Bear Canisters: The Pros and Cons of Different Designs

Bear Warning

Those of us who hike in bear-prone areas are used to the monstrous, heavy beasts known as bear canisters. Required by both law and common sense, bear canisters are bear-proof containers for storing food and other odorous items in the backcountry. During the years I’ve been backpacking in the Sierra I’ve tried and seen several different bear canisters and thought I’d round up the pros and cons of each. This is not a comprehensive list; it is merely a list of the canisters with which I have experience.

This post includes information about the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache, the Bare Boxer, the Bear Vault, the Bearikade, and the Ursack.

Since I backpack in the Sierra, this post comes from experience with black bears and the requirements set forth by the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. Rules and regulations in your area may vary. Also, I should note that I have never had a bear try to get into my food – I do my best to keep ‘clean camp’ habits, and I also like to camp above treeline where bear encounters are less common.

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The photos below are all taken by me and are of my personal canisters. I included a soda can in each image for a scale reference. Also, many of my canisters have stickers – a good way to differentiate a canister when backpacking with a group.

The technical details (price, weight, volume, materials) of each canister are listed in a chart at the bottom of this post.

Bare Boxer and Garcia
Bare Boxer (left) and Garcia

Garcia Backpacker’s Cache

The Garcia has been around for longer than most of the canisters in this list, and it is by far the most recognizable of them. They are big black plastic beasts, well tested and approved throughout all of the California parks (most of the parks use them as their rental units). The best thing that the Garcias have going for them is their history. They have been used and approved for longer than the other options. There is little chance that they would lose their approval due to the heavy park use and endorsement, and if you want to invest in a single canister that you can rely on year in and year out, this has been the go-to option for many years. At around $70 a canister, they come in around the mid-price range and are only available in one size.

These things are durable monsters and will survive many a bear soccer game. Obviously this comes with some disadvantages. They are heavy, they are enormous and awkward to pack, and I’ve often referred to it as the ‘black hole’. Good luck finding that Jolly Rancher that fell to the bottom – you’ll be dumping everything out so that you can find things.

The lid is attached with a simple set of turn-locks – a coin, the end of a kitchen utensil, a pocket knife – all of them will allow you to lock and unlock a Garcia.

Bare Boxer

The Bare Boxer is like a mini-Garcia. It has a similar locking mechanism except it is slightly more sophisticated. The volume is small, but perfect for a single person on a short trip. The Bare Boxer is also very reasonably priced at approximately $40 USD.

One of my biggest complaints with the Garcia was having to carry it on a simple overnight. What a waste of space and weight! The Bare Boxer fills this niche perfectly! If you are a backpacker who only goes on 2-3 day trips, this is a great alternate to the bigger canisters.

Of course, like most of the canisters, the weight is still too much. The Bare Boxer, like the Garcia, is a solid piece of heavy ABS plastic and trying to find things in the ‘black hole’  is difficult. One advantage of the Bare Boxer, however, is that I can carry it in my smaller, overnight-sized packs that won’t hold the larger canisters. So the weight savings is usually more than just the savings over the larger canisters – using it means I can carry a smaller, lighter pack as well.

Personalized Bear Vault Solo
Personalized Bear Vault Solo

BearVault

The feature that differentiates the Bear Vault from the rest of the pack is that you can see where your stuff is. It is hard to see in the picture to the left due to the lighting and the stickers, but the main body is translucent blue. The Bear Vault comes in two different sizes and both have a  marginally better weight to volume ratio than the Garcia and Bare Boxer. The Bear Vault is priced similar to the Garcia, falling in the mid-price range category.

I carried the Bear Vault on the John Muir Trail in 2007 and the High Sierra Trail in 2008. I have been able to fit nearly seven days worth of food in the pictured smaller Bear Vault (this was with a lot of cramming and careful repackaging of food). With so much crammed into it, the fact that the sides are clear is a huge benefit. I am easily able to find what I need (like that Jolly Rancher…) without having to dump everything out.

The major disadvantage of the Bear Vault is the finicky lid. Instead of turn-locks to fasten the lid, it has a threaded lid with a ‘lip’ to lock it in place. You open the canister by pressing in this ‘lip’ and then unscrewing the lid. There have been several generations of the lid as bears have managed to break their way in to previous models. Make sure that the model/lid you have is approved before heading in to bear territory.

Also, like the other canisters, you can use the Bear Vault as a seat, but the lid must be fully screwed on first. The lip can break if you sit on it when the lid is not locked into place.

