Bear Canister vs Ursack For Backpacking

More people have started camping/backpacking and that’s creating a serious problem for bears. It’s leading to habituated and food conditioned bears that see humans as an easy source of food. Bears usually aren’t interested in eating people, but they will go after your food stash. So how can you protect your food from a curious bear?

There are two main methods to protect your food in the backcountry. You can either use a bear canister or store your food in a bear bag. The traditional method had you hanging bear bags up in a tree, but now they have puncture proof bags like the Ursack. So what’s the difference between a bear canister and Ursack?

Bear canisters and Ursack are both designed to prevent bears from getting into your food. Bear canisters use a smashproof hard plastic design that prevents bears from getting at your food using brute force. The round designs make it impossible for bears to carry off your food. Ursack uses puncture proof fabric so bears and other animals can’t get in, but they can carry off the sack. So you need to secure the Ursack to a tree so the bear can’t walk off with it.

Food Conditioning

Before I get into the differences between bear canisters and the Ursack, let’s start off by talking about food conditioning. Throughout the years bears have learned that humans always bring food along with them. Bears can smell food from miles away so you’ll have to find a way to keep them out.

So why is food conditioning a problem? Bears are smart curious creatures and once they learn humans can be used as a food source they’ll keep coming back. This puts both humans and bears in a dangerous position. Food conditioning can lead to a death sentence for bears.

Bear Canisters vs Ursack

Let’s start off by saying, neither bear canisters or Ursack are completely bearproof. With enough time a determined bear will be able to get to your food. With enough pressure and determination a bear can completely smash a bear canister and rip through a Ursack.

Think about it for a minute. Do you really think a 500lb bear can’t apply enough pressure to smash a bear canister or tear through the side of a slash proof bear bag? A well placed rock under your bear canister can work as a pressure point multiplying the crush force. All it takes is a single torn seam to rip through the side of a Ursack. With that being said, both products can significantly reduce the chance of bears stealing your lunch.

So which is better a bear canister or Ursack? Bear canisters are generally better at protecting food. The canisters are designed so they are too big for a bear to chew on or carry off. They’ll try to get in, but usually roll the container around eventually giving up. The Ursack is slash proof, but bears are known to carry off bags that aren’t properly tied down.

Bear Canister Advantages and Disadvantages

Definitely go with a bear canister if you plan on camping in state and national parks. They’re better at protecting your food and you can use them in any park worldwide. Most heavily trafficked parks ban the Ursack and other bear bags.

I have a love hate relationship with bear canisters. Canisters are really good at protecting food, but they’re a pain to carry. Nobody likes lugging around a massive jug on long hikes. It bonks around on your back and smacks into you if it’s not properly secured.

There are a bunch of different bear canisters available ranging in size and quality level. I have a post explaining how much food will fit in different bear canisters. It can be hard to compare sizes between bear canisters and the Ursack since canisters are measured in cubic inches and Ursack is measured in Liters. For reference 10 Liters is about 610 cubic inches.

The bear vault is by far the most popular bear canister on the market. It’s affordable and comes in a bunch of different sizes. There are sturdier options available, but they can get expensive.

Bear Canister AdvantagesBear Canister Disadvantages
Bear canisters are easier to setup. Open up the canister and stuff in all your food.Bears can swat and roll the canister around leading to potential loss.
Can be used anywhere. You don’t have to hang the bag or tie it to a tree.Heavy and Bulky
No chance of having your food crushedCan have a finicky lid. I have a hard time getting the lid off my Bear Vault. It’s like trying to open up a pill bottle.
Waterproof and able to floatHave to strap the container to the outside of your pack. This can get awkward on long hikes.
Better protection than the Ursack
Many parks require bear canisters instead of bags
Much cheaper than the Ursack
Makes a great seat while setting up camp

Do Bear Canisters Work?

Bear canisters are by far the safest food storage method in bear country. They’re easy to use, hold a ton of food, and the bear can’t damage or walk off with it.

