Bear Canister vs. Ursack for Backpacking

As backpacking and camping have become more popular, it’s created a serious problem for bears: food conditioning.  This is what happens when bears learn to seek out humans for their food. The solution – and required in many parks – is to use an IGBC-certified bear-resistant container.  The options are bear canisters or Ursack.  Here’s how they compare.


Bear Canister vs. Ursack for Protecting Your Food

Neither bear canisters or Ursack are completely bear-proof.  If a bear is determined enough, it will be able to get to your food!  Want evidence?  See this image of a destroyed bear canister and this image of a destroyed Ursack.

However, of the two, bear canisters generally are better than Ursack for protecting food.  The canisters are designed so they are too big for a bear to chew on or carry off. Lots of backpackers will put their clean cook pot on top of the canister as an “alarm” if an animal starts messing with the canister.  Then they can go outside and scare the bear away (I honestly wouldn’t have the nerve to do that though – I’d be one of those people listening as the bear tossed the canister around for hours trying to get in).

Clean pots as an “alarm” on top of bear canisters

By contrast, food can also be easily crushed in an Ursack. The bag itself might not rip, but the food could squeeze out like toothpaste.  The crushed food might become inedible, especially if covered with bacteria-rick bear slobber.  There are plenty of videos of bears chewing away at Ursacks.  The Ursack aluminum liner supposedly helps prevent this, but that adds weight to the setup.

Just note bear canisters really need to be kept somewhere safe.  There is a famous story of a smart bear getting into canisters in Snow Creek camp in Yosemite. She learned to roll the canisters over to a ledge, push the over so the canister would explode, and then scramble down to eat the contents.  Ideally keep the canister in a depression and away from thick vegetation so you can find it in the morning.

If you have the option of using a food box, USE IT!


Canisters vs. Ursack for Protecting Bears

Note I wrote protecting bears.  A lot of people don’t realize the point of bear-resistant containers isn’t to keep your food safe: it’s to keep bears wild.

The idea is the bear container will make it significantly harder for the bear to get at the human food.  The bear will eventually get bored trying to get at your human food and instead go eat some berries or ant eggs (as they are meant to do).  Ultimately, more bears are kept safe by not getting a “reward” for heading into camp.

Bear canisters are much more effective than Ursack at keeping bears from getting a food reward. 

For example, the “experienced” bears at popular places like Yosemite already know they can’t get into canisters.  They might paw at a canister to see if someone forgot to close it (which happens fairly frequently), but then will leave it alone.  It’s the younger, less-experienced bears which try to chew through canisters.

Ursack still does a pretty good job of keeping the food away from bears.  But the bear might get a taste for food as it slobbers on the bag, especially if it punctures a pouch of tuna or something else liquid and the food leaks out. Thus, some backpackers suggest the point of an Ursack isn’t to keep the food safe but to “buy you time” so you can go out and chase the bear away.

Bear teeth marks on an Ursack


Weight of Ursack vs. Bear Canister

The reason why Ursack is getting so popular is because it is a lot lighter than a bear canister. Ursack is also a lot easier to pack than a bear canister. It won’t dig into your back like a canister and is flexible.  (Tip: Carry a bear canister sideways up high on your pack or under the lid and it won’t dig into your back so much.)

Here’s how Ursack and bear canisters compare.  All of these are IGBC certified.

Weight Volume Price
Ursack Allmitey
(bear & critter proof)
13oz 10.65L $139 at REI,
Check on Amazon
Ursack Major XL
(bear-proof, not critter-proof)
8.8oz 15L $99.95 at REI,
Check on Amazon
Ursack Major 2XL
(bear-proof, not critter-proof)
15.7oz 30L $119.95 on REI
BearVault BV450 2lbs 1oz 7.2L $69.95 at REI
Check on Amazon
BearVault BV500 3lbs 9oz 11.5L $79.95 on REI
Check on Amazon
Garcia Bear Canister 2lbs 12oz 10L $74.95 at REI
Lighter1 Big Daddy 2lbs 10oz 10.5L Check on Amazon
Counter Assault Bear Keg 3lbs 8oz 11.7L Check on Amazon

Because of the weight/packable factor, a lot of backpackers prefer Ursack.  This causes a lot of debate since canisters do a lot better job of keeping food away from bears (and remember the point is to keep bears wild, not keep your food safe!).

However, one good pro-Ursack argument I read was this:

In places where canisters aren’t required, many choose to hang their food since it’s lighter than using a bear canister.   Hanging is very difficult to do right and bears often get at the food.  Ultimately, it’s better to get everyone using an Ursack than have people improperly hang food.  


IGBC Certification

The International Grizzly Bear Committee tests and certifies containers as bear-resistant.  You can find the latest list of approved products here.

The Ursack Major and Allmity are IGBC-certified.  BearVault, Garcia, Lighter1 Big Daddy, and most other popular bear canisters are also certified.


Approval Map for Ursack vs. Bear Canisters

Just because Ursack is IGBC certified, it doesn’t mean it is approved for use everywhere. Likewise, not all IGBC-certified canisters are approved everywhere.  Make sure you check the regulations of where you are going.

In places where bear-resistant containers are required, it’s much more likely for a canister to be approved than Ursack.  So, if you can only afford one bear proof container, it’s best to go with a container.

In the map below, you can see where Ursack is approved.  Green marks fully approved, Yellow marks approved when used with aluminum liner, and Red marks not approved. See the full map here.

Ursack approval map


What about Hanging Food?

Hanging food in a bear bag used to be the norm.  However, hanging food isn’t recommended anymore.  Why?

  • It’s very difficult to hang a bear bag properly
  • Bears are smart.  Since most people are doing a poor job of hanging food, they can easily climb to get the food bag or chew through the rope.
  • Hanging damages trees and branches.
  • Convenience.  Backpackers often don’t have time to hang a bear bag, especially when they arrive to camp late. It’s easier to just leave food out in a bear canister.  You can even leave the food out while on a day hike.

I still hang a food bag when camping or backpacking.  However, it’s not for bears.  It’s to keep critters (mice, rabbits, foxes…) and stray dogs away from my food.   In this case, I don’t have to hang the food bag very high — something my girly throwing arms are actually able to do.


The Verdict?

  • In areas where bears are likely to be a problem, like Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, use a bear canister. Even if it isn’t required, still use a bear canister. Take the extra precaution of lining it with an odor-proof bag.
  • In areas where bears might be a problem: Still use a bear canister. You could save a bear’s life by not teaching it food conditioning. Only use an Ursack if you really can’t carry the weight.
  • In areas without bears: Then hang your food as protection against critters. If the area is really high-traffic (like in the Grand Canyon where chipmunks will wreak havoc on your food!), then hang a critter-proof Ursack.

Do you use a bear canister or Ursack? Tell us your experience with them in the comments below.

Image credits:
“Ursack bite marks in Mori’s sack” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Rebecca Sudduth
“Bear canisters” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Brett L.
“PCT hikers bear canisters at Horseshoe M” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Rebecca Sudduth

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