If you’ve spent any time camping in bear country, you’ll know the importance of a quality bear canister. Bears are well-known for their ability to sniff out food, which is why it is essential to keep all goodies stowed away where they can’t access it.
Storing food in the open for bears to find not only is inconvenient for you when you have no food left, but it’s hazardous.
If you’re trekking in bear country, you’re going to need either a bear canister or a bear bag. But how do you know which is the right one for you? The first thing you need to know is that some areas strictly require bear canisters. So, it is important to do your area research to see if bear bags are even allowed.
No matter which one you choose, you’ll need to be sure that you stow them away properly. The last thing you need in the backcountry is to be a few days out with no food left and a potential bear encounter on your hands.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of both the best bear canisters and bags, so you’ve got a good amount of choice when it comes to storing your food when it comes time.
Bear Canisters Vs. Bear Bags
A bear canister is a hard plastic that is designed to be nearly indestructible and extremely difficult for bears to get open.
With such heavy-duty materials in play, they tend to be a bit heavy, which is why some backpackers prefer a bear bag. However, a bear canister gives you peace of mind knowing that your food is safe from all animals, and they can double as a nice camp stool.
Bear bags are what they sound like: a bag. They are not necessarily designed to be indestructible, but to be hung in a tree to make it far more difficult for a bear to access your food.
Learning to hang a bear bag properly can be a bit of a learning curve, and if there are no tall trees around, they are not feasible to use.
While they are lightweight and can be effective, bear bags need to be hung in a way that stops a bear from accessing it. Not only that but if you do not also store your food in a dry bag, your food can get wet.
Additionally, if you are always hanging your food bag, it is difficult for you to access your food.
Overall, the one you choose will be determined by your location and personal preference. Most campers choose to use a bear canister for ease of use or if it is required.
If you get the hang of using a bear bag though, it can be a lightweight and practical option.
Best Bear Bags
One thing that must be mentioned is that you do not necessarily need a bear specific bear bag. You can use most any bag that you can hang in a tree.
However, bear bags, like the ones made by Usak, will be more durable if/when a bear gets their hands on them. Not all of the bags on our list will be specifically designed for use as a bear bag. However, they do function well as makeshift bear bags if that is the only option you have.
Ursak Major XL Bear Bag
- Capacity: 15 L
- Weight: 8.8 oz
This is a classically designed and durable bear bag. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a higher-quality bear bag than ones designed by Usak. It is heavy-duty and has passed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) test. For one person, this bag will carry at least 7-8 days worth of food, depending on the types of backpacking foods you bring.
The integrated cord makes it easy to cinch closed and hang. While the bag is already a bit expensive, it is quite durable and designed specifically to make it difficult for a bear to rip the sack if they manage to get it out of the tree. The only downside is that it does not come with an odor liner.
Ursak Major Black Bear Bag
- Capacity: 10.7 L
- Weight: 7.6 oz
A smaller version of the first bear bag on our list, the Usak Major Black Bear Bag, is another ideal bear bag option. It does not hold as much food, but will still be sufficient for individuals on a backpacking trip of less than a week. This is also the best lightweight bear bag on our list that’s specially designed for this application.
For both Usak bags, they come with an integrated cord that can hold upwards of 2500 lbs. Like the other larger bag, this one also does not come with an odor liner, although it is highly recommended.
Sea to Summit eVac Dry Sack
- Capacity: 3-65 L
- Weight: 1.5-5.2 oz
The Sea to Summit eVac Dry Sack can be an excellent makeshift bear bag. It will lack resistance if a bear does their paws on the bag, but you can still use it. The good thing about this bag is that it is waterproof. Unlike traditional bear bags, they aren’t waterproof, making it impossible to keep your food dry unless you line the bag with a dry sack.
You can choose to use this bag as a liner for a bear bag as well. This way, you have the durability of the bear bag and another layer of waterproof protection.
Osprey UltraLight Dry Sack
- Capacity: 3-30 L
- Weight: starting at 1.44 oz
The last bear bag option on our list is the Osprey UltraLight Dry Sack, and once again, it is not a bag specifically designed for use as a bear bag. The good thing about that is that it can be used for other applications. However, you must keep in mind that if you do not hang the bag properly, it is inevitable that a bear will eat all of your food.
One of the best things you can do is use the dry sacks as a liner inside a bear bag to keep your food safe and dry. Osprey is a great outdoor company to purchase gear from at any time. They have a lifetime guarantee and will repair any damage or defect free of charge.