Bears in heavily trafficked parks can be pretty crafty. There are a few bears that have been known to get into bear canisters, but they’re few and far between. Most experienced bears will walk up to a bear canister, sniff it, and walk off knowing they won’t get into it. The inexperienced bears will spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. They can smell food, but they’re not able to get at it. In some cases they might even try to swat or chew on the canister, but they won’t get in.

I’ve had many encounters with bears throughout my life. I’ve found that black bears are generally timid and easy to scare off. Wait a minute or two for the bear to test the canister and then make your presence known. Yell at them, swing your arms around, and throw rocks to scare them off. Just be careful if there’s babies around cause mama bear can get aggressive.

Grizzly bears can be a bigger danger. Back off and let him go after your food. Keep a can of bear spray ready and talk to the bear calmly so he knows you’re not a threat. Never turn around and run because that makes you look like a prey animal.

Ursack Advantages and Disadvantages

The Ursack is the red-headed stepchild of bear canisters. Its approval is in a constant state of flux in camping communities. Some people love the Ursack and others absolutely hate it. It all depends on the season. Some product lines have been great and others haven’t been approved at all.

I really wish Ursack would straighten out their product line, because it’s by far the lightest bear container on the market. Generally speaking, I’ve been really happy with mine. Haven’t had any major problems with mine.

The Ursack has many different generations made out of different types of ballistic slashproof fibers. That’s the source of most of their problems. People start distrusting you when you can’t put out a consistent product.

Other than its lightweight design, the best thing about the Ursack is that it’s collapsible. It gets progressively easier to pack over long backpacking trips and it’s easy to store once you get home. I really do like my bear canisters, but I almost always carry my Ursack in parks that don’t require bear canisters. It’s so much easier to carry and you don’t have to hang it like traditional bear bags.

There is one major downside to the Ursack. The Ursack will stand up well to a hungry bear, but that doesn’t mean your food will. A 500lb bear slashing at your bag will smash up everything stored inside. Liquids will be splattered everywhere and food will be smashed.

Ursack does sell an aluminum liner to prevent crushing, but it’s pricey. Personally, I don’t think the added weight is worth it, but it’s up to you.

Ursack AdvantagesUrsack Disadvantages
Lightweight compact design is great for backpackingWater Resistant instead of waterproof. I use dry bags to keep everything dry inside
Reduced volume as you eat foodLess durable than bear canisters
Can withstand a hungry bear for a whileBears can walk off with your bag if it’s not properly tied down
Collapsible for easy storageMore expensive than most bear canisters
Being able to choose any tree to tie the bag down is extremely convenient
Aluminum Liner is available providing crush proof resistance. It adds weight to the bag and makes it more cumbersome

Ursack Comes In Multiple Sizes

Ursack comes in 4 different sizes ranging from 10 Liters to 30 Liters. The size you need depends on how long you’ll be backpacking and how many people you’re carrying food for.

  • 10 Liter Allmitey Bear Backpack (Check price on Amazon): The 10 Liter bag is perfect for short weekend trips. It holds enough food for a single person on a 3-5 day trip. This is the bag that most solo backpackers should choose, but it can be small for 2 people on a weekend trip.
  • 15 Liter Ursack Major Xl Bear Backpack (Check Price On Amazon): This is by far the most popular Ursack size making it cheaper than the other models. The 15 liter bag is the perfect size for 2 people on a weekend trip. It’s rated for 7+ days of food for a single person, but you can go longer if you plan calorie dense meals.
  • 30 Liter Ursack Major 2Xl Bear Backpack (Check Price On Amazon): The 30 liter bag is massive with enough room for 14+ days of food. It’s great for large groups and long trips, but the storage capacity makes getting food out inconvenient. You need to come up with an organization system so you don’t have to dig around looking for stuff.

You Don’t Use a Bear Canister To Keep Your Food Safe

Most people don’t realize that bear canisters weren’t designed to keep your food safe. It’s to keep bears wild so they don’t start relying on humans for food. The idea is that a bear canister or bear bag will make it extremely difficult for bears to get human food. After a while they’ll get frustrated and head off to do bear things like eating wild berries and rooting around for an easy snack.

