I have spent lots of time car camping and hiking in bear country and have backpacked in locations where bear canisters are recommended but not required (hence I used an Ursack bear bag). However, I recently lead a four-day women’s backpacking trip through Mammoth, specifically Thousand Island Lakes, and despite getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, we had a wonderful time.
For most hikers on the trail, bears are the wild animals that everyone wants to see but at the same time doesn’t want to see. Spotting bears is really just a question of timing and distance; spot a grizzly bear on the other side of a raging river: Fantastic, snap a photo and move on. Walk behind a blind corner and find yourself within 20 feet of a cub; Not cool because, mama bear is lurking nearby.
If you are nervous about hiking and backpacking in bear country, keep in mind that bears and other critters are more interested in your food than you. Remember the phrase, “Don’t poke the bear?” In general, bears will not bother you unless you bother them, so remember to leave wildlife wild, which means practicing bear safety while you are in bear territory.
It is required by law to store all of your scented items in bear-proof National Park Service Regulated canisters while in the backcountry where bear canisters are required. Keep in mind that recommended is different than required.
Most individuals and agencies no longer recommend counterbalancing/hanging food in a bear-proof bag from a tree because it is dangerous for the bear. Many of them fall out of the tree trying to grab your food. Hanging your food can be time-consuming and can be tough if there are not a lot of decent tree branches. I would recommend against this and stick to wedging your odor-proof bag or canister in between rocks.
So, I do admit, I love my Ursack bear bag, but I have never used this in “bear canister required bear country.” They are lightweight (0.8 oz.) and so easy to use. Just be sure to secure them with rocks and tie them properly. Although most national parks and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approve these sacks, some national parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Olympic do not, and therefore a bear canister is required at these places. The debate between an Ursack bear bag and a bear canister in the bear territory is still a sticky debate; many well-known thru-hikers support the bear bag, and many others in support of the bear canister. For best results, place all of your scented items in a LOKSAK OPSAK bear bag and then place this in your Ursack bear bag.
These can be expensive, bulky, difficult to open, and heavy. However, these are the safest and most reliable food storage option when you are traveling in the backcountry. Do your homework and invest in a bear canister that is best for you. They vary by weight, size, locking mechanisms and price. If you are out in the wild for a week or are thru-hiking, then you have very limited options: either Bearikade or BearVault. But if you are only out for a shorter amount of time such as long weekend, then you have quite the selection. I personally am in the market for a lightweight bear canister that is easy to open and close which I can take on a trip for about five to six days. I recently used a BearVault and ended up having to break it on the last day because something got caught in the track. It was a difficult situation which I hope to never experience again, and the amount of time and energy I put into the opening and closing of this canister throughout the trip frustrated me to no end. Below is a list of allowed bear canisters that are currently on the market.
Bear canisters can range from $70 to $300 and can literally make or break your trip, so I strongly suggest you do your research and think about how many days your average backpacking trip is. Buying a bear canister that only holds two or three days of food when you plan on doing a one or two week backpacking trip may not be the best investment. Renting is also a great option, and there are multiple stores that rent bear canisters. You can also rent directly from Bearikade; they mail the bear canister to you and you mail it back, easy as pie.
I personally am in the “anti-bear spray camp.” I do not believe in harming wildlife, and I strongly believe that if you practice bear safety in the wild, there is no reason a bear will attack you. I actually will not hike or camp with individuals who carry bear spray (with the intention of using it on an animal). With that said, I know many individuals (mainly women) who carry bear spray to ward off human intruders.
These will happen eventually. On my last two trips, I have run into bears both times. Unlike mountain lions and other big cats, bears do not want to be bothered, and they interested in your food but not interested in you.
In all honesty, please practice safety, bear precautions, and do not put your fellow hikers at risk for an unfriendly bear encounter. Trust me, this is not a fun scenario, and that person ends up getting blacklisted from all future hikes and trips.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see you on the trails. Don't poke the bear.