Bear canister shopping guide. Purchase or rent? And comparison of volume/weight and volume/price.

The Bear Vault BV500, which offers good volume for its weight at a reasonable price

In areas where bear-resistant food canisters are absolutely required, I carry one. While they are heavy, awkward to pack, and far less preferable than alternative food protection techniques, carrying a canister is better than receiving a hefty fine or being denied a backcountry permit.

Purchase or rent?

Canisters are sold online and at local outdoor retail stores. Most cost $50-$80, though if you are willing pay a high premium for weight-savings, carbon fiber versions are available for $195-$275.

Canisters can also be rented. At Yosemite National Park, for example, they cost $5 per week, though you’ll be stuck with one of the clumsiest canisters on the market. The aforementioned pricey carbon fiber canisters can be rented from Wild Ideas for $5-6 per day plus round-trip shipping.

If you regularly backpack in an area where canisters are required, purchasing a canister is probably more cost-effective in the long run, versus renting. Renting may be more economical if you rarely backpack in areas where canisters are required. The break-even points given the rental prices cited above are 98 days (at $5/week for a $70 canister) and 45 days (at $5/day for a $225 canister), not including shipping or taxes.

Of course, these break-even points do not account for an intangible value of owning your canister: it’s one less hassle in preparing for a trip. Also, you can save your friends money by loaning them yours if it’s not in use.

Approved canisters

If you are in the market for a canister, this section will be very helpful. I have collected the key specifications for each canister that is currently approved by Yosemite National Park and Olympic National Park, and that is currently available for purchase (i.e. no discontinued models).

Importantly, this comparison does not include the Ursack or Armored Outdoor Gear Ratsack Cache, which have considerable weight advantages but which are not approved. Also not included are Lighter1 Bear Bins, which are approved but which could not be evaluated because, strangely, key specifications were unavailable on the company website. (My email request for the specifications has not yet received a response.)

Sorted by weight

There are two useful calculations in comparing canisters:

  1. Volume per weight
  2. Volume per price

If you are debating between two models that have comparable measurements, you might also want to consider ease of opening, commercial availability, and opaqueness.

Volume per weight

In the table below, I have sorted the approved canisters by their volume-per-weight calculation (specifically, cubic inches divided by ounces). A high ratio is more desirable than a low ratio.

The three Wild Ideas models, all of which are made of carbon fiber, dominate this criteria – for their weight, they offer notably more storage volume than other models.

The table also shows how small-volume canisters are relatively less efficient than their large-volume countparts. The Bear Vault BV500, for example, is 30% more weight efficient than the smaller Bear Vault BV450.

Volume per price

In the table below, I have sorted the approved canisters by their volume-per-price calculation (specifically, cubic inches divided by $USD).

Here, we discover the price tag for the Wild Ideas models’ superior volume-per-weight rankings — $1 only buys about 2.6-3.3 cubic inches. In other words, the Wild Ideas Weekender is 3x more expensive per volume than the BV 500 and the other three final canisters on the list — the Champ, Garcia, and Counter Assault Bear Keg.

Buying advice

If your budget is large, if your pack weight is important to you, and/or if you will be using your canister extensively, go with a carbon fiber canister from Wild Ideas. The weight-savings will become worth the significant upfront cost.

If your budget is limited, if your pack weight is not as important, and/or if you will only use your canister occasionally, the Bear Vaults offer the best value — good volume-per-weight at a reasonable cost.

Personally, I go on enough trips in the High Sierra to justify owning a canister. While I would have liked the Wild Ideas Weekender, the additional $155 over the Bear Vault BV500 was simply too high of a premium for a half-pound weight savings.

38 Responses to Bear canister shopping guide. Purchase or rent? And comparison of volume/weight and volume/price.

  1. Jeff McWilliams July 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Great article!

    I seem to recall the from visiting the Adirondack LOJ visitor center last year that the Bear Vault canisters were not approved for use in the High Peaks. They’ve been defeated by at least one black bear in the area.

    They recommend, and rent the Garcia containers at the information center near the LOJ.

    • Andrew Skurka July 9, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

      I decided not to make this article about what canisters should be “approved.” I just used the Yosemite and Olympic National Park lists. The reality is that probably all canisters have been successfully accessed by a bear at one point or another. For example, when I was in Yosemite in May the ranger told me that a week earlier a bear had rolled a canister off a high cliff, causing it to tumble down and smash against the rocks, busting it open. I’ve also seen photos of a Wild Ideas canister that had been destroyed by a grizzly.

