Bear Canisters: Which Fit in Which Packs, Where You Need Them, and How to Pack One
The following is a sponsored post brought to you by Gossamer Gear.
Who likes food? Yeah, me too. You know who else likes food? Bears. If your next backcountry trip takes you into bear habitat, it may be necessary to pack a bear canister, the scourge of ultralight backpackers everywhere.
There is no escaping them on the Sierra section of a PCT thru-hike. They’re required seasonally on the AT between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap in Georgia, and there are plenty of reasons to carry them further. And a terrifying amount of the northern CDT passes through grizzly habitat.
Heavy, unwieldy, and requiring better-than-average thumb dexterity, the same features that make these hard-sided cylinders a tough nut for bears to crack also make them a PITA to pack efficiently in a backpack. And with such a wide variety of canisters and backpacks on the market, knowing what will fit in what is not a given.
Fortunately, there’s always a solution. With just a touch of care and patience, packing a bear canister need not be a daily puzzle. And remember, protecting your food and protecting bears’ lives is worth the effort.
Get Over It
The first step to achieving a comfortable carry of a bear canister is to accept it. Understand that your plastic barrel was not invented to ruin your vacation. There is no sinister motive to push your base weight from three to 75 pounds. No, they’re designed to save the lives of bears. When we hike, we’re entering their domain. And when humans screw up, bears die.
Any idea how many blueberries (do bears even eat blueberries?) it takes to equal the caloric content of a single Clif Bar? I don’t know either, but I do know that there’s a reason I pack the latter and forego foraging for the former. Even buying that many berries in the supermarket would destroy my burrito budget for the month.
Bears are smart. They want our people food more than we do. While we’re guests in their home, it’s our job to not let them have it. Otherwise, we risk not only hungry stomachs but—more importantly—their lives. So remember why bear canisters are necessary. That’s what I try to do when I feel a hard-plastic edge digging into my kidney as I sweat up a set of switchbacks.
Bonus Benefits of a Bear Canister
It’s not all about protecting your food from bears and vice versa. Bear canisters offer many other benefits to the responsible backpacker. Here are some of my favorites:
- Protection from smaller varmints: Marmots, mice, squirrels, and chipmunks all like people food as much as bears and they’ll chew through just about anything to get it. They don’t care that your backpack cost $250. They’re perforation masters who delight in rendering an entire gallon of carrot cake Oreos no longer fit for consumption (and yes, I can hold a grudge). However, hard-sided canisters are impenetrable. Keep your precious Oreos secret and safe.
- Protection from rain: Numerous times on the CDT, I hid my food bag a safe distance from camp in the evening only to find it heavy and rain-sodden the next morning. Sometimes it wouldn’t dry out for days. Bear canisters beat the rain. The plastic dries with a wipe before packing it away for the day.
- Camp furniture: I am much too cool to carry a camp chair when I backpack. My ego would never allow it. Following bear canister regulations inadvertently forces me to carry a comfy place to sit. Turns out, I don’t actually like sitting in the dirt as much as I claim, and won’t if I don’t have to. My Gossamer Gear backpack includes a removable sit pad that elevates comfort to the next level.
- Muscle roller: Tight hamstrings, calves, and IT bands beware. A canister also makes for a passable and painful version of a foam roller. Good for a campsite stretch session.
Where are bear canisters required?
Unlike checkers, it’s complicated. Regulations are set by land managers and, as a result, vary widely. It’s confusing and frustrating to find this information. Unless you’re afraid of talking to humans, it’s probably easiest just to call the managing ranger station of wherever you’re headed.
If you’re headed to the AT, PCT, or CDT, here’s a rundown of the relevant bear canister requirements:
Although the only stretch of trail where a bear canister is required is for those camping between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap in Georgia, the ATC points out that “black bears live or pass through almost all parts of the Appalachian Trail corridor,” and recommends carrying a bear canister for the full length of the AT. Get the latest updates from the ATC here: LINK
Pacific Crest Trail
Overnight backpackers and equestrians are required to carry bear canisters for roughly 330 miles of the PCT, all in California. Per the PCTA, “carry canisters between Kennedy Meadows (mile 702) in the south and Sonora Pass (mile 1017) in the north and then again in Lassen Volcanic National Park (mile 1343-1363). We also strongly recommend carrying a bear canister in Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe.” That information and updates from the PCTA can be found here: LINK
Continental Divide Trail
Though the CDT runs through over 1,000 miles of grizzly habitat in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, bear canisters are only officially required if camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hanging food or using the provided bear boxes is required in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Additionally, hanging food or using bear canisters is required in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Bridger Teton NF, Shoshone NF, and near some roads in the Collegiate Range in Colorado. This info was pulled from the excellent CDT Planning Guide provided by the CDTC, which can be downloaded here: LINK
Which bear canisters are approved?
