Among bear-resistant food containers certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), the Ursack S29.3 AllWhite is easily my favorite.
- It weighs just 8 oz, or 80 percent less than my BearVault BV500, which has the same volume. It’s also $10 less. And,
- Unlike plastic or carbon fiber canisters, it’s soft-sided and collapsible, and as comfortable to carry as a nylon stuff sack.
There is only one problem with it: It’s not an approved food storage device in parts of the High Sierra (notably Yosemite NP and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks), as well as Olympic National Park and Pisgah National Forest.
I decided to interview Tom Cohen, the CEO and Founder of Ursack, to discuss this policy, IGBC certification, his thoughts on lobbying pressure, and upcoming products.
If you have another question for Tom, please leave a comment.
Q. Do you think that the Ursack S29.3 AllWhite should be considered an acceptable food storage method in Yosemite National Park and other areas where it is currently not?
Absolutely. Or put another way: hell yes, without a doubt, no question about it.
Q. The AllWhite has been approved by IGBC, but ultimately that organization does not have final say over NPS and USFS regulations. On what grounds has the AllWhite been rejected as an approved food storage method?
It has been a continual source of frustration to us that we have not been able to have any kind of dialogue with the Parks and Forests that ban Ursack. Because of that, I am unable to fully answer your question.
Each National Park and Forest has its own regulations. There is no national standard, although many areas have now adopted IGBC certification so that any IGBC approved container is deemed approved in those areas. Almost none of the areas that continue to ban Ursack have given us a reason. It is my unsubstantiated belief that many of the naysayers simply follow Yosemite’s lead. For its part, Yosemite (and SEKI) has communicated very little information despite our constant requests. Nor, as far as I know, have they ever responded to the change.org petition initiated by a customer, which garnered 2,910 signatures.
The only substantive response we have received from Yosemite/SEKI was a comment that they were able to poke a pencil point through the Ursack. We could have told them that in advance. It is a weave separation that will not propagate into a tear. You can read an excerpt from the letter we sent in response.
There may be other reasons Ursack is banned, but we don’t know what they are. Our track record with the IGBC certified Ursack S29.3 AllWhite is nearly perfect. That contrasts with the approved hard sided canisters on Yosemite/SEKI’s list. About 25 of those were broken in 2013 by a Yosemite bear (read Speaking of Bears, by Rachel Mazur). We don’t know the statistics since then. One of the canisters on the list has never passed IGBC certification. Another had highly publicized problems in the Adirondack High Peaks.
In short, no bear canister is perfect. That is why they are always advertised as “bear resistant” not “bear proof.” In spite of that, Ursack remains banned in some places where others are allowed and is given no explanation for the decision.
Q. That sounds frustrating, and I hope that at least the dialogue improves. But assuming that nothing changes, what are the situations (i.e. locations, regulations, level of bear and mini-bear activity) where you believe backpackers should be using an Ursack rather than the conventional hard-sided canister?
There are no situations I can think of where a backpacker should be using a hard sided canister instead of an Ursack. I suppose if I knew for certain that a particular camping area was guaranteed to have bears going after my food, I would probably add the aluminum liner to my Ursack. Normally I go without….knowing that the worst that can happen is that my freeze dried food will be crushed. Big deal. Just add boiling water and it is edible.
Q. What is the exact benefit of the aluminum liner? Is it purely to protect the food from impact? Does it make an Ursack any more resistant to bears or mini-bears?
Aluminum liner prevents most food from being crushed. It probably won’t help with ripe tomatoes. Not sure what you mean by mini bears, but the liner keeps the sharp claws of raccoons or the sharp beaks of birds out of the food inside an Ursack. Note that with or without the aluminum liner bears and mini bears will not be able to tear a hole in Ursack.
Q. Is it useful if backpackers contact land managers and voice their support for the use of Ursacks? If so, what would you encourage them to say and who should they contact?
We definitely want to encourage backpackers to contact land managers. First to ask that they consider allowing Ursacks to be used and second, if rebuffed, to ask for solid reasons from land managers why Ursack is not allowed. Land managers should be pressed to provide scientific evidence that IGBC approved Ursacks don’t prevent bears from getting human food. (Hint: there is no such evidence.) They should be asked why the IGBC’s long standing and respected bear canister testing program is being ignored. They should be asked what percentage of bear incidents in their area are caused by improper storage of food and whether a lightweight alternative to hard sided canisters might encourage more campers to properly store their food.
I expect one answer from land managers would be that in an Ursack without an aluminum liner, a camper’s food could be crushed. The counter to that answer is: the land managers’ obligation is to prevent bears from becoming habituated to human food, and not to protect campers from eating mush. They do not require backpackers to carry warm clothes or a tent or emergency equipment or anything else, so why should they have a requirement about food.
Public pressure helps eventually.
Q. What are you most excited about right now at Ursack?
We are excited about three things — all of which we hope will also excite certain customers.
We are developing a bear bag made from laminated fabric that will be waterproof and bear claw/teeth proof and critter proof. It should satisfy those who are concerned with the weave separations that can occur in our current bear bags. We don’t have a name for it yet and are a ways off in finalizing the design, but it might be called the Ursack ACGS (All Creatures Great and Small) unless your readers have a better idea or unless that raises intellectual property issues.
We also are testing a revised Grrrsack, a chewable dog toy we made a while back that turned out to be vulnerable to some dogs. This is also made from laminated fabric.
Finally, we are working on a beer bag — a cooler made with very high tech insulation and ballistic fabric. That’s a ways off.
Have another question for Tom? Please leave a comment.
Disclosure. This post contains affiliate links, which help to support this website. Personal funds were used to purchase the Ursack and BV500. I received no monetary or product compensation from Ursack for this interview.