Are bear canisters required for your backpacking destination?
If not, then you have a choice to make for food storage.
I’ll outline some options below, but we’ll mostly be reviewing the Ursack Minor Critter Bag.
The Ursack Minor is not bear proof.
It can, however, deflect a mouse, rat, or even your average raccoon.
Backpacking Food Storage 101
There’s 3 different environments that affect how I store my food.
1) Where Bears are a Problem (aka National Parks)
Bears are most likely to raid your food when you’re camping in a National or State Park. This is because most other jurisdictions allow hunting, which cultivates a natural fear of humans.
Since bears are protected in the Parks, they learn that it’s easy to steal your food with little or no consequences. To deter this behavior, many National Parks require you to carry a bear canister when backpacking. This is especially the case for western parks like Yosemite, Kings-Sequoia, Yellowstone, and so on. Some of these parks have grizzly bears, too.
The eastern parks like Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains do not require canisters (for now), but they have effective storage in place at overnight sites, like metal bear boxes or cable systems.
For more general information on bear safety, check out these 12 tips.
2) Where Bears are Simply Present
Many destinations have a black bear population (no grizzlies) where the bears are unlikely to be problematic. Such places include the National Forests in Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon.
Black bears are slightly more aggressive in the eastern states due to a dense human population and dwindling habitats.
There’s a choice to make for such areas:
- You can be extra cautious and carry a bear can anyway (prepare to be judged by the ultralight sector).
- You can properly hang your food in a tree each night.
- Or finally, I suppose you can roll the dice use your food bag as a pillow.
3) No Bears! Yay!
If you’re backpacking where there’s no bears (or very, very few of them), you still have to protect your food. Mice, packrats, and
ravens diabolical winged geniuses will be after your Snickers bars.
So what’s the best system?
You essentially have 3 options for how to carry your food:
- Use a bear canister
- Use a specialized critter-resistant food bag
- Use any old stuff sack, or even a garbage bag.
Your ultimate choice will vary, depending on your destination and preferred backpacking style.
7 Food Storage Ideas for the Backcountry
Here’s some preferred products for overnight use on the trails.
1) A BearVault Bear Canister
With the exception of preinstalled bear boxes and cables, a hard-sided bear canister is the most tried and true method for carrying food for overnight use in the backcountry.
The most commonly used model for extended thru-hikes is the BearVault 500, along with the smaller (and lighter) BV450 for shorter trips. Overall where necessary, I like the BearVault model bear cans best for backpacking. I used one for the length of the John Muir Trail and other hikes including Denali’s grizzly country without issue.
A more antiquated style of bear canister (shown here) is equally effective, but heavier.
Bearikade models are lighter than the classic BearVault, they’re much more expensive.
All 3 of these canister models I’ve linked to here are approved by all the National Parks that require bear cans, such as Yosemite, Kings-Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Denali.
2) The Ursack Major “Bear Bag”
The Ursack Major is advertised as bear resistant, but in my eyes it’s essentially just a heavy critter bag (and a less efficient one than the Minor).
There’s a reason that many National Parks won’t allow you to use an Ursack Major (or AllMitey) in place of a bear canister – a persistent bear will often find a way. Ursack continues to push their brand as a replacement to the traditional bear canister, but in most cases the Ursack still doesn’t work as a viable substitute.
If you’re hiking in bear country where a canister is not required, this bag offers a weight savings of more than 2 pounds (vs the BV500 can)! If used properly, it can give extra peace of mind vs your typical ultralight stuff sack.
Finally, it should be noted that the Ursack Major is not as rodent-resistant as the Ursack Minor. The Major is engineered toward the larger blunt force created by bears, as opposed to the small teeth of mice and other critters. Therefore this Ursack is subject to be ravaged by mice, and has questionable effectiveness against bears, too.
Ursack is approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). So maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the active backcountry rangers on the ground at numerous National parks are wrong, too. A committee with a fancy acronym like IGBC sounds legit, no?
