Ask Me: How to Load a Bear Canister Into a Backpack


When carrying a bear canister, where and how would you place it in the pack? Toward the bottom above the sleeping bag? More toward the top of the pack just below the shoulderblades? Would you store it vertically and pack stuff around it, or just store horizontally across the pack? This is my first year going places that require a canister, and I can’t find an answer.

[Originally submitted as a comment at my story “Video: How to Load a Backpack.”]

Backpacking the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park.
Backpacking the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park.

Hi Rickard,

Good question. Bear canisters are increasingly required in public lands from the High Sierra national parks and wilderness areas to Grand Teton National Park and Olympic National Park, and they can be very convenient even in backcountry areas where they’re not required, especially where you won’t easily find trees appropriate for hanging food. But a canister weighs about two-and-a-half pounds and takes up a significant portion of a backpack, so packing it smartly becomes paramount.

The answer depends on the size and primarily on the shape and dimensions of your pack. A large backpack (roughly 60 liters or bigger) is usually wide enough to lower the bear canister inside horizontally, which is the most efficient way to pack it because it spans the pack’s width. Some smaller packs (about 50 liters and under) are not wide enough, and then your only option is to insert the canister vertically and stuff items around it as well as you can. The one advantage of inserting it vertically is that the top of it will be near the top of your pack, so you can easily access snack or lunch food that’s in the canister. When I load it vertically, I leave the canister lid mostly unscrewed, so I can quickly pop it open without removing it from the pack and having to stuff it back in there again.


A black bear in Olympic National Park.
A black bear in Olympic National Park.

If you load the canister into your pack horizontally, place it roughly halfway down in the backpack, in the middle of your back—probably atop your sleeping bag, tent, and clothing stuff sack (which are items you probably won’t need to access during the day). If it’s horizontal, you’re probably not taking it out until you’re in camp, so it should contain only food that you don’t need to access during the day. (You don’t have to keep all of your food in the canister when you’re hiking.)

You’ll want to keep daytime/lunch/snack food outside the canister to have it handy, so keep in mind that the canister probably won’t actually be filled with food while you’re on the trail; there will be extra space inside it. I fill that extra canister space with other stuff, like my clothing stuff sack, rather than having a half-full canister.


A campsite at Lake Italy in the High Sierra's John Muir Wilderness.
A campsite at Lake Italy in the High Sierra’s John Muir Wilderness.

Most people find that canisters hold less food than they had expected or hoped, especially the first time you use one. Choose foods that are less bulky, like pita bread or tortillas instead of bagels, and high in calories for their weight and volume (examples: oatmeal, peanut butter, dried mangoes). Plan your trip’s food specifically down to each meal and each day, and load your canister before your trip to ensure all you’re bringing fits inside it—bearing in mind that there’s no need to fit your first day’s food in the canister.

By the way, I prefer the Bear Vault BV500 bear canister for its excellent space-to-weight ratio. See more about it in my review of my favorite backpacking accessories.

See all of my backpack reviews and backpacking gear reviews, my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” and all of my stories about backpacking at The Big Outside.

Good luck.



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