Bear Canister vs. Bear Bag: Tips for Choosing the Right One

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Any regular camper knows that you need to protect yourself when you set out on a trip. From mosquitos to hypothermia, there are many dangers that can await you in the wilds.

However, one of the larger threats (no pun intended) is bears. That’s where bear canisters and bags can be a lifesaver.

In the competition of bear canister vs. bear bag, let’s see which one is better!

What Are Bear Canisters and Bags?

Before jumping straight in, let’s quickly review exactly what bear canisters and bags are as well as why they’re necessary.

That’s why bear canisters and bags were invented: they both help to keep food protected from wildlife – especially from bears. 

The Dangers of Bears

There’s no denying that bears can be dangerous when out hiking or camping.

Even though getting attacked by a bear is not likely to happen to most of us, you should take every precaution possible to minimize attracting bears.

If a bear does attack, your best course of action is to use a bear-repellent spray. Your instinct may be to run, but that will only attract attention and make the bear want to chase.

Instead, move slowly to get to your spray. If it’s a black bear, you may only need to make yourself look large and shout loudly to scare it off. A brown bear, like a grizzly, won’t be scared by this, and you will need to spray it with the repellent if it gets within 25 feet of you. 

Fortunately, brown bears aren’t as numerous as black bears, so you’re not likely to run into one. Still, minimizing your risk of drawing a bear to you is vital when you go hiking.

Why Bags and Canisters Are Important

Unfortunately, bears have an incredibly strong sense of smell, and nothing attracts them more than the smell of food (even dog food!).

Bear bags and canisters are a way to stop any smell that might attract a bear from spreading. Simply put your food, toiletries, and anything else that might bring a bear to your camp into the bag or canister, then hang it at least 250 feet away from your camp.

Not only do these containers keep your food’s scent from drawing in unwanted animals, but it also physically protects it from any critters that might stumble across it, such as raccoons or even other hikers.

Bear Canisters

A bear canister is a bear-resistant food storage can. Typically, they’re hard containers that are large enough to store your food and toiletries.

Because of the way they hermetically seal, you don’t have to worry about smells attracting animals to your campsite. Even so, it’s still wise to hang your canister around 200 feet from your campsite.

Pros of Bear Canisters

Bear canisters are versatile tools when out in the woods. In fact, you can still use a bear canister even when there aren’t suitable trees available. 

They’re usually heavy, which means that you can be confident enough to place them on the ground.

Some have also found a use for them as a stool. However, though this might sound like a benefit, it must be noted that a canister shouldn’t be placed inside or near a camp as that might attract a bear.

Their durability extends to protecting its contents. A typical model is designed from the get-go to be resistant to slashing. Even the most prying bear is likely to find a canister impossible to gain access to.

This is in contrast with a bear bag, which could still find its contents ruined whether or not a bear is able to extract them.

Standard bear canisters have a capacity of between 10-15 liters. The size gives you more options when it comes to storage, as a canister doesn’t have to be limited to housing food alone. 

To recap, let’s take a look at some of the pros of choosing a bear canister to house your food:

  • They don’t need to be attached to a rope
  • Can be placed on the ground
  • Are designed to be resistant to prying claws or slashing
  • Could double as a camp stool
  • Have a large storage capacity

Cons of Bear Canisters

Their design has some downsides. The most obvious of which is a canister’s weight and size.

Bear canisters are typically made of durable materials, such as PVC or metal. These materials aren’t very portable since a typical canister alone weighs between two and three pounds. 

If you plan on backpacking, then that weight could be too burdensome to carry around.

Likewise, the canister’s bulkiness may take up too much space. While that might not be an issue for a car trip, backpackers have to consider whether a canister is feasible.

The canister’s solid structure could itself be an issue. Since it isn’t malleable like a bear bag, you may find that you can only fit so much inside it. 

While bear canisters can be advantageous, let’s take another look at those cons:

  • Weight may be an issue for backpacking long distances
  • Size might be impractical for backpacks or take up too much space
  • Solid structure could limit what can be fit inside

How to Pick the Best Canisters

Choosing a bear canister will depend on your specific requirements.

Consider whether there is a specific material you’d prefer. What storage capacity will you need? For example, will you need to carry food for 3 or 7 days?

