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Not bear- or idiot-proof: Documented canister failures

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

At least most of the time, hard-sided canisters like the BearVault BV500 successfully protect food from bears and “mini-bears” in the backcountry. But it turns out that they’re not 100 percent bear- or idiot-proof.

Recently, I received a spreadsheet that documented 199 food-related bear incidents with backpackers in Yosemite National Park between July 2012 and July 2017. The actual number of incidents in Yosemite and the larger High Sierra is probably greater (maybe much greater), because many incidents are not reported and because black bears inhabit most corners of this world-class wilderness.

NPS has verified the authenticity of the spreadsheet. It can be viewed in its entirety here.

The sheet describes multiple failures of “accepted” canisters from Bearikade, BearVault, Garcia, and Lighter1, due to both human error and design/structural flaws, as well as of early Ursack models. It also provides anecdotal support for Yosemite’s food storage regulations — for every one bear canister failure, there are several cases of bears obtaining food or scented items that were:

  • Kept inside of an unattended backpack or shelter;
  • Hung in tree;
  • Buried; or,
  • Left out overnight unprotected.

These storage “techniques” may work elsewhere, but not in Yosemite, which is home to arguably the best trained camp robbers in North America.

Geographical concentration

One striking takeaway from the spreadsheet was the geographical concentration of the incidents. Of the 199 reports, 142 (71 percent) happened in just four places:

  • Snow Creek,
  • Little Yosemite Valley (LYV),
  • John Muir Trail (JMT) above LYV, and
  • Lyell Canyon, the main trail through which is the JMT.

While it’s reasonable to expect more incidents in high-use backcountry areas (i.e. more backpackers = more incidents), the frequency still seems disproportionate — I’m doubtful that on any given night, three-fourths of all backpackers in Yosemite are camped in just these four locations.

These epicenters make a strong case for selecting campsites more deliberately and avoiding high-use spots and corridors. Like a berry patch in August, bears have learned that some sites are reliable sources of calories.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that these four areas tend to attract many first-time and beginner backpackers, who generally will not be as educated in backcountry matters like proper food storage and bear behavior. I wonder if the frequency of bear incidents is exacerbated by the lower average skill level of this demographic.

Lyell Canyon, one of four epicenters of bear activity in Yosemite

Failures

Bear canisters are more vulnerable to failure than I thought, mostly due to human error. The incidents fall into five buckets:

1. Overflow

July 31, 2012. Troop of boy scouts couldn’t fit all their food into their 14 bear canisters, so they hung two stuff sacks with food from a tree. The bear climbed the tree and dragged the food down and ate it. There was approximately 5 to 10 pounds of food. Troop leader got a mandatory appearance citation.

For a canister to do its job, all food and scented items (e.g. toothpaste, sunscreen) must be stored inside, not just most of it. This can be a challenge at the start of long trips, because the typical capacity of a full-size canister is about 6 days of food, plus/minus depending on your daily caloric intake and your food’s spatial and caloric density (e.g. bagels versus Snickers, canned soup versus dried soup mix).

But, understandably, you may be reluctant to carry two canisters, at double the weight and cumbersomeness. In that case, what are your options? Until all of your food and scented items can fit in one canister, consider:

1. Staying in established backcountry campsites with permanent food lockers. In Yosemite, find them in Little Yosemite Valley and at High Sierra campgrounds like Glen Aulin. In Sequoia-Kings, refer to this map of locations.

2. Camping in areas where non-canister storage methods (e.g. Ursack Major, hanging) are permitted. Canisters are required throughout Yosemite but only in the highest-use areas of Sequoia-Kings and the National Forests (e.g. Mt. Whitney Zone in Inyo). In lower-use areas, there tends to be less bear activity.

Last summer I yo-yo’d the Pfiffner Traverse in 9 days, starting at Berthoud Pass. By the time I reached Rocky Mountain National Park, where canisters are required, I was able to fit all of my food inside the canister. In the James Peak and Indian Peaks Wilderness, I used other accepted methods to store my food at night.