So you figured out that you’re required to carry a canister. It probably needs to be certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). Most commercially available bear-resistant canisters are on that list, but it’s important to note that while the stuff sack-like Ursack does have IGBC’s blessing, it is not universally accepted as adequate by land managers. Yosemite National Park is conspicuously absent from the list of those in favor and, if backpacking in the California Sierra, the best bet is to carry a canister that’s approved by the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) in addition to IGBC. See what I mean by confusing? The phone is your friend here. Don’t be afraid to dial the number for the specific ranger station that has jurisdiction in the area you’re headed.
Which bear canister is right for you?
There are several brands of bear canisters and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The two most popular options (and the two that I have used) are the Garcia Bear-Resistant Container, and the BearVault BV500 Food Container, 10-liter and 11.5-liter capacity respectively. Each of these will hold about a week’s worth of food for a single hiker, but that can vary greatly between individuals.
I became familiar with the Garcia by renting it many times at California ranger stations before buying one of my own to be a home for my backcountry bumper stickers, which prove how cool I am. I’ve since used the BV500 and appreciate the transparent plastic, but hate the finicky opening system on cold mornings, probably because my thumbs are weaker than average. Neither of these canisters is perfect and I don’t prefer one over the other. They are similar enough by just about every metric, including price and weight, that I recommend trying them (and others) out at the store to uncover your hidden preference.
Go smaller and lighter.
If you’re planning a shorter trip, the Bare Boxer is the smallest IGBC and SIBBG approved canister available. With a 4.5-liter capacity, it holds about three days of food and weighs significantly less than the BV500 (27oz vs. 41oz). It fits either horizontally or vertically in just about any backpack making packing it away an afterthought.
For middle-of-the-pack capacity, BearVault also makes the 7.2-liter BV450 Food Container, which is good for about four days, although it doesn’t save you a ton of weight (eight ounces) over the big guy.
It’s not just your food.
Regardless of which bear canister you hate the least like the best, the most important consideration is that it fits in everything that it needs to fit. Duh, sounds obvious right? Well, it’s not just your food that smells yummy to bears. Lip balm, sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, wet wipes, sanitizer, and trash all smell good enough to eat to wild critters. Heck, some lip balms are yummy enough to eat! Don’t ask me how I know.
Yes, ALL scented things need to fit in your bear canister every night—even the first one. And don’t forget to stuff other gear into your canister as your food supply dwindles over the course of your trip. No need to carry around dead space.
Few Bear Canisters, Many Backpacks
I’m impressed by how many bear-resistant, plastic barrels are on the market today. For something that absolutely zero people like using, we have more choices than ever before. I might even go so far as to say that we live in a Golden Age of bear-resistant food storage options.
However, compared with the number of different backpacks on the market, the bear canister industry is puny. A bear canister is a bear canister, a hard-plastic cylinder. It’s the backpack that will either swallow it whole or make you feel like you’re wrestling with a small hippopotamus.
A backpack’s capacity, given here in liters (L), indicates a lot about how easily a canister will fit inside. Although just about any overnight backpack will be able to fit a BV500 or Garcia vertically (in addition to smaller canisters), how much useable storage space is left can vary dramatically based on overall capacity. Carrying a canister horizontally is another option, and only the biggest packs can carry the big canisters in this configuration. Let’s break it down to see how different packs, spanning a range from cavernous load-hauler to ultralight frameless, interface with different bear canisters.
More Than 60 Liters
Big packs with carrying capacity above 60L are great for hauling big loads. They eat bear canisters for breakfast, sometimes more than one. They have no trouble fitting a canister vertically and many will even carry them horizontally. These packs will make a canister disappear and still leave a ton of space for spare clothes and camp luxuries.
Packs in this range are great for long trips in bear country. A bear canister won’t leave a ton of space for extras in the main pocket, but with carefully chosen gear, a backpack like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa will be easy to pack for Tetris masters and rubes alike. This makes it a popular choice for PCT thru-hikers with a pared-down gear list who need a comfortable pack that can handle huge food carries through bear territory.
A bear canister feels downright intrusive in a backpack this small. It is definitely the elephant in the (small) room. That said, for the minimalist, a canister will fit comfortably with practice. The Gossamer Gear Gorilla, like the Mariposa, is an excellent choice for the PCT and other trips where bear canisters are an unavoidable inconvenience. A BV500 slides in vertically and the extension collar makes sure that there is still plenty of room for favorite layers and easy-access items.
