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|Top Pick: BearVault BV500|
|Best for Shorter Trips: BearVault BV450|
|Upgrade Pick: Bearikade Weekender|
|Honorable Mention: Garcia Backpackers' Cache|
|Honorable Mention: Ursack Major|
Dealing with hungry wildlife trying to access your precious stash of delicious backpacking food is always a hassle on the trail. I’ve seen backpacks chewed to shreds by “chislers” (chipmunks) when hikers forget to remove a small piece of food from a pocket.
While I’ve never had a problem with bears myself, hikers have notoriously had such problems with these animals breaking into food at night that many areas now require the use of bear-proof containers, such as bear canisters or bear bags, for storing food overnight.
We did the research and have listed here the five best bear canisters available today plus some advice on how to choose the right one for your needs. Read on for our picks.
Top Pick: BearVault BV500
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The BV500 is the bear canister I’ve seen more often than any other, both in the field and for rent at National Park offices.
It weighs 2 lbs 9 oz and has a volume of 700 cubic inches which should be enough for one person for about five or six days.
(Make sure to test it yourself before your thru-hike, however, so you know how often you need to resupply. Shakedown hikes are perfect for something like this.)
Otherwise, the BV500 is a no-frills canister that’ll do exactly what you need without breaking the bank. As a plus, the clear plastic makes locating food easy and it can be used as a handy camp seat when sealed.
Any land managing agency should accept this bear canister as “legal” so you won’t need to worry about meeting requirements. The only thing to keep in mind when using the canister is to strap or tie it down so the bears don’t run off with it as they’re sometimes known to do.
Best for Shorter Trips: BearVault BV450
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The BearVault BV450 is the smaller cousin of the BV500. It weighs 2.1 lbs and sports a volume of 440 cubic inches — ideal for shorter backpacking trips spanning 2-4 days.
You wouldn’t want to thru-hike with a bear canister of this size. But if you’re taking a weekend jaunt through bear country and only want to take what’s necessary, the BV450 is a great option.
All BearVault bear canisters are certified bear-resistant by the IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee). The BV450 and BV500 are no exception.
Upgrade Pick: Bearikade Weekender
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Is money no object for you when it comes to reducing pack weight?
If so, the Bearikade Weekender from Wild Ideas might be your best bet. This puppy clocks in at an impressive 31 oz with a volume of 650 cubic inches. (For comparison, that’s 10 oz lighter than the BV500 and holds 50 cubic inches less.) Dishing out a few hundred dollars to save 10 oz might sound crazy when it comes to a bear canister, but for the Big Three it isn’t unheard of.
The Weekender is the perfect size for carrying food for two people for a weekend trip. Use it solo and it can hold up to six days’ worth of sustenance. According to Wild Ideas, the Weekender has been used for over 22 years “without loss of food to any wild animal.” 22 years!
Like most of the canisters on this list, it also doubles as a camp chair and even a small camp table. Just make sure you pack a flat, hard object such as a coin or flat-head screwdriver to unlock it.
Wild Ideas also makes a larger version of the Weekender, the Bearikade Expedition. The specs are just as impressive — 36 oz, 900 cubic inches volume — and the price is just as nauseating.
Honorable Mention: Garcia Backpackers’ Cache
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If you’d like another option to consider, the Garcia Backpackers’ Cache is another good bear canister at a reasonable price.
It seems like this canister has been around for ages. I remember seeing them when I was just getting started backpacking and they haven’t changed much since then.
The smooth plastic, rounded corners, and oblong shape make it hard for bears to get a hold of the Backpackers’ Cache. The ABS polymer is similar to the plastic material used in many motorcycle bodies.
There’s nothing fancy or eye-catching about this all-black, bear-resistant tube for your Pop-Tarts. It’s just a straightforward tool for keeping the bears busy without letting them break into your food stash.
It weighs 2 lbs 12 oz and has a volume of 614 cubic inches. That’s about 100 cubic inches less than the BV500 but you should still be able to get around 4-5 days of food inside.
Like with the Bearikade, don’t forget a coin or flat-head screwdriver to unlock this canister.
Honorable Mention: Ursack Major
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The Ursack Major, my personal favorite way to protect my food when backpacking, isn’t a canister at all, but rather a bear bag.
It has a capacity of 10.65 L (650 cubic inches), which can hold about five days of food for one person. Better yet, it weighs in at just 7.8 oz. The Ursack is both spacious and ultralight.
But how does a fabric bag keep bears out of your food?
The answer is in the fabric: the Ursack is made of woven Spectra fibers, which is used for applications such as bulletproof fabric. It’s incredibly tough.
