Bear canisters, Ursacks, or bear bags on the Appalachian Trail?

As I dial in what I’ll be carrying on my backpack from Springer Mountain in April, one type of gear I’ve been having trouble deciding on is bear proof nighttime food storage. Should I use a bear bag, Ursack, or canister? I’ve backpacked with all three, and all have their advantages and disadvantages. 

I’m not going to discuss the option of merely sleeping with food beside me, in my tent or shelter. Such practices may be acceptable in areas where bears aren’t found – although you still face the considerable risk of pilferage by smaller scavengers – but they can be a death sentence to a bear if it’s attracted to your unprotected foods.

A food-habituated bear is a dead bear

I’ve witnessed firsthand how irresponsible food storage leads to a dead bear. A few years ago at Philmont Scout Camp near Cimarron, New Mexico, a stupid parent decided that all the education we’d gotten about safe food storage didn’t apply to him. He left some food in his tent and, sure enough, a bear smelled it and ransacked the tent, ripping through the nylon and netting.

After learning how tents were a source of food, the bear couldn’t resist returning to camp and destroying a few other tents. I even saw the bear being chased around the camp by brave staffers. One night the bear tried to enter a tent in which a 13-year-old scout was sleeping alone, even though this scout had properly stored his food and there were no food items or smellables in the tent. The scout made a racket and pushed against the bear, and luckily escaped injury as the bear moved away. The next day the camp got permission from wildlife authorities to euthanize the bear, and we all heard the shots ring out as a trapper ended the poor, inquisitive bear’s life. 

It was a terrible situation that could easily have been avoided. Protecting your food from bears is essential – not just for your safety but for that of the bears.

Bear bags

Bear bagBy far the most common type of food storage I’ve encountered in the backcountry is bear bagging: using lightweight bags and thin rope to hang your food and other smellables from a tree.

Bear bags are the lightest option by far. A large, waterproof bear bag, lightweight rope and a mini carabiner can weigh under 3 ounces. I’ve opted to buy a Dyneema bear bag, Dyneema rock bag, slick rope, and a mini locking carabiner. I used this setup over 11 days on Colorado’s Collegiate Loop without problems. But there’s no reason you can’t use a cheaper bag as long as it’s durable and your food is kept in a waterproof inner bag.

For added safety, I’ve always used a smell proof Loksak plastic bag inside the bear bag, hoping that bears and critters would be less likely to be attracted to my food. As it was, I’ve never seen or heard any signs of animals snooping around my bag.

Bear bagging has one big problem: how to do the actual hanging. In campgrounds in some places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are permanent, wire hanging apparatuses so you can just clip your bag to a wire and hoist it up. But in most places you’ll have to scout out a tree with a suitable branch: one that’s high enough and sticks out far enough so that you can throw your rock bag over a branch, hoist up your food bag, and tie it off.

Why a rock bag? You don’t necessarily have to have one – you can try to tie your line around a rock – but a bag allows you to easily collect enough small pebbles for throw weight.

Why thin “bear bag” specific line? I’ve seen two cases where standard paracord has gotten stuck in a tree. Paracord somehow gets snagged easier in tree bark and branches. Slick Dyneema line seems to be less prone to this hazard, and also weighs less.

In many cases it’s impossible to find the perfect tree, and that’s where knowing how to do a “two-tree hang” is very handy. You throw a line over one branch, and then throw the end of the line over a branch in another nearby tree, secure the ends of the lines, and then clip your bear bag to the center of the line between the two trees. It’s much easier to watch this being done on YouTube than trying to explain it in writing.

Another technique that’s important to master is the “PCT hang.” This method of hanging food doesn’t require you to tie off one end of the rope on a tree, and was invented when Pacific Crest Trail hikers noticed that bears were learning how to unfasten the end of the rope. Again, it’s much easier for you to watch a video than for me to attempt to describe this method in writing.

Of course, don’t hang your bear bag close to your campsite. You don’t want inquisitive bears to be tramping around your tent in the middle of the night.

Check around carefully for any smellables before you hoist your bag up. This includes toothpaste, sunscreen, snacks – whether or not they’re already opened – and used wrappers. I even like to put my spoon and food/coffee mug in my bear bag. I can’t count how many times I’ve hoisted and secured the bag only to realize I still had a smellable item on the ground. 

Whichever bear bagging methods you prefer, it’s very important that you practice them before hitting the trail. You don’t want to start learning how to hang a bear bag in the cold, wind, rain and dark. While hiking remote trails in the high Sierras in the 1980s, I nearly got konked in the head when I heaved a rock with a line attached to it as hard as I could. I lost the rock in the sun and it came crashing down within inches of my head. If I’d been hit on my skull, my bleached bones would probably still be out in the Sierras somewhere.

The Ursack

UrsackThe Ursack is a great invention that bridges the gap between bear bags and canisters. While substantially heavier than an entire bear bag setup, the Ursack is much easier to secure. You simply tie the sack to a sturdy tree.