      Bottom line: while canisters are less skill-intensive than stealth camping or counter-balances, there is still some skill involved.

    • Hugh Schmidt July 17, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

      That’s true. There was a bear called yellow yellow who could open, but she was shot. However, taught her children to do so. She is also known for cutting the ropes that people hung their food from in the Marcy Dam area.

    • Katherine Stuart July 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

      The Bear Vault canisters are not banned by the DEC/ADK; their regulations simply stipulate that you use a hard sided commercially available canister. They only prefer that hikers use the Garcia model.

      I bought the BearVault 450 for hikes in the ADK High Peaks region because the short+squat shape fits my backpack better and having my food in a bear can is only the last line of defence against bears. In the eastern US the worse case scenario is a days hike back out to the road with an empty stomach as the roads are never too far away.

  2. LiteTrail July 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Thank you for this article Andrew. A great comparison of what’s out there. For myself, the BV500 was the best choice too.

    A big consideration that influenced my decision is the reactionary banning practices of the various bear canister approval agencies. One day your $225 canister is approved and the next it’s not. Then it is again 3 months later but in a green color or with a new piece of hardware. It just doesn’t make sense to spend so much when there is no consistency or future guarantee that your investment will pay off down the road by reaching your break even point.

  3. Alan Dixon July 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    A big consideration that influenced my decision is the reactionary banning practices of the various bear canister approval agencies.

    Wild Ideas canisters have been around for quite a while. They have always been approved. There have been few design changes–nor have they needed significant design changes.

    I have been using Bearikades since 2001. For me, the weight savings (and hassle not to rent) are well worth the price of the Wild Ideas Bearikades. I think they are a a *good value*, and have owned one for almost 10 years.

  4. John B. Abela July 9, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Excellent analytical article Andrew. Exactly the type of articles the hiking community needs these days.

  5. Chris Alexander July 13, 2012 at 8:16 am #

    We love our our Wild Ideas Bearikade, and are currently carrying it on our Pacific Crest Trail thru hike. Because of a bear encounter we had previously on the PCT before Kennedy Meadows, we recommend carrying a bear can anywhere there is bear activity, even if it’s not required. We describe our encounter in full on our blog here:

    http://mexicotocanada.com/2012/06/09/day-46-51-farewell-desert-hello-bear/

    We were using an Ursack Minor, which failed to protect our food. It’s possible an Ursack Major would have remained intact, but we feel a bear can is the safest bet.

    • Andrew Skurka July 13, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      That’s an amazing photo of your torn-up Ursack. I bet the manufacturer does not want that going viral.

      Sad to say, but the Bearikade is not bear-proof either. Read this thread.

      It might sound crazy, and I don’t necessary recommend it, but personally I sleep on or next to my food — where both black bears and grizzly bears are present — because I don’t trust bear canisters. And I also take a lot of preemptive measures to avoid bear encounters. I’ve NEVER had a bear wander into my camp, despite 300+ nights in known bear habitat, and my technique is meant to tell the bear, “This is MY food, not yours. If you want it, you will have to fight for it.” And most bears do not want to pick a fight with a human — an easier meal is available elsewhere.

      • Jess July 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

        I’m sure they don’t. Trying to use an ursack minor against bears isn’t the intended use though – I’m not surprised it failed.

        I’ve seen two ursacks stand up to bear attacks. One was ours – we didn’t recognize the sounds at first and let the bear tug on it for a good hour or so before waking up enough to chase it off. There was some slobber and a little mushing of the food inside the bag, but the bear went hungry and we didn’t in the end.

        Unfortunately there do seem to be some legitimate concerns about ursacks. http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2012/05/reality-of-ursacks.html has some more information as well as a link to the decision from one of ursacks’ lawsuits.

  6. James D. Marco July 13, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    Yeah, avoid the discussions. I hike the High Peaks region a couple times a year. I still use the Bear Vault, albiet modified a bit to defeat Yellow-Yellow. Simplistic, I just put a screw in the side, opposite the latch. It works fine with tacit aproval by a couple rangers that have seen it. They are still legal up there, the bad publicity is all about a single bear. Hard for them to justify changing their law, as unpopular as it was, for one black bear. Good Write Up!
    Thanks!

