Bears and food storage: Looking ahead

In recent years, various land management agencies have become  strict when it comes to precautions for bears and preventing them from being habituated to food backpackers take into the backcountry.

And so on….


Government agencies who manage our public lands are very conservative.

If there is even a remote chance that a bear is an issue, the government agency will mandate a canister.

And I do mean a canister.

Most agencies use similarly worded criteria. Here is an example from the state of New York:

  • Canisters are solid, non-pliable, and do not allow bears’ claws or teeth to grip under any edges.

  • Canisters are usually made of a hard plastic, but metal or another material may also be used.

  • Non-rigid containers or sacks are not considered bear resistant canisters under the regulation.

As there are more people in a dense area using limited outdoor resources, more conflicts with bears and other creatures will arise.

A good example is a recent edict put out by the USFS for some popular areas in Colorado.

And perhaps with good reason.

Consider this incident that happened at the Bootlleg campground just off The Colorado Trail:



The summary is that the  person above kept their pack, with food, outside of their tent  at a popular campsite. This campsite is the only public camping area easily accessible amongst much private land. And conveniently located a fairly short walk from some private hot springs, too. (Update: At least as of Sept 2017, this campground now has a food storage locker on-site)

The poster above thought their pack was stolen by two-legged critters.  Turns out it was stolen by a bear!

There are some practices the person above could have done a bit differently.

But those options have already been discussed.

Because of this occurrence and similar incidents, government agencies are mandating bear precautions.  Bear hangs at a minimum but more often than not, bear canisters. Always.

And I think the mandatory use of bear canisters will become more and more common in our backcountry areas.

Here is why I think so:

  • Most people do bear hangs poorly.  It is not always feasible to find the appropriate tree esp if you hike later into the day.  As such, many people do a piss-poor job of bear hangs. I’ve seen more marmot bagging than bear bagging! Places that allow bear hanging as an acceptable food storage method many not allow these hangs in the future if people continue to hang their food poorly.
Crappy Bear Bags 2015 Final

Nicely illustrated by Jester –

  • Ursacks only work if people use them correctly.  I think the Ursack, with a possible Opsack combo, is a great way to go. Lighter than a bear canister, not as bulky, malleable, does not have to be hung and easy to use. However, if a user does not use them correctly (mainly tying a knot correctly), the Ursack will fail. The bear will get rewarded and continue to be habituated to backpacking  food.   Much like alcohol stoves, government agencies are gun-shy of something they perceive as something that can easily go wrong if not used correctly…and take the path that is least likely to cause issues. In this case, Ursack = bad; bear canister = good.

  • Our society is lawsuit happy.  If there is a chance that aggressive bear activity is present, and if our government agencies do not do something and another something happens, a nasty lawsuit tends to occur.  So our government agencies perform a nice CYA-type exercise and require bear canisters.
  • A fed bear really is a dead bear. Arguably other methods are more effective than bear canisters for the actual prevention of bear encounters. But most people aren’t going to get the outdoor skill set and environmental awareness needed to prevent these bear problems.  And popular sites, well, they are popular. Any bear that becomes habituated to backpacking food does tend to become a nuisance or even aggressive. The bear must be located. Or worse.  A bear canister is the solution that requires the least amount of effort and is least likely to fail. (Though canisters have failed in the past, too..)


As much as I am not looking forward to it, I suspect bear canisters will become a standard part of a backpacker’s kit in many areas.

We rarely cook on fires anymore, branches are not cut down for bedding, we no longer bury our trash and many backcountry travelers are rediscovering the necessity of potty trowels.

Our backcountry habits change and evolve.

And needing to carry a bear canister will be part of this evolution in the years ahead.

EDIT: And as noted in the comments, Lassen National Park mandated the use of a canister the day after I wrote this article!!!!


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Randy T
Randy T
7 years ago

Your timing is prescient: Lassen NP just announced bear canisters are now required in the backcountry, including the PCT. Personally, I take requiring canisters as a symptom of the fact that there are too many people in the area: too many people overall, with too high a percentage of people who do not know about or use low-scent-profile practices. Ignorant or irresponsible backpackers, spotty ranger education or enforcement, assign blame as you will, the result is the same. So, I take growing canister requirements as a sign to avoid a place; not because of bears, because of crowds. I… Read more »