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Bear canisters and food sacks for backpack hunting

Bear canisters and food sacks for backpack hunting

All photo credits: Brady Miller

I just recently returned from a backpack elk hunt where, in addition to the many elk we saw, we also saw a couple of black bears, which is becoming very common in Colorado and many other western states. Black bear numbers are on the rise almost across their entire range. In addition, grizzly bear numbers continue to increase and hunting is still not on the horizon within the lower 48. I’ve come to expect a handful of stories every fall of hunters having conflicts with grizzly bears and, unfortunately, even attacks. With that, a common question we get asked is how do you backpack hunt in bear country? And, especially, how do you deal with your food and gear when hunting bear country? 

Conflict with bears is often related to food — specifically the food you are carrying and cooking on your hunt. It’s said that a bear's sense of smell is 7x stronger than a bloodhound. Simply stated: the smell of food has the potential to bring bears to you and if a bear gets into your supply while you are gone hunting, your trip is essentially over. How should you secure your food in bear country? Below we will explore some of the best options. 

Hanging food

Hanging food or bear bagging is a common method to keep your food away from bears and reduce the possibility of conflict. It is generally accepted that the food bag should be at least 12’ to 15’ from the ground, considering how tall a bear is, and 4’ from the trunk. Selecting the right tree to hang your food from can take some planning in order to maximize the ease and safety for your approach. Much like selecting your camp, a good food location should be away from areas where a prevailing wind or thermal can drag the smell through drainages or likely bear areas. Avoid larger flats where winds often swirl or the bottoms of drainages where the smell is sure to travel long distances. The storage tree should be at least 100 yards away from camp, but more is preferable. As an added bonus, look for areas that can be glassed from camp or a nearby high point. Once a good location point is established, it will be important that your food never leaves this area — with the exception of daily use items — and, particularly, never goes back to camp. In addition to food, personal items like toothpaste, sunscreen, lip balm and even your utensils should be hung with your food. 

Cooking should also be done in a location away from the camp as this will only enhance the food smells. Unfortunately, this means that your morning coffee, breakfast and dinner will be away from the comfort of your sleeping bag.

Items to store in hanging bag or canister

  • Food
  • Toiletries
  • Lip balm
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothpaste
  • Smelly accessories (utensils, fuel canisters, knives, game bags)
  • Deodorant
  • Medications: pills with a coating and liquids
  • Hygienic wipes

To hang your food, there are a few products on the market that I like quite a lot. The first is “The Hanger” by Caribou Gear. The Hanger is a heavy-duty Cordura bag with 65’ of custom 3mm cord. It can be easily thrown over a limb up to 65’ with its own weight or you can add items to give it extra weight and make it that much easier to throw. The cord will not bind or break and as you pull it, the more dense and round it becomes. Additionally, Caribou Gear makes an SMC Kinetic Screw Lock Carabiner that can be utilized to quickly and easily attach your food back and pull it up easily at night. They also offer a Micro Pulley rated to almost 5,000 lbs that can be attached to a pack or food bag and be hoisted very efficiently well out of the reach of bears. I have often used one of my Caribou game bags as my food hanging bag and it works wells. They are very strong and durable although if a bear gets it, they are not that durable. These items from Caribou Gear are great for backcountry food or meat hanging. 

goHUNT Gear Shop

Another product that I was introduced to at this past Summer Outdoor Retailer Show was the Ursack bear bag. The Ursack is the only lightweight alternative to hard-sided, heavy duty bear canisters, which I will discuss below. The Ursack bags are soft and collapsible and weigh significantly less than hard-sided canisters. They come in different sizes and a couple of different materials. For example, the Ursack Major 2XL, Major XL and Major are made from Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene material, which is bear resistant, meaning it will not tear more than 1/4" and it will keep bears out of your food. They may smash it up, but they will not be able to penetrate and eat your precious food supply. The capacity and weight of those bags are 15.7 oz and 30L, 8.8 oz and 15L, and 7.6 oz and 10.65 liters. Ursack also makes a bag called the Almighty, which weighs 13 oz, is 10.65L and is virtually puncture-proof. It is made from UHMWP material and Kevlar. It will keep out bears’ teeth and claws as well as mice, raccoons and any other sharp-toothed animals. It’s a really nice option for keeping your food and/or valuables safe in the backcountry. Every Ursack comes with 6’ of cord and a hoop and loop fastener. The Ursack’s in conjunction with a Caribou Gear micro pulley and carabiner would be a bombproof, bear safe food hanging shelter. 

I also like the Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Bag, the Stone Glacier Load Cell Dry Bag or the Mystery Ranch Roll Top Hauler Dry Bag for storing and hanging food in a tree. 

Finally, bear canisters are worth talking about. If you have packstock, they may be a really good option. A few of the most popular, well-respected options are the Wild Ideas Weekender, BearVault BV500 Food Container, Frontiersman INSIDER or the Garcia Bear-Resistant Container.

Canisters are good at protecting your food whether you hang it or have to sit in on the ground. Canisters are also great at preserving your food. An Ursack may save your food from a bear eating it, but a canister will also keep your food from getting smashed or crushed.

Bear canisters

Bear canisters

Type

Dimensions and volume

Weight

Cost

Wild Ideas Weekender 9” x 10.5”
650 cubic inches
1 lb 15 oz $309.00
BearVault BV500 Food Container 8.7” x 12.7”
700 cubic inches
2 lbs 9 oz $83.95
Sabre Frontiersman INSIDER Bear Safe 19.91” x 9.21”
723 cubic inches
3 lbs $67.99
Udap No-fed-bear resistant canister 10” x 8” 2 lbs 6.4 oz $89.99

In closing

In closing

For most backpack hunters in grizzly country, hanging your food is likely the best option as long as you have trees available to do so. If not, a canister is a great option although it may be heavier and more spacious to pack. A canister will save your food and personal items from being crushed, too. If you have packstock, lack trees to hang your food or don’t want the hassle of hanging, the canisters above are great choices. If you can hang your food, the Ursack will protect it even if a bear does get into it. If you want to go as lightweight as possible, a game bag and a couple of the accessories from Caribou Gear are excellent at getting your food up off the ground and away from boo-boo and his buddies. All the best and happy hunting for the rest of the 2020 fall season.

Check out these articles by Dave Barnett that cover ways to stay safe in bear country: 

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