Bearikade Weekender
Bearikade Weekender

Bearikade

For lightweight backpackers, the Bearikade is the Rolls Royce of the bear canister world. It provides the best volume to weight ratio of all the hard-sided canisters, weighing nearly a pound less than the Garcia for a larger amount of space. Like the BearVault, Bearikades come in different size options. The Weekender model is almost 50% larger than the smaller Bear Vault yet weighs a couple of ounces less. I can fit a week’s worth of food in the Weekender (again, with careful repackaging) with room to spare.

The ‘black hole’ problem isn’t quite as bad as the Garcia and Bare Boxer – the interior is silver aluminum so it’s a bit brighter and easier to find things. Also, unlike those two canisters, the entire top comes off of the Bearikade. The bigger opening also helps for finding things and packing things inside.

So, what’s the downside of this remarkable hard-sided canister? You’ve probably guessed it from that Rolls Royce reference – they are expensive. The Bearikade Weekender pictured here currently retails at $225.00. It’s a compromise that not everyone is willing to make – but I’ve learned that people who backpack a lot are willing to spend gobs of money to save a few ounces. It took me nine years of backpacking in the Sierra before I was willing to drop that amount of money. Last I heard, the company will also rent them to John Muir Trail hikers for $50.

Ursacks
Ursacks

Ursack

Oh, the poor Ursack, treated like the red-headed stepchild of bear canisters. The Ursack’s approval is in a constant state of flux – some seasons it’s okay, but only certain models…other years it’s not approved at all. Sometimes you need the metal liner, sometimes you don’t… I really wish it would get straightened out since the Ursack is the lightest option of all the bear canisters and I’ve been very happy with mine.  Also, like the BearVault lid, even when it is approved you have to be sure that you have one of the approved models.

The Ursack has many different generations made of different ballistic fabrics (Spectra, Vectran, etc). There is also an aluminum liner than can be purchased separately that gives the Ursack some of the qualities and strengths of the hard sided canisters. The picture to the left shows the Vectran (white) model and an older Spectra (green) model with the liner inside.

The best thing about the Ursack, other than the weight, is the collapsibility. It is as big as you need it to be, and you don’t have that huge cylindrical piece of hard sided canister taking up the majority of your pack space. I carried the green model (with the liner, as pictured in the photo) on the John Muir Trail in 2006 (the year it was approved) and was very happy with it. The only problem I noticed, which can be solved with a small piece of Brillo pad squeezed under the opening, is that mice like to try and squeeze in through the top hole.

When I am hiking in territory where a canister isn’t required, I’ll usually take my Ursack instead of doing the hanging method. It’s worth the peace of mind and if for some reason I do have a bear wander into camp, my food stands a chance. Of course, that brings up another downside to the Ursack – a hard sided canister won’t collapse when a bear plays with it, but if a bear gets hold of your Ursack, you can bet the food inside will get crushed!

Summary

Many things go into choosing a bear canister: price, weight, approval status, volume, availability, etc. In my opinion, the Bear Vault is the best ‘middle-of-the-road’ compromise of all these things. But if you have the money, the Bearikade is the best weight to volume option out there other than the Ursack, and with the Bearikade there is no ambiguity as to its approval status. Hopefully the Ursack issues will be sorted and we will once again have this lightweight option in the Sierra.

Of course the nicest option is no bear canister at all, but  an irresponsible past (and  unfortunately, still too many irresponsible people in the present) have trained the bears to expect food from the camps of backpackers. Keeping our food protected will train the bears that maybe we’re not such a good source of food and they can go back to their natural foraging ways.

Bear Canisters by the Numbers

The details in the chart below were taken from the various manufacturer websites.

Canister Weight Volume $ Materials
Garcia 2 lb 12 oz 614 cu in $69.95 ABS Plastic
Bare Boxer 1 lb 13.6 oz 275 cu in $39.95 ABS Plastic
BearVault BV500 2 lb 9 oz 700 cu in $79.95 Polycarbonate
BearVault BV450 2 lb 1 oz 440 cu in $66.95 Polycarbonate
Bearikade Weekender 1 lb 15 oz 650 cu in $225.00 composite carbon-fiber and aluminum
Bearikade Expedition 2 lb 5 oz 900 cu in $275.00 composite carbon-fiber and aluminum
Ursack V27 7.5 oz 650 cu in $54.95 Vectran 27 yarns per inch
Ursack TKO 8.2 oz 650 cu in $49.95 Coated Spectra
Ursack Aluminum Liner (note that this combines
with one of the two bags listed above)
14 oz 650 cu in $20.00 Aluminum

 

The family of Bear Canisters
The family of Bear Canisters

Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd

Free range human. Mountain sports addict. Craft beer drinker. Tech nerd. The best days are those spent above 10k ft. Team OmniTen and Evernote Ambassador. Meet me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +

  • http://www.jeremylaporte.com Jeremy L

    Thanks for this article Rebecca. I was looking for it and it’s truly a great read.

