Why I Always Carry a Bear Canister When Thru-Hiking

As hikers, we’re privileged to immerse ourselves in pristine wilderness areas. Places like these only exist today as the result of concerted efforts to protect them. These efforts exist on both macro and micro scales, ranging from the actions of regulatory agencies to the simple act of the hikers who came before us packing out their trash.

We are indebted to those who have labored to protect these trails. This debt can only be repaid by taking up the work that others have already begun. We owe it to ourselves and to our fellow hikers, but more than that we owe it to Mother Nature.

When you’re hiking, you don’t throw your trash on the ground. You don’t leave your fire burning unsupervised. You don’t carve your initials into a tree. We should all know better than that. We should be willing to do the small acts required of us to keep wild places wild.

So why do so many hikers still practice unsafe food storage?

What Is a Bear Canister?

A bear canister, or bear can, is a hard-sided food storage container designed to prevent bears and other animals from accessing your food while in the backcountry. They come in a variety of styles and sizes to accommodate different food storage needs, ranging from overnight trips to extended excursions.

While no method of food storage is 100 percent effective at preventing wildlife from accessing your food, using a bear canister is the most effective way to protect your food, yourself, and the wildlife around you.

Bears that are successful in accessing a hiker’s food begin to see humans as a food source and become dangerously accustomed to people, often seeking them out. This can lead to increased interactions between humans and bears, which inevitably leads to dangerous situations.

Unfortunately, a bear that has begun viewing humans as a food source must often be killed due to safety concerns. Using bear canisters can help reduce the number of bears killed every year and reduce human-bear encounters.

Because of this, I have always carried a bear can on my hikes.

On the Appalachian Trail and the Colorado Trail, I carried a BearVault BV 500. This is a great option for the budget-conscious hiker. For the Pacific Crest Trail and my upcoming Continental Divide Trail attempt, I opted to use the lightweight Wild Ideas Bearikade Blazer.

In over 5,000 miles of use, I have never had an instance of any animal accessing my food in the backcountry.

READ NEXT – BearVault BV475 Trek Review

Pros and Cons of Bear Canisters

Bear cans are a controversial piece of gear in the thru-hiking community, and many hikers choose not to carry them unless required to. Making informed choices is an important aspect of building your kit, so I think it’s important to address the concerns most hikers have with bear cans and the benefits of carrying one.

Bear Canister Cons

1. Bear Cans Are Heavy

This is the most common critique I hear and it is undeniably true. Even my Bearikade, which is marketed as a lightweight option, weighs 2lbs 1oz. It is the heaviest item in my pack. The more popular BearVault BV500 is even heavier at 2lbs 9oz.

2. Bear Cans Are Expensive

You can get everything you need for a proper bear hang for around $2o. A bear can will hurt your wallet far more. The popular BearVault BV500 costs $94.95, and the lighter-weight Bearikade Blazer will set you back $384.

3. Bear Cans Are Bulky

It can be very difficult to fit a bear can into your pack. Unlike food storage sacks, bear cans do not change shape or size as you eat away at your resupply. Many hikers are forced to carry their bear cans on the top of their pack, rather than inside it.

4. Bear Cans are not 100 Percent Effective

There is no perfect solution to backcountry food storage. However, if used correctly, a bear can is still the most effective way of preventing animals from accessing your food.

Bear Canister Pros

1. Simplicity

Using a bear can is the easiest way to store your food safely. I’ve had more than one experience of watching my friends attempt to hang their food on a rainy night. While they struggled, I was sitting back in my tent relaxing.

2. Consistency

My pack never changes shape and fits the same way every day. I love the consistency that my bear can provides. I have a packing system that I follow every morning, and it doesn’t need to be adjusted depending on the size of my food bag.

READ NEXT – Pack Your Bear Canister Like a Pro With These 8 Tips

3. Camping in Comfort

Say goodbye to sitting on pointy rocks and decaying logs. Bear cans make excellent camp stools.

4. Security

I do not worry about my food being stolen by animals. I’ve never experienced a mouse chewing a hole in my food bag. I’ve never worried about a raccoon shimmying its way down my hang line.

5. Leave No Trace

Using a bear canister is the best food storage method for the animals. If they cannot get your food, they can remain wild. This is the sixth principle of Leave No Trace, to respect wildlife.

Bear Canisters Are the Future

There is a growing trend in outdoor recreation regarding the increased use of bear canisters. Bear cans are already required in many of the areas that backpackers pass through.

