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Reader Q: Where should I put my bear canister or Ursack at night?

Dave Chenault making dinner at an at-large campsite in Glacier National Park, where Ursacks are allowed. After dinner we would anchor our Ursacks at shoulder-height to a robust tree.

In a comment to my recent post about the ineffectiveness of bear bags and recommended alternatives, reader Jim N. asked,

Where is the recommended place to store a BV450 bear canister overnight in black bear country?

I received a similar question via email from David N., so a standalone post on the issue seems warranted. But to give a more comprehensive answer, I’ll broaden the question to:

Where and how should bear canisters and Ursacks be stored overnight?

Official recommendations

Let’s first look at what the land agencies and manufacturers suggest:

Hard-sided canisters

1. Put them a “safe” distance away from camp. Yosemite National Park recommends a distance or 25 to 50 yards. I have not found a specific recommended distance for grizzly habitat.

2. Avoid any location where they can be rolled away.

3. Do not attach anything to the canister (e.g. a rope or handle) that would make it easier to carry away.

For a few other tips, go here and here.

Ursacks

1. Seal the Ursack with a double overhand knot.

2. Anchor it to an unbreakable tree or branch, as high as you can reach, using a figure-8 knot, which is easy to tie and which resists cinching. Do not anchor it low to the ground, which will make it easier for a bear to smash and get leverage.

3. If you have more than one Ursack, spread them apart by about 25 yards.

For additional recommendations, go here.

My recommendations

The official recommendations mostly sound reasonable. I would add only a few things:

1. Distance from camp

In black bear habitat, usually I keep my canister or Ursack closer to my camp, probably more like 10 to 20 yards. It’s far enough away that a bear shouldn’t step on me or confuse me with my food, but it’s close enough that I can hear a bear messing with it. It’s also close enough to deter most bears, which generally are uncomfortable entering an occupied camp.

In grizzly habitat, I’m less bold. A 25-yard minimum sounds about right.

2. Surroundings

When using a canister, I try to find a spot where it will be difficult to roll far or to roll out of view. Look for a talus field or rock garden, a shallow but steep-sided depression, thick brush, or a flat open meadow.

Be particularly careful of nearby creeks and cliffs. Famously, a bear in Yosemite learned that canisters would explode if she rolled them off a cliff near Snow Creek.

3. Alarm bells

Often I will put my clean cook pot on top of my canister or Ursack, so that it makes noise if a bear (or maybe a large rodent) begins to investigate my food. If I’m sleeping soundly and wrapped in a noise-muffling mummy bag, hopefully I’ll wake up.

4. Ursacks above treeline

It’s best to secure an Ursack to an unbreakable tree or limb. If you’re above treeline or in the Arctic, use the next best thing available. For example, tie it around the base of a boulder, or around a boulder that’s wedged in a talus field. Make it difficult for a bear to carry it away.

Have additional questions or tips? Leave a comment.

12 Responses to Reader Q: Where should I put my bear canister or Ursack at night?

  1. Matt M. January 15, 2019 at 6:59 pm #

    Speaking of “alarm bells,” do you think there is any merit to putting a bear bell inside a bear canister as an alarm / deterrent?

    • Andrew Skurka January 15, 2019 at 7:09 pm #

      If you rigged up an air horn or electrified it, that might cause the bear to temporarily back away. I don’t think a bell would do squat.

      • Randy January 15, 2019 at 10:59 pm #

        No, not to scare the bear, but to wake you up. I have been pondering how to make a alarm system as well. Your pot idea is pretty good. But on the other hand, maybe a serious noise maker might actually scare a bear as well. Like a motion activated electronic alarm. I suppose it would need a timer shutoff feature too, so you don’t habe to get out and stop it lol.

        I am thinking that if you can stop the intruder early on, it might lower the chances that they will get excited about the food they just found and they will be easier to scare away. It also lowers the chances that they will do any damage.

        I’m curious what you guys think of the general idea of using an alarm system to enhance your food storage method. Now seems like the perfect time to ask.

        • Andrew Skurka January 16, 2019 at 9:38 am #

          To put my response in context, you have to consider that I’ve NEVER had a bear walk into my camp and mess with my food. At some point, you stop worrying about such things. I’m sure my experience would be different if I camped in Little Yosemite Valley or at Glen Aulin with hordes of other people, but I don’t, and I think that’s a big reason why I don’t have the food/bear issues that are common elsewhere.

        • Bill Kinkaid February 9, 2019 at 10:49 am #

          Randy, ever been car camping and heard someone’s car alarm go off in the middle of the night? If you can rig up an alarm so that a small animal or a breeze doesn’t set it off, go for it. Otherwise that sounds like a bad idea.

  2. Steve January 18, 2019 at 4:11 pm #

    For clarification, are you saying that ideally, Ursaks should be hanged in a way commonly thought to hang a bear bag? So, bear bags are all but pointless, but in bear country a canister or Ursak is a good bet, the later of which should ideally be hung like a bear bag? I realize this comes off a little snarky, but it wouldn’t if I were speaking the question. Looking to gain insight from your experience.
    This series of blog posts on the subject is creating tangents that are hard to follow. Might suggest drawing up some kind visual aid like a decision flow chart. IE: “Is the area known for bears”––>IF NO, keep food in a clean Loksak and sleep with it inside shelter. IF YES….––>”Is the area known for grizzly bears or just black bears?” Here’s one for figuring out whats wrong with a broken lamp: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LampFlowchart.svg

    • Andrew Skurka January 18, 2019 at 7:48 pm #

      Ursacks can be hung as a normal bear bag, but the beauty of the Ursack is that it doesn’t need to be, and in fact that’s discouraged.

      An Ursack should be tied at shoulder-height to an unbreakable limb or tree, or some other bomber anchor. That’s it. You don’t need to hang it to defend it, because its construction is its defense.

      If you were to hang it, you run the risk of a bear running off with your entire Ursack if they manage to get it down.

      Agree with the decision-making tree. There’s a lot of nuance to this topic.

      • Steve January 19, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

        Got it. There’s a difference between “secure/anchor” and “hang.”

        Thanks Skurk-Dawg, Bruh!

  3. Mark Ritchie January 29, 2019 at 12:46 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Do you prefer/recommend the ursack allmitey or major when in bear country? Does the Major adequately resist mini bears too? I ask because if you’re in bear country, you’ll of course still encounter mini bears too (most likely).

    • Andrew Skurka January 29, 2019 at 9:02 pm #

      The Major does not adequately resist mini bears. Rodents have sharper teeth and they can chew through the fabric.

      I still go with the Major, though, because where I camp I don’t tend to have rodent issues. If there are rodents around, they’re not trained enough to climb 6 feet up a tree to get my food.

  4. Mark Ritchie January 29, 2019 at 9:40 pm #

    Thanks Andrew. At this point, I’m mainly hiking in the Sierra and San Gabriels. It doesn’t seem that I’ve run across major rodent issues aside from an overly bold chipmunk or two (occasionally). I may just lean towards the Major and anchor to trees about 6 ft up. Thanks for your feedback and information you have made available. It’s been invaluable to my efforts to get back out in the wilds.

  5. Buck Nelson February 4, 2019 at 8:14 pm #

    More good advice Andrew. I usually put my canister or Ursack downwind of my tent. There’s some chance an un-habituated bear will spook if they smell me, and less chance of a bold bear tripping on my shelter guy-lines if it’s following a scent line to check out my cache.

    I also like to put my cache out of sight.

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