t care much if you are in the way. So by keeping food secure we are protecting the bear; but also other animals, ourselves, and hikers who will likely be visiting the same location after we’ve moved on. Protecting the trail’s natural resources includes protecting the bears from you.

Hiker-Created Food Protection Is Shown to be Minimally Effective

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy received reports of 65 incidents of bears acquiring human food at AT campsites in 2019. In Vermont, a bear that became a frequent visitor to Goddard Shelter was killed by wardens from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Agency because hikers could not keep their food away from the bear. In the mid-Atlantic, several campsites were closed, and hikers re-routed away from areas with “problem” bears. So let’s take a look at what options we have when we bring food with us on our trip.

Option 1: “I hope that no bears are around tonight.” This might work for you, even for multiple nights. You might even be successful in scaring a bear off a couple of times. But when it doesn’t work, you’re in the woods without any food, and possibly without shelter. The bear puts a pin in its mental map, and will return for more easy calories—maybe next week when another hopeful hiker throws the food storage dice.

Option 2: “I’ll sleep with my food.” Imagine this scenario: 4 a.m. and raining. You think you hear a noise outside your tent. You roll over contemplating what it’s going to take to get out of your bag and get the tent down without getting everything soaked. You doze. 4:30—still raining. Something is pushing and scratching on your tent. You yell and slap the ground. The pushing and scratching continues, then the tent tears open and a 200-pound yearling bear is pushing her way in. You’re zipped into your bag and struggle to get the zipper down and so you can escape (or somehow “defend” your food). The bear is getting tangled in your tent and trying to get away from the screaming, thrashing thing inside—but can’t. It decides it’s cornered and tries to defend itself.

This actually happened to a hiker on the AT in the Smokies at Spence Field last year. The hiker was bitten on the leg and was evacuated (fortunately, the injuries to the hiker were not serious). Officials in the park searched for the bear but were not able to locate it. There are other documented reports of bears entering tents looking for food at other AT sites. Either way, the short term outcome for a hiker is not good, neither is the long-term outlook for the bear that successfully acquires a snack.

Option 2.5: “I’ll hang my food in the shelter” (see Option 2 above, without the tent).

Option 3: “I’ll hang my food.” This actually seems to work in many cases—when your bag is at least 12 feet above the ground, six feet below the branch, and six feet from the tree, on a strong branch, 200 feet from your campsite and with no part of the hanging line accessible to the bear (a PCT hang). Trees with suitable branches may or may not be near your campsite, and you might spend considerable time in the dark and the rain looking for one. Experienced bears can defeat hangs that fall short of the spec. Even the best hung food won’t be safe from smaller four-footed mammals that can climb down the rope and chew into your food.

Eminently defeatable. Photo, Cosmo Catalano

The failure rate of the above methods means that bears aren’t being protected. It means we are degrading the resource we value, and putting hikers at risk. In some places, land managers can be left only with the options of closing the campsite, or killing the bear. Do you want to be responsible for that? Some bears can be trapped and relocated if the campsite is close to a road, but there are well-documented cases of bears (including some with radio collars) returning to their home range from hundreds of miles away.

Manager-supplied food protection has notable limitations and ongoing costs, and is only available in limited locations.

Land managers looking at the high failure rates of many hiker-created food storage attempts—and the consequences of closing campsites, or euthanizing bears—look to technological solutions: cables to hang from, steel poles with branches to hang from, or steel boxes that bears can’t get into.

Rather than get into the strengths and weaknesses of these technologies, let’s consider some other factors: What does it mean to our sense of the wild to encounter additional technologies and infrastructure at backcountry campsites? Does our respect for the natural world ring true when we add more infrastructure to it? Are steel “trees” and metal boxes a normal part of the backcountry landscape? What about the cost? These devices have initial costs, and continuing maintenance (often performed by volunteers) is necessary—particularly the task of keeping bear boxes free of trash and abandoned food.

The AT is mostly free for visitors; should clubs and agencies continue to purchase, install, and maintain campsite infrastructure, especially when facing a growing level of use?

  • By recent count, about 40% of designated (that is, manager created and maintained) AT overnight sites have some device to provide storage for hiker food. Note that in some states, there are many more visitor-created (so-called stealth) overnight sites than designated ones—none of those have any food protection devices.
  • Food storage devices have limited capacity. At peak visitation times, or when one or more organized group stays at a site, food storage capacity can quickly be overwhelmed. Hikers arriving later in the day must use another means to protect their food. The bear really doesn’t care about this problem; it’s just looking for breakfast.
  • Food storage devices can increase the use of a site beyond its intended capacity, as hikers opt for sites with protection devices over those without.
  • Getting out there on the edge a bit with this last one: Shouldn’t hikers be the ones responsible for protecting our own food, and the resource we enjoy? Why should the government and trail clubs solve this problem when it’s relatively easy for hikers to do it?