2. Unlocked

July 20, 2012. A bear came into the campsite and broke into an improperly closed carbon fiber canister. The bear was able to eat a bag of trail mix before it was scared away. Initial verbal yells and rocks did not phase the bear. After screaming loudly the bear ran away. The visitor was contacted and disclosed that only one of three clasps on the canister were latched properly. The bear pried the top off and sheared the single closed clasp to obtain the food. The canister was not smashed.

July 25, 2013. The bear canister was screwed closed but not past the locks on the lid. The canister was opened but not broken. The bear clawed through plastic bags and obtained food. Food eaten includes pancake mix, salami, power bars, Gu gel, crackers, and nuts.

This would seem like an obvious one, but there were at least 10 cases of bears getting into unlocked canisters. Bears are smart and persistent, and have exceptionally strong and dexterous claws. Due to past successes, they will attempt to twist off the tops of BearVaults and pry off the tops of Bearikades and Garcias.

The solution to unlocked canisters is easy: lock them! Establish the double-checking of canisters as part of your nightly routine, along with brushing your teeth and emptying your bladder. In some groups, it may be worth assigning a canister tsar who oversees this responsibility.

3. Open

August 29, 20152 bear cans in camp, one was closed the other was open. Hikers were cooking soup. Bear walked up behind a log and stood up on its hind legs to peer at the hikers cooking soup. Hikers yelled and stood up and grabbed poles to bang together. Hikers became scared and thought the bear was becoming aggressive so they backed away from their open canister. Bear approached canister, grabbed it by its opening, and walked away. Canister was unrecovered. Bear obtained trail mix, bars, and medications from a first aid kit.

Some bears in Yosemite exhibit remarkably brazen behavior, because they have been “trained” to, i.e. brazen behavior = food. Sometimes they get shot with rubber bullets by rangers and hit by rock-throwing backpackers when they get too close, but they also encounter scared individuals and groups who “sacrifice” their canister for the sake of personal safety.

That reaction is understandable, but it does not help the backpacker or the bear. If your canister is open, never be more than a step away. And if a bear enters camp, immediately lock your canisters and then start throwing things at it (e.g. rocks, sticks, sugar pine cones), aiming for non-face areas. In bear language, this defensive behavior says, “Go away. There are easier calories elsewhere.”

4. Rolled away

June 2, 2015Campers at Snow Creek bridge had bear canister taken. Second time in 2 years at the same area. Could not find canister in surrounding area. No evidence of bear. Model of container is Bear Vault 450.

June 5, 2015Two bear canisters were rolled into Snow Creek overnight. Even after taking all precautions. Also the bear chewed on some camping gear like our table cloth and plastic bag probably due to tiny amounts of food residue.

No less than 30 canisters went “missing” after a bear rolled it away in the middle of the night. This was exceptionally common along Snow Creek — canisters get rolled into the creek (which has enough volume in late-spring/early-summer to carry away a canister) or off the nearby cliffs. According to NPS, the problem is with one specific bear and this one specific location. They have responded by seasonally closing this area.

The park recommends storing canisters outside of camp, for safety reasons. But pick the spot wisely. Personally, I keep my canister about 20 feet away and leave my (clean) cookpot on top, so that I would be woken up by the commotion.

5. Structural failure

August 3, 2012. Bear got food from IGBC approved “Lighter1.com” brand canister by breaking the hardware that keeps the lid on. The visitor reported the bear at 2300 and described it as being “black”. The bear got the complete contents of the container including: 2.5 bags of mixed nuts, half a salami, 2 bags of triscuits, 6 “Zoneperfect” bars, half a bag of vita-light juice mix.

July 18, 2013. Bear took rental Garcia canister out of a spot in the bushes around 1:40am. I got out and chased the bear away. I placed the canister deeper in the bushes. We were awake for another hour-hour and a half. We didn’t hear it again, but in the morning it was gone. On our hike out we found the empty and broken canister without lid about half way down the [Snow Creek Trail] switchbacks.