  • Emré

    Great article, thanks for writing up. I’ve got a BearVault BV500. Ounces matter, but I see that Bearikade Expedition is almost as heavy as BearVault. Wondering if it’s really worth it. Ursack is the first thing in my shopping list, though. :-)

  • http://colocalders.com Kate TC

    Nice write-up thanks for this! I just read the other day that RMNP is now requiring bear canisters for backcountry camping, so we’ll definitely be making this investment soon. Like the new theme too! :)

  • Mark H.

    Nice article. Great synopsis of the differences between the different options. As another Urack (with liner) owner, I too wish they’d get approval straightened out; I was recently forced to purchase a Garcia Backpacker’s Cache for an upcoming Yosemite trip because the Ursack doesn’t have the proper approval. :(

  • http://www.WritingCollegeTextbookSupplements.com/blog John Soares

    I really appreciate this post. My nephew is hiking the Yosemite portion of the PCT this summer, so this is great information for him.

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  • http://backpackbasecamp.com Robin

    Very useful post, thanks. It’s a good summary of the main options.

    Robin
    BackpackBaseCamp Blog

  • http://alwaysjanuary.blogspot.com/ Randy

    Nice write up. I’m in the market for a bear can, so this is useful information. Out of curiosity, what do you cook your dehydrated backpacker meals in if you repackage them?

    I kind of like the convenience of cooking in the bag with nothing left to clean up, but the additional space in the canister on longer trips would be nice.

  • Calipidder

    @Randy – I usually just cook at dinner, and for most of my dinners I carry Enertia Trailfoods. They are quite compact and don’t require repackaging. If I do repackage anything, it goes into freezer-bag weight ziplocs since the cook-in-bag method works well with them. I create some of my own meals using freezer bag cooking (freezerbagcooking.com is a good resource). This is a great way to save on packaging *and* make just the right amount for me since the prepackaged stuff is never the right amount for me.

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  • http://lifeinyosemite.com Theresa

    This year’s search to update our backpacking gear continues with bear canister shopping. You mention being able to carry the Bare Boxer in a smaller overnight pack. What about the smaller Bear Vault? It looks like it would fit lengthwise in a smaller pack, but I thought I’d ask to make sure.

    Thanks so much for the write-up, by the way. I’m learning lots from your site.

  • Calipidder

    @Theresa – The reason that the Bare Boxer fits in a smaller pack is that it has a much smaller diameter than the other canisters. The Bear Vault Solo, while shorter, still is of the same width as the bigger canisters so it still has that awkward fit problem.

    When I carry any of these canisters (with the exception of the Bare Boxer or the Ursack) I *have* to carry my Osprey Ariel 55 (the biggest pack I own) just because my other lightweight/small packs either don’t fit them at all, or just don’t have the ability to *comfortably* hold something as wide or heavy as a full canister.

    I do have a couple of lightweight packs that do fit a canister (tightly!) but the canister distorts the frame enough that it makes them too uncomfortable – those lightweight packs don’t have heavy duty frames. And when I’m heading out for a week and the canister is full, I actually would carry the Osprey anyways since it carries the weight much better.

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  • Clint Stoddard

    Thank you for your review of Canisters. I will point out that there is something to be said for a bear canister that even a bear recognizes as bear proof. That’s why I’m sticking with the Garcia–peace of mind. I won’t get up in the middle of the night to scare off a bear to save my food supply from pulverization in an Ursack nor worry whether a smart bear can pop the lid off a Bear Vault canister. That peace of mind and hence, extra sleep, will help bare the added weight of the Garcia canister the next day.

  • http://jopinblog.wordpress.com John Opincar

    Great information. Thank you!

  • http://blog.badtux.net Badtux

    Great comparison. One thing I’ll note about the Bearvaults and that finickly lip: a coin between the tab and the peg can be exactly what’s needed to get the tab past the peg. Put coin between, and twist clockwise. It pushes the tab and the lid right past that peg. I figured this out accidentally while struggling with it for the nth time with cold wet fingers and realizing that what I needed was a tool to push in that tab, rather than trying to push it in with my fingers. I dug in my pocket for my pocket knife, hit a coin instead, and realized, wait, this would work even better.