Photo: Erin, Unsplash.com

Can hikers embrace their stewardship responsibilities, and accept the responsibility for minimizing their impact on the environment they visit? We are temporary visitors to the trail and its surrounding resources. Many hikers do well adopting Leave No Trace principles to their activities. The Seven Principles are a means of adopting an ethic of stewardship that is focused on ways to limit impacts to the natural environment caused by our presence. This not only applies to keeping food safe for human consumption but also keeping it out of the food chain of all animals.

Approved Bear Canisters Protect Human Food from Bears

Hikers do have some oft-repeated concerns regarding canisters. Hikers should weigh these in view of their respect for the trail’s natural resources:

“Bear canisters can be breached.” In some limited locations (none on the AT yet), certain bears can defeat some canisters. It’s not that surprising—bears are intelligent, resourceful beings, and have unlimited opportunities to experiment. Land managers keep up with what devices are effective and regularly update their regulations accordingly. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) and Yosemite National Park test canisters and other devices and maintain current lists of those that are approved.

 

Well defended. Photo, Allison Nadler

“Bear canisters are heavier than a food bag.” Yes, that is undeniably true. Between 0.07 and 0.09 ounces per cubic inch (or around 38 to 44 ounces for smaller sizes) vs a few ounces of silnylon. Carbon fiber canisters (0.5/0.6 per cu-in) are used by some PCT hikers, but they are pricey. Think about this: a “normal” pack weight for successful AT thru-hikers in 1970 was in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. There are successful thru-hikers now who routinely carry about 20 pounds, mostly thanks to improved materials and lightweight design. One might think that somewhere in that 30-pound difference is room for a few pounds to protect the trail’s resources.

“Bear canisters are too small.” Yes, cramming sufficient calories to get between resupply points into a canister can be challenging, but it is possible with some thoughtful food choices. You might have to eat all of that bag of Doritos on the first day out of town instead of saving it for later. Again, consider the value of the resource. Here’s another great canister loading technique.

“I can use a soft-sided bear bag.” Yes. There are IGBC-approved soft-sided bags on the market. Consider, though, that it needs to be properly secured to substantial objects so the bear can’t just carry it off, and that anything inside will be pretty much pulverized when a bear starts working on it. They are not rodent proof; it’s surprising how small a hole a mouse can get through.

Canisters are efficient. No need to look for a hang or hope you’ll get lucky. No stumbling around the woods with your headlamp looking for a properly constructed tree. No clanging of metal poles in the predawn hours, tangled cables, and you don’t have to put your food bag onto whatever the funk is on the bottom of that bear box. Properly closed, and located according to the canister manufacturer’s directions, you can set it and forget it. They are rodent proof (more hikers report rodents getting to their food than bears). Many are pretty water resistant. Manufacturers warn against leaving a canister at the top of a hill or near water—most recommend wedging them in rocks, brush, or downed trees. Canisters are slippery and smooth, and bears cannot carry them. Bear canisters can be borrowed at White Mountain National Forest ranger stations and headquarters.

Here’s a good summary on AT food storage from ATC.

Resource Protection Is up to You

292 thru/section hikers in ATC’s 2019 hiker survey reported that an animal got their food. About 30% of these responded that rodents were the culprit, and just under 10% reported that bears did it. This survey did not include the countless hikers who were on the AT last year. Less experienced hikers might well have seen a higher rate of food loss.

In the absence of significant manager regulations requiring hikers to use canisters, the decision is really one of how much you value the natural resources of the trail and its surrounding lands. Are you a good steward? Can you minimally modify your gear choices in favor of protecting natural resources? If so, you should strongly consider a canister as part of your AT journey.

For More Info

IGBC

Yosemite approved food storage

ATC

The Trek

BV 500

Garcia Bear-Resistant Container

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Comments 31

  • Kelley S Spencer : Feb 7th

    Very informative! I’m committed to canister usage given to the conservation points given, more than merely protecting food. Will research further. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Cosmo Catalano : Feb 7th

      Thanks for your comment (and commitment) Kelley. Here’s a rough spreadsheet for comparing different canisters:

      https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K9PANU_FJ9LyM0142kPaN_qht3AbhW4Hc5cOg4nJ-KM/edit?usp=sharing

      Cosmo

      Reply
      • David : Feb 7th

        C.C. Have been trying for some time to find a waterproof ,I say again waterproof canister. No joy, Do you have suggestions? Thanks in advance.

        Reply
      • Roxane R. Marek : Feb 8th

        I can not understand why civilized people would want to camp in the wilderness. You are sharing their habitat with them and you have no right to kill them for taking your food. Disgraceful.