    • ScottB September 18, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

      Sadly Yellow, yellow was killed by hunters last year. I’m not sure how this affects the Bear Vault now that she’s no longer around.

  7. Diane July 15, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Sadly I have a Garcia. It was purchased long ago when that was your only choice. I also have a Bear Vault 450. I am glad to have it for short solo trips, but it’s too small for longer trips. It’s way too small for a thru-hiker’s appetite. And it weighs almost as much as a full-sized bear can. Never get a smaller bear can if you plan to thru-hike any long trails.

    • Andrew Skurka July 16, 2012 at 5:57 am #

      This is a great point. Look at the weight differences between the small and large cans (e.g. BV450 versus BV500) — for an extra few ounces, you get much more volume. So if you only want to buy one canister for all of your needs, realize that there’s only a small weight penalty for the larger sizes (and only a small cost penalty too!).

  8. Jeff July 17, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    This is slightly off topic, but I’ve been trying to find answers to these questions for a couple days. If there’s 10 days between resupply points, do you think it’s possible to fit all your food into a single canister? In terms of volume, how many cubic inches of food would you need in a day? If you can’t fit all your food into a canister, do you just shrug your shoulders and move on?
    Thanks for any help you can give.

    • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 10:09 am #

      How many days of food you can fit into a canister is a function of:

      • Quantity of food per day
      • Spatial density of each day’s food
      • Volume of the canister

      The marketing copy for canisters in not reliable — Who knows what each manufacturer considers to be a “day’s worth” of food? You just need to get a canister and find out.

      Personally, I know that no canister would fit a 10-day ration of mine, at least if it was a hard-charging trip. The Park Service requires that you store all food in your canister, for your safety and the bears, which means that I’d technically have to take two canisters. Shoot me.

      • Jeff July 18, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

        I figured you’d say that ;). I unfortunately don’t have the resources to experiment with canisters.

        In other words, when you use your canister, how many days worth of food can you roughly expect to fit in the canister? I realize your experience isn’t universal, but it will, at least, provide a rough estimate.

        • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

          At 2-2.25 lbs of food per day of spatially dense items (chocolate, cashews, couscous, and potatoes), I can fit about 5 days in my BV500.

  9. Fabian Sandoval July 17, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    EVERYBODY needs to take a serious look at these super INNOVATIVE bear canisters, completely new and certified by SEKI/YOSEMITE. http://www.lighter1.com

    • Andrew Skurka July 18, 2012 at 10:15 am #

      I strongly disagree with the adjective, “innovative.” Cylinder made of hard plastic, capped with a lid…Gee, I haven’t seen that before! It’s not any lighter than current models. It’s not any less awkwardly shaped than current models. And, finally, I don’t need or want a frying pan. And if I did, I certainly would not want to use that same frying pan as the lid to my food canister — it will make it about as attractive to a big bruin as a sow in heat.

  10. jeff July 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    I saw an innovative design at the Outdoor retail show a year or two ago, it was a large clear plastic ball that came apart in the middle and was meant to be carried in two pieces. I think for the volume it was a good weight and would theoretically be a good light weight solution for two people to split it – it also looks like it would fit in a smaller volume pack better. This looked attractive for our Boy scout troop (multiple people on all our trips). Does anyone remember this manufacturer and if they have a go to market date?

    • Andrew Skurka July 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Saw that product too but I haven’t seen anything about it since. It really doesn’t matter, however: the National Park Service has a list of “approved” canisters and no canister that is not on that list is sufficient.

  11. Fabian Sandoval July 25, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Hi Andrew, thanks for replying but I disagree with you. The smalll bear bin is: > 1 lb 5 oz for the canister
    > 6 oz for the pan/lid
    > 1 oz for the handle/ support
    > Total weight is: 1 lb 12 oz

    The Scout by Wild Ideas is 1 lb 12 oz and SMALLER volume. I do not use the pan/lid as a frying pan, ONLY to boil water. So now I just saved 2.9 oz by not carrying a Snow Peak 600 mug. Other people carry smaller pots but you’re still saving weight. I still can use the pan/lid for quesadillas, it’s wide enough.

    So how is this NOT innovative? It’s JUST as light as any bear canister and the pan/lid works as a pot! It’s a NO brainer plus it’s half the cost of the cheapest Wild Ideas bear canister. Oh, and I failed to mention that you can buy a much larger bin and use the lid/pan and you have 2 bear bins for about 130 dollars! Personally I have used most bear canisters out there and this one is the best for me. I can’t even believe it fits in my Zpacks Zero back pack that is 1500 cubic inches.

