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.
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?
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.
“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 of 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.
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