Bear-Resistant Food Storage
Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2019 — About this time every year, next year’s thru hikers start the food storage debate. Some are going to hang it. Some are going to carry bear canisters. Others argue for Ursacks. A few brave Darwin Award candidates claim they’re going to use their food bags as pillows.
The fact is that most shelters on the AT don’t have bear cables, bear poles or bear boxes. Of those without, many are surrounded by trees the limbs of which are so high that a NFL quarterback might have difficulty tossing a line.
The discussions tend to proceed along emotional rather than practical lines. The contrarians definitely assert themselves.
The list of practical reasons to seriously consider how to protect your food is getting longer. On the AT, only bear canister requirement is for a short distance on Blood Mountain. It can easily be avoided by camping at the Lance Creek campground. It’s an easy hike on into Neels Gap the next day.
The bear canister requirement on Blood Mountain was created when bears learned to shake food bags off the bear cables at Woods Hole shelter.
The AT Conservancy is highly recommending bear canisters along the entire AT HERE because the number of food-related human/bear encounters is growing. Here’s what the AT Conservancy had to say about bear incidents 2018.
Sometimes what happened before you came along matters most. This tent had no food. The bear learned that some tents have food, so it opens them up to check. Other bears routinely enter shelters to forage and take what they find.
Before we discuss canisters and Ursacks, the PCT bear hanging method is worth a mention. Done properly, it is effective. The problem is that too many people improperly hang their food and then blame the bear that took it. PCT Bear Hanging Method is at this link. You Tube: Here.
Now lets try and not to start a WWE match over canisters vs. the Ursack. Each has practical considerations plus strengths and weaknesses such as size and weight. Both should* be tied to trees so that bears can’t carry them off.
*Clarification: One manufacturer does not recommend tying bear cans to trees. The NPS is ambiguous. The concern is that nothing should be done that would permit bears to get leverage that would improve their chances of opening the canister. I’ve had a bear cart one away that I was unable to find. Thus, you’ll find me with my bear can tied to a tree with a long rope well away from camp.
Ursacks must definitely be tied to a tree to be most effective.*
THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE COMPARISON OF ALL BRANDS OR MODELS. IT’S PURPOSE IS TO HELP YOU THINK YOUR WAY THROUGH YOUR CHOICE OF BEAR PROTECTION FOR YOUR FOOD. Google is your friend.
Canisters: Canisters are the most foolproof but can be difficult to fit into your pack. I had to upsize to a 65 liter pack to practically fit a Bear Vault 500 and the way I like to pack my other gear – in waterproof stuff sacks rather than packing it loosely around the canister. My normal pack is 50 liters.
The BV 450 is smaller and an easier fit. Since it will hold four days worth of food, we issue it to our ridgerunners who are normally on the trail for four nights and five days. For many, it’s a best value.
BV 500. 2 lbs. 9 oz. 7 days. $79.95. BV 450. 2 lbs. 1 oz. 4 days. $69.95.
Other canisters such as the Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe are longer, thinner, and a bit more practical, but also heavier.
Frontiersman. 3 lbs. 7 days. $78.95
Bearikade carbon fiber canisters are several hundred dollars but cool as hell. Check them out.
Any of the canisters can be rented. Lightly used canisters can also be found on gear for sale sites at discounted prices.
Ursacks: Ursacks are a made of ultra strong Laminated UHMWP and Kevlar. UHMWP is Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.
Ursack AllMitey. 13 oz. 5 days. $134.95.
Ursack Major. 7.6 oz. 5 days. $84.95.
Ursack aluminum liner. $39.95.
Ursack also recommends odor reducing bag liners.
Now for the dark side. None of these methods is perfect. I know, you’re shocked. Bad hang and the bear gets your food. They also have been known to break into containers or destroy food inside Ursacks.
What ever you do, check out the containers approved by the U.S. government’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. They are the only containers allowed where food protection is required out west, the John Muir Trail for example. There are many more brands and models than those discussed here. Certified Bear-resistant Products.
The Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and others really do care about your safety. Their certification helps you sort through the marketing hype and the trolls’ bullshit.
In may sound like a cliche, but a fed bear is a dead bear. Let’s do what we can to keep our bears safe, ok?
Speaking as a 4000-miler (that still makes me grin my face off!), if I were doing the AT again, I’d 100% just bite the bullet and carry a bear can for the whole trail. If I’m speaking frankly, it’s not even about the bears anymore. It’s the having a clear conscience because there are so many new hikers on the trail. I sleep better knowing that nothing I did contributed to their having a bad experience with a bear. Last year, compared with even just 6 years ago, the number of bear stories among hikers was off the chart.