    • Brian August 7, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

      @Fabian

      I think the point is that something that is a bit lighter than one of the options covered but not significantly different in other ways is not necessarily innovative. That’s like calling the Bearikade Weekender “innovative” when compared to the BV500 because it’s lighter and made out of cool materials like carbon fiber and aluminum. It’s not really, though – it’s just a bit lighter and provides a different price/weight trade-off.

      It’s essentially the same thing in this case when comparing the Lighter1.

      The other – and perhaps more important – point was that the Lighter 1 doesn’t appear on any major park approved canister lists. Andrew avoided comparing which ones might be allowed at some parks and not others, but one that doesn’t appear on any won’t be usable in any of those areas.

    • Bearifide August 15, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      I believe your specs are incorrect. The Bearikade Scout holds a volume of 500 cubic inches, while the Lighter1 Little Sami only holds 300 cubic inches. So the Scout is the superior choice when looking at weight and carrying capacity. Plus with many backpacking stoves coming with pots and heat shields for quick boiling and to reduce weight, I think the lid as a pan thing is really not needed for the ultralight backpacker.

  12. Fabian Sandoval August 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Hi Brian,

    I guess you’re right, it’s notvery different than most options out there but it is innovative in a way.

    1) You can use the lid to boil water and save 1-5 ounces depending on wether you carry a beer can or and Evernew pot.

    2) You can get the small bin and the large one at much better price than the lightest canisters out there and use the lid/pot to function for both for weekend trips or longer trips.

    To me out of ALL the bear cansiters out there it’s hands down the best. In regards to SEKI/Yosemite approval, they just received it about 1.5 months ago and they’ll post this on their website.

    The thing about backpacking, UL and SUL is that there is no perfect way to do it, everybody has different needs so all gear is good for some and not others. Regardless, I think lighter1 has the best out of all canisters out there. Hopefully John Abela can get a hold of one of these and determine who’s the ultimate winner! I would put my money this would win hands down!

  13. Nick October 31, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Andrew, I don’t understand the value of price/weight comparisons.

    A comparison of price/weight is comparing two negative factors, therefore there is no particular advantage to having a high or low result.

    Imagine an ideal canister which weighs 1 oz and costs $10, and works perfectly. Now, imagine a terrible canister which weighs 61 oz and costs $610. Now do a price/weight comparison between the two, and you’ll find that they’re both exactly equal, at a ratio of $10/oz. These are two extremes, but they show that the comparison is meaningless no matter where on the spectrum your canisters are.

    In order to get meaningful results, you need to compare a good feature to a negative feature, such as the volume/weight comparison that you did, or price/weight savings.

    Price per weight savings is a little more difficult and there are somewhat complicated mathematical issues with it if you get technical, but provides some excellent meaningful values at normal numbers.

    In order to do this comparison, you have to imagine that you already own canister that weighs too much, and want to buy a new one. Say it weighs 81 oz.

    The weight savings of my ideal canister would be 80 oz, resulting in a price/weight savings of $0.13/oz. That’s meaningful–it means that for every 13 cents I put into the canister, I get 1 oz of savings. The terrible canister, meanwhile, would yield a cost/weight savings of $30.50 per oz. This shows the huge difference between the two extremes which I set up arbitrarily.

    You probably already know this, but I keep seeing gear reviews trumpetting price/weight comparisons, and I needed somewhere to vent.

    • Andrew Skurka October 31, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

      I see what you are saying here, but I thought there was enough value in this ratio to offer it, e.g. the high price of the Bearikade canisters versus canisters of similar volume. I probably should have offered a volume/cost chart, instead.

    • Andrew Skurka November 1, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      Good point — the price/weight ratio never struck me right either, but I didn’t know why. I have updated the post with a volume/price ratio, which is a much more useful ratio in comparing canisters.

      • Nick November 1, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

        For what it’s worth, I did a price/weight savings calculation, which also illustrates the expense of the Wild Ideas canisters.
        I’m also confused as to why the Bare Boxer Champ and the Backpacker’s cache apparently have exactly the same specs…are they the same product or is this an error?

