Bear Canisters on the Appalachian Trail: What You Need To Know

With the ATC strongly recommending the use of bear canisters between Springer Mountain and Damascus, we wanted to examine the most important question on this topic: Why?

Is it a chair? Is it cumbersome and inconvenient? Is it a form of stewardship? Maybe it’s all of those things, but it is definitely called a bear canister.

The idea of bear canisters being used while overnighting along the Appalachian Trail is a hard sell. It’s easy to name all the cons. However, there are some pros, or long-term factors, that might make bear canisters worth the compromise.

1. It’s not all about hiker safety. The whole conversation started in an effort to protect wildlife and with conservation and preservation in mind. Canisters are just a more effective means of keeping human food away from any wildlife. If animals come in contact with a hiker’s food, the “wild” in wilderness is compromised.

2. It’s heralded as indestructible. Even if a bear manages to get ahold of it, there’s no reward for toying with it. Bear bags are hanging bait. They invite bear encounters. When bears are successful with one, they will keep trying for others. Once they do get a bag of food, it can be ripped to shreds in no time.

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3. Bear bag hanging injury aversion. Recently, a Wilderness First Aid course used “bear hang injury” as a training scenario. It’s always better to err on the side of not throwing rocks or heavy objects around.

4. The act of hanging a bear bag can damage the tree. While this may seem like a tree-hugger factor to point out, it’s quite important. There’s a reason Americans have wilderness in which to go romp around. It’s because our government took steps to protect it with the Wilderness Act of 1964. Visitors should treat our wilderness areas and footpaths with respect and with a lense of preservation.

5. Saves time. Hanging a bear bag takes up a lot of time. The extra 30 minutes a day could equal up to an extra mile or more on the trail. It could mean the difference between stealth camping and making it to a shelter that night.

6. Opens up new locations for camp. Maybe a hiker did not consider when selecting a campsite whether there would be an adequate tree to hang a bear bag.

7. When it rains, it pours. Surely no one likes a wet food bag in the morning or hanging up a bear bag in the rain.

8. Get ahead for future adventures. There are several other long-distance trails for which a bear canister is recommend or required. Two examples are the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail.

9. Top answer on Family Feud. Bear Canisters make excellent camp chairs. Many think so. Perhaps there’s excess weight to shed off a pack to accommodate the extra pounds. Getting rid of extra rope or line to hang the bag is a start.

Know anymore pros? Please comment with answers.

 



More thoughts from hikers and Appalachian Trail leadership

Kyle ‘Titan’ Williams, an ultralight backpacker, trail runner and AT and PTC through hiker, weighed in on the issue of bear canisters.

“They are heavy,” Williams said. “It’s going to be very tough to convince AT hikers to use them.”

David Underwood, ATC trail crew leader, correlates any added restrictions on hikers to a measurement system for the level of overall hiker compassion for the natural beauty they experience.

“The bigger issue is stewardship,” he said. “Bear canisters are unwieldy and requiring them is an affront of my personal freedom. Having said that, I do recognize that until stewardship increases then the bear canister might just have to be authorized because too many bears suffer the consequences of the you’re-not-the-boss-of-me hiker, whether that is a through hiker or not. I do not want to see the wilderness suffer more than necessary.”

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Nick ‘Alpine Monkey’ Bernaiche, AT thru hiker, plans to look into using one for future adventures like the PCT.

“For the PCT or CDT I would probably have one even though they’re so bulky,” Bernaiche said.

Hawk Metheny, Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s New England Regional Director, took time to advocate for the use of bear canisters.

“We will have analyzed systems for keeping hiker food away from wildlife,” Metheny said. “There are various methods out there from a rope hang to bear boxes. Bear canisters are easy to use and quick and convenient. They are highly effective.”

Metheny does not recommend sleeping with the bear canisters.

“They should be set outside of the immediate camping area,” he said.

Another factor not considered at first glance is the transfer of cost from the park and trail manager programs to the visitor.

“Another cost for bear boxes or poles is long-term maintenance of the system,” he said. “We also have to factor in visitor compliance. Bear cans are becoming increasingly more popular on other trails and in some cases are required. We are foremost looking for solutions that equally protect the resource, in this case wildlife, and the visitor.”

If the price of canisters scares hikers, Metheny also recommends borrowing a friend’s canister before buying it or perhaps looking into renting one.

The ATC does not promote one product over the other, but in Metheny’s experience the BV500 is a good choice. It costs roughly $75.

