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How Do Bear Canisters Work? We Asked The Experts

You can’t count on your food being safe in bear country without taking a few precautions. Throughout the years bears have even learned how to take down bear bags, climbing and cutting ropes to gain access to the food inside.

Luckily, there’s another lightweight option that’s far more effective than a bear bag. When used properly a bear canister can keep out even the most relentless bear.

How Do Bear Canisters Work?

For decades campers and backpackers have been hanging their food from trees. This worked for a while, but nature always finds a way. Bears have learned how to climb ropes, cut lines and outsmart even experienced outdoorsman.

Once bears get introduced to human food there’s no stopping them. With the most powerful sense of smell on the planet, a bear can get track down your food from up to 20 miles away.

Bear canisters are the new standard when traveling through bear country. Although they aren’t perfect, they are definitely a step in the right direction.

Bear canisters are just a simple hard-sided container with a basic screw-on lid. They need to be lightweight, crush proof and big enough to hold a few days worth of food. The table below shows how many days of food the most popular canisters hold.

To load up the canister just detach the lock which is usually just a screw(use a coin) or tab to push down and unscrew. Fill up the canister with your food, screw the top back on and you’re good to go.

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

Load Up Anything That Smells

Bears are relentless when it comes to human food. They won’t stop until they find what they’re looking for. Load up everything that could possibly attract wildlife. If it smells load it into your bear canister.

Load up all your food, smelly toiletries, soaps, lotions, oil, etc. Personally, I would store everything inside a OPSAK odorless storage bag (On Amazon) to cut down on the smell. There are a lot of cheap odor eliminating bags on the market, but OPSAK is the only one proven to work against bears.

Check out my post on smellproofing bear canisters.

Don’t worry about used tampons, menstrual cups, toilet paper, etc. Bears aren’t interested in eating that nasty stuff when there’s food around.

How Bear Canisters Fail

Bear canisters are very effective when used properly, but they aren’t 100 percent idiot proof. For a bear canister to work it needs to be used properly.

Forgotten Items(Overflow)

We’ve all been tempted to stash just a little bit of extra food in the side pocket of our pack. We just assume that throughout the day we’ll nibble on some snacks, but what happens to all those wrappers. They just get tossed back into your pack and forgot about to later be found by a bear.

For a canister to properly do it’s job everything that smells needs to be inside and stored away from camp. This can be a challenge on longer trips when you need to store a lot of food. The table above gives a break down of how many days worth of food most of the bear canisters hold.

If you can’t fit all of your food in the bear canister you basically have two options. Either stay on campsites with permanent food lockers or camp in areas where bear canisters aren’t required(use a bear bag).

Not Fully Locked

All bear canisters have some type of locking mechanism to keep them secure. Products like the Bearvault work like a pill bottle where you push it in and spin, while others need a coin to unscrew the lock.

These both work really well if you remember to engage the lock. Over time bears have learned that sometimes if they paw at the container the lid will spin off. The solution is simple! Just double check that you’ve locked your canisters.

Bear Canister is Left Open

If you’re bear canister isn’t locked what good is it doing? When you take food out of the canister lock it immediately. When that 500lb Grizzly strolls into camp are you gonna take the time to lock up the canister? I doubt it!

Throughout the years bears have become increasingly hostile, because they know most backpackers won’t put up a fight. They know that whenever they see a human there will always be food nearby.

If your canister is open never be more than a step away from it. When a bear enters camp lock the canister first, start taking defensive behavior and he will usually run away for easier lunch.

It Was Smashed

Being 300-500 lbs definitely has its advantages. Bears have learned to use their body weight to try and smash bear canisters. Most of the time they aren’t successful, but when pressed against a sharp rock, or stump that might be enough to crack the plastic.

The locking mechanisms in the lids are another weak point. If they paw and smack at the top of the canister long enough the locking mechanism could pop open. There’s even a bear in Yellowstone that figured out how to open BearVaults.