Deciding between two sizes of canister

What Size Bear Canister Do I Need?

So you’re starting to plan for an epic adventure, and you’ve realized you need a bear canister! The next step is to determine what size bear canister you need. BearVault carries two options for sizes of bear canisters: the BV450 (7.2 L) and the BV500 (11.5 L). These two sizes are used for adventures varying from 1-night backpacking trips to thru-hiking from Mexico to Canada. 

Deciding whether you need the BV450 or the BV500 will be based on numerous factors including trip length, if you’re sharing it with another person, types of food and smellables you bring, and anything extra that may need to fit inside. Let’s start with the basics, and go from there

How many days of food fit into a bear canister?

Man putting trail mix in blue bear canister
Thoughtfully packing a BV500 to maximize space

A general rule of thumb is that one day’s worth of food takes up about 100 cubic inches or 1.6L. A BV 450 can typically fit about 4 days of food and smellables for one person, and a BV 500 fits up to 7 days. Now, we’ll give you a heads up, this can vary A LOT. We all eat vastly different amounts of and types of foods. If you’re chef-ing it up at camp and plan to bring an entire charcuterie assortment, you will likely need a lot more space than your partner who lives for an entire week strictly on homemade freeze-dried meals and energy bars. 

From our personal experience, for two people, we can share a BV450 for a one night trip, and maybe a two night trip if we aren’t needing tons of extra calories. We share a BV500 on a 2-4 night trip, also depending on our caloric needs. Any greater than 4 days, we each pack our own BV500. There are many ways to choose foods that pack easily or to alter the packaging we will talk about further down.  BUT there are also a few other things to think about besides just what food you will be bringing!

What else needs to go in a bear canister besides food?

Toiletries being thrown into a bear canister
Don't forget the toiletries!

ANYTHING that has a scent. Bears are thought to have the best sense of smell in the animal kingdom. It is estimated that a black bear can smell a food source from over a mile away (a polar bear has been estimated to follow seals for up to 40 miles!). Amazing, isn’t it?! In order to protect bears from our food, it’s important to ensure anything that has a scent is packed into the canister. Bears will be attracted to your food, but also anything else you may bring that smells!

This includes:

  • Toiletries (toothpaste, scented wipes)
  • sunscreen
  • chapstick 
  • maybe a spoon that hasn’t been cleaned
  • all trash!

If you happen to be bringing an animal friend along on the trip, all of their food needs to fit in the canister too. A large dog’s food can take up nearly the amount of space yours will. This can often be split up between hiking partners (if they are so kind), but can greatly impact the amount of your own food you can fit in a canister and is a big factor to prepare for.

How can I fit more food in a bear canister?

Lookinf down at food in Bear Canister with lid off
How can you increase calories and reduce volume?

Choose calorie dense foods. Food like nuts, nut butters, some energy bars, and dehydrated meals are often high calorie foods that take up little space per calorie. On the opposite side, popcorn, bread, and chips take up a lot more space and hold way fewer calories and therefore, energy. Higher calorie foods will take up less canister space, weigh less per calorie, and also give you more energy for your trip.

Repackage foods. Many dehydrated meals come in packaging that you can pour boiling water directly into, to cook and eat out of. While these bags can come in super handy on the trail, they also take up a lot of extra space in your canister. If you are hurting for space, or hoping to fit into a smaller canister, putting the contents of these meals into a smaller zip-lock bag can save a ton of space (pictured to the left)! Another option is to use a needle to poke a hole in the bag to squeeze out any extra air.

Pack toiletries wisely. Being on the trail really makes you choose which toiletries are totally necessary. This rings especially true when you’re choosing between the extra wipes and a snickers bar for summit day! Each smell-able item has to go into the canister, so take that into consideration when packing. Typically, we bring toothpaste, a toothbrush, a small sunscreen and chapstick, and a small travel size bag of wipes. Thankfully these can all fit between the nooks and crannies of our harder items, and can usually squeeze in. 

If you’re bringing a dog, look into freeze dried food for them too! It will require you to have access to water, and it is likely more costly, but the space and weight savings may be worth it.

Don’t pack the first day’s food into the canister. If you are planning to hike all day, and you know you’ll be with your backpack the entire time, there is no need to fit your first day’s worth of food into the canister. You will want easy access to this food anyways while you’re hiking, and it will all be eaten by the time you go to put your bear canister in its place for the night. Just remember that you may need to pack any leftovers, and you will need enough space for all of the trash!

How do you pack a bear canister into a backpack?

There are a few common ways people pack the canisters, and it often depends on personal comfort, the backpack you are bringing, and how much other gear you have. The main goal with packing your canister is making sure it will be comfortable for hiking long distances, it stays centered on your back, and the pack feels balanced.

Here are the 3 most common ways to pack a bear canister:

Inside the backpack: Nine times out of ten, we prefer to pack our canisters inside our packs. We use Osprey 65L packs for most of our trips, and the 450 and 500 both fit perfectly into the pack vertically. Packing the canister inside the pack allows for it to always be full of food and reduces the need for unpacking and repacking the canister each time you camp. We always place the canister at the base of the pack, on top of the sleeping bag compartment, and pack other soft items around it to keep it centered. This keeps the canister (and its weight) centered on our backs, which helps for being comfortable while hiking. 

Strapped to the top of the pack: There are a few ways to do this depending on your pack, but many backpackers prefer to keep the canister out of the backpack. Strapping it to the top can be done with the “brain” of the pack, a bungee cord or a Y-strap. Often, the canister will be emptied into your pack, as the weight near the top of the pack can throw you off balance when hiking on an incline/decline.

Strapped to the bottom of the pack: This is the least preferred way of packing a bear canister. However, if your pack has sleeping bag straps on the base of the pack, you may be able to fit the canister into these to carry it underneath the pack. Be prepared that this may be in the way when you set your pack down to take a break!

Overall, packing your canister depends on what will be most comfortable for you! We highly recommend testing each option out before your hike to determine what will be easiest, require the least adjusting, and feel right for your pack.

Bear Canisters sitting next to alpine lake
Choosing the right canister makes all the difference between a good trip and a great trip!

Picking which size you need for your trips depends on numerous factors, and will likely be unique to each adventurer! Generally speaking, if you’re looking at doing shorter 1-3 night trips, a BV450 should be sufficient for your needs! If you are hoping to do some longer treks, thru-hikes, or to share a canister with a hiking partner, a BV500 will guarantee you have plenty of room and plenty of snacks!


Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to us on Instagram and we can help you figure out which canister is best for your next adventure!

Guest Author:

Adventure Addicts

Hey! We are Kelby and Zoe: two adventure addicted, outdoor loving, adrenaline seeking, gear junkies. We are on a mission to inspire more people to get outside, provide them with quality gear reviews and recommendations, and show them why we have fallen in love with the outdoors!

We spend all of our free time backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, climbing, or trying to find ways to combine all of the above. We absolutely love BearVault and are excited to be helping with some informational content regarding bear canister use and conservation! You can follow along with our adventures on Instagram at @the_adventureaddicts and our blog!