Bear Canisters: Everything You Need to Know

Although hanging food in trees is the traditional method (and my favorite) for storing food on a camping trip, you’re always taking a slight gamble. You never know what kind of animal is going to get into your bag.

Bear canisters are a far better and safer alternative to storing food on camping trips. Campers seem to either love or hate bear canisters. Backpacking with a huge container strapped to your pack can be a serious challenge for hikers with smaller builds.

What is Bear Canister Used For?

You really can’t count on food being safe when suspended from a tree overnight. Hanging up food is a serious gamble, I don’t care how careful you are, if you rely on bear bags you’ll eventually lose.

Bear canisters are portable, hard-sided food lockers that secure food and scented items from wildlife. They aren’t just about keeping your food safe from bears. You’re also fighting against raccoons, rodents and other animals that will be attracted to your food.

Why Are Bear Canisters Useful?

Bears can sniff out human food from miles away. They’re basically just giant food sniffing/eating machines with a nose that’s just as powerful as a drug sniffing dog.

Throughout the years bears have become increasingly aggressive around humans. They will come into your camp, steal your food and scare the sh*t out of you. Bears really aren’t looking for a fight, but they can be aggressive and very dangerous.

Although hanging up bear bags is still very common, over time bears have learned a few tricks to get at the food. Bears are extremely intelligent, resourceful and relentless when it comes to getting food.

They will go to great lengths to find human food, climbing small limbs, cutting ropes, and performing maneuvers that would shock you. Check out the video below of a bear going after a hanging bear canister.

Rodents are Worse Than Larger Critters

Regardless of where you are, rodents are by far the biggest danger to your food supply. They’ll chew holes through your gear and make quick work to your well thought out food supply. Plus you’ll be so worried about disease you won’t eat the food they don’t get.

Choosing a Bear Canister

Just about every bear canister on the market works exactly the same way. They’re just hard canisters that are strong enough so they can’t be smashed by bears.

When choosing a bear canister focus on the canisters Cubic Inches and Weight. You can typically fit 1 days worth of food for every 100 Cubic Inches of space.

Check out my post explaining how many days of food will fit in your bear canister.

ModelWeightCubic InDays Food
Bear Vault BV450
(Favorite Weekend Canister)
33 oz4404
Bear Vault BV500
(Favorite Extended Trip)
41 oz7007
Backpackers Cache43 oz6146
Frontiersman Canister56 oz7347
No-Fed Bear Canister
(Budget Pick)
38 oz5005
Counter Assault Bear Keg
(Premium Build)
56 oz7169
Bare Boxer
25 oz2753
Lil Sami21 oz3003
Big Daddy36 oz6506

How to Carry a Bear Canister on a Backpacking Trip

Bear canisters really do work, but they can be a serious pain to carry. I love the idea of bear canisters and the convenience of not needing to hang up a bear bag. I just hate the thought of strapping that giant container to my back.

Carrying a bear canister can definitely be a struggle for women and smaller men. You just end up bumping into everything when the container is wider than your shoulder width.

Bear Canister Inside vs Outside Carry

You can either carry your bear canister inside your pack or strap it on the outside. Personally, I like to strap the container to the top of my pack leaving more space on the inside for essential gear.

This isn’t as big of a deal on shorter trips when carrying less gear or with smaller 2-3 day canisters like the Bare Boxer (On Amazon) or Lil Sami (On Amazon)

Outside Carry Advantages
  • Saves space for extra gear on the inside of your pack
  • Makes accessing your food easy since you don’t have to reorganize every time you want a snack.
  • More comfortable since you won’t have to feel it moving around as you walk
  • Lots of mounting options making it easier to adjust the weight in your pack. Move the canister to the top or bottom depending on your back pain.
Inside Carry Advantages
  • Much easier to navigate tight situations since your pack is more dense. You don’t have to worry about the canister snagging as you navigate the trail.
  • Food is going to stay cooler since it won’t be exposed to the sun.
  • Keeps the weight centered closer to your body reducing lower back pain.
  • Don’t have to worry about the canister falling off your pack and knocking into the back of your neck and legs.