July 31, 2013. A JMT hiker decided to use an Ursack [pre-S.29 AllWhite version, now Ursack Major] for most of the JMT because, “it was much lighter and pack friendly.” The visitor understood that, “it was not approved for parks like Yosemite because the food could be obtained by the bears by chewing on the fabric even if they didn’t tear it open.” When she got to Yosemite she, “signed up for a free bear canister loan program, but kept her Ursack in case of overflow items.” She and her friend woke up in the night to scratching and saw a sow with cub, “trying to get into her food bag 80 ft. away. They shouted, shone lights, and threw rocks.” By ’30 minutes’ into the encounter, “the bears had a hole in the side of the ‘bear proof’ bag.” Eventually those bears moved on, but before the night was out, two more bears had stopped by to eat the food and garbage still left. The visitor was left with, “a demolished Ursack and a whole lot of slobbery bear smelling mush.”

August 10, 2014. Bear juggled and threw bear canister until it popped open. Bear consumed all contents: oatmeal, rice, shot blocks, cliff bars.

When used properly, only a few canisters flat-out failed. In most cases, they were smashed open after being rolled off a cliff, usually along — you guessed it! — Snow Creek. Canisters are not designed to incur such forces.

It would be helpful to know the brand of the broken canister, but the spreadsheet did not always specify it or include sufficient clues (e.g. “carbon fiber” = Bearikade). From what I can gather, when used properly there were no reported cases of broken Bearikades or the Ursack Major (formerly S.29 AllWhite), and only one BearVault. The Garcia canister failed most often, but you’d expect that since they are the most common rental canister. Per updated maintenance guidelines from Backpackers Cache, NPS was able to reduce the frequency of failures of their rental fleet.

Questions about bear canister best practices? Have an experience to share? Leave a comment.


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33 Responses to Not bear- or idiot-proof: Documented canister failures

  1. Rishi Maharaj April 9, 2018 at 3:11 pm #

    I’ve had my own “slobbery bear mush” experience with an Ursack (in Bruce Peninsula National Park in Canada). Although the bear was not able to puncture the sack or obtain any food, its contents were completely crushed and rendered unusable. As the camp was on the shore of Georgian Bay, the sound of waves obscured any commotion caused by the bear.

    Fortunately, I was only 20-odd km from the trailhead and was able to simply return to my car on an empty stomach, but it highlights why you might not want to use this method of food storage on a longer trip in a known high bear-activity area. Losing your entire food supply, say, 100 km from a trailhead could be disastrous.

    • Mike H April 10, 2018 at 10:05 am #

      Rishi,

      I hike in the Bruce all the time. I’m curious which site/location you had the bear encounter at.

      • Rishi Maharaj April 10, 2018 at 1:19 pm #

        Hi Mike, it was at High Dump backcountry campsite.

  2. seano April 9, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    “By ’30 minutes’ into the encounter…”

    What?! A half-hour of shining lights and chucking rocks at a bear?

    That said, I’m not surprised that this happened in the Sierra, where bears have apparently learned to break into cars when they see cooler-shaped objects inside. I haven’t had any problems with my Garcia so far, but I may start carrying bear spray on future backpacking trips there.

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2018 at 3:22 pm #

      I have a better solution: just avoid these four areas, and particularly Snow Creek and LYV.

      • Rob April 9, 2018 at 5:36 pm #

        I’ve been to LYV a few times, and have yet to see a bear there. Not saying that they aren’t there, just that I haven’t seen any. Have been warned by rangers about bears there. Plus, there are bear boxes there.

  3. Matt April 9, 2018 at 3:40 pm #

    I was waiting for you to talk about sleeping with your overflow food in an opsack; your thoughts on that?

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2018 at 4:14 pm #

      I think Opsack’s are marginally useful in minimizing food odors, mostly when new. After few uses, the exterior is contaminated. And bears have a remarkable sense of smell, so they’re going to pick up any food smell.