    The BV450 is exactly the right size for me for my pack (a Gossamer Gear Mariposa) and the lengths of trips I take in Yosemite, and the smallest Bearikade simply would not physically fit into my pack. So this trick with the BV450 definitely makes me a happy penguin.

    - Badtux the Tool-using Penguin

  • http://timecheck00.blogspot.com Ralph Alcorn

    Just a side note on the Garcia. We used to have a couple of them, and in the winter I kept one of them outside in a shed, filled with birdseed. One day after having not been out there for several weeks, I opened the shed door and noticed some remnants of birdseed on the floor. Picked up the canister and it felt empty. Looked more closely, and on the rounded top corner was a gnawed hole about 1 1/2 inch in diameter. The local roof rats had found it. Since then, I have ratproofed the shed, but also don’t keep anything edible in there anymore.

    We donated the remaining Garcia to the Pacific Crest Trail canister program one year, and now use Ursacks, which have been fine outside of the JMT. If/when we have time to get back on the JMT my canister of choice would be the Bearikade Expedition. Last time we did the JMT, we rented them from wild-ideas.net

  • http://hikinglady.com Hiking Lady

    Great write-up on bear canisters! This is definitely a lot of useful info. Personally I’ve been using the BearVault BV450, but was surprised to read this NYT Article about how a bear named Yellow-Yellow was able to open them! Scary!

  • Choyoyo

    I know I’m late, but thank you for posting this review. Because of this, I was influenced to purchase the bare boxer for my weekend trips half a year ago (it fits much better in my Osprey aura than the larger bear canisters I have). FYI, the Bare Boxer Contender is actually lighter now, weighing in at 1 lb 9.6 oz, making the weight to volume ratio slightly better. Still the lightest hard sided canister out there though. Great write up!

  • http://calipidder Rosanne Gonzalez

    March 30th, 2010 Great article, my husband and I just bought new Osprey Packs (his/atmos 65 her/aura 65) for our week-end trips. To try them out for weight and load potential we put 18 lbs of dumb bells into our Garcia Canisters. They barely fit into our packs. I think we will be investing in the smaller Bare Boxer because the diameter of the Garcia is what kills the packability of our great new packs. I wonder why not some thing smaller and square like a shoe box, seems like it would fit the pack better.

  • Bergen

    Thanks for the reviews. I haven’t purchased a bear canister yet because I am undecided on one issue. I live in serious grizzly & black bear country in Montana and was wondering how the hell you are supposed to fit all your cook ware (pots & pans that are technically clean but still possess bear-attracting odors) in the tiny openings of these canisters. This seems to be an important part of backpacking safety in bear country that no one is discussing, and is obviously overlooked by the manufacturers.

    I am accustomed to hanging all my food and cooking stuff but it can often be a chore finding the correct tree, especially at or above tree line. That is the main reason I am considering the purchase of a canister. However, it seems that even if I did use one of these canisters I would be inclined to hang my cook ware and utensils anyway, so whats the point of spending $$ on a canister? Any advice?

  • Phraq

    Just a heads up that the BearVault is now being discouraged by rangers in the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness — so much so that they are offering swaps at the lodge to incoming hikers. At the risk of tipping off any bears reading this blog, they can actually get their mouth over the lid and pop it off. They actually have a breached one on display at the Loj with teethmarks and all on it.

    Bergen, I often store (thoroughly cleaned) pots and pans near the bear canister and safely away from my campsite, rather than inside them, until I have room. My reasoning is that the bear canister is not airtight so as to avoid the curiosity of bears, but merely a way to prevent them from getting at the tasty food and garbage within. Since well cleaned pots and pans do not yield actual food, you still avoid having a fed bear on your hands. You may wind up with some less than usable cookwear, but hopefully you aren’t bringing Calphalon along. Most parks don’t allow hanging anymore anyway, since bears have been learning that rope=food. I suppose hanging cookwear (and packing food in a canister) is the best of both worlds.

  • William Christopherson

    Great info, thanks. A couple questions – When leaving a bear cannister hidden on the ground, away from your campsite – Do they ever get lost forever by bears who play soccor with them? Or even stolen by humans? I’m thinking if I wake up in the morning, excited to get out onto the trail, and am looking all over the place for the cannister I’d be pretty ticked. $225 for a bear cannister is alot to just let lying around in the forest.

