Backpacking in backcountry regions with a large black or grizzly bear population gives you a good chance of having a bear encounter. And bears are not generally afraid to forage for food near people--or if an opportunity arises—just take food from people. This adaptability of bears also makes them a danger to humans and themselves. Bears too comfortable with humans and taking a free meal from humans can become aggressive towards people. SierraWild.gov reports that, “when a bear becomes too aggressive, resource managers are forced to kill the bear.” This is for the protection of park visitors.
Backcountry backpackers can help protect bears when camping by protecting their food from getting into the paws of bears. Bears that have not learned to get food from humans usually leave people alone. This is why many state and national parks require bear proof canisters be used to carry and store all food and toiletries. Only bear proof canisters approved by the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee are allowed for use when backpacking or camping the backcountry in regions with bears.
Only a handful of containers are approved for use in state and federal parks. Two of the more common approved bear containers are the Backpacker’s Cache by Garcia and the Bear Keg by Counter Assault. Both have a similar barrel design that is too wide for a bear to grip in its mouth and sturdy enough to withstand a bear trying to break into it. The Backpacker’s Cache is a bit smaller, but being black also less visible should a bear spend some time with your food cache and misplace it. The Bear Keg is a bit larger in size, but bright yellow and visible should you have to track down your food cache that’s been moved by a bear.
If you are not a regular camper, then you can rent your camping gear including a bear canister. For example, Yosemite has the Backpacker’s Cache available for rent.
How Does a Bear Canister Get Approval for Camping With Bears?
There are two levels of approval for bear containers; full approval and conditionally approved. To gain approval, the canister must go through a serious of tests. For a conditional approval, the container must pass the first three of four tests. First is an inspection by bear experts, then an impact test to determine its sturdiness, followed by a controlled test by a zoo bear. To earn a full approval, the container must pass the fourth test with is a field test: it must be used in a region with a large bear population during the summer for three months without a grizzly or black bear successfully breaking into the container and removing food.
How the Testing is Done?
Upon visual inspection, park rangers, biologits, and other bear experts on the committess look over the prototype to determine if they think a bear could get into it and to ensure that it is also easy enough for humans to use. Then it goes to impact testing where an impact machine drops 100 pounds onto the canister from a height of one foot. If it passes both tests, the canister makes a trip to a zoo.
A bear proof container’s first round of true expert testing goes to the zoo bears. Zoos with bears will work with designers to test each prototype. The container is filled with bear favorites such as pieces of meat, fruit, and honey. Often honey is smeared on the outside to ensure the bear takes an interest. It is then placed in the bear’s exhibit.
Bears in zoos are not your average bear. They are regularly given enrichment items such as puzzle feeders and other toys to keep them busy and entertained. This leads to an educated and savvy bear that knows how to break into almost any object. They are also strong and surprisingly dexterous, able to manipulate small objects and even buttons with their claws. The test is videotaped for review by the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group and/or the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. If a zoo ursine cannot break into the canister to pull the food out and otherwise meets with approval from the bear committee, then it can be considered conditionally approved.
Conditionally approved bear proof canisters can be used when backpacking and camping with bears in the wilderness. This is part of the bear container’s field-test. If the canister is opened by a bear, it loses its approval. If the canister goes through the summer without being opened in the field, it can gain full approval and become required for use in many parks with bears. However, a bear canister can lose approval at any time should a bear learn to open it. Because of this, some parks will not allow certain bear container’s if a known individual bear in that park has learned to open a particular canister.
Before your backcountry camping trip into bear country, check with the park for an up to date list of approved bear proof canisters. This list can change if reports of container breach are received by the park management.