You have the option of multiple sizes, and the design of the bag is more rectangular than most other stuff sacks or dry bags. The shape makes it easier to pack into a backpacking pack, and this one works exceptionally well with Osprey backpacking pack designs.
LibertyMountain Stuff Sack
- Capacity: Undisclosed
- Weight: 1oz
The LibertyMountain Stuff Sack is another option for a makeshift bear bag. It can easily be hung, is relatively durable, and is quite large. The only major downside is that it is not a bag specifically designed to stand up to a bear. If a bear does get ahold of it, they will have no issue getting to your food.
Any makeshift bear bag option should only be considered for backpackers that have experience hanging bear bags properly. Otherwise, you run a very high risk of losing all of your food and a possible bear encounter.
With that in mind, this stuff sack is far less expensive than specially designed bear bags. So, if you are on a budget and can confidently hang a bear bag, this is a great choice. Unlike the dry bag though, this is only a stuff sack and shouldn’t be considered waterproof. It may be water-resistant, although Liberty Mountain does not explicitly disclose that information.
Best Bear Canisters
Unlike the bear bags, there are not any “makeshift” bear canister options. Bear canisters are intended to be bear-proof, not just to keep food up in a tree to make it more difficult for a bear to access. A bear canister needs to be able to withstand an encounter with a bear.
Garcia Backpackers Cache 812
- Capacity: 10 L
- Weight: 2 lbs 12 oz
While this bear canister isn’t necessarily very large, it is going to be a very durable option. It is made with ABS polymer and has smoothed sides and edges.
The canister is easy for a human to lock and unlock using a coin or screwdriver. With the smooth sides and locking mechanism, it is difficult for a bear to grip or open.
They also include a food-grade bag for wrapping your food and storing inside of the canister. The Backpackers Cache 812 has also been tested by the IGBC, in which they found that the canister meets standards in terms of bear protection.
- Capacity: 11.5 L
- Weight: 2 lbs 9 oz
A slightly different bear canister option is the BearVault 500. This is not the only size that BearVault offers, and we will get to another option next. However, this BearVault is going to have a larger capacity and be relatively lightweight to make it the best bear canister for backpacking.
The shape of the canister is wider than it is tall, making it kind of bulky to pack, but doable. Unlike the other canister listed, this canister is clear, making it easy to get your selected food out of the canister.
The heavy-duty materials are strong enough to use as a camp chair, and the lid lock seems to work well. The major downfall is that if a bear gets a hold of the canister, they can bite through the lid, causing the locking mechanism to fail. This does not always happen, but if a bear is persistent enough, it can occur.
This can be a good option nonetheless, but be aware that it may not always withstand the attempts a bear makes.
- Capacity: 7.2 L
- Weight: 2.1 lbs
Essentially the same design as the BearVault we already mentioned, but smaller. This is a great bear canister option for weekend backpackers with capacity for at least 3-4 days worth of food for one person. Also, strictly in terms of weight, this is the best lightweight bear canister on our list.
While it is quite small, it is heavy for the size. The broad base makes it a bit awkward to pack, but being it is shorter, it isn’t too much of a burden. This bear canister is approved for use in most mountainous areas and National Parks that have bears. However, it is not approved for use in the Adirondacks.
Like the other BearVault, it can be hard for humans to open the lid, especially in cold weather. While not impossible, it can add an extra burden to accessing food. Not only that, but many consumers have shown that it is not fully bear-proof. If a bear is persistent enough, they can bite through the lid and dismantle the locking mechanism.
Udap No-Fed-Bear Canister
- Capacity: 7 L
- Weight: 2.4 lbs
The Udap No-Fed Bear Canister is an ideal option for weekenders or backpackers that are taking a 3-4 day trip. Although the capacity is small, it is heavy. The canister is black, which can make it challenging to locate your food, but with such a small size, that isn’t a huge issue.
With it being somewhat heavy compared to the size, it is quite durable and made with heavy-duty materials. The locking mechanism on the lid is opened with a coin or screwdriver and can be somewhat difficult to open. This canister is not recommended for use in cold temperatures either (under 50 degrees) as the lock tends to get stuck or stop working altogether.