3) The Ursack AllMitey (Bears AND Critters)
The Ursack AllMitey uses all of Ursack’s methodology to combine bear and rodent resistance in a single product. It appears to be a tough, quality food bag, but I do question Ursack’s ability to truly repel bears.
Ursack AllMitey vs Ursack Major
Here’s how the 2 bear bags compare:
The AllMitey gains critter resistance, whereas the Major is limited to bear resistance
Both bags carry the same volume – 10.7 liters, or 650 cubic inches.
The AllMitey (9.5 ounces) is 2 ounces heavier than the Major (7.6 ounces).
The AllMitey ($139.95) generally costs about $50 more than the Major ($89.95)
4) The Ursack Minor (Critter Bag)
The Ursack Minor has long been my primary method for storing food on desert hikes, primarily in the Grand Canyon.
This critter bag will not protect your food from bears, but it does a nice job of keeping the mice and other little guys at bay. Since I’m not confident in the other bags from Ursack to repel bears anyway, this is the option that makes the most sense to me.
It’s main drawbacks are price and availability. The cost of Ursack products has gone up significantly over the years, and these bags are often out of stock and hard to find.
This is my best food bag for protection from critters on overnight backpacking trips. Please see my full review farther down the page.
5) Ratsack (Critter Bag)
The Ratsack takes a different, more simple approach to the critter bag with its woven, flexible stainless steel.
As a homegrown company in Northern Arizona, Ratsack has long been popular as a food storage solution for local desert terrain like the Grand Canyon.
Ratsack vs. Ursack Minor
I have never owned a Ratsack. When I was first in the market for a critter-resistant bag (over a decade ago) I opted for an Ursack, and stuck with it through today.
The weight factor always comes first – the Ursack Minor is 5.3 ounces, with a volume of 10.5 liters. This volume is perfect for my needs, holding about 5 or 6 days of food.
The Ratsack, unfortunately, does not produce a similar volume. Their “Ultralight” bag (4 ounces), only has a volume of 7 liters. The next size up, their “Small” bag (8 ounces) jumps up to 20 liters! If they made a product that bridged this gap in volume, I’d be far more interested in their product.
While Ratsack’s woven stainless steel is presumably more effective than Ursack’s Kevlar, the Ratsack seems to be more bulky, and abrasive to your neighboring gear.
I also like how the exterior of the Ratsack is transparent, allowing you to easily locate your food.
6) Hyperlite Stuff Sacks (Basic Waterproof Ultralight)
For places where bears are not a serious problem, a true ultralight backpacker will forego the idea of a “critter bag” altogether. One can always take the time to rig an old-school, proper bear bag in a tree, or
just sleep with your food roll the dice and take little to no precautions (where permitted).
In this case, any old stuff sack will do. As you purchase new gear, you’re bound to acquire a handful of stuff sacks that go unused. Why not use one of these as your food bag?
If you want a premium solution to this simple problem, I like the ultralight drawstring stuff sacks made my Hyperlite Mountain Gear. I own and use one of their XL (8 liter) stuff sacks. The DCF (cuben fiber) material is waterproof, and somewhat resistant to small critters like mice.
The bag is so light that I can justify coupling it as a liner for my Ursack Minor. This adds an extra layer of protection from teeth, claws, and moisture. I’ve noticed, however, that the DCF material used for this stuff sack doesn’t do much for scent – it often reeks of food.
Ursacks are not waterproof. None of their models (including the Minor, Major and AllMitey) will reliably keep your food dry in a rain storm. This thin cuben fiber liner, however, should do the trick.
7) Lopasak Opsak (Odor Resistant Ziploc Bags)
I’ve never tried the Opsak, but these are essentially just glorified Ziploc bags that protect against odors. Bears can smell through a standard Ziploc bag, including the “freezer” bags.
Odor is a big deal – if the critters don’t smell your food, then they’ll theoretically never find it.
As an extra measure of protection, these bags can be coupled with any of the others listed above, or even used on their own if you’re so bold as to cuddle up with your food at night.
