Bears are strong, curious, smart and hungry. It was once a safe bet to hang your food in a tree, but curiosity and intelligence taught bears that “rope = food” — your food! The next evolution of bear defence was necessary, the bear canister.
Why use a bear canister?
No one benefits from bears getting your food – you have to pack out sooner than expected and the bears begin to rely on human food. This lead to serious overcrowding of bears and higher than normal bear-human encounters. Worse yet, bears were more sensitive to starvation since the peak season of camping ends in late August…well before the winter hibernation.
So, use a bear canister to protect your food and to protect the bears. This helps you on your trip, everyone on future trips and for the long-term management of the bear population.
When to (and not to) use a Bear Canister
First, canisters are required while camping in the Eastern High Peaks Zone for all food, food containers, and toiletries (April 1st – November 30th). In general outside the high peaks, they are useful on camping trips when bears are out of hibernation. They protect your food from bears and also from smaller, pack-chewing rodents (field mice!).
- They are only required if you are camping overnight – not on day hikes.
- Camping an island far from mainland – this one is your call. I’d still hang my food to protect from smaller animals and mice.
What to look for in a bear canister
There are a handful of manufacturers of bear canisters, with nearly a dozen models, so what should you look for?
- Size: How much food do you need to carry? One person’s food or two? How long? Containers come in sizes for 2-3 days, 4-5 days and 6-7 days. Your canister needs to be large enough for your longest outing, times two if you will have food for two people. Expert Tip: You do not need your first day’s food to fit in the bear canister since you will eat it before nightfall.
- Weight: The big drawback of bear canisters are they are HEAVY. Small canisters weigh about 2 pounds while larger ones weigh over 3 pounds. Consider the weight carefully when purchasing. If you can deal with the small size, the 3-day Bare Boxer Contender is the absolute lightest on the market at 1.6 pounds.
- Ease of use: What is required to open the canister? Tools or just your hands. This is a major benefit of BearVaults, since they open relatively easily without tools. Others require having a screw driver-like tool with you.
- Translucent or Black Sides: Transparent sides make it really easy to grab something from the bottom of your canister. Black sides make it very difficult to see what is inside since your only viewpoint is through a small opening. Worse, once your hand is in the opening, little light makes it in either. Some mention that the clear canisters can heat up in the sun, which is true, but so do the all-black canisters. Don’t let this bother you, no matter your canister, keep it out of the sun.
- Hard or Soft sides: Your vision of a bear canisters is likely the rigid-sided variety, but there are also soft-sided models available. Ursack makes a canister out of bullet-proof fabric that prevents bears from getting at your food. The benefit of the Ursack is that it is lighter and packs easily since it is flexible. The downside is that the bear cannot eat your food, but will squish your food, slobber all over it, and make it essentially inedible. This means you will have to leave the back country early to get more food. For this reason the Eastern High Peaks Zone requires a hard-sided canister.
- Cost: Most canisters range from $60 to $100, but the carbon fiber Wild Ideas Expedition costs $300! Our suggestion is to look at the $60 – $100 canisters and chose the one that works best for you. The good news is they all will last a long time, after all they are designed to be bear-proof so how can you break them?
Smaller Models – 2-4 Days
There are four models designed for a weekend (ordered by size):
Bare Boxers Contender ($55+s/h, 1.6 lb): The smallest and lightest bear canister. This makes a great weekend canister if you can pack carefully. More…
Lighter1 Lil’ Sami ($85+s/h, 1.8 lb): A creative design that combines a bear canister and pan into a single item.
BearVault BV450 ($67 locally, 2.1 lb): A smaller version of the popular BV500 designed for 3 days worth of food. BearVaults are the only canisters that do not need to use a tool. See the note below on the BearVault Brand.
UDAP No-Fed Bear ($70+s/h, 2.4 lb): In essence a larger model of the Bare Boxer contender, but smaller than the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache.
Wild Ideas Scout ($232+s/h, 1.8 lb): Made out of carbon fiber, this canister is both light and large (nearly twice the size of the bare boxer). This comes at a price though – $232. Factory direct rentals available by mail. More info
Larger Models – 5-7 Days
Bare Boxer Champ ($70 + s/h, 2.7 lb): A larger version of the Bare Boxer above – difficult to find.
