For the 2019 season, Rocky Mountain National Park made a significant revision to its wilderness food storage regulations, giving backpackers a new option that is lighter and more user-friendly than the hard-sided canisters that have been required since 2014.
To date, the park has not consistently or widely communicated this policy change on its website or through its backcountry rangers, leading to public confusion.
My understanding of the new regulation is based on two telephone calls with the Wilderness Office and a face-to-face conversation with an on-duty ranger. I had a strong incentive for knowing and complying with the policy, since my company guided six trips (with 52 clients total) in the park this summer.
The official policy is correctly stated in the park’s Fall 2019 newspaper (page 11), which is distributed at entrance stations.
All food items and garbage must be secured inside an approved, commercially-made carry in/carry out bear-resistant food storage container that is either hard-sided or has a non-crushable insert in all areas of the park between April 1 and October 31.
But as I said earlier, the policy has not been consistently communicated. For example, the main Wilderness Camping page, which was last updated on October 3, still describes the old policy:
Interpreting the policy
Rocky Mountain National Park permits two types of food storage products:
- Hard-sided canisters (e.g. BearVault BV500), and
- Specific Ursack models in combination with the Aluminum Liner.
Unlike other National Parks, Rocky is not particular about canister models. It must merely be hard-sided, commercially made, and carry in/carry out (i.e. portable). The hard-sided canisters listed in my buyers guide all meet these standards.
From 2014 to 2018, hard-sided canisters were the only accepted food storage method in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ursack + Aluminum Liner
The permitting of bear-resistant Ursacks (when used with the Aluminum Liner) was the big change in 2019. Three specific models are permitted:
A fourth model, the Ursack Minor ($65, 5 oz), which is rodent-resistant but not bear-resistant, is not permitted.
On its own, the Ursack is not enough — it must be paired with the Aluminum Liner ($40, 10.8 oz). By making the Ursack more crush-resistant, theoretically the liner reduces the risk of viscous or crumbly calories exiting the Ursack and thus “rewarding” a bear.
The Park Service is serious about the liner. One ranger shared with me that he has packed out liner-less Ursacks that he found unattended, leaving them at the ranger station for retrieval by the hungry owners.
Recommendations: Canister vs Ursack+Liner
An Ursack+Liner combination is lighter and more packable than hard-sided canisters of similar volume, but in most cases more expensive. For example:
- Ursack Major + Liner = $120, 19 oz
- BearVault BV500 = $80, 41 oz
So an Ursack may be a worthwhile purchase if you:
- Backpack often in Rocky Mountain National Park,
- Have planned an ambitious every-ounce-counts itinerary,
- Can afford the optimal gear for every trip, or
- Backpack in other areas where Ursacks are permitted, such as Glacier National Park or Gates of the Arctic National Park, or unregulated bear-inhabited areas where they are simply a good idea.
Otherwise, hard-sided canisters will probably be the better long-term value, since they are more universally accepted.
Policy change explanation
When I asked NPS why it revised its policy, I never received a definitive or confident answer. It did not sound related to NPS system guidance, internal testing or research, or even IGBC certification. The best I could tell, the chief ranger thought the Ursack+liner would be appropriate in Rocky, and was willing to at least try it.
Leave a comment!
- What questions or thoughts do you have about the policy change?
- If you have backpacked in Rocky recently, what was your experience?
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