During the day, properly protecting food is as simple as not leaving it (or a backpack full of it) unattended.
The conversation about overnight food protection is longer and more nuanced. Multiple techniques can be used; regulations vary by location; and misinformation and poor practices are abundant.
In this post I will focus on one specific food protection technique: hard- and soft-sided canisters and sacks that are resistant to bears and/or “mini-bears,” a term that I believe originated at Philmont Scout Ranch and that refers to the mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, marmots, pikas, racoons, porcupines, gray jays and other small animals that seem to take up residence in popular frontcountry and backcountry campsites.
Hard-sided canisters vs. soft-sided sacks
Hard-sided canisters like the BearVault BV500 are heavy and cumbersome. But they have proven to be the most effective protection technique against both bears and mini-bears.
I carry a hard-sided canister when I am required to. I don’t enjoy it, but do I appreciate the peace of mind that it affords. It also doubles as a decent camp chair.
Canisters are not immune from human error, however. Bears have been “rewarded” by:
- Finding canisters that were accidentally left unlocked;
- Breaking open canisters by rolling them off cliffs; and,
- Walking into camp during dinnertime, hoping that everyone runs away and leaves behind unlocked canisters.
Go ahead, laugh — it wasn’t your canister. But don’t repeat these mistakes.
When camping in areas with a bear/mini-bear risk but without canister regulations, I often carry a wildlife-resistant food sack like the Ursack Major (formerly S.29 AllWhite). This form factor is much lighter and comfortable than hard-sided canisters.
Sadly, Ursacks are generally not accepted as an approved food storage technique, even though the Major has passed the gold-standard Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee test. Read this interview with the CEO of Ursack for additional performance and regulatory insight.
Where are canisters required?
Hard-sided canisters are increasingly the go-to solution for land managers who want to reduce wildlife/food conflicts. They are now required throughout or in specific parts of:
- Adirondack High Peaks;
- Canyonlands National Park;
- Inyo National Forest;
- John Muir Trail;
- Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado;
- North Cascades National Park;
- Olympic National Park;
- Pisgah National Forest;
- Rocky Mountain National Park;
- Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park;
- Sierra National Forest; and,
- Yosemite National Park.
This list may not be exhaustive. Check local regulations before you go.
Purchase or rent?
Canisters and sacks can be purchased online and at local outdoor retail stores. Most cost $50-$80, although carbon fiber models will run $255 to $350.
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, owning a canister is probably more cost-effective in the long run. And it’s certainly more convenient — you can arrive at the trailhead with your canister packed and ready to go.
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 51 days (at $5/day for a $255 canister), not including shipping or taxes.
Canister and sack comparison
If you are in the market for a wildlife-resistant storage container, this section will be very helpful. I have collected the key specifications for each canister and sack currently available (i.e. no discontinued models) and compared their performance stats.
There are two useful calculations in comparing canisters:
- Volume per weight, and
- Volume per price
If you are debating between two models that have comparable specs, consider the ease of opening, commercial availability, and opaqueness.
By my count, there are 19 hard-sided canisters and soft-sided sacks currently available. Sorted by brand and then volume, they are:
Comparison: Volume per weight
In the table below, I have sorted the canisters and sacks by their volume-per-weight calculation (specifically, cubic inches divided by ounces). A high number is more desirable than a low number.
By this metric, the Ursacks are the hands-down winners. They provide up to 122 cubic inches per ounce, which is nearly five times better than the top-rated hard-sided canister.
Among hard-sided canisters, the Bearikade models — which are made of carbon fiber — have more storage volume for their weight than other models. For example, the Weekender is 22 percent larger for its weight than the BV500, which is made of transparent polycarbonate.
Notice that larger canisters and sacks perform better than smaller ones. This is due to the relationship of surface area and volume: a doubling of surface area triples the volume. For example, the Bear Vault BV500 offers 30 percent more volume per ounce than the smaller Bear Vault BV450, even though they are identical construction and materials.
The Lighter1 models may be unfairly represented in this chart, because the 6-oz lid and 1-oz handle can double in a kitchen set, saving the weight of a pot and pot grip. Adjusting for this use, the volume-to-weight ratio of the Lil’ Sami and Big Daddy are 14.3 and 18.1, respectively. This puts the Big Daddy ahead of the BearVault 500. In actuality, they are probably about even, since a conventional pot and pot grip weigh less than 7 oz.
Comparison: 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). A higher ratio is better.
Here, we can see the cost of the Bearikades — $1 buys only 2.0 to 2.6 cubic inches, making them about four times more expensive per volume as, say, the BearVault BV500.
Purchase a carbon fiber Bearikade model if you:
- Have a generous budget;
- Obsess over every ounce in your pack; and/or,
- Backpack regularly in areas that require hard-sided canisters.
Purchase a BearVault or Lighter1 model if you:
- Have a smaller budget; and/or,
- Are willing to carry about 10 extra ounces to save about $200.
Finally, purchase an Ursack if hard-sided canisters are not required where you backpack regularly.
Personally, I own a BearVault BV500 and Ursack Major. I use the BV500 when it’s required, and the Ursack Major in areas with bears and/or mini-bears but without canister regulations.
Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested information, insights, and advice, and I have a long-term incentive to be a trustworthy source. I do not publish sponsored content or native advertising, and I do not accept payments in exchange for reviews. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products.
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