Some reviewers report having problems with the closure, which raises a notable point – every single one of the methods here (even a hard sided bear canister) will occasionally fail.
All the methods listed here may have their failures
Product reviews are filled with such occurrences.
Let’s say you take your Ratsack or Ursack out for 100 nights. A critters chews through it on the 101st night.
Does that make it a faulty product?
I’ll let you be the judge of that. Personally I sense that the success rate of these items (especially the critter bags) is vastly in favor of the products’ effectiveness, as opposed to the occasional failure seen in reviews.
My Ursack Minor Critter Bag Review: 7+ Years of Use
With the exception of a trusty BV500 bear canister, most of my experience in food protection is with the Ursack Minor Critter Bag. I don’t remember the exact year I purchased it, but I’m certain it was prior to 2015.
The first think I’ll note is the evolution of the bag’s enclosure. I’ve owned 2 models of the Ursack Minor. The first had a single drawstring. If the bag was full, the drawstring would inevitably leave the topmost item exposed to the air, and therefore mice and critters. I solved this by pulling the string as tight as possible and placing a hard-to-break item (or even a fuel canister) at the top of the bag.
In 2017 I replaced my original Ursack with the latest version of the Minor. In doing so, I discovered that they updated the enclosure to a velcro seal – presumably because of the aforementioned issue.
In 5 years of use since then, I’ve grown to miss the drawstring. The velcro does provide more protection, but it seems to decrease the volume of the original bag. Additionally the velcro tends to close up all on its own, so it’s frankly annoying to have to (loudly) undo the rough, thick seal every time I reach in to the bag. It seems like overkill.
If you’re wondering why I replaced my original bag, it’s because a critter managed to tear a sizeable hole in it.
I left the bag sitting on the ground near my tent (as usual) at a beach along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I’d used the bag for dozens and dozens of nights in a carefree manner without incident, so I was impressed that morning by the tenacity of the creature that broke in to it. I imagine it was a ringtail cat, coyote, or maybe even a Pokemon.
I’ve been using my most recent version of the bag (purchased in 2017) with no ill effects, save for a couple of small holes pictured below. These holes aren’t so large as to render the bag unusable, but serve as evidence that the bag is not necessarily 100% critter proof.
I don’t recall the circumstances of the most recent breach, but I’d wager that I left the bag on the ground, like the first incident. It’s worth noting that these holes may not have occurred if I’d taken the time to hang the bag, since such a relatively unstable perch won’t provide the leverage a critter needs to chew through the Kevlar.
How to Use the Ursack Minor
Given my experience with the Ursack Minor’s failures, it’s best to hang the bag from a nearby tree. The good news is that you can be somewhat lazy about it. Bears are not the primary concern here, so there’s no need to do an elaborate hang, way up in a tree.
Just string it up with some paracord to the most sturdy, convenient branch that you can reach. The intent here isn’t necessarily to keep it out reach (though that helps), but to eliminate a sturdy position from which a critter can go to work.
If it’s relatively close to your tent, you may even be able to hear in the middle of the night when something is trying to get in to it.
Obviously, I cannot recommend this method for areas where bears are a valid concern.
Making Use of the Ursack’s Size
As is standard for most Ursack models, the Minor is has a volume of 10.5 liters – big enough to hold 5 days of food for the average recommended hiker. With condensed and durable food (and the slower metabolism of my now middle-aged years) I’ve been able to squeeze about 8 days in to it.
If you’re desperate for more space, some creativity goes a long way. For example, a jar of peanut is impenetrable by mice, and therefore only needs to be protected at night with some sturdy rocks.
Ursack Minor Specifications
Weight: 5.3 ounces
Volume: 10.5 liters, or 650 cubic inches
Diameter: 8 inches
Height: 13 inches
Small hang loop
The Ursack Minor is made of Kevlar and “stainless steel fabric.” Kevlar, by the way, is what’s used to make bulletproof vests!
What’s your best way to store backpacking food?
Let me know in the comments!