      As far as sleeping with food, I think it’s perfectly acceptable in areas without bears, and relatively safe in areas without problem bears (do your homework to determine if there are “problem bears” around, and unfortunately you could be the one to experience the first problem). I would NOT sleep on my food in the epicenters of bear activity in Yosemite. No f’ing way. They are just too bold and too comfortable around humans. It wouldn’t be legal, but you might be able to get away with it in Slide or Stubblefield Canyons (where few people go and where bears are not used to getting food), but I’m not even sure I would risk it there — those areas are just a day’s walk from Tuolumne for a bear.

      • Brian C June 4, 2018 at 9:48 am #

        About 15 years ago, we were camped in little Yosemite valley near a scout troop. Overnight, one of the scouts had left some granola bars in his pack accidentally. He was woken in the night when a bear opened the side of his tent, climbed over him, and then left with the pack.

        • Andrew Skurka June 5, 2018 at 11:41 am #

          I wonder how many times that Scout has told that story in the last 15 years.

          I also wonder if his mom ever let him go on a Scout trip again.

  4. Emily April 9, 2018 at 4:20 pm #

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Yosemite has actually closed the snow creek area to backpacking now because of the incidents there. Apparently those rolled canisters were no accident: the sow had learned to roll canisters off cliffs and was teaching her cub! They are very smart animals.

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2018 at 4:41 pm #

      Good to know, thanks for the update. Not at all surprising.

    • Mike April 10, 2018 at 3:54 pm #

      Just to clarify, you can’t camp near Snow Creek bridge due to bear activity, but you can still get a WIlderness permit for Mirror Lake > Snowcreek trailhead and camp farther ahead, for example around Porcupine Creek, Lehamite Creek, or the saddle of North Dome. I was aware of the bear warnings at the time and their wit for rolling bear canisters down cliffs, so I made sure to put my Bearikade in a depression that couldn’t happen and put my cookware on top of it for alarm. I’ve done this twice last year, once in September and again in December. Unfortunately never saw any wildlife except deer.

  5. Joe S April 9, 2018 at 4:20 pm #

    Some reviews of the BV500 show a couple of failure cases. I was shocked to see an actual hole in the canister.

    https://www.rei.com/product/768902/bearvault-bv500-food-container

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

      I’d like to know the full story, because that’s impressive, and there is not one single report in the spreadsheet about a BearVault that was destroyed like this. I wonder if this can was rolled off a cliff and then chewed on.

      bearvault-bv500-failure

  6. Randy April 9, 2018 at 6:02 pm #

    “Canister Tsar” – I think we need a patch to go with that.

  7. bcap April 9, 2018 at 6:12 pm #

    I camped between LYV and the half dome turnoff. We basically pitched our tent on bear scat. Turns out that was as dumb as it sounds. The bear picked up our garcia over its head and started to smash it on the rocks. We yelled and banged pots and pans and shone flashlights in its face for 20 minutes before it left. The way he was smashing it on the rocks I really thought it was going to explode like a pinata. I was also getting worried it was going to end up in a creek… it started 200 ft from the creek, but every smash to the ground it rolled a few feet closer. Only time in 100 or so nights in the sierras that a bear touched my bear can, but man-oh-man did he make up for all the missed chances. I never reported it — my guess is most times that bear cans ‘work’ they don’t get reported.

  8. Tom April 9, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

    Andrew,

    I’m curious if you were carrying bear spray, would you approach a bear (black bear) that was attempting to get into your food (in a bear canister or Ursack) and use the spray to try and scare it off?

    • Andrew Skurka April 10, 2018 at 1:17 pm #

      Besides bear spray being illegal in Yosemite (thanks for the reminder, John), I think throwing rocks, hard and relentlessly if necessary, is a sufficient deterrent, based on my experiences. I have not dealt with LYV bear, but the bears in SEKI have run very quickly as soon as a group of 10 people started throwing rocks at it.

