Practicing Leave No Trace: How NOT to Pack and Store a Bear Canister for Backcountry Travel

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Bears should be observed from far, far away.
This shot was taken from a bus in Denali National Park.
Of the two major backpacking trips I've been on this summer, both have been in bear country. In both locations, bear canisters were a required piece of gear, not just for the safety of my group and our food, but for the safety of the bears.

I've seen some interesting stuff when it comes to packing and storing bear canisters, and have made a few beginner blunders myself. Experience is the best teacher, right? Here are my six favorite ways NOT to use the canisters effectively. Take it from me, you don't want to do these things!

Leave your canister at home. It's heavy and unwieldy.

You've got to be kidding, right? Good thing I am. Bear canisters are required by law in variety of national parks, state parks, national forests and other public lands. Rules and regulations in the area you're traveling will vary, but if they are required, there's a good reason for it. Past and even irresponsible behavior in the present has trained bears and other animals to expect access to human food in what used to be natural areas. This type of access is incredibly dangerous for both animals and humans. Don't think you're exempt from the rules, and do your homework before you go. If you're in or near bear country, take a canister with you. No exceptions. Respect wildlife. 

Pack as much food as you can; who cares if it doesn't all fit inside the canister?

I care, and you can bet the bears will too! It's important to make sure everything you have that needs to be stored in the bear proof canister actually fits inside. Plan your meals in advance, including snacks, and pack the canister at home to ensure you can get everything in it. There's nothing worse than getting out in the wilderness only to find the six huge cans of ravioli or bags of potato chips you brought won't fit inside. (Leave both of those items at home anyway, they're not good backpacking food.) If you've got items that can be repackaged into smaller bags, that's a huge way to save space. There are a variety of different sized canisters available depending on the length of your trip and the size of the group you're traveling with.

Laying out all the food to make sure it fits = good idea!

The canister's only for food storage. Other things that smell can be left in the open.

No way. According to the National Park Service, the rule of thumb is, "if you put it in your mouth on on your skin, it should probably be stored in a bear canister." This includes things like deodorant, lip balm, soap and sunscreen. Limit the toiletries you bring, and bring the smallest version you can to suit your needs. I have a few small reusable plastic bottles for things like soap and cooking oils, and always use a tiny travel sized sunscreen container. Leave the giant bottle of bug spray at home. You also need to store all trash with a scent in the canister. 

Keep the canister next to your tent while you sleep. Oh, and feel free to cook at your campsite.

Just because it's supposed to keep bears from getting your food doesn't mean it's a good idea to keep it close to your camp while you're asleep. A bear's sense of smell is exponentially stronger than ours, and you don't want to risk them digging around your camp when they smell the canister. Store the canister at least 250 feet from where you're sleeping, and from where anyone else you're camping near is sleeping.

Pro tip: keep the canister away from water. You don't want it accidentally floating downstream. I also keep fuel and anything I use to cook with near the canister or on top of it. It's also a good idea to put reflective tape on the canister so you can find it in the dark. With respect to cooking, try to get several hundred feed downwind from camp to cook. Bears will be attracted to a camp that smells like food. Clean your dishes promptly after dinner and clean up any spilled food. 

Don't keep the canister closed when you're not using it, and don't worry about having to open it again when you do.

Using the blunt end of a sharp knife to open
the canister...not a good idea. (J. Johnsen)
Always keep the canister closed when you're not using it, even when you're cooking. Pull out the things you need, then keep it shut. Not only will it prevent unwanted visitors from showing up, it'll keep bugs and other things out. It also makes a great stool to sit on.

Speaking from personal experience, if you have a canister likeethis one, which I do, be sure to take a few coins or something similar to unlock it with. I found myself trying to use small rocks, all of which broke, to get mine open on a long trip where the last thing I wanted was to not be able to get to my food. The dull edge of a pocket knife works, but it's certainly not ideal. On my last trip, we taped a coin to the lid with duct tape, which seemed to work well.

Don't worry about whether the canister fits in your pack or not. You can just carry it in your arms.

Well, you could, but only if you don't need your arms for balance and you have biceps of steel. Try carrying anything that weighs over ten pounds in your hands for a mile; it's tiring! This is particularly important if you're renting a canister at your destination. For example, in the Adirondacks, the NYSDEC requires canisters in the High Peaks region, which can be rented from local gear shops. You don't want to get to the rental shop and realize the only canisters they have available don't fit in your pack. They can be strapped to the outside of your pack, of course, but that can make the pack unwieldy.

Outside of using a bear canister, there are a number of other considerations when you're camping or traveling in bear country - look for signs a bear's been in an area before you chose a campsite, travel in groups, make a lot of noise, etc. - but instead of writing a encyclopedia of sarcasm around each set of considerations, here are a few very informative links:

NYSDEC information on packing, using and storing bear canisters
Reasons for using a bear canister from REI
Hiding and securing a bear canister from

Do you have any stories to share about using, or not using, a bear canister? Tell us in the comments!


AdventureMilo said...

I had no idea I needed a canister for camping/hiking in NJ or the surrounding areas! I thought they were optional and not the law. I found this article to be very useful, especially since I have never packed one and I would make all of these mistakes myself (especially packing extra snacks outside the canister or holding garbage in my pack [bad!]).

Thanks Katie for all the info!

Katie L. said...

Thanks Milo! As a note, they're not required everywhere for backpacking, but are in places like the Catskills and Adirondacks. They were also required in the Sierras in California. Be sure to check with relevant authorities when you're planning your backpacking trip to see if they are required by law where you're headed.

@ginabegin said...

I love the slight sarcasm in each statement. =) And my favorite piece of advice is about canned food (beginners always bring these!): "Leave both of those items at home anyway, they're not good backpacking food." Amen to that!

philipwerner said...

Bear canisters also make good backcountry washing machines. Put your smelly clothes in, add some dr. Bronners and shake it. Rinse, but be sure to pour all grey water into a hole and not back into a stream or river.

Guest said...

A washer on a string around your neck is a geeky, but convenient way to make sure you can always open your bear can. And they make great wash basins.  I've used them for that before, and on a longer expedition, a place to soak an infected/ingrown toenail in hot water (probably want to rinse it before putting food in again after a medical use).