Bear Canisters: The Pros and Cons of Different Designs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
|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|