Many national parks, including North Cascades, Lassen-Volcanic, and Yosemite along the Pacific Crest Trail, require the use of a bear canister for backcountry camping.

On the Appalachian Trail, there is a seasonal requirement in the Blood Mountain Wilderness Area, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends that all thru-hikers carry a bear canister for the entirety of their hike.

These requirements and recommendations are not going to stop. Backcountry recreation is becoming increasingly popular, and more people than ever are getting outside.

Increased use of the backcountry requires an increase in regulation. It is the only way to allow access to these wild areas while keeping them wild. Unregulated areas will become regulated. Recommendations will become requirements.

READ NEXT – The Case for Bear Canisters on the Appalachian Trail

It’s Not You, It’s the Bears

At the end of the day, I would rather carry an extra two pounds than be responsible for a bear’s death. It’s an extreme example, but it is the reality of the situation. A fed bear is a dead bear, and I love bears too much to be a part of that.

It’s their forest, it’s their mountain, it’s their home. Respect the locals.

Featured image: Photo via Moose Juice. Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 14

  • Drew Boswell : May 22nd

    Well stated. More and more my BV-475 is proving to be the heavier, but much more convenient, method of food carry when I go out.

  • Albert N : May 22nd

    The Bearicade Scout was expensive but one of the best investments I made for backpacking.

  • B : May 22nd

    Curious about your experience with the Bearikade Blazer on the PCT. Did you run into any rangers? Only the weekender and expedition are listed as approved- I emailed to confirm and ask if other sizes from the same company are ok and got a very generic “the list is updated and correct” response. The blazer would have been the size I preferred!

  • Moose Juice : May 22nd

    There’s honestly so many out there that I think this is probably a case of the list actually not being updated and correct, bureaucracies move slowly. While it’s not listed on the Yosemite NP website, it is listed on the HalfwayAnywhere list of approved PCT cans.

    Either way a Yosemite Ranger gave me a fist bump and said she carries the same one

  • Jingle bells : May 23rd

    Finally some trek love for the bearikades. I carry an expedition (biggest) and gladly pay a slight weight penalty (vs a smaller bearikade) for never having to even worry about “in can packing efficiency” “just throw it in”. They make a great seat doubled with your foam pad too.
    They are expensiveeeeeee no doubt, but are a an absolute game changer. I wouldn’t do any backpacking without one.

    • Jingle bells : May 23rd

      And yes, they necessitate need for bigger pack- I use a modified REI flash55 with all but the essentials hacked off. The flash is CHEAP compared to cottage packs that save only a few ozs by the time I’ve hacked up my flash. The flash fits an expedition easily. I suppose just about any 55L would and most 50L probably would as well.

    • Walter E Bates : May 24th

      Agreed. Weight from smallest to largest Bearikade is 8oz. I also bought the Expedition which is big enough for food and cook kit during the day while also large enough to stow my hygiene and sunscreen, etc smellables in there as well at night. The Nunatak Bear Ears also makes for an easy, hip belt level carry for easy on/off during breaks and lower center of gravity.

  • Heather : May 23rd

    I always bring an Ursak for the same reason.

    • Turtle Man : May 24th

      Some managment areas—in the east, notably some areas in North Carolina and in the Adirondacks—require a hard-sided canister for overnight food storage.

    • Clover : May 26th

      Along the AT, the Southern Region Forests no longer list the Ursack tied to a tree as the manufacturer recommends as an approved food storage method. That includes all USFS land along the AT in GA, NC, TN and VA. You can still carry one and hang it like a regular food bag.

  • Brant : May 23rd

    All of those stickers are adding to your base weight.

  • Perry : May 24th

    Regarding the price, I subscribe to “buy once cry once”

    I have a Vargo external frame pack, a traditional style pack made with lighter, modern materials. I strap the Bearikade to where the sleeping bag used to go. The sb has been replaced with a quilt that is packed in the main compartment.

    • Ken Brenner : May 24th

      Yeahhhh. Another External frame hiker.
      I have recently repaired/revitalized my old JansSport D3 External Frame Pack (4400 cu in.).
      If I had to carry a bear canister, it would work best on this oldie but goodie.

  • Jamie : May 25th

    Ever since a marmot destroyed a food bag of mine about 20 years ago I pretty much decided to always carry a bear can. Sure they can be unwieldly, but as called out above, makes a great seat, helps adherance to LNT, and more and more places are going to require them, so toss a couple extra swings and squats into your prehike routine and that extra kilo is no problem.


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