I've read that in the western US, backpackers need bear canisters or bear bags, for bears or for other animals. For example, a post comparing different methods is here. I must admit I'm a bit daunted, because on my European trips I've never given the slightest worry to animals (food lying around right outside my tent, along with my stove). The Forest Service states that the food should be in the container whenever you are not actively preparing, eating or unpacking. Do I really need to keep my food in one of those while hiking? Are bears or other animals so agressive?

bear canister
Bear canister, Wikimedia Commons

My hope was that perhaps there are foldable canisters, and while I might struggle to pack my food volume-wise, this is not a problem during the night.

  • FWIW: Some lipstick and perfumes also qualify as "food" to a bear. Hmmm a bear trying to eat your armpit could be challenging - maybe no underarm deodorants then ? :-). – ATCSVOL Apr 28 '13 at 16:13

Bear populations, bear problems, and aggressive bears are distributed extremely unevenly in California wilderness areas. There are dense populations of problem animals in a few small areas such as Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite. These are areas with a lot of humans packed into a small space. You're going to the White Mountains, which gets very few human visitors, so you're not going to be in one of those areas with a high probability of bear hassles.

Yes, bears that are used to humans will definitely steal your food right away from you. I've had a bear steal my crackers when I sat down to eat them. A friend had a bear rip open his pack while it was on the ground nearby.

"Do I really need to keep my food in one of those while hiking?" This question doesn't make sense to me. You have the canister in your pack, taking up space. Why would you not put the food in it?

Bears operate more by smell than we do, so they're most likely to detect your food by its smell. You can cut down on the smell by putting all your food in ziplock bags, inside your bear canister. There are special brands of large ziplock bags such as Aloksack that are claimed to be more odorproof than normal bags. They're convenient, because they're big enough so that you can get all your food inside a single bag.

At night, simply put your bear canister at some distance, say 30 m from where you're sleeping. If a bear does find it, it may try to break into it, but it won't be able to, and you won't be up all night because of the noise.

  • Ah, I already have all my food in two layers of ziplock bags by default. – gerrit Apr 21 '13 at 19:53
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    @gerrit - I don't mean to be rude, but you seem to know what the regulations are. Don't try to outsmart them, they're in place for a reason. :). If your question is "do the rules that the park service wrote apply to me", the answer is "yes". :) – DavidR Apr 21 '13 at 21:14
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    @gerrit: Rangers are blue-collar workers who work for a big government bureaucracy. They are not scientists or doctors, and it's not their job to figure out medical risks; if you ask them about drinking water, they will give you what they perceive to be a safe answer. Bears are qualitatively different from water. Rangers deal with bear issues frequently and can understand the issues based on their professional training. In California, IMO the rules about bear canisters are not stricter than they need to be. E.g., they even break down the Sierra into different parts and have more lax rules[...] – Ben Crowell Apr 21 '13 at 21:52
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    Ah, I understand. Yes, I see why you may have the suspicions you do. I'd say that I feel the regulations about canisters are generally a good idea. – DavidR Apr 21 '13 at 22:02
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    Grizzlies still exist in the US, but not in California (which, ironically, has one on its flag). Wolves still exist in the US, although it's rare for one to be sighted in California. Note that everything we've been discussing has been appropriate precautions for black bears. Grizzles are very aggressive and will sometimes kill humans, even without provocation. In areas with grizzlies, hikers often carry special long-range pepper spray. – Ben Crowell Apr 21 '13 at 23:00

According to Yosemite Park's website, bears have lost fear towards humans and will try to get food from whatever is the easiest way.

This usually means that it's easier to break a car's window of wreck a campsite than going hunting.

They have a keen sense of smell and will follow not just food, but products with various scents that we wouldn't think of as food. Also, they know what food containers look like and will be attracted to items they think is some sort of food wrapping.

Now, I haven't gone hiking in the western US, but my best guess would be: Since they won't fear encountering you, they might follow your scent if you're hiking. So I'd say it's better not to take risks, follow the advice, and use those canisters.

  • If they identify either a canister or a hiker with food, won't the effect be at best neutral? – gerrit Apr 21 '13 at 18:14
  • From what I read, I understood that they're likely to identify food wrappings (I would guess food boxes and wrappings are designed to be colorful, while the "bear canisters" are dull and lack shiny colors). I mentioned this because apparently bears often break into cars because they had visible items that resembled food (even if they didn't smell). – Roflo Apr 21 '13 at 18:52
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    They can see the food canister, but can't open it (or pick it up to carry it away) If you set the canister on the ground away from your tent, the bears will sniff and claw at it for a while, then give up and go away. If it had been in a pack, they would have ripped the pack apart. Likewise for a tent or a car. – DavidR Apr 21 '13 at 21:35
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    @Roflo My question was not if I should use it or not, but if it needs to be in there permanently. I thought, perhaps they are foldable and bears will shy away from walking humans but that they're only needed during the night. I've never met a wild animal larger than an insect that doesn't run away at full speed at the first notice of a human. – gerrit Apr 21 '13 at 21:46
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    No foldable cannisters yet - they wouldn't be strong enough. For me the issue is weight distribution in the pack. If you want to carry the can on top of your pack, you might want to pack the food loose inside while you are walking. But it would mean you can't leave the pack during the day, and if a bear did attack it might get your food and you'd be encouraging it to attack other hikers, wile if your food was in the canister the attack would fail. To be safe, I would ask the Rangers directly and follow their advice - they are the ones with the field experience. – Tullochgorum Dec 26 '18 at 0:12

I think the regulations are so strict because the park service wants to keep a level of discipline about how hikers manage their food, so that none is accidentally left in a pack, and the oils and crumbs from food don't contaminate a pack. This avoids scenarios where food was left in a pack unintentionally.

Bears don't hunt humans except in rare cases (except for polar bears). It's not an issue of a bear attacking you personally. Rather, some bears WILL linger around campsites and wait for opportunities to steal food.

Its more that the rules are in place to ensure that a bear doesn't come into a persons camp because the person accidentally left food somewhere it shouldn't have been.

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    Uhm, we have grizzlies in the lower 48.... – Russell Steen Apr 22 '13 at 11:43
  • oh, it seems like we do. They don't have them anymore in California, but it looks like there are some in Idaho and Montana. – DavidR Apr 22 '13 at 18:13
  • I've never had a black bear attack me while I was walking, but I've had a black bear walk up and eat my food while I was sitting and eating. Black bears that are habituated to humans can be extremely fearless, aggressive, and persistent. – Ben Crowell Apr 22 '13 at 21:43
  • @BenCrowell - do you think I should change my answer? I meant to just capture the idea that it would be safest to have food all in one place, not to get into details of bear behaviors... you probably know more about them that I do, I've hiked in the Sierras a couple times, but several years ago. – DavidR Apr 22 '13 at 21:52
  • @DavidR: I would have just used a slight difference of emphasis. Some are afraid of humans and act like sneaky thieves, as you described. These are the kind of bears that you can scare off by yelling, banging pots and pans, throwing rocks, etc. But in certain areas there are bears that are not afraid of humans and will act aggressively to take your food. – Ben Crowell Apr 23 '13 at 0:51

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