Backpacker’s Cache Garcia Model 812 ($70 locally, 2.7 lb): A proven, time-tested bear canister that is also extremely popular as a rental. Available a most local retail outlets.
Wild Ideas Weekender ($249 + s/h, 1.9 lb): A larger version of the carbon fiber scout. Very lightweight of its size, but expensive too! Factory direct rentals available by mail.
Lighter1 Big Daddy ($90 + s/h, 2.7 lb): A larger version of the Lil’ Sami, this unique design has a lid that doubles as a pan.
BearVault BV500 ($80, 2.6 lb): Clear with a wide opening…this was a popular canister that competed in popularity with the Garcia. BearVaults are the only canisters that do not need to use a tool. Unfortunately its security came into question and local retailers stopped carrying it. See the note below on the BearVault Brand.
Counter Assault Bear Keg ($80, 3.5 lb): Similar to the Garcia, but slightly larger and heavier. If you do not need the extra size, stick with the popular Garcia.
Wild Ideas Expedition ($300, 2.3 lb): Lightweight carbon fiber makes this huge canister easy to carry. It is 50% larger than Garcia, but nearly a half pound lighter than the Garcia! The price tag though makes this only for the most serious large group hikers. Factory direct rentals available by mail.
Renting – Vendors, Considerations and Costs
Renting a bear canister for a 1-weekend per year trip can be a significant cost saver. Most outdoor stores rent them by the day, weekend and/or week.
Vendors include nearly every outdoor store in the Adirondacks, Interpretive Centers (north and south side of high peaks), plus nearly every EMS store outside the park. Call ahead to reserve it and updated rental prices. Standard prices are around $5/day, but cost varies widely. Call ahead to reserve and for more details.
Another consider to keep in mind is that you need to pick up and drop off the canisters when the stores are open. This might mean starting your trip later in the day or arriving the previous night early enough to get to a store before closing. Also consider the extra cost of gas/mileage and time before making your decision to rent rather than purchase.
- The Mountaineer (Keene Valley): $3 per night
- High Peaks Interpetive Center (ADK Loj): $5 for 2 nights, $10 for 3-4 nights, $15 for 5-6 nights, $20 for 7+ nights.
- Cloudsplitter (Newcomb): $5 first night, then $3 for each additional night
- Adirondack Buffalo Company (North Hudson): $5 per night
- Hoss’s (Long Lake): $5 per night
- Blue Line Sports (Saranac lake)
- Adirondacks Interpretive Center (Newcomb)
- EMS Stores: Price varies but is generally more expensive than above.
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Talk about bear canisters with someone and you might hear stories of ingenious bears breaking into bear canisters, and how BearVault canisters are “illegal” in the Adirondacks. Let’s set the facts straight (as of Spring 2014).
The BearVault line-up of bear canisters revolutionized the bear canister market in the early 2000s. The clear sides, huge opening and no need for a tool to open it are big improvements over the Backpacker’s Cache Garcia, which is the otherwise most popular canister on the market.
Fast forward to 2007 and enter a skittish, tiny 125-pound bear named Yellow-Yellow, named for her two yellow DEC ear tags. Through trial and error she learned to open the canisters much like a human would. Utilizing her incisor tooth, she pushed the stop bump and spin the lid open.
This caused quite the commotion for five years, which mythical stores abound. Was she the only bear? Did she teach her cubs to open the canisters? False reports of bears opening improperly closed canisters. Yellow-Yellow is a legend.
She died in fall 2012 and since then there have been no known bear break-ins of BearVaults in the Adirondacks. Therefore BearVaults no longer carry the warning in the high peaks.
Most local outlets no longer sell the BearVaults, so finding one is difficult, but you have an old one or are given one from a friend/relative for a trip, go ahead and use it.
- Use it as a stool!
- Do not attach anything to the canister. For example if you wrap a strap around the canister, a bear will happily pick it up and walk away with it.
- Consider how you will carry the canister when purchasing. In the pack? Outside the pack? They are large and can be difficult to carry. Some carrying bags are available to make it easier to strap to the outside of your pack.
- A benefit of the hard-sided canister, compared to a soft-sided canister like a Ursack, is that your food will not get squished and force you to leave the back country early.