Actually, there are videos worth studying so that you make sure you properly close the Ursack and tie it to a tree. A standard square knot won’t withstand a hungry bear’s pulls.

You do need to tie the Ursack to a tree, and well away from your tent. If you just keep the Ursack in your tent or on the ground at your campsite, a bear can easily take it away.

In addition, an Ursack is close to worthless without also using a smell proof inner bag such as a Loksak. (The 12” x 20” Loksak fits an Ursack Major XL well.) Otherwise you’ve just created a chew toy for a bear.

The biggest downside to an Ursack is that it is reachable by a bear, and even if a bear can’t get to your food it can crush and chew up the bag and everything in it. It can also be hard to find a sturdy tree in some places.

I’ve used the Ursack on numerous backpacking trips including on my Colorado Trail thru-hike. I never saw any signs that it had been disturbed. 

Bear canisters

Bear canisterThe most foolproof method of protecting your food and smellables – although at substantial weight and bulk penalties – is a bear canister. I’ve got a 500cc BearVault and have used it on a week-long section hike of the Colorado Trail.

What to like about the canister? It’s simple. You can use it as a camp stool. It’s the most bombproof method of food protection against all types of critters. It works even if there aren’t trees around.

What’s not to like? It’s heavy: almost two pounds heavier than an Ursack let alone a bear bag. If you’re using a BearVault it’s a bit of a hassle to open unless you learn the credit card hack. (Definitely learn it!) It can be hard to fit into or on top of your backpack. And did I mention that it’s heavy?

Some backpackers have found that strapping a canister filled with food to the top of their backpack causes the pack to be top-heavy and uncomfortable. Instead, they’ve kept their food farther down in their pack – in a Loksak or trash bag – and just strapped the empty canister to the top of their pack, transferring the food into the canister at the end of the day.

It’s important to stow your canister away from your tent site at night. Pick out a place where you can keep the canister from being rolled off a cliff or into water. You can put some reflective tape on your canister to make it easier to find at night.

So … what method will I use on the BMT?

Bears definitely frequent the terrain crossed by the Benton MacKaye Trail: a trail that roughly parallels and occasionally crosses the southernmost 200 miles or so of the Appalachian Trail. I’m an older guy with knees I need to coddle, so while I love the simplicity of a canister I just can’t afford the added weight. (There’s one short section of the BMT where you have to use a canister at camp; I’ll just avoid stopping there.) 

I’ve been torn between the Ursack and the bear bag, but I think I’m probably going to go with the bear bag. For me, with all the elevation gain and loss on the BMT, the lighter weight of the bear bag carries the day. And while I may need to use two-tree hangs, there are plenty of trees along the BMT and the AT. 

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Comments 12

  • Myrt, a Yoga Sister : Feb 14th

    I really loved reading on this topic as I frequently debate and redebate these options, too! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience!

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 15th

      Thank you, Myrt! It’s fun how there are certain topics in hiking that inspire continuing discussion: food protection, bears, tents versus hammocks, ultralight versus comfort, toilet paper versus bidets …

  • Barrett Deisher : Feb 14th

    Excellent breakdown. I’m still undecided on what I’m taking this year, but I’m drifting towards the bear can just for simplicity sake. I have a shakedown next week and one more before I step off, hopefully it’ll get easier to decide.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 15th

      A shakedown’s a great idea – I’ll be doing the same thing. Happy trails!

  • Chris aka Han slolo : Feb 14th

    I have a self made aluminum bear canister that I used on the Colorado trail. To address the issue of it being knocked away I attached a hardened swivels to the canister and purchased some stainless steel cable, I then loop it around a tree or other fixed anchor. I wasn’t happy with commercial canisters , mostly because of odd sizes that wouldn’t work with my Stratos 50 liter pack. (7-1/2″ x 15-1/2″) diameter easily Leaves plenty of room for all of the essentials.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 14th

      Wow – how cool! Do you have any photos or video of it online? If so can you post a link? Would love to see it.

      • Chris aka Han slolo : Feb 14th

        I’m not sure how to attach photos to this comment section, but my email is attached and if you email directly I will send you some photos. Chris

  • George Preiss : Feb 14th

    This was a great post, Rolf! I checked out a few of your others and came away feeling like I learned a lot from you today… thanks!

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 15th

      Thank you so much, George! I’ve learned so much from others including The Trek’s online articles and guests on Backpacker Radio, and it’s a fun creative outlet to try to give back.

  • Mama Bear : Feb 16th

    I hiked the BMT last Oct/Nov, it was a great hike, lots of solitude but water was scarce in some stretches. I never had a problem finding trees for bear hangs. Enjoy

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 20th

      This is really good to know. Thanks!

  • Jenna : Mar 6th

    As a former Philmont staffer I’ve become very custom to hanging bear bags and have lived through many of those situations you described at the beginning of your article. I found this very helpful as I am looking at the bear cannister or the ursak for thru-hiking the AT next year.


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