        Model Weight Volume Price Price/Weight Savings
        contender 26 275 50 0.93
        BV 450 33 440 67 1.43
        No-Fed Bear 38 455 70 1.67
        Champ 43 615 70 1.89
        Gracia 812 43 615 70 1.89
        BV500 41 700 80 2.05
        Bear Kek 56 716 80 3.33
        Scout 28 500 195 3.75
        Weekender 31 650 225 4.59
        Expedition 36 900 275 8.09

  14. Dave May 10, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    Maybe we should just use a 5 lb Protein container since no bear can is bear proof. They are the right size, and free after you use the Protein LOL!
    Paint it like a rock and put some moth balls in it..
    :)

  15. Lary Huls June 16, 2014 at 7:33 am #

    I keep seeing a Frontiersman brand. 722 CI. ANY THOUGHTS ON this?

    • Andrew Skurka June 16, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      I have not heard of this brand before. At least in appearance (materials, shape, closure), it looks very similar to the Garcia, which I have used before. However, the Frontiersman is quite a bit lighter than the Garcia, which leads me to believe that it’s also smaller. And as this post’s charts showed, all else being equal smaller canisters are heavier per volume than larger canisters.

  16. TJ July 17, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    Really good information.

    To toss this out there, SEKI rents Wild Ideas Bearikades. I’ve used them a couple of times and thought they were fantastic. They were rented at the same price as the Garcia’s but that might have been due to a combination of cool rangers and off-peak travel.

    I do like that they make them available for rent through their site but $6 bucks a day can add up. That said, you only pay for the time on the trail and they offer a 45% discount for long trail hikes including the JMT.

    I messed around with the LIghter1 recently, (Sport Chalet just started carrying them) and while I appreciated their effort to ‘innovate,’ I just didn’t see the value. It’s sort of like marketing a bear can with “And it eliminates the need for a camp stool too!.”

  17. Stephen Fletcher July 17, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    I just completed a wander along the Sierra High rt. Bearicade Expedition held ALL my food for 10 days @ 3,000 calories per day. I always carry it, peace of mind is important to me and there are other ravenous creatures out there that want your food other than bears. Marmots, mice,ground squirrels,chipmunks. Once these animals get someones food they can make it a nightmare for the next person. So, using a Bear canister helps protect the next person as well as you.

  18. Rob of the WV July 17, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    Thanks for the wondrous analysis. Well done. I purchased a custom Wild Ideas (11.25″) and was very happy I did so. For one thing, the latching mechanism is so much easier to use – and you won’t find yourself rolling around in the dirt wrestling with that Bear Vault. Also, you can sit on the Wild Ideas without screwing down the lid (just pop it into place, no need to latch it). And, more and more areas are requiring bear cans, including Canyonlands (recent requirement), the Lost Coast, Yellowstone, Grand Teton NP, many sections of the Sierra…. and more are coming soon. It’s worth the investment. And, your sore feet will thank you because of the weight reduction. And, it’s made in the USA – it’s time we quit buying inferior junk and start supporting US cottage industries.
    I have a ULA Catalyst, and the 11.25″ can fits horizontally and it holds the exact same as a BV. Email me if you want to know how to exactly fit the can to your pack. (Hint, a 12″ can will not fit in a ULA Catalyst, at least not horizontally.) (Hint #2, use sleeved-together concrete form tubes to test length.)
    Happy trails, Rob of the WV. http://wildernessvagabond.com/

  19. A guy from BPL July 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    When looking at cost, also worth considering that if a bear played soccer with the bear can, rolling it down the steep hillside, becoming unsafe and too far to recover, then the ENTIRE cost of the the can is forfeited, as well as the cost of the food contents.

    So A bear can is not an investment, because the first hungry bear pinata attack on the canister, may be the last time you see the can.

    For my budget, I can afford to replace at $60 bearVault can with another like it, but if I lost a $200 carbon fiber can to a bear, my disposable income limit would reduce me to renting the $5 a week.

    i don’t have sponsors or vendors sending me gear. I’m an IT geek in a cubicle prison.

  20. Craig July 17, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    I often see hikers with a bunch of stickers and or Duct Tape on their Bear canisters. Is there a better chance of Bears being able to grip or pick up the bear canisters with stickers or things stuck to the outside of them?

    I have thought about attaching a bell to mine with duct tape once in camp so I could hear if something is trying to get inside it while I’m sleep or fishing and such.

Leave a Reply


7 − four =