Frontiersman Bear Canister
- Capacity: 11.86 L
- Weight: 3 lbs
The last bear canister on our list has a unique design. The Frontiersman Bear Canister is a tall, slim canister with a large capacity. It is large enough to hold food for at least 7-8 days for one person. Although it does hold a fair amount, the weight is going to be the highest of all of the options on our list.
This can be an excellent option for backpackers looking to take a longer trek or couples that want to split gear and only care one bear canister for a weekend adventure.
Made using polypropylene and locking the lid in place with three screws, this bear canister is one of the best. The shape also makes it ideal for fitting into your pack. It isn’t awkward, and your other gear can easily fit around it. Although some customers struggled with unlocking the three screws, if you use a nickel, it works perfectly.
How to Choose a Bear Canister and Bag
While online research can help a lot in your decision between a bear bag or canister, I recommend getting firsthand information from the rangers of the area you are visiting. They know the bears that roam those lands, and they will be able to give you informed and distinctive recommendations.
Beyond that, we have some general criteria that we used to base our decisions on when making this list. Keep in mind that not all areas allow bear bags, and they strictly require bear canisters. So, if you frequent a variety of outdoor areas that have bears, it may be best to invest in a bear canister right away.
All of the criteria that we will list below should be considered, but the number one consideration should be bear-resistant. After all, a bear bag or canister is intended to keep your food away from bears. So, if it can’t hold up to a bear, what’s the point?
Bear bags will almost always never be fully bear-proof. They will be much more durable than standard stuff sacks or dry sacks, but they will not prevent a bear from accessing your food if they get ahold of it.
That reason is why most areas with large bear populations require bear canisters. The best bear canisters will be near impossible for a bear to open. They will be durable, hard for them to hold, and impossible for a bear to unlock.
While all companies will advertise that their bear canisters are the best, in the criteria of bear resistance, it is helpful to read recent, verified customer comments. If someone had their canister fail, they would more than likely write a review.
This is often a feature of bear bags and canisters that backpackers overlook. However, it is very important. Most bear canisters will be waterproof, but you should double-check as some lids could leak.
Bear bags, on the other hand, will be, at most, water-resistant. Most backpackers choose to line a bear bag with an odor seal and a waterproof dry sack in odor to keep their food and supplies dry.
The last thing you want is for a bear to get your food, but food can also be ruined if it rains and is not protected.
The reason a bear bag is ever chosen over a bear canister is because of weight. They weigh far less, but that also means that they are far less durable. If you are confident that you can properly hang a bear bag and you are traveling in an area that allows the use of them, then a bear bag can save you a few pounds of pack weight.
If you aren’t sure if you will be able to safely hang your bear bag or a bear canister is required to camp in your area, try to get a bear canister that weighs around 2 lbs. That is about as light as you will find with the best bear canisters.
While this is still heavy, we must remember that it is keeping a bear from eating your food, so it needs to be durable and heavy-duty. Flimsy, lightweight plastic will not cut it against a bear.
The storage capacity you need for a bear bag or bear canister will be determined by how long you are backpacking and how many people you’re carrying food for. If you are only carrying your food for a weekend trek, then a capacity of around 7 L is usually sufficient.
However, if you tend to travel longer distances or with another person, having a larger bear bag or bear canister allows you to store all of your food in one place. You should aim to have a storage capacity of at least 11 L if you’re hiking for 7+ days or are carrying the food for two people.
IGBC Certified Bear-Resistant Products
You may have noticed that on a few of the products we listed (all of the canisters were), we mentioned if they were IGBC certified or not. This is a necessary certification to look for because then you’ll know it will hold up to a bear if they get their paws on your canister.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has a list of certified products that are certified to meet their bear resistance standards. The IGBC certifies all of the products on this list.
Imagine you’re three days out in the backcountry, cozy and asleep in your tent. Then, you wake up the next morning only to find that all of your food and your pack is ripped to shreds and scatter among the trees. This is any backpacker’s second-worst nightmare (only behind being attacked by the bear that ate your food).
Being aware of the wildlife in the area you are hiking is extremely important for both your safety and theirs. Situations like the one I mentioned above are one of the many ways a pleasant backpacking trip can turn into a survival nightmare fast.
Still, not all bear bags or bear canisters are created equal. We felt it was necessary to compile a list of our favorites to jumpstart your search for bear-resistant gear. We followed strict criteria and guidelines to choose the best bear canisters and bear bags for backpacking. While not all of them on our list are perfect, they will do the job if you use them correctly.