  • Bob Davis

    @William – it seems to be rare that a canister gets kicked around much. I hike on the coast and in the Cascades so there is always some driftwood, fallen wood, or a few rocks to “secure” it with, but I know full well if a bear – or human – wants to, it’s not much trouble to get it out and have a go. In 80 trail days, I’ve found a little bit of disturbance 4 times: 2 were raccoons, 1 was human (didn’t take anything), 1 could have been bears but might have been dogs.

    $225 is a lot, no doubt, but it’s not likely to get lost or stolen. Once you are “going light” enough to buy-down weight at $200/pound, the Bearikade is an excellent value.

  • Marty

    Thanks for the extremely useful info!! I have been trying to figure out which one to buy for a while now and I think you have helped me make my mind up!! : ) I’m new to the backpacking in North America (I’m in Canada), but plan on some trips to the States as well. From the UK I’ve never had to worry about the Big Bears!! Again, Cheers for the info!! Marty

  • BigK

    Thanks for the summary and tips. And thanks to the USFS and NPS for their past practice of feeding and breeding bears to associate humans with food. (And to the USFS for 100 years of fire supression.)

  • Walt Wadlow

    Very nice and useful review! I’ve had both Garcia and Bearvault rolled by bears in the Sierra (despite wedging with rocks and into rocks), but always found them. In the post-fifty decade I am ready to lighten up the pack and pay for dropping th ounces…

  • DonnyMisk

    Great article. I have some experience with all of these models and one thing you didn’t mention about Ursack… I had one when they first came out and a bear got ahold of it. She didn’t get the food, but did manage to destroy all the contents by crushing and soaking with slobber!

  • Curtis

    Bearikade can be made to order if you want a certain length–they told me up to 6′. I had one made to 18″ for my long treks, and it weighs the same as my Garcia (with 87% more volume). They also can reinforce it for grizzly bears. The wide opening makes it a lot easier than my Garcia for getting things in and out, especially the latter when it is stuffed full. To me it is well worth the money.

    • Calipidder

      Cool, thanks for that info. I didn’t know they did custom work.

  • Kelly

    Thanks for the great article. I’m planning to hike John Muir Trail in September 2012. Where can I find out what is approved?

  • Jimmy Torio

    Coming from Hawaii to hike Yosemite takes a lot a planning and preparation. I’ve used the garcia cans on my trips and found them to be appropriate. The idea (however) of a bear vault is interesting and one i’m investing into this year for my July Yosemite trek taking over 2-weeks to complete. There is one experience I learned from my hiking buddies is they all smoke cigar after dinner. Before taking to the sack, they place the stub of their cigar next to the cans and it worked one night! A bear came to visit and immediately left after taking a whiff of the aromatic cigar. Try it! Next time you’re in heavy bear country.

  • http://twitter.com/LNBHiking C N

    Thanks Rebecca for writing such an informative article. As many bears have learned to jump for one’s food/trash it has become necessary in some areas to enforce bear canisters. This is a great introduction to help one make a decision as to what might be the best choice for them. This is also a reminder how important it is for us backpackers to take those extra measures to keep a clean camp-site. Personally I set up my kitchen atleast 50 ft. or more away from my tent, scour the site afterwards for any crumbs, and never bring any food to the tent. I also hang my backpack because of the attraction of water, toothpaste, lotions, etc. and keep only a flashlight, batteries, watch, trowel, and toilet paper in my tent. As a lightweight backpacker, the Ursack sounds tempting, but I think I would go with the Bearikade Weekender or possibly look into a customized one.

  • Kibashi Siyoto

    May I suggest you add the dimensions to your chart? Thanks for putting the weights on there.

  • TEEJAYZ

    On a recent trip to Sequoia I ended up renting because they had Bearikade’s available and I wanted to try it out. EASILY the best I’ve ever carried. So much so that I actually started weighing the options of dropping $250 on one. (Couldn’t justify it). If they could figure out a way to drop their price point to something commiserate with their competitors they would reign supreme.

  • Nathan

    An update regarding the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness. The folk there indicate that Yellow Yellow who is infamous for getting into BearVault was shot by a hunter. However, there are several other bears who know how to open BearVault. This canister is not expressly forbidden but prudence would dictate using an alternative in this location.

    • calipidder

      Thanks for the update!

  • Rayslay

    I have wondered why someone does not design a bear barrel that has a curve in one side that would fit better against your back. Seems it would be more comfortable and easier to pack around. Also would not roll so much if bears played soccer with it. Just say’n