        Reply
  • Robert Fitch : Feb 7th

    I think we have plenty of bears and we shouldnt be affraid to cull out the annoying ones.

    Reply
    • Chill Bill : Feb 7th

      I don’t think any animal that’s in its natural element where it’s needs are met is inclined to mess with animals higher up the food chain than itself. That’s just not how it works. These “annoying bears” are a problem we’ve created. I don’t think we can kill our way out of it either, which is true for any thing. We can be smarter about it and I think bear canisters are a smarter way to do it.

      Reply
      • Speedbump : Feb 17th

        I use counterbalance method. No hanging rope. I section hiked AT last spring. After seeing how new hikers didn’t have a clue when hanging bags, I am all for canisters.
        Sad, really sad, because of extra weight to carry. Not fair to those who can hang food properly.
        Won’t be able to carry smaller backpack.

        Reply
    • Chill Bill : Feb 7th

      With that being said,

      I think we have plenty of commenters and we shouldnt be affraid to cull out the annoying ones.

      Reply
  • Danielle : Feb 7th

    Hello, As I section and I am about 1/4th done with the trail now. I agree that bear boxes or poles or anything of that sort is not natural looking but I would appreciate and use those sites more often than the ones that have nothing. I hand my food if there are nothing in place and so far so good. I know a lot of people stealth camp and I wonder if those items were put in place would the sites be more utilized.
    The states that I have completed are GA, some PA, NJ,NY,CT, most of MA and most of NH. Out of all those, we saw the most bears in GA.

    Reply
  • TBR : Feb 7th

    Convinced me.

    Reply
  • Mina Loomis : Feb 7th

    RE: “Manufacturers warn against leaving a canister at the top of a hill or near water—most recommend wedging them in rocks, brush, or downed trees.”

    I thought they recommend *against* wedging because a bear is more likely to be able to get good purchase and leverage to breach a wedged object.

    Reply
    • cosmo : Feb 7th

      I think the amount of wedging you could do would not matter much to the bear–plus the canisters are pretty slippery with no bits that stick out. They are hard to hold onto with hands, let alone claws. You would not want to place it in such a manner that the bear could jump on it like a diving board. The one time I actually saw a bear on a canister, she just batted it around and stood on it a few times–then moved on. It the hilltop and water thing you want to stay away from. I put reflective tape on mine to make it easier to find should get get moved.

      Cosmo

      Reply
  • Beckie : Feb 7th

    Here is the “White Mtn Hang.” After a long day, you secure a site, stare at all those trees which are inches from each other. The ones that have low hanging branches. You finally give up, throw the rope, and say your prayers. I gave up a long time ago and use the bear can. Haven’t done a thru hike, so I don’t know how I’d do, but it sure works great for our 3-4 day trips

    Reply
  • Paul : Feb 7th

    I live right off the AT in Mars Hill, NC. I’ve never through hiked the entire AT but have done many multiday section hikes in the Tennesee and NC area. I’ve never had any problems with bears. In Smokey Mountain National Park, the bears are aggressive. Why? Because they are protected there; no hunting allowed. Conversely, bears are fairly timid along the trail through the Nahalanta, Pisgah, and Cherokee National Forests. Why? Because they are hunted.
    Next point, AT shelters are a boon for bears and other animals. Lots of food and trash that’s easy pickings. I never camp near the shelters for that reason.
    I’m not a fan of hard plastic bear canisters unless absolutely needed … Yosemite, Shining Rock Wilderness, ..

    Reply
  • Richard Guenther : Feb 7th

    We are in bear territory when we hike many portions of the AT. So it is our responsibility to make sure we are taking the necessary steps to keep it that way. If people don’t protect their food properly it will make the bears unable to fend for themselves and become too accustomed to getting food from people. Not a good outcome.

    Reply
  • Dewitt Beeler : Feb 7th

    Just for the record, the guy whose leg was bitten through his tent in the Smokies was not sleeping with his food. That doesn’t change your point, of course, but I remember the poor guy trying to stop the social media machine (to no avail) reporting that he had done something to attract the bear.

    Reply
  • Mick : Feb 7th

    Put in a good solid bear box at every shelter. This would be the best solution IMHO. Making hikers carry bear canisters the entire length of the AT is a way to save money for the ATC but will not be convenient for anyone, other than the ATC. 6 months carrying a bear canister is not a viable option.

    Reply
    • Cosmo : Feb 8th

      Here’s the official definition of the Trail from it’s key planning document: “The Appalachian Trail is a way, continuous from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, for travel on foot through the wild, scenic, wooded, pastoral, and culturally significant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. It is a means of sojourning among these lands, such that the visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.”

      Nothing in there about convenience. Also, keeping bear boxes free of trash is a considerable effort at some locations. It’s not ATC who pays for Trail infrastructure, it’s volunteer clubs and the Feds.

