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:
- Ursack Major ($80, 8 oz),
- Ursack Major XL ($100, 8.8 oz), and
- Ursack AllMitey ($125, 13 oz).
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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I wonder if Olympic will ever follow their lead?
I have never had a problem using zip lock bags and eating everything I had. I have also never ran into a bear in the back country.
I just tried to put a bear lock container in my osprey backpack. Who ever designed it, must not think much about convenience or efficiency. They might have put a handle on it, so I can pull it out of the bottom of my backpack.
The price is ridiculus for all products. Solution 1-Plant their food in their habitat, since it is burning up exponentially year after year!!
“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.”
Wow, what a dick move. Also potentially reckless, no? Leaving hikers starving up in the mountains, great…
Disagree. From most campsites in Rocky, it’s only a couple of hours out to a road. If the liner-less Ursacks were found deeper than that, I’m sure it would just be a citation, because that could become a safety issue as you suggest.
This is welcome news, thanks for passing it along. I have no problems paying for an Ursack to avoid carrying my canister because it is clearly a nice product with a lot of R&D put into it. But $40 more seems like a lot of money for a sheet of aluminum. I’ve never seen one of the inserts in person, though, so I don’t know if there is something special about them that goes beyond the basic specs on their website. On the surface this seems like a good simple candidate for a DIY project. The use of the phrase “commercially-made” in the official policy language, however, would seem to make a homemade version technically out of compliance. This is definitely not the time to push the limits of the new regulation just when the park has responded to our many requests and loosened up the canister requirement. Still, it makes me wonder.
Ursack purchases the liners from another vendor, so you end up with two middlemen (and thus two markups) in the supply chain. With their products, a retailer like REI is the only middleman. With the liners, you get Ursack and the retailer.
If you have some rudimentary machinist training, I’m certain that you could make one of these. Start with an aluminum tube, maybe 12″ diameter; I don’t know the gauge. Cut it vertically, and then file down all the sharp edges.
While this DIY version would not classify as being “commercially made,” the end product would be identical. Or, it could even be better than the Ursack version, which does not fully protect the contents of a Major XL. An XL is 21 inches tall, whereas the Liner is only 10 inches tall. So only about half the XL is crush-resistant.
I received the same information in September from the very nice woman with dreadlocks at the RMNP backcountry office: Ursack with aluminum insert is now approved. This was not the case (or, at the very least, it was not presented as an option) during my previous trip in 2018. I own an Ursack Major XL but not the insert, so I sucked it up and packed in my BV500 on my latest family trip. I’ll pick up a liner before my next trip in Rocky.
I have not met that ranger, but I’m glad to hear you had that experience. I’ve also met a few very friendly rangers there, notably Andrew (good name!) this summer. He was more respectful and collegial than any ranger I’ve probably ever met, and it was really refreshing to not feel like I was being treated like a first-time backpacker or like I was guilty until proven innocent.
I became aware of this change in policy last summer while idly perusing the summer tourist newsletter. I called the Backcountry office and was told the rangers needed to see the Ursack/liner combo before approving it. Ironic, because when I brought in into the office most of the rangers had never even seen an Ursack. As you state, nowhere in the online backcountry regs do they talk about the change. I sure hope they keep it in place, as it literally weighs half of what the next-closest option weighs. Progress!
This is great news. Now Ursak approved and previous policy of no dogs RMNP is an attractive backpacking option( over IPW). If only I didn’t have to get my permits in person.
Do we know if Ursacks are still allowed in 2020? Updated wilderness page says:
“A bear canister
Wilderness Food Storage
Between April 1 and October 31, all food items and garbage must be secured inside a hard sided commercially-made carry in/carry out bear-resistant food storage container.
This is required for park wilderness areas below tree line and in the Boulder Field of Longs Peak, due to recurring wildlife incidents. Other methods of food storage are not permitted in the wilderness during this period.
Last updated: May 26, 2020”
I haven’t received guidance from NPS one way or the other. Since that page was updated less than a week ago, I wonder if they’ve backtracked on Ursacks. I’d put in a phone call to confirm.
I called the Wilderness Office today, and they confirmed that an Ursack with liner is still OK. They will ask you to show it to them at the office before issuing your permit.
We’re heading in this afternoon, so I guess we’ll find out for sure!
Any update for 2021?
Not that I’ve heard. Consult the online info to confirm.
What have you found to be the best way to pack that aluminum liner?
Inside the Ursack.
Yup. I roll it up as tight as I can get it, rubber band it, and stick it inside the Ursack.