Best Overall Bear Canister
BearVault BV500

Camp without worry with the Bear Vault Bear Resistant Food Container. These lightweight canisters are super rugged and can hold up to 7 days worth of food. The polycarbonate material resists shattering upon impact, which adds to the durability of this container.

Check Current Price Learn More

Still, there are some key characteristics of a quality canister. They should be durable, sturdy, and solid enough that a bear couldn’t easily break into it or drag it away.

For its high volume to weight ratio, I’m a fan of the BearVault BV500. Its transparent sides make it easy to locate an item inside the canister faster instead of digging out every single thing!

Bear Bags

Unlike bear canisters, bear bags aren’t made of a hard material like plastic but are typically kevlar or another bullet-proof fabric. This makes them lighter and less bulky than canisters, and they are therefore easier to cart around.

However, the term “bear bag” gets thrown around pretty freely by campers. Some people will consider even a backpack that they’ve hung up in a tree a “bear bag” when it offers little protection other than the fact that it’s off the ground.

Some actual bear bags are waterproof and offer much more protection than a simple rucksack! Unfortunately, waterproof doesn’t mean smell-proof, so it’s extra important to hang bear bags at least 200 feet away from your camp, preferably downwind.

Pros of Bear Bags

For those of us who want to do a bit of hiking before we set up camp, a bear bag can be a more practical option. They tend to be lighter and take up less space than a canister, making them easier to cart around.

Unlike canisters, bear bags usually come with a hanging kit to make storing the bag safer once you’ve set up camp.

Bear bags are also more comfortable to carry than a canister, even when they’re full. Of course, you’ll still have to bring the hanging kit that the bag came with.

Usually, if you’re trying to hike a long distance in a short span of time, a bear bag can be the better solution as it won’t slow you down.

To recap some of the benefits:

  • Bear bags are lightweight 
  • Bags are easier to carry than bulky containers
  • They typically come with a hanging kit

Cons of Bear Bags

While bear bags may be easier to transport from place to place, they aren’t necessarily superior to canisters. 

Unfortunately, bear bags aren’t smell-proof, which means that they may still attract curious critters to investigate anything that smells like food. 

They can also be difficult to set up. They need to be hung to be effective, so you’ll have to take time to find a strong branch far enough away from your camp to be safe.

Once you’ve found the branch, you’ll next need to string the bag up high enough to deter animals, but not so high as to make it accessible from the branch itself. Bears are very good climbers, after all.

Lastly, even waterproof bags can get wet inside if they aren’t sealed correctly. Some people choose to hang their bags upside down for this reason, but that runs the risk of your goods spilling onto the ground below.

To be clear, the cons for using a bag are:

  • Bear bags aren’t smell-proof
  • You need to find a tree that is strong
  • May not be completely waterproof

How to Pick the Best Bags

The best bear bag will largely depend on what you need it for, but there are some universal factors to look out for.

It’s a good idea to invest in one that is made out of bullet-proof material, is waterproof, seals effectively, and comes with a kit to hang it. The Ursack Major is one of the most popular options on the market and for good reason – it does what it’s supposed to do!

Ursack Major Black Bear Bag

The Ursack Bag protects your food from all creatures great and small! Not only will they keep out bears teeth and claws it will thwart mice, raccoon, squirrels, pine martens and other sharp toothed critters. Ursack bags are made with a patent pending laminated process that combines the UHMWP or Kevlar fabrics.

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Which Is Best: Bear Canister vs. Bear Bag

Like many things in life, this often boils down to personal preference.

Depending on what you specifically need, you may prefer getting a bag over a canister. After all, bear bags are lighter and easier to travel with than canisters.

However, no one can deny that canisters are the overall safer option. Unless poorly placed or sealed, they are extremely effective at preventing bears from accessing your food stash.

Last but not least, their hard exterior acts as a great camp chair to enjoy your meal. If you’re already carrying it around, you may as well use it in any way that you can!

Summary

Camping can be a fun, athletic adventure, great for the whole family to enjoy. However, you need to be safe and not attract wildlife, like bears.

With a bear canister or bag, you’re less likely to have a dangerous encounter. This way, you can really relax and get to enjoying nature.

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