      Reply
    • TBR : Feb 11th

      I avoid the shelters, so the bear boxes wouldn’t help me.

      Carrying a bear canister is a viable option for me.

      Reply
  • Platypus : Feb 7th

    Hey! Where can I find the results of the hiker survey? I’m working on a food storage research project. Great article and thanks!!

    Reply
  • AW : Feb 8th

    I’m on the west coast, so I use a bear canister (where it’s required). As much as I hate to carry it, I do enjoy the ease of using it. If I ever make it out to the AT, I was planning on using an Ursack Allmitey. It is both bear and rodent proof. It’s still a whopping 13oz, but still less than a third of what a canister weighs (unless you spring for the carbon fiber ones$$$). The downside is it’s nearly twice as expensive as the BV500 and has 50cu in less capacity. Furthermore, you’re food isn’t crush proof unless you add the Ursack bear bag liner for another $40 and 10.8 oz. Hmmm….maybe I’ll just stick with the canister.

    Reply
  • Hank Markison : Feb 8th

    This is an issue that I’ve seen coming for a while. When I was on the trail in ’18 (and saw it as well during my trips to BWCA) it was evident that a large number of the 4500 people (the last figure that I saw) that attempt the trail are relative rookies and either don’t know or don’t care about LNT principles, or don’t know or don’t care about dealing with wildlife. Now that thru hiking the AT is so very hip the numbers making the attempt are large and likely to increase. So, at least one of several things has to change, either a massive amount of education, probably connected to limitations about who can attempt the trail, or we all start carrying bear cannisters and possibly bear spray. During my first trial hike in Georgia, I spent the night at the Cheese Factory site and most of the people already there had their food bags hung in the crotch of a tree about head height. People’s ignorance, laziness, or lack of give-a-shit will end up making it more difficult for the rest of us.

    Reply
    • TBR : Feb 11th

      True!

      Reply
  • Al : Feb 12th

    Why does this article not talk about the ursack? Also who cares if there is a bear box at an established camp site? It’s a hecking established camp site, so chances are, their is going to be other signs of human use,which are uglier than a structure preventing innocent wild life from being slaughtered. Too expensive? Make all these doods sleeping in a zpacks duplex pay a fee to thru hike the trail. This is a lot of people’s backyards you are talking about. I sure as heck don’t want to add this much to my base weight because someone thinks it’s fine to hang a food bag 5 feet off the ground. If you have a ursack and more bear boxes this should solve the problem. If your food gets crushed in a ursack, suck the crumbs up and walk out. You want to camp in a true “stealth” site consistent with LNT, buy a ursack or learn how to properly hang a bear bag and make sure you have daylight to do so.

    Reply
    • Mark Stanavage : Feb 14th

      Knew a woman with an ursack, had food ,stove, trash in it, had the “smell-proof” liner too. Didn’t matter. Nor did the boy scout troop, 5 army rangers and 10 hikers yelling. Mr. Bear saw it, got it out of the tree and walked off with it.

      Reply
  • Switchback6 : Feb 14th

    More shelters need bear boxes, much like the ones I’ve seen throughout the MA section and elsewhere. This would go a long way toward solving the problem.

    Reply
  • BillB : Feb 14th

    A big part of the problem is the whole “designated campsite” issue. Critters have become habituated because the food is always there. If you are building a shelter, attaching a locker to it does not seem like much of a “scar on the wilderness”. I have backpacked all over the country and I use an Ursack with an Opsak and nothing has ever messed with it, even on the AT. The reality is that lots of people do a crap job of securing their food and bears some times pay the price.

    Reply
  • Shocktop : Feb 14th

    So, got a bear boxer canister. Other than reevaluating balance in my pack, not a big deal. So much nicer to drop the thing rather struggle with cords, trees.

    Reply
  • bo : Feb 15th

    I don’t understand, every time I ask a question about bears or mention it on any forum or on the trail all I get is “they are not a problem”. So either they are or they are not but all hikers out there tell me they are not and not to worry about them.

    Reply
    • Cosmo : Feb 15th

      Hi Bo,
      At present, the odds are still in your favor–if you consider the entire A.T. The trend, however is that more bears are visiting more sites. Even though your personal experience would vary, depending on the intersection of your hiking schedule and a bear’s ongoing search for food, the idea is to reduce the overall opportunity for bears to access human food. It’s similar to other A.T. use issues–the sheer quantity of Trail visitors means that the aggregate effect is large, even though an individual’s actions might seem minor. Since hiking on the A.T. is essentially free and generally unregulated (there are no quotas or even a competency/knowledge requirement–thank goodness), preserving the Trail experience relies on hikers of all levels of skill to be good stewards of the Trail by protecting its resources.

      Reply

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