Where to Mount Your Canister on Your Pack

Always mount your canister to either the top or bottom of your pack. It’s all about keeping the weight distribution of your pack even. If you have a top heavy pack put your canister underneath to even out the weight and vice versa.

Since most backpackers keep the heaviest items near their center of gravity this usually means strapping the bear canister to the top. Just make sure the container is centered.

Whatever you do, don’t attach the canister to the back or sides of your pack. This is going to seriously throw off your center of gravity either pulling you back or off to the side.

Attaching a Bear Canister to Your Pack

I always carry my bear canister on the outside of my pack. Going on the outside of your pack requires far less organization

You just need some cheap adjustable luggage straps (like these) or elastic bungie cords to secure it to your pack. Just wrap your strap around the bear canister and run it through the loops on your pack.

Make sure you get everything fitted and try it on before you hit the trail. You don’t want a bear can bonking you on the back of the head all day long.

They also make product specific harnesses and carrying cases that are designed specifically for your canister. You might want to do a quick google search to see if you have pre-made options available.

However, if you’re unable to find a product specific harness it’s not a big deal. This isn’t something that I would base my purchasing decision on.

Rental Companies Usually Loan Out a Harness

When renting a bear canister the rental company usually has some type of harness to loan out as well. It’s usually just luggage straps that you tighten up to the top of your pack.

Packing a Bear Canister Inside Your Pack

Packing a bear canister on the inside of your pack can be somewhat challenging. You’re going to have to be organized and careful when it comes to pack selection. Only the smallest 2-4 day canisters can fit on the inside of a pack.

Lay out all your items that you’re going to need on the trip and try to figure out what you’ll need on the trail. Place anything that you’ll need easy access to on top of the canister since it’s going to be a pain to get out.

Always place the canister close to the low/center of your pack. Aim for just above the crease on your lower back so you get a good weight balance. Before you hit the trail play around a little bit trying to find the most comfortable balance.

Other Bear Canister Carrying Tips

Don’t Forget About Your Toiletries

You need to store all scented items inside your bear canister. Waking up to a raccoon tearing into toothpaste isn’t my idea of a good time. Make sure you store all your scented toiletries, toothpaste, soaps, scented lotions, etc inside the bear canister.

Consider Group Carrying Canisters

When traveling with your spouse or children it doesn’t make sense for everybody to carry their own canister. Bear canisters are bulky so you’re better off having one person carry the canister while the other carries extra gear.

Using this method will save space that would be taken up by multiple canisters. They’re just awkward for smaller people to carry; it’s always better to lessen the burden on smaller members of the group. Just make sure you don’t get separated because somebody will be left without food.

Center The Canister

So that you aren’t thrown off balance make sure your canister is placed in the center of your back. Keep it close to your body and near your shoulders.

Keep The Canister Away From Your Campsite

You should never bring food into your campsite. Bears have an excellent sense of smell. Even in bear proof containers they’ll be lured into camp by the scent of human food.

Place the canister at least 100 ft away from your campsite. You might want to add a strip of fluorescent reflective tape to boost visibility in the dark. Plus you never know when a bear will knock your canister away from your hiding place and you’ll need to go searching for it.

Stay Away From Ledges and Water

It’s best to store your canisters in open areas away from anywhere that’s difficult to access. Bears have been known to swat canisters into the water and over ledges.

Get The Air Out of Your Bags

Try to squeeze out as much air as possible to save room in your canister. Use vacuum-sealed bags to get extra air out and avoid packages like chips that are over-inflated. You can even poke a hole in food that you plan on eating in the first 2 days of your trip.

Store Your First Days Food in a Separate Bag

I always store my first days food in a separate dry bag so I don’t have to rustle through my canister on the first night. My toothpaste and deodorant is all I really need out of the canister on the first night.

Take Extra Precaution in Bear Country

Bear vaults work really well at protecting your food, but you’re still attracting bears to camp. I wouldn’t want to come face to face with a grizzly even with my food stored a 100 ft away.

Consider using odor barrier bags to minimize encounters with wildlife(these are my favorite). For the price of odor-proof bags they’re well worth the added piece of mind.