In this same regard, Bernaiche said he dreams of a collapsable canister one day. Unless he happens to meet a materials expert and a generous donor, he said that idea is up for grabs.

Until then, this transition on the AT is going to require some patience.

“There are enough benefits to justify it,” Metheny said. “We understand that this will require a transitional period and education. We’ve got to get past this hurdle.”

A few recommended bear canisters:

Canister Call! What canister brand/type do you use? Share in the comments!

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Comments 22

  • Josh : Feb 26th

    another bonus: no pesky mice or other smaller critters getting your food either!

    thank you for making this post. I think it’s important that bear canisters become more widespread and become a regular part of the backpacking community, especially on the AT where there are more and more hikers each year. I have talked myself out and then back into carrying a bear canister at least five times now and have finally just accepted the weight! the benefits “outweigh” the potential impact of not having one

    Reply
  • Anna Winders : Feb 26th

    So, I just watched the video on the BV500. Has anyone used the notches on the side to help secure it to the outside of their pack? In essence, I don’t see it adding as much weight as inconvenience because of the shape, but I definitely want to get one. I agree with the one comment about making it collapsible. How awesome would that be? I am guessing, though, the material required would add a considerable amount of weight. I am just really wondering how realistic it is to plan on strapping it to the pack instead of inside of it.

    Reply
  • Tom Bebee : Feb 26th

    I have two bear canisters. The original (Garcia Machine Backpackers Cache) was purchased quite a while ago when it became a requirement to carry a canister in the Eastern High Peaks of the Adirondacks. The Bear Vault was not approved for that area because at the time there was a bear that could open the Bear Vaults. There is no denying that a canister is heavier and less flexible for packing, than just using a dry bag or Ursack. However, learning to pack it efficiently (filling unused space with non-food items) and addressing some of the excess weight in the “big three” makes it plausible to carry in my opinion. I got used to carrying it and found the benefits of this were – no more worrying about rodents getting at the food, not needing to spend time trying to hang a bag after dinner and cleanup was over, and it does furnish a good seat. I found myself using even one even when required. I was fortunate to receive a Wild Ideas Weekender and use that now, loaning out my Garcia to friends who go with me. Both canisters are top notch, but the Weekender does provide some weight savings. Unless some unusual circumstance would preclude my fitting the canister in my pack load (talking about volume consumed in the pack – not weight), then I would use the bear canister every time.

    Reply
    • Tom Bebee : Mar 4th

      Correction: “I found myself using even one even when required” should read “I found myself using one even when not required”. Saw this when I checked to see other comments. Self editing has it’s pit falls :-).

      Reply
  • Judy Hirschman : Feb 26th

    Last year, i opened myself up to potential ridicule and bought a bearvault 500. I still have a very nice carabiner stuck in a tree somewhere in Harriman state park, where it lodged when i tried to put up my bear hang.
    Usually i am stupid tired by the time i camp , and the time a canister saves is significant- also, i whole heartedly agree about stewardship. Most bear hangs that i have seen are done very poorly and I certainly do not want to be the cause of a bear losing its life because i was sloppy with my food storage.
    The canister has also helped me organize my food in a much more efficient manner.
    The time time and convenience far out weigh the weight factor and i don’t care if i hike a little slower, since i have that extra half hour to forty- five minutes to actually hike.
    I can get about a week’s worth of food, toiletries, etc in the bear vault and since i generally do warm weather hiking, it fits easily into my 50 liter pack.

    Reply
  • Leslie : Feb 26th

    I hate extra weight, but I’m fully on board with using a canister where it is needed. I hiked with one last September on the Art Loeb trail and it really wasn’t that bad. The resistance to this just isn’t justified when you consider the necessitate of keeping the wild, wild.

    Reply
  • Shelley : Feb 27th

    Too bad canisters can’t be rented in Georgia & returned in Damascus. If hikers could do this for a small fee, they might be more likely to use them.

    Reply
  • Scott : Feb 29th

    So I agree with Shelley’s comment above – you’d think renting canisters would be a good business opportunity for someone. That being said, when I first started looking into this trek I kind of got the impression that the bear canister wasn’t a “nice to have”, but rather a requirement. So, I went ahead and bought the BV450 and worked around it. Sure, an extra 2.5 Lb’s isn’t nice, but I’ve figured out the best way to pack and load the thing so think it’ll be OK – after all, you have to keep your food in something so there’s the organization plus as well.

