Do You Need a Bear Canister for Backpacking?

Updated: May 04, 2023

Bear canisters are valuable backpacking tools for keeping humans and bears safe. They're also required on some public lands. Here's what to know.

Before my family knew about bear canisters, on backpacking trips we hung our food off the edge of a tall boulder or tree branch to keep it out of reach. It usually worked, except for the one time that it didn’t, and we spent all night watching a black bear eat a week’s worth of meals. Besides cutting our trip short, it inadvertently endangered the bear’s life by solidifying his association with people and food.

Wherever you camp, there’s a decent chance bears might be nearby. From Florida to Alaska, black bears live in 40 states, and grizzlies in at least five. All can sniff out food as well as a bloodhound, and have been known to enter tents and cars in search of a meal.

Some campgrounds and backcountry campsites offer metal-sided boxes or other bear-safe containers for you to store your food. If they don’t, a bear-proof canister might be a wise purchase. Here’s the one my family has now.

What Is a Bear Canister?

A bear canister is a portable, hard-sided plastic container used to store food safely from bears and smaller, equally hungry creatures — mice, squirrels, raccoons and ants.

They typically hold between one and one-half to three gallons (five to 12 liters), weigh two or three pounds and hold three to five days worth of food. You can find them at most outdoor stores that cater to campers, like REI, or online at retailers like amazon.com.

When Is a Backpacking Bear Canister Necessary?

Many National Parks and Wilderness areas require everyone heading into the backcountry to carry an approved bear canister. Even if it’s not mandated, it’s probably a good idea to take one if there are bears in the area, and especially if there are grizzly bears.

Some national parks with full or partial bear canister requirements include Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, North Cascades, Olympic, Denali, Glacier Bay and Gates of the Arctic. Others, like Yellowstone, Glacier and Great Smoky Mountains, maintain food-hanging poles and/or sturdy food-storage lockers at designated backcountry backpacking campsites.

“It is essential to do your research ahead of time and understand the rules and regulations of the wilderness area in which you are recreating,” says Sarah Sattin, a sales lead at REI. “If you are unable to find the information online, calling the ranger station close to the wilderness area you are visiting can serve as a helpful source of information.”

Also, federal entities require canisters to be tested and approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), so look for their bear logo when shopping.

How To Use a Backpacking Bear Canister

camping bear canister with foodvia merchant

Most importantly, make sure to store everything that might be appealing to a bear in the canister. That includes all food (even unopened), garbage, cooking pots, utensils and other scented items like toothpaste, deodorant, lotion and lip balm.

“I like to say that if it goes on or in your body, it must go into your bear canister,” says Sattin. “Even if the item is listed as unscented, it still must go into your bear canister.”

Also, make sure to:

  • Follow all manufacturer directions and recommendations for opening, closing and securing your bear canister.
  • Practice opening and closing it before your trip. Some can be difficult to open, especially in cold weather.
  • Never leave “smellable” items unattended when out of the canister.
  • Always double-check to make sure the lid is on tight.
  • Never eat or store food in or near your tent.
  • Store canisters at least 100 feet away from your tent and 100 feet away from your cooking and eating area. Also keep your cooking/eating area at least 100 feet away from your tent. “This is also known as the Bear-muda triangle,” says Sattin.
  • Store the filled canister on flat ground. Avoid areas near water or at the tip of a hill or cliff. “Bears may be curious and play with your bear canister,” Sattin says. “So even if the bear cannot get into the can, your food may become inaccessible if a bear knocks it off a cliff or into water.”
  • Don’t put the canister into a bag or tie anything to it that would allow a bear to grab it. That makes it too easy for the bear to run away with your food, canister and all.
  • Never feed bears or other wildlife.
  • Keep a clean campsite.
  • Never store clothing with food residue inside your tent.

“Bears are amazing creatures, and it’s important to keep our food safe so that we keep bears safe,” says Sattin. “It’s also important to minimize our impact on our natural environment by following the principles of Leave No Trace.”