  9. John April 10, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

    Be advised that bear spray is illegal in Yosemite.
    https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/weapons.htm

    • seano April 10, 2018 at 2:08 pm #

      Thanks for the heads-up — I’m surprised that bear spray is illegal in Yosemite. I have to chuckle at the fact that you can carry a firearm, but not a can of pepper spray or a “hand-thrown spear.”

      • Rob April 10, 2018 at 5:02 pm #

        You can carry a firearm, but it’s illegal to discharge it.

        • Chris May 12, 2018 at 4:37 pm #

          Then what’s the point?

  10. Kristy April 10, 2018 at 3:45 pm #

    I was planning to leave a comment about two bear canister stories around North Dome from 2012. I had to look up where Snow Creek is and that’s the exact spot! We camped closer to Porcupine Creek but in the morning hiked past the Snow Creek bridge and there were two parties there missing ALL of their food. The bears had rolled their canisters over the embankment into to the creek and the canisters split on the rocks below.

  11. Doug K April 13, 2018 at 1:16 pm #

    fascinating, thank you.. so much for the Ursack then, good for mini-bears only.

    My son camped at Conundrum Hot Springs above Aspen without a canister, having ignored his father’s warnings to rent one. They didn’t have bear trouble but had ranger trouble on the way out.. $210 fine. My plan is sleeping only in less popular areas where the bears are hunted, which gets them thoroughly spooked of human interaction.

    • Gement April 16, 2018 at 5:23 pm #

      Note that the chewed-through bag was not the current model of Ursack; there were some material changes between then and the current model. No reports of *current* Ursack failures that were not user error. (Unless you count smashed food as a failure, but it’s not rewarding the bear.)

  12. Dave Spencer April 14, 2018 at 10:13 am #

    A variation on #3, “Open” is ages ago, maybe 1982, somewhere in Yosemite, pre-bear canister days, we rolled into a camp with bear boxes and put down our packs around, say, 4 in the afternoon, and instantly a bear appeared and scared us off and started tearing into our heavy duty pre-UL Lowe backpacks…

    so beware the surprise attack at a common time to roll into camp & as a defense, instantly go for the bear boxes.

  13. Jor April 15, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

    I started backpacking in the Colin Fletcher days. 1970.

    First, I wonder why anyone would seek wilderness bliss in such no-longer-wild hellholes, but Californians are a curious species in their own right.

    Take the Grand Canyon. I first hiked most of its trails in 1972. For a month below the rim (with a few ascensions to resupply.)

    Fast forward 10 years. A year long bicycle tour. My girlfriend and I hiked many of the same trails. It was a nightmare. We left our tent on the Rim, and had rodents running all over us, including our faces, some nights.

    I’m guessing that your recent predilection toward off-trail hiking has as much to do with the diminishing quality of experience on popular trails, due to fearless, aggressive animals, as with your stated desire for greater challenges, Andrew.

    I suppose if you don’t know any better, the wildlife challenges on big-name trails are just problems to deal with. Part of the “wilderness” experience.

    Maybe it’s better than life in the city. Sadly, it likely is.

    For me, those are simply places I won’t go, though.

  14. Gordon June 8, 2018 at 6:39 pm #

    Would you count toothpaste tablets as scented?

    • Andrew Skurka June 12, 2018 at 3:01 pm #

      Yes

      • Gordon June 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

        Well, darn. Them bears is tricky.

  15. Zachary Groff June 29, 2018 at 1:28 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Heading to the Aspen Four Pass Loop in a little more than a month- I think the requirement for bear canisters is pretty new here. Back in PA I’ve had success with just Opsaks. In North Central PA bears are hunted and scare easily so they work well (have even used as my pillow from time to time). This would be illegal in White River obviously. Have you ever used both together, i.e. food packed in opsak packed in bear vault? Sounds like there has been increased bear boldness in that area in recent years.

    Thanks for everything!

    • Andrew Skurka June 29, 2018 at 8:25 pm #

      The two are redundant. Would just recommend a Bearvault.

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