It might be a challenge to get a full-sized bear canister in anything smaller than a 40L backpack. At that point it’s best to contact the pack manufacturer directly. Even if the canister doesn’t fit inside, it might be possible to strap it on the outside. Though I’ve never seen one in person, reviews indicate that the Gossamer Gear Kumo 36 will carry a canister internally.
Backpacks lacking a frame will carry a bear canister too. These packs tend to be on the smaller size because of the inherent limitation on how much they can comfortably carry. Packing a frameless backpack is an art, and I’ve found that adding the rigid structure of a canister actually makes it easier. My Gossamer Gear G4-20 fits a canister vertically and, like the Gorilla, still has plenty of space left for non-food items around and above it by virtue of the roll-top extension collar. The removable foam back panel does the job of keeping the hard plastic off of my vertebra in addition to being a comfortable sit pad during breaks.
Another Way to Look At It
The 60L Mariposa and even larger backpacks are sure bets to interface well with the BV500 for longer trips. The smaller size of the BV450 makes it a natural fit for mid-sized packs like the 40L Gorilla, while the Bare Boxer is a great choice for the minimalist who can move quickly between resupply points toting a small, or even frameless backpack like the G4-20. Of course, the Mariposa will also fit a Bare Boxer or BV450 for short trips. Conversely, a BV500 will shimmy into the G4-20 if it absolutely has to, but will need to be paired with a minimal gear list to fit everything comfortably.
How To Pack A Bear Canister
Bear canisters’ roundness make them awkward to pack. When I’m lazy, I pay for it with discomfort all day long, and when I take the time to do it right, I can forget it’s there. I use two methods for carrying my canister. One is lazier than the other, but both work well if executed properly.
Besides water, food is likely the densest stuff in your backpack. For that reason, unless you’re looking for a good core workout, it’s best to pack it low and close to your body. This improves stability and helps to reduce shoulder fatigue while backpacking. With most backpacks, this means burying your food-filled bear canister somewhere in the middle of the main pocket. I like to keep the day’s snacks accessible in an outer pocket, but the rest of my food won’t see daylight until I’m in camp.
A heavy plastic cylinder doesn’t feel good on the spine, so make sure to pack some padding between your canister and backpack’s back panel. My canister goes in my pack vertically, then I stuff my quilt and spare clothes around it to fill gaps and ensure a few centimeters of separation between my back and the hard plastic. As I mentioned above, the removable foam back panel of my G4-20 does a great job of adding to this cushion. Ditto for the Gorilla and Mariposa. Backpacks with suspension systems still need to be loaded carefully to prevent discomfort.
Strap In On Top
If burying your bear canister doesn’t make sense for some reason (maybe it doesn’t fit or you need extra carrying capacity), you can always strap it on top. Many backpacks come equipped with either a top strap or a lid that can extend far enough to encircle the circumference of a standard canister. The Mariposa and Gorilla use something in between with their Over-the-Top (OTT) closure system that provides an extremely secure home for a bear canister or bag of BBQ Lays. On my G4-20, a single strap barely makes it around a BV500 with a half-full pack, but Gossamer Gear is updating the newest iteration to specifically improve the tight fit with a longer strap.
If this is your preferred method, still consider burying your heavy food close to your body while you hike. Yummy things only need to be in a bear canister when you’re sleeping or away from your pack and can be made secure in camp. Keep your center of gravity low while you’re moving by carrying lightweight items like clothing in your top-strapped canister instead of heavy food.
Other Carrying Options
Some larger packs like the Atmos AG 65 have a lower zippered compartment that can fit a bear canister horizontally, which is another good carrying option. A different, not-so-good-idea is carrying it in your arms, but this is incompatible with trekking poles and looks foolish, among other shortcomings.
Bear Canister Acceptance
When I learn that I need to carry a bear canister on an upcoming backpacking trip, my fluctuating emotions parallel the five stages of grief:
- Denial: That website must be out of date.
- Anger: I’ll never see a bear out there! Who are they to tell me what to do?
- Bargaining: Maybe I can bring an Ursack?
- Depression: *sigh* Maybe I’ll go somewhere else… or not at all.
- Acceptance: Look how many Pop-Tarts I can fit in this thing!
Bear canisters are expensive, heavy, and cumbersome. They are also necessary to protect the animals that call home the wild places where we like to play. The sooner we all understand that, the better. Once at the acceptance stage, knowing how to pack your canister in your backpack could make all the difference between bouncing right back to anger or moving on to the next, better thing (i.e. Pop-Tarts).
Take some time to get to know your gear by practicing with it before you reach the trailhead. A comfy pack results from a combination of a great backpack and the knowledge of how to use it. Pack it well, carry it comfortably, and keep those yummy snacks to yourself.
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