    However, I find it odd, that on this site as well as a couple of others that I follow, that I have yet to see a single person who posts their gear list show that bear vault laid out on the bed or on the list. Why is that? If the main point is to protect the bears/wildlife (vice saving a few bucks worth of food), it only works if everyone does it. If I’m at a shelter with 15 other folks, and only a couple have vaults (or heck, maybe only me) – what’s the point?

    If it’s mandatory, it should be for everyone –

    Reply
  • mOg : Feb 29th

    I was 100% against it at first but I had to get one since some of the places I was going required it. No I carry it on every trip. I use an old school Jansport 90 external frame pack and I carry the canister at the bottom where most people strapped tents or bags. I use an elastic cargo net that is made for use on a motorcycle and it secures it tightly in seconds. In camp it serves like as a table between our camp chairs. I cant’t imagine not having it now

    Reply
  • Jim : Feb 29th

    It’s not clear to me why the Ursack is not sufficient… Fully bear-resistant and approved by land managers, lighter weight, compressible/packable. Seems like the best compromise. Any insights from folks?

    Reply
    • Tom Bebee : Mar 4th

      When needed (ie: lack of pack volume available for canister) I have used a Ursack and never had a problem. However, while on trips I have encountered several other hikers that also used the bear resistant Ursack and although there were no bear problems, mice had chewed a hole is their bags. If I am going to be hiking basically shelter to shelter (usually mice are abundant), if I can fit the bear canister, that is my preference. For trips where you are mostly stealth camping, the Ursack is a good choice though in my opinion.

      Reply
  • chris : Feb 29th

    URSACK! The only reason they are not legal in USFS land is politics. The bear cans are far from indestructible, as a matter of fact the BV comes with a warning that they do not work in the cascades. I carried a BV on a PCT thru hike. Never again. Ursack, all the way. The problem is you have to properly use it. Bear cans are outdated, heavy, prices of garbage.

    Reply
    • William Hamilton : Nov 9th

      Agree ursack only one I use

      Reply
    • William Hamilton : Nov 9th

      Agree ursack only one I use odor bags inside never had a problem

      Reply
  • John Edward Hsrris : Feb 29th

    I own and use the BV450. When I took a LNT Master Educator course in SNp we used both best cannisters and hanging bear bags.

    Reply
  • Dawn : Mar 1st

    It’s not required currently except for 5 miles of the trail. I will hang and use an odor-proof bag inside my hang bag. Uncertain if I’ll go for OpSak or BaseCamp bag (that bag has gotten quite good reviews on amazon, is much lighter and cheaper)

    My base weight is under 9, really prefer not to have the extra weight and space in my pack.

    I feel like a better use of my time and money (wait, I hardly have any!) would be to encourage others to hang properly.
    Anyway, my thoughts as a hiker (T-30!)

    Reply
  • Angela G : Mar 24th

    Very informative post and I appreciated reading the comments. In some places like Yosemite, hanging food is actually illegal. Also, bear containers only work if they’re closed and locked. So be sure yours is locked up even though you’re around not too far from it. You never know…

    Reply
  • Lisa pilkinton : Apr 6th

    I have a bear canister, 3 weeks in, it’s really fine, it’s not that much weight added and I feel happy that I know I am doing my best for myself, the bears, everyone around me and the longevity of the trail. I also follow all leave no trace principles. There’s enough irrisponsible and selfish people on the trail, I will not count myself as one of them!

    Reply
  • William Hamilton : Nov 9th

    Ursack major bullet proof spectra fabric 8 oz I think it is

    Reply
  • twinnriver : Mar 22nd

    Save a bear
    Carry a can

    Reply
  • Doctari : Jul 16th

    After what the ATC did to Earl Shaffer*, ANY advice from them is suspect! And now they are using his name, after defaming it, to promote themselves.
    I have to ask “Why are they encouraging bear canisters?” It can’t be to protect the Bears, so what is in it for them.

    *They clamed Earl was NOT the first thru hiker. in an all caps headline, clamed a man whom “NO ONE knew he had hiked the AT” The ATCs words. Not family, not friends, no record at all, hiked before Earl. Then, after Earl died a very small apology, near the back of their newsletter. Now, no mention of the “Real first thru hiker” is made.

    Sorry if I offend, & I must say Earl forgave them. He is a better man than I!

    Reply

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