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.
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.”
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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