Don’t make it easy for them. Bears that stop fearing humans and start seeing them as a food source leads to an increase in human/bear encounters. Every bear encounter is a potentially dangerous situation. Once a bears food conditioned and habituated to humans it’s impossible to break the habit.

Over time they’ll get more aggressive and eventually need to be euthanized. Securing your food keeps bears safe by not rewarding them for heading into camp. You don’t want a dumb mistake to be the reason a bear gets put to death.

Bears In Popular Parks Can Get Into Bear Canisters and Ursacks

As I’ve mentioned bears are extremely intelligent. After 100s of interactions with humans they’ve learned how to get down bear bags and tear into the Ursack. Bear canisters pose more of a challenge, but bears have learned to paw at the lids hoping you forgot to close it. A loose lid is no match for a hungry bear. If the lids are tight they’ll walk off and leave the food alone.

Less experienced bears are the ones that you need to watch out for. These are the guys that will really go to town on your bear canister and chew the crap out of it. They’ll treat your bear canister like a chew toy. It might take a while, but they’ll eventually get through it. These are the times where you should scare black bears away. Grizzlies are a whole other story. Just let them have it and hope for the best.

The Ursack does a decent job at protecting your food, but they will be more persistent. They’re used to chewing through traditional bear bags so they’ll go to town on a Ursack. A small puncture in the bag can cause liquids to leak out making them even more dedicated to the task. It might take an hour, but they’ll eventually find a loose seam and tear right through it.

This is why most backpackers see the Ursack as a deterrent to slow the bear down. It buys them some time so they can go out and chase the bear away. Just make sure the bags tied down to a tree so he can’t run off with it.

Some Parks Ban The Ursack

You need to check with the park to see their recommendations before planning your trip. Lots of National/State parks have rules in place banning Ursacks. These rules are usually found in heavily trafficked parks like Yosemite. With lots of human/bear interactions they’ve learned how to get into the bags.

How To Use A Ursack Bear Bag

Bear bags like the URSACK are much different than a bear canister. The Ursack might be puncture proof, but that won’t stop a bear from walking off with it. Challenge the bear a bit by tying it up to a tree or hanging it like a traditional bear bag.

Personally, I prefer a bear canister, but I haven’t had any problems using the Ursack. I suggest finding a large branch 5-6 feet up and tying your bag on the heart of the tree just above that branch. The video below gives a brief demonstration explaining how to tie the Ursack to a tree.

Stack Your Cooking Supplies On The Bear Canister

Backpackers use their cooking supplies as a makeshift “Alarm” to alert them of animals going after their food. Your pots and pans will clang around as they get pushed off the bear canister. That gives you enough warning to go outside and scare the bear away.

Whether or not you want to scare a bear in the dark is up to you, but at least you know they’re around. A smart man would hunker down and listen to the bear toss around your canister for hours trying to get in, but it’s generally safe to scare them off.

Keep Canisters Away From Ledges, Water, and Vegetation

Nobody wants to lose their food to a curious bear. They might have a hard time getting into the container, but they could push it so far away that you can’t find it. Try to keep canisters away from ledges, water sources, and thick vegetation.

Think about all the places you can possibly lose the canister. Try to keep your container away from camp in a wide open area so it’s easy to find. This might seem counterintuitive, but there’s no way to hide food from wild animals. Bears can smell for miles so if there’s food in camp they will find it.

There’s a famous bear in Yosemite that learned how to get into containers. She would roll it over to a cliff, push it off, and scramble down to get the food after the lid smashes off. Bears are surprisingly smart so with enough time they can find a leverage point to get into a bear canister.

Should I Hang My Ursack?

You really shouldn’t have to hang the Ursack since it’s slash resistant. Just tie it up to a tree and you’re good to go. I linked a video above that shows a great way to tie the Ursack, but I’ll give you a brief tutorial.

I recommend finding a tree with a low hanging branch about 5 feet above the ground. Tie the Ursack to the main trunk of the tree just above the branch. This keeps the Ursack up off the ground and out of the water. This is really important since the Ursack is water resistant instead of waterproof. It should be able to handle a little bit of rain, but you don’t want it sitting in puddles.