What’s more, the most recent version has been updated with more than double the tear-resistance of older models by using a tighter, more durable weave.
In case you’re still in doubt though, know that the IGBC has certified it as bear-resistant.
Unlike most bear canisters, the Ursack can compress and form to fit inside your pack as you eat your food. Instead of having a large, rigid plastic tub to deal with, you can more easily pack your bag around the Ursack.
The Ursack can also be tied to a tree or rock using the included 2,500 lbs strength rope. This prevents bears from running off with your food, even if they find it. Always convenient.
You can’t use a bear bag as a camp chair or table though. And bears can crush the food inside.
Lastly, the Ursack might not be allowed in certain areas. Check your destination’s regulations before you buy.
» MORE: The Best Bear Bags
How to Choose the Best Bear Canister for Your Needs
Not all bear canisters will suit your needs. Here are the most important things to consider before buying to make sure you pick the right one.
As with all backpacking gear, weight is an ever-present issue. We always want to minimize weight while maximizing efficiency when backpacking. Bulky, heavy bear canisters are certainly no exception.
While I recommend that you keep weight to a minimum, carrying a little extra weight to keep your food safe when it is required by law or common sense seems a necessary admission.
Bear canisters are bulky — that’s all there is to it. In their simplest form, most bear canisters are just durable plastic bins with sealable lids. Despite their annoying size and bulk, they often only hold 3-5 days’ worth of food for a single hiker.
One exception to this is the Ursak — a woven Spectra bag that is so strong a bear cannot rip it. This bear bag is much lighter than other options and can be packed down when parts or all of it are not in use.
Double check regulations in the area you’re planning to hike to ensure that the bear canister you’re choosing to use meets all legal requirements. Many areas even offer bear canisters for rent so you may not need to purchase one. Call the local land manager’s office for the final word before deciding.
Some areas require a certain type of hard-sided bear canister and other areas will be okay with you using something like an Ursak to protect your food.
Amount of Food You’ll Be Carrying
Finally, consider how many days’ worth of food you’ll usually be carrying in your canister. If you’re a weekend warrior who goes into the backcountry for only a few days at a time, you can save on weight and bulk by purchasing a smaller and lighter bear canister.
On the other hand, if you’re thru-hiking or your backpacking trips tend to last a while, consider a canister that can carry many days’ worth of food.
Why Are Bear Canisters Required?
While bear canisters are not mandated by law in most hiking areas in the US, more parks and public lands each year are beginning to require their use. Having bears (or other critters) break into your food is dangerous for several reasons:
- Wild animals can become dangerously reliant on human food once habituated to its presence. This can cause recurring issues and behavior problems with bears.
- Having animals break into and eat or destroy your food can leave you stranded in the wilderness without enough food to get out safely in some cases.
- If you are located near your food supply then you could put yourself, your group, and even other backpackers at risk by attracting hungry bears or other dangerous wildlife to your area.
Failing to use proper bear-proof canisters for your food can not only create problems for you, it can create problems for future hikers when that same bear returns expecting to find more food.
As responsible stewards of our public lands, it’s our responsibility to protect both the wildlife and other hikers by following proper use guidelines of bear canisters where required by law.
Bear Canister Alternatives
Acceptable alternatives to bear canisters in most areas include:
- Steel bear cables
- Steel bear boxes
Bear cables are permanently constructed platforms where park rangers or volunteers have created secure steel cables that can safely deter bears’ attempts to get at your food. Food bags can be safely suspended high enough above the ground and away from trees so that bears cannot get to the food.
Bear boxes are permanent steel bins resembling rugged trash cans which are usually affixed to concrete foundations. These bins are streamlined to prevent any way for bears to access and break into them but allow for hikers to open and securely close the containers with food inside. These are simple to use and more available than ever in many popular camping locations.
And don’t forget: along with storing your food, in grizzly country you’ll probably want to bring along a can of bear spray.
Everyone’s needs will be different with a bear canister. If you’re looking for lightweight and flexible, the Ursack is probably the tool for you. Others may feel that the larger volume and hard-sided plastic construction of the BV500 is a better fit for their needs. Though, if you really want to keep your Clif bars locked away at night, the smaller, lockable Backpackers’ Cache might be the only solution.
Each of these bear canisters has been used by hundreds or thousands of users with great reviews. Remember to keep your bear canisters secured away from your sleeping space and tied down so that bears can’t run off with them or swat them off a cliff. Finally, before you leave for your trip, be sure to check in with the local land managers to ensure that your choice of bear canister complies with their regulations.
Keep those ‘Tarts safe and enjoy the trail!