Ask Liz / What do you put in the bear canister and where do you put it?

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Q:  What do you put in the bear canister? Where do you put the bear canister?

Here's the full question for reference: "I was wondering if you've had any experience using a bear canister. Where do you keep the canister overnight? What about your cook kit? Do you transfer chapstick, sunscreen, etc. from pack to canister in the evening? Do you distance cooking area from canister from sleeping area? How far?"

THE SIMPLE ANSWER: Always put everything that has a scent in a bear canister (or a bear hang) before you go to bed. If you're not sure if you should, put it in. Find a secure spot away from ledges about ~200-300 feet away from camp. Better safe than sorry!

Bears are definitely one the most frequently voiced fears I hear about when people talk about going into the woods! "The bears are gonna eat me!" It's both funny and real (no, not that the will eat you necessarily...), so knowing how to protect yourself and the bears is a skill you need to learn if you're going to backpack in bear country.

Bear canisters are great because (sure) it keeps your food safe, but mostly because you can use it as a seat (as demonstrated in the photo above) or a small even surface. Unfortunately, they can be heavy and fit awkwardly in your pack.


Types of Bear Canisters

The bear canister I use is the Bearikade Weekender. It weighs a hair under 2lbs and I bought it after spending 7 days hiking with an old bear canister rental from the ranger. OMG. It was so heavy and hard to fit everything inside, I decided to go lighter and more spacious. Here are three of the most common bear canisters out there listed in order of lightest to heaviest. (From L to R: Bearikade Weekender, BearVault BV500, Garcia Bear Resistant Canister)


How far should you go from camp?

You should place your bear canister about 200-300 feet from your campsite. Take ~70 steps away from your camp and then start looking for a secure spot. I try to lodge it somewhere it would be a bit more challenging for a bear to get to. That's not always available, so use your judgement and do your best with your situation. Also, keep it away from water sources (where it could get rolled into and disappear forever) and ledges (where it could fall off and *sad face*). 


What should you put in your bear canister?

A general rule of thumb is to put anything that has a scent in your bear canister. If you're not sure, take your item through this decision tree. 

COMMON BACKCOUNTRY SCENTED ITEMS

  • Chapstick
  • Cup/bowl
  • Deodorant
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • Floss
  • Food (all of it!)
  • Cook set
  • Snacks
  • Soap
  • Spoon/spork
  • Sunblock
  • Tea bags
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Trash

STUFF YOU DON'T NEED TO PUT IN

  • Clothes (unless you spilled your dinner all over it or it smells like your food!)
  • First aid kit
  • Hand sanitizer (non-scented)
  • Map
  • Your stinky socks (but golly, I hope you don't have to smell that all night)  ;-P

PROTIP #1: People tend to forget to check their backpack hip pockets at the end of the evening. There's always something small and bear-baitey hiding in there. Check it!

PROTIP #2: Here's a process that works well for me so I don't forget anything. Most people eat dinner after they set up camp. If that's you...

  1. Check EVERY pocket for trash, wrappers, snacks, and other scented items. Gather your bear canister and everything that has a scent including your toiletries.*
  2. Take it all with you to the place you're going to eat dinner (about 70 adult steps or more away from camp).
  3. After you eat your heart out, take care of your teeth and APPLY CHAPSTICK LIBERALLY (if you're that type). You're going to need to put your chapstick in the bear canister, so this is it for the night.
  4. Go find a place to secure your bear canister by moving away from your camp area.
  5. Walk back to camp and get horizontal! (I love laying down after a long day of hiking! It's the best.)

*Trust me, it is crazy annoying to be ready for bed and all of a sudden you find a snickers in your tent or something. You have to get out of your warm sleeping bag and walk for what seems like forever in the cold to put it away. (Can you tell I've had to do this before?)


Alternatives to Bear Canisters

Bear canisters can get heavy (upwards of 2lbs). An alternative is to carry the supplies you need for a bear hang. This might be a using something like an Ursack or making your own by using a stuff sack and getting some rope and a carabiner. 

This will be a lighter and more flexible option since it's a bag versus a rigid canister. You will need to figure out how to hang it, but it's a fairly simple skill you can learn. (Bear hang basics coming soon.)


Other helpful tidbits on the internetz.

How to pack a bear canister
Bear canister basics from Leave No Trace

Any comments, questions or feedback? I'm human and sometimes miss things